War News Radio Explainer: Mali

In January, French troops – with UN approval – entered Mali to aid the Malian military in the fending off Islamist rebels who have taken control of northern regions of the country. Here is a quick guide with background on the conflict and useful links for further reading.

What just happened?

While violence between the minority Tuareg group, Islamist groups, and the Malian government has affected Mali intermittently since the 1960s, the the conflict in Mali has recently attracted international media attention following the entry of French troops into the conflict earlier in 2013.

On January 12, a French air offensive helped to recapture Konna, Mali. Within a week, residents of the region reported that the Malian government had completely occupied the region on January 18. By January 30, a French ground offensive marched towards the rebel stronghold in Northern Mali, Kidal Province. In the wake of joint French-Mali military successes in the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, this month French President Francois Hollande has detailed plans for the withdrawal of French troops and the transfer of power to the Malian military.  While acknowledging the conflict is far from over, France has said it plans to pass responsibility on to a U.N.-backed African military force (AFISMA) as early as March.

Who is involved?

The interim transitional government in Mali is led by President Dioncounda Traore. Currently, the government is fighting a coalition of three Islamist groups operating in Northern Mali: Ansar al Dine, The Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa (MOJWA), and the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The government is currently allied with the National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), as well as the French government. A military task force organized by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which is called the African-led International Support Mission to Mali, comprises troops from several African states and is also assisting the Malian government on the ground.

The National Movement for Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is a secular separatist group composed of the Tuareg, Songhai and Fulani ethnic minorities. It mainly operates in Northern Mali and aims to achieve independence of the Azawad region within Mali for the minorities it represents. It is headed by Tuareg leader, Bilal Al Acherif.

The MNLA triggered recent vilionce when its Tuareg troops attacked the cities of Menaka, Aguelhok and Tessalit in a two-day strike that began on January 16, 2012. Initially, they were allied with the Islamist Ansar Al Dine and the MOJWA , with whom they captured the cities of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal in Northern Mali. By July, however, they were expelled from these cities by the Islamists and had allied themselves instead with the Malian government. As of November 2012, they are no longer demanding complete independence for the Azawad region, but merely self-governance within Mali. As of last month, they have committed to fight alongside the French government.

The Islamist Ansar al Dine, which is mainly composed of Malian nationals, aims to impose Sharia law throughout Malian territory. While allied with the MNLA from January to April 2012, they captured vast swathes of Northern Mali. At the height of their power that spring, they imposed Sharia law in the city of Timbuktu, but by June 26, the Ansar al Dine and the MOJWA turned on MNLA forces in the Battle of Gao. French and Malian troops have since Ansar al Dine and MOJWA controlled Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal until the French military operations began earlier this year.

Last month, Ansar al Dine had split into two factions, one led by erstwhile leader Iyad Al Ghaly and the other by Alghbass Al Intalla. The latter has named itself the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), rejected extremism, and declared itself open to negotiations with the Malian government.

The Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is an Islamist organization recognized as a terrorist group by U.S. Department of State, also operates out of Mali. It aims to overthrow the Algerian government and spread Sharia law throughout Africa. They have been involved in kidnapping of foreign nationals as well as smuggling and drug trafficking across Africa.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) is a splinter organization of the AQIM that was formed in order to spread Jihad into regions of West Africa beyond the scope of AQIM activity. Unlike the Ansar al Dine, it counts citizens of other Northern African states among its members. With that said, MOJWA’s activities have been concentrated within Northern Mali. It is led by Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou and has been placed under sanctions by the United Nations.

Where is this all happening?

View Conflict in Mali, 2012 in a larger map

View Conflict in Mali, 2012 in a larger map

This post is one in a series of blog posts collecting news and reporting about the conflict in Mali. The next post in the series will explore the deeper historical precedents for the current violence.

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