Understanding the Malian crisis and its actors

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maliAs conflict Mali continues, Laurence Deschamps-Laporte puts together a timeline of major developments, an overview to the key actors involved, and a note on the current situation. Laurence is an MPhil candidate at Oxford Department of International Development.






  • 22nd March: A military coup led by a mid-level military officer, Amadou Sanogo, is carried out against President Amadou Toumani Touré
  • 30th March: The MNLA takes control of Kidal
  • 6th April: The MNLA proclaims the independence of Azawad
  • 12th April: A deal is signed between the coup leaders and ECOWAS brokered by President Comparé of Burkina-Faso to make Dioncounda Traoré the interim president of Mali
  • 20th December: the UN Security Council unanimously authorizes the deployment of an African-led force to intervene in Mali


  • 10th January: Mali appeals for military aid from France. France announces its military intervention
  • 24th January: Ansar Dine splits from AQIM and wants a truce
  • 29th January: The French takes back the towns of Gao and Timbuktu and Kidal from AQIM and MUJAO, but the MNLA controls Kidal
  • 28th March: The MNLA appoints a governor for Kidal
  • 1st April: New clashes erupt between Malian soldiers and rebels in Timbuktu, MUJAO claims the attack

An overview of key actors

An array of different groups and actors are currently involved in this conflict in Mali. Below is a brief guide to some of the key actors, followed by a note on the current situation:


The Tuaregs are not one group but are subdivided in multiple political units or subgroups.  The Tuaregs are mainly native to present-day Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya and Chad, but they can also be found across West Africa in Sénégal, Burkina-Faso and Nigeria. Tuaregs are organized in ‘classes’ or ‘castes’, with categories of nobles, freemen and slaves. The different Tuareg political units usually speak distinct dialects of the Tamasheq language. They do not use the word ‘Tuareg’ to refer to themselves, but prefer specific terms denoting their units or simply refer to each other as Kel-Tamasheq; the ones who speak the Tamasheq language. The word ‘Tuareg’ was first used by Arabs and then by foreigners to refer to different groups living in the region.

MNLA- Mouvement National de Libération Touareg– National Tuareg Liberation Movement

During colonization, the Tuaregs tried to keep French colonial authorities outside northern Mali and resisted French assimilation.  More recently, they have rebelled three times against the government of Bamako (1962-1964, 1990-1996, 2006-2009). Every rebellion ended with peace treaties being signed. Every time, the Tuareg rebellion movement was made of fragmented and sometimes dissenting fronts and some argue that Tuaregs as a group never demonstrated a unified political (or military) agenda. Nonetheless, the MNLA is currently the most representative group of these rebellions. Throughout the years, many communities in the North- both Tuareg and non-Tuareg- did not support the rebels and in each rebellion, the rebels represented a few thousand people by most estimates. The Tuareg rebellions have almost always been linked to political events in Libya. Tuaregs migrate to and from Libya to find employment and return to Mali when Libya becomes unstable. In the late 1980s, the Tuaregs had lost employment in the Libyan oil industry because of the collapse of oil prices. Recently, many Tuaregs who fought alongside Gaddafi have returned to northern Mali with weapons. At the beginning of 2012, they took control of many towns in the North such as Kidal and Menaka and started what many analysts consider a fourth Tuareg rebellion. As of 2013, however, Kidal came under Islamist control and Ansar Dine and AQIM have sidelined the MNLA.



(Source: wikicommons) The word ‘Azawad’ denotes a territory spreading across the Sahel and Sahara, mainly covering the region North of the Niger river in Mali. Some supporters of the movement also include parts of southern Algeria.

The MNLA wants the Azawad territory to become an independent country. Tuaregs have long felt marginalized by the Malian State. They were not able to secure roles in the newly independent Malian State because they are nomadic and they had resisted French assimilation, but also because they were not educated in colonial schools or part of the elite. Thus, they became excluded from political institutions. Later, under the Traoré (1979-1991) and Konaré (1992-2002) governments, the funds brought in through the investment of many multinational mining companies[2] remained in the pockets of elites. Profits rarely made it to the communities in the North, and this contributed to the Tuaregs becoming increasingly discontent with the Malian State.

The MNLA’s rhetoric and goals are comparable to other independence movements across the world, such as the Kurdish independence movement. The MNLA wants self-determination and traces its grievances back to colonial times. They refer back to a letter from the Azawad people sent to De Gaulle in 1958, already asking for their independent state. Further, they cite the numerous failed peace treaties that, according to them, have not been respected. They also denounce the presence of terrorism in the Azawad territory and the Malian government’s failure to protect its citizens. This claim is particularly interesting because it insinuates that with an independent Azawad State, the Tuareg people could better resist and manage any terrorist menace. It also shows that the MNLA sees itself as undoubtedly distinct from AQIM. Lastly, the MNLA acknowledges the framework and language of national and international actors, quoting UN declarations and laws according to which they believe they are entitled to self-determination.

AQIM- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

While the MNLA has existed in different forms since colonial times, the birth of AQIM is more recent and can be traced back to the beginning of multiparty elections in Algeria in the late 1980s. In 1991, the Islamic Salvation Front party (Front Islamic du Salut, FIS) was elected to power. Rejecting the democratic election of a radical religious party, the Algerian army cancelled the election in 1992. In response to this cancellation, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe islamique armé, GIA) was created to revolt against the new government. According to analysts, members of the GIA were mainly Arabs who had been fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and had returned to Algeria. The GIA killed many civilians, politicians and intellectuals in Algeria and hijacked planes. The Group for the Call and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication du Combat, GPSC) was born in 1998, created by GIA members who, at the time, believed in less brutal tactics and rejected the GIA’s use of extreme violence. In 2002, the GPSC was pushed from northern Algeria to southern Algeria and then to northern Mali, fleeing Algerian security forces along the way.

The GPSC became known for kidnappings and attracting media attention. They joined Al Qaeda in 2006, and became the North African branch of the global Islamist group. The GPSC officially became AQIM in a statement by Ayman Al-Zawahiri in 2006. AQIM perpetuated the tradition of GPSC kidnappings, but also extended its activities to attacking UN buildings and employees of foreign companies. AQIM, for the most part, shares the goals of Al Qaeda: to insure that foreigners leave the Muslim lands, and avenge the oppression of Muslims by Christian and Jews, especially in regards to Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. More specifically, AQIM intends to overthrow the Algerian government and re-establish Islamic rule.

According to Robert Fowler, a Canadian and UN diplomat who was held by AQIM in 2008-2009 for 130 days, AQIM travels throughout the Sahara setting up camps for variable amounts of time. He claims they are highly disciplined, and have the utmost devotion for the cause of Jihad. He also argues that there seems to be racial hierarchy in AQIM; the camps’ emirs are often Algerians, while the other members, the ‘enlisted men’, are black Africans, Tuaregs or very young Algerians. ‘Most officers [emirs]’, he explains, ‘are members of the council; a body that seemed to meet irregularly to consider important issues of policy and, perhaps, theology as it affected operations’ (135). Finally, he notes that AQIM is organized in Katibas, small units that go about in the desert and have their own tasks and duties, and the council of emirs of leading katibas meet for strategic planning. AQIM’s main sources of funding are extortion, kidnapping, donations, and the trafficking of narcotics, cigarettes, people and weapons.

The people of northern Mali have been disenfranchised and surviving in harsh conditions for decades, but AQIM is not only the product of poverty and deprivation in the Sahel. It also inscribes itself in the broader trends of global jihadism, with links to international conflicts such as the war in Afghanistan, the failure of the Algerian state and the recent toppling of Gaddafi’s regime. While economic marginalization and poverty are definitely related to the rise of terrorism, explanations for terrorism need to take account of a broader, more complex range of driving factors. Indeed, the members of AQIM are not the extremely poor and disenfranchised Tuaregs, but mainly lower middle class Algerians and other ethnic minorities with some technical or high school education.

Many try to understand the emergence and activities of AQIM and there are some prominent conspiracy theories circulating in academia at present. Jeremy Keenan, for example, presents the kidnapping of 32 tourists in southern Algeria in 2003 by AQIM as an Algerian ruse to gain American favor and show that they were taking part in the Global War On Terror (GWOT). While Keenan’s argument is weak and disconnected at times, his evidence for the presence of AQIM sympathizers within the Algerian security forces is convincing, and his demonstration of how Algeria has used the rhetoric on GWOT to achieve its own goals is also interesting. Sammut (2010) summarizes Keenan’s argument and writes that, according to the author, ‘the Algerian state and the Bush administration conspired to create a narrative – at the expense of the Tuareg people of the Sahara – that would allow the US to support the Algerian government politically, economically and militarily, in return for which Algeria opened its energy industry to American interests’. Sammut also sees the fragility of some of Keenan’s evidence but still recognizes the necessity to carefully study states’ motivations to get involved in the GWOT. 

Key figures

The leader of AQIM is Abdelmalek Droukdel who is based in Algeria and he has two main leaders in Mali: Mokhtar BelMokhtar and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid. Hamada Ag Hama is also an important figure and the cousin of Iyad Ag Ghali. Reports from the Chadian army say that Mokhtar BelMokhtar is dead, but this information has not been confirmed. There were similar incorrect announcements of his death in the past.

Ansar Dine (or Ansar Ud Dine)

There is very little information on Ansar Dine as they received little attention until the coup against the government of Mali in 2012. This group should not be confused with the charismatic religious group Ançar Dine, of Cheick Haidara, which is very popular in southern Mali. Ansar Dine is an independent Islamist group with ties to AQIM. It claims that its main goal is to implement a strict interpretation of Islamic Law in Mali and control the Malian North. Like AQIM, its members are not only Tuaregs and Malians, but also come from a range of other countries such as Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia and Algeria.

Key figure

Iyad Ag Ghali was a key leader in the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. He converted to more conservative Islamic practices over the last decade and studied with Tablighi Jama’at in Pakistan and France. Before the 2012, Iyad as Ghali became the protégé of the president of Mali Amadou Toumani Touré (A.T.T.) acting as an intermediary with AQIM and the MNLA. He then kicked back against the state and became a leader of Ansar Dine in 2012.

Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)

MUJAO is a smaller group that is affiliated with AQIM and its main mission is to carryout the goals of Al Qaeda farther into West Africa. MUJAO has specifically targeted the Malian State but also MNLA leaders.

Note on the current situation

While the MNLA was initially the most important actor in northern Mali in the spring of 2012, Ansar Dine and AQIM and MUJAO, the three violent militias, have recently been the dominant players in the crisis, pushing the MNLA to the margins. These three groups have retreated from the northern towns of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal according to French reports. Kidal has historically had a special status within Mali, and the MNLA was given more control over the town according to previous peace treaties. The MNLA currently controls Kidal and approves of the French military presence, but it is opposed to the Malian army’s intervention given the past hostilities with the national military during the Tuareg rebellions. A MNLA governor, Mohamed Ali Ag Albessaty, was appointed last week to represent the town.

Ansar Dine announced it was ready for a truce and stopped its collaboration with AQIM. AQIM, however, has been reacting violently to the military intervention in Mali with, amongst other things, the attack on the gas plant in southern Algeria and the kidnappings and assassinations of many civilians including foreigners. Amnesty International has also denounced grave human rights violations on the part of the Malian army, such as extrajudicial executions of Tuareg civilians and the shelling of Tuareg refugee camps. The displacement of people due to the crisis has led to rampant sexual violence against women, as well as to heightened human trafficking.

François Hollande had initially stated that the French intervention in Mali would be short-lived. He now says that the 4,000 French troops on the ground will be halved by July and that all French troops will withdraw by the end of 2013. Seven French hostages have been held for over two years by AQIM, and AQIM announced in March that one was killed in retaliation for the French intervention. The U.N. Security Council will vote this month on a mission that would bring U.N. peacekeeping forces to Mali. So far about 6,300 African troops are in the country, many of them from Chad. The negotiation process between the different actors is slow, and many Malians fear the return of rebels and even worse reprisal against civilians if French troops were to withdraw.


A earlier version was published on laurencedl.com in January 2013

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