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The crisis in Mali: the diplomatic maneuver

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The diplomatic strategy that goes with any military action aims to create or maintain a favorable political context for military operations and to prepare a way out of the crisis. In order to define a diplomatic strategy that will allow to end the crisis, an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of terrorist groups operating there and the positions of regional state actors who have interests in the Sahel is necessary.

General context

Four groups share and sometimes fight for control of northern Mali. Two groups are set outside of Mali, the AQIM from Algeria and the MUJAO from Mauritania (and Morocco?). These two groups deploy their actions over the entire Sahelian zone. The other two groups, of Malian and Tuareg origin are the Islamic Ansar Dine (or Eddine) and secular MNLA that was the initial vector of the Azawad rebellion.

The AQIM and the MUJAO rely on the Malian Ansar Dine to forge ties of allegiance to their cause with the local population. They also benefit from the precarious economic situation to enlist the youth of this region in their ranks.

A biographical analysis of the leaders of these movements is essential to understand the diplomatic strategy options available.

Analysis of terrorist and rebel groups

The most radical terrorist group is AQIM, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Prior to January 2007, it was known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). Its affiliation with al-Qaeda is thought to have obtained the approval of Osama bin Laden. It is this that holds the French hostages.

AQIM is of Algerian origin. For many of its executives, as for its founder and Emir Amir Abdelmalek Droukdel, Mali is but a step in the control of the Sahel and the conversion of its inhabitants to radical Islam. Pragmatic as he is, Abdelmalek Droukdel considers it a mistake to impose all the rules of Islam at once to the people, as Oumar OuldHamaha of Ansar Dine is trying to do in Timbuktu. In a message released in May 2012 on the « Sahara Media » website, he advises his « brothers »: « to provide security to people in controlled cities, including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal and provide them with essential services such as health, food, water, electricity, gas and fuel. » With respect to the Tuareg rebellion of the MNLA, he recommends avoiding «provocations » and invites AQIM to cooperate to establish « common rules » and reject conflict. Regarding the Islamic Movement Ansar Dine (defenders of Islam, in Arabic) which is predominant in this area, he advised his supporters to let the application of Sharia law take place in the Azawad region, northern Mali, and to take care of their own jihad (holy war) activities in Islamic Maghreb.

Makhloufi Nabil, who led this movement in Mali, was killed in a car accident in the Gao region of Mali on September 9, 2012. Yahya Abou El-Hammam, who would have replaced him, is probably more of a delegate for coordination than a leader. He was selected by Abdelmalek Droukdel, presumably because he had served under all the historical katibas leaders. Born in 1978 in Reghaia, near Algiers, Yahya Abou El-Hammam is merely 34 years old. He made his debut in his native region, taking part in several attacks against Algerian security forces. Then, in the early 2000s, he became the right arm of Mokhtar Ben Mokhtar, aged 40, Algerian veteran of the war in Afghanistan. In recent years, Yahya was second-in-command for Abu Zeid, 47, the man who abducted seven hostages, including five French, in Nigeria in September 2010.

MUJAO, « Movement for unity and Jihad in West Africa », established in March 2011 during the Arab Spring partly comes from a separation of AQIM. Its leader, Abu Gaâgaâ is of Mauritanian origin. Another Mauritanian, Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou appears in a video message. He appears to be the ideologue of the movement. The military leader is Ahmed Tilemsit, who as his name suggests, is an Arab from the Tilemsi area, that is to say, the region of the Niger Bend near Mauritania. It would include nearly 2000 combatants heavily equipped with weapons. He mainly attacked Algerian interests hence leading some officials in Algiers to see within it the hand of Rabat. The Mujao is present in Gao, the largest city in northern Mali.

The MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) is a rebel movement, truly Tuareg and secular, which has its roots in Mali in the Adrar des Ifoghas (Kidal Region). Today it is largely weakened by the defection of some of its leaders who, early in 2012, created the Islamic Malian group Ansar Dine. In their statements, the leaders of MNLA describe AQIM and Ansar Dine movements as narco-terrorists.

The leader of Ansar Dine is Mohamed Ag Najem. He was probably born in the late 50s. His father came from the Kel Adagh tribe and was killed by the Malian army during the Tuareg rebellion in 1963 when he was still a young child. At the age of 20, he was recruited as a volunteer in Gaddafi’s army. He served in Libya and Chad, before returning to Mali to take part in the 1990 Tuareg rebellion led by Iyad Ag Ghaly. Rejecting the peace agreement signed between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels he returned to Libya and became a colonel in the Libyan army and was in command of a Libyan unit in the Sabha oasis. Late 2011, he returned to Mali and federated Tuareg clans and several deserters from the Libyan army within the MNLA. After defeating the Malian army and conquering Azawad, the MLNA did not manage to resist the infiltration of Islamist groups Ansar Dine and AQIM in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao, and after tough combats was beaten. From then on it would only have control over small areas like Menaka, Anderamboukane south of the Adrar des Iforas and probably still control the road from Niamey in Nigeria where Colonel Ag Gamou, a Tuareg chief who remained faithful to the Malian army and his men fled to.

The establishment of Ansar Dine « defenders of the faith » by the Islamic fraction of MNLA makes the situation in northern Mali more complicated. Founded by Iyad Ag Ghaly, early 2012, this Malian Islamic movement is thought to have the support of the Emir of Qatar. Iyad Ag Ghaly was one of the most prominent leaders of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. Aged 54, he is an Irayakan from the family of Ifoghas, of the Kidal region. The MNLA leader also originates from this tribe which provides most of the troops. These two leaders have always known each other. Iyad Ag Ghaly successfully united around him the Muslims of Northern Mali with very different personalities and backgrounds and who provide him the support of a significant portion of Tuareg clan leaders.

What roles should diplomacy and France play?

In this matter France must lie low and not engage in resolving the crisis until requested to do so by ECOWAS countries with the expressed consent of Algeria, the dominant regional power. Since its independence, Algeria considers owning the Sahara, and has a 2000 km long border with Mali. In addition, it is able to control the East-West track that connects Tamanrasset (Algeria) to Tessalit - Taoudenni via the Algerian border Tinzaouaten and allows terrorist groups to move from Libya to Mauritania.

Paris must put strict conditions on its support

Indeed, if we unconditionally agree to help leaders from Bamako regain control of the northern territory, we would be playing AQIM’s game as the Touareg would remain an endemic problem as did the Toubou and Zaghawa in Chad until the northern warriors definitely seized power in Ndjamena.

If, on the contrary, France and the countries that support Mali succeed in convincing the Malian authorities to accept Azawad’s autonomy, as Madrid did with the Basque Country to end ETA terrorism, the MNLA and possibly all or part of the leaders of Ansar Dine could even agree to help to take charge of the reconquest of the North. This would weaken AQIM and MUJAO. The reconciliation between the MNLA, Ansar Dine and Bamako is the scenario preferred by Algiers. Abdelkader Messahel, Algerian Minister in charge of Maghreb and African Affairs apparently told the two French emissaries he invited to Algiers for a work meeting in July.

General (2S) Jean-Bernard PINATEL