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Some of the residents of northern Mali are rebelling against the Islamists who gained control of the region after a military coup ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré last March.
Some of the rebels are protesters who blocked the Islamists from praying in a local mosque, and some are machete and stick-welding youths in Timbuktu, while others are haphazard militias of men and a few women training in hand-to-hand combat near Mopti. All of them are armed with little more than the desire to rid their country of the Islamists who have terrorized them with public whippings, stonings, and amputations.
And it is these militias that have gained the support of the Malian army. According to the New York Times, the army is feeding, instructing and sheltering them on abandoned state lands.
The army itself seems unable or unwilling to engage the Islamists, preferring instead to deal with the issues plaguing its capitol, Bamako.
The military, angry at the government’s handling of the Taureg rebellion in the north, staged a coup in March, which overthrew President Touré and ended years of democratic rule. The Tauregs (the historical inhabitants of northern Mali) gained control of the north just after the coup.
Facing international pressure, the military handed control of the country back to a civilian government lead by interim president Dioncounda Traoré and interim prime minister Cheick Modibo Diarra. Analysts believe that the military is still in control of the government.
In May, protesters stormed the presidential palace and beat Traoré unconscious. He spent the next two months recovering in Paris and returned to Mali in July.
Since the coup, Bamako has become a city of repression. According to UN reports and the New York Times, there have been attacks on journalists and soldiers suspected of opposing the military. They have been tortured and some have been made to “disappear.”
And in the north, the Islamists have forced the Tauregs to retreat, taking control of a region the size of Texas, displacing 435,000 people.
While the military seems to be pulling the governmental strings, it also has had to contend with dissension in the general population and its own ranks, which has left it little energy to deal with the Islamists.
Regionally, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is willing to send 3,000 troops to help Mali take back their northern territory. They are awaiting approval from the UN and Bamako. However, part of those troops would be used to help stabilize the Malian government, something the Defense Minister, Yamoussa Camara, has refused to accept. Camara told Channel 4 News’s Lindsey Hilsum that international troops would only be welcome to “liberate the north of the country, not to secure the institutions in Bamako.”
In the meantime, according to the UN News Centre, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has asked the UN Security council to impose financial and travel restrictions “against individuals or groups in Mali engaged in terrorist, religious extremist or criminal activities.”
As for the militia leaders, many of whom are veterans of past guerilla wars, they say they cannot wait for regional and international intervention. “The enemy is implanting itself. We’re in a hurry, totally in a hurry,” Amadou Mallé, director of training for the Liberation Forces for the Northern Regions (FLN), told the New York Times.
So, who are the Islamists?
According to Michael Lambert, director of the African Studies Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Jason Warner, a Ph.D. student in African Studies and Government at Harvard University, there are four groups controlling northern Mali: Ansar Dine, MNLA (not Islamist), MUJAO and AQIM. Lambert and Warner summarized the history and goals of each group for CNN.
According to Lambert and Warner, Ansar Dine has control of three major northern cities: Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. Ansar Dine is a homegrown, but still international, group lead by Iyad Ag Ghaly. It may be backed financially by Qatar and its members are said to come from Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Algeria. Their main goal is to spread Sharia throughout Mali. They can be hard to pin down because they have shifting allegiances with the other groups and the Malian Army. It is this group that is responsible for the destruction of World Heritage Sites within Mali.
The second Islamist group and ally to Ansar Dine AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). AQIM also has ties to South American drug traffickers who use West Africa as a path to Europe.
MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) is an ally to Ansar Dine and is an offshoot of AQIM. In their analysis, Lambert and Warner said the stated goal of MUJAO is to provide material and military support for those Muslims, especially the young, who wish to “raise the banner of Islam.” This group is said to be liked by the residents of the towns they occupy because they provide services that neither the MNLA nor the Malian government do. The group is condemned by others for recruiting children. Their membership is drawn from across West Africa.
The MNLA (the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) are primarily Tuaregs who want a secular statehood. According to reports, the MNLA ended their alliance with Ansar Dine when the group implemented Sharia.
Despite the grim outlook, the leaders of the militias are confident. “I’m going to use my very few means, to get out in front of the army,” said Ibrahim Issa Diallo, self-proclaimed military chief of Gando Iso, told the New York Times. “Our goal is to liberate the north, whatever the price.”
Image Courtesy of Magharebia