In Translation: On Mali's Islamist groups

There is a strange divide about the situation in Mali in the Arab world. Beyond the regular newspaper coverage and almost reflexive suspicion of “neo-colonialist” motives behind the French-led operations, my impression is that the average Egyptian or for that matter average Arab is not greatly concerned with this situation, especially at a time when many countries are embroiled in tense domestic developments. Yet, for Islamists, the Mali issue has been important: not only for the Salafis who protested outside the French embassy in Cairo and elsewhere, but also in the wider Islamist movement, including the Muslim Brothers. Just see Mohammed Morsi’s surprisingly vocal and repeated opposition to the intervention (I’ll have more on that soon) and the Brotherhood’s quite strong stance on the issue. They care about it way more than the average person or that the geostrategic importance of what happens in Mali (and is supported by the UN, Mali’s neighbors and its government) would suggest. It’s an interesting phenomenon now that they are in power, because it’s always clear whether their positions stem from opposition to interventionism or sympathies for some of the Islamist movements of northern Mali.

I came across the analysis below through a link on Twitter. I’m not sure where it originates, but the author is a well-known writer on Islamists (with Islamist sympathies himself) who edits the al-Islamiyoun website, which covers analyses of Islamist movements. I won’t comment on the content, as I am no specialist on the issue.

As always, our In Translation series is made possible by the wonderful Industry Arabic. If you need something -- anything! -- translated, please give them a go. They're really, really good.

Islamist Groups in Mali…An Overview

By Ali Abdel Aal, editor of al-Islamiyoun, Arabic original in Word format here.

In the past nine months, groups of “jihadist” Islamist groups have taken control of Mali’s northern areas, having captured them in the aftermath of an armed rebellion by the Tuareg people, a rebellion led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which seeks to separate the Northern region of Azawad from the rest of the country and to create an independent state.

The events of the conflict, which has continued to this day with repercussions both regionally and internationally, were sparked by the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in August of 2011. After the fall of the Libyan regime, hundreds of armed Tuareg, who had been fighting on the side of Gaddafi, began to return to their homes in Niger and Mali, bringing with them military vehicles, advanced arms, and ammunition.

As the Tuareg groups prepared to join forces to face off against the Malian army, one result was that a military coup took place in the capital, Bamako, on March 22, in which soldiers overthrew President Amadou Toumani Touré. In addition, the secular MNLA joined forces with the “jihadist” group Ansar Dine to take control of the northern areas from which the army had retreated.

However, this alliance did not last long, despite the efforts made to maintain it. Conflicts soon broke out between the MNLA and its former ally, Ansar Dine, which was able to extend its control of the North after widespread fighting between the two sides during the last week of June which resulted in dozens of deaths.

Control over Northern Mali and its three largest cities of Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal (an area comprising more than half of the country), has since been divided among groups allied with Ansar Dine, such as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in addition to a number of smaller brigades such as Ansar al-Sharia and the al-Mulathameen Brigade.

What follows is an account of these groups and the areas they control.

Ansar Dine

Ansar Dine is an armed Salafist-Islamist group that seeks to apply Sharia law in all of Mali. Unlike the secular MNLA, which seeks to separate the Northern region of Azawad from the rest of the country, it does not seek independence for Northern Mali.

Its founder and traditional leader is Iyad Ag Ghaly, a son of one of the families that historically led the Ifoghas tribes. A former soldier with a powerful personality, he was a leader of the Tuareg resistance that occurred during the 1990s. He hails from a long-standing Azawad family with roots in Kidal, in far Northwestern Mali.

An important official in Mali, Iyad Ghaly came under the influence of Salafi ideology while working as a diplomat in the Gulf, in addition to his work as an intermediary for the release of hostages kidnapped in 2003 by the AQIM.

Unlike other groups, whose membership is primarily Arab, Ansar Dine is mostly Tuareg. It is the largest and most important of the Islamist groups in Northern Mali, and like the Afghani Taliban is a local movement whose fighters and leadership are Malian. It is said that Ansar Dine’s military superiority and special status can be attributed largely to its alliance with Al Qaeda, whose infusions of money and manpower have given Ansar Dine the strongest field presence among Islamist organizations in the region.

Ansar Dine has come to completely control the historic city of Timbuktu, in Northwestern Mali. There, Salafi groups destroyed Sufi shrines and mausoleums that in 1988 had been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provoking a strong reaction from UNESCO and the international community.

Sheikh Mohammad al-Hussain, a judge in Timbuktu where Ansar Dine is concentrated, has related a number of the reforms undertaken by the movement since taking control of the city. These include the setting up of a judicial board for the city, composed of members of Ansar Dine alongside other citizens, which has worked to settle disputes. The website Sahara Media has noted that all of the cities’ inhabitants “obey the rulings, be they organizations or individuals,” perhaps granting them complete acquiescence on the basis that they are derived from Sharia law.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which emerged from the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, itself born out of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), has for years been establishing bases in the Greater Sahara region, including Northern Mali from which to launch operations.

It is therefore the oldest and most experienced armed organization in the region, and has the most established ties with chiefs of local tribes. The organization, headed by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud a.k.a. Abdelmalek Droukdel, is thus linked to both Arab and Touareg residents, and maintains strong relationships with them.

The prevailing opinion among those who follow the region is that Al Qaeda is the real engine behind the various armed Islamist groups in Northern Mali, functioning as a fundamental link between different organizations and exercising the real influence in the region. Local sources most often describe it as the most deeply-rooted, knowledgeable and experienced organization in the Northern areas.

Several sources agree that the members operating within the ranks of Ansar Dine or MOJWA are ultimately former fighters from AQIM.

The organization states that it “aims to liberate the Islamic Maghreb from the West – France and America in particular – and the ‘apostate’ organizations loyal to them, to protect the region from foreign ambitions, and to establish a major state ruled according to Sharia law.”

Al Qaeda members in the Northern Mali work within the framework of the Saharan Emirate, the ninth region according to the administrative structure set up by AQIM. It is also called the Southern Region. In North Africa, the organization is divided into a number of military regions, with the “Saharan Emirate” spread across Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Libia, Mauritania and Chad. This region is known within the organization as “The Greater Islamic Sahara.” It is currently run by Yahya Abu al-Hamam, former commander of the al-Furqan Brigade, while its chief spokesman is Abdullah al-Shinqiti.

The commander of this region traditionally controlled two brigades and two squadrons, the brigades being the Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, headed by Abu el-Hamid Abu Zaid, and the al-Mulathameen Brigade, headed by Mokhtar Bilmokhtar. The squadrons are the al-Furqan Squadron, and the al-Ansar Squadron, headed by Abd al-Kareem at-Tariki.

However, lately there seems to have been some splintering, with the Commander of the al-Mulathameen Brigade having left to form a separate organization. The Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade and the al-Furqan Squadron are based in Timbuktu, and all groups include members of every nationality present in the region, as well as some of Western origin. All of the brigades and squadrons are linked together by tight coordination.

Early last December, Al Qaeda announced the birth of a new brigade carrying the name of the Almoravid Leader Yusuf bin Tashfin. Its leadership was entrusted to al-Qairawani Abu Abd el-Hamid al-Kidali, whose name refers to the city of Kidal, the capital of the Tuareg tribes in Northern Mali.

The Brigade will work in Kidal and Aguelhok, and in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountain range that extends to the Algerian boarder. It is in this region where the organization is believed to have established its fortified bases.

The task of al-Kidali and his new brigade will be to increase recruitment of fighters in the region, especially among Tuareg youth.

There are no precise statistics on the number of fighters in the organization, but most sources estimate their numbers in the hundreds. Most are Algerian, with the rest coming mainly from Mauritania, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, and Nigeria. Some have estimated the number of small groups belonging to the organization at close to seventy cells.

AQIM’s organizational structure is characterized by both confusion and inclusion, reflecting the communal manner in which Al Qaeda works. The organization’s leadership is made up of a Commander, a Council of Notables, and the heads of the various committees and agencies who together make up what is called the Shura Council. This later is tasked with coordinating activity between the various levels of the leadership.

During the past few days, AQIM has displayed its fighting forces in the Azawad Sahara in a videotape entitled “Prepare for Them.” The video has seen the participation of large numbers of members, and has featured the use of the various weapons used by the organization.

The video concludes with a word from the head of the organization, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, warning African and European nations against entering the Northern Mali conflict.

In the video, the Al Qaeda commander addresses French president Hollande as well as the countries of the African coast, stating that his organization is prepared for peace if they should want peace, but also for war should they choose war. Abu Musab goes on to say that Al Qaeda will work to prolong the current war in order to deepen the wounds and inflict the most losses on the participating countries, vowing to turn the Sahara into a graveyard for the Western alliance soldiers.

He reiterated that Al Qaeda will make sure that the shrapnel of war reach every fragile, glass house that participates in the aggression, evoking the American defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa

One of the most important armed Islamic movements operating in the Northern areas, the group is an outgrowth of AQIM. It is led by Mohammad Ould Nuemer, and most of its members are Arabs.

The movement calls for jihad in West Africa, and its base of operations is the city of Gao, located on the Niger river in Northwestern Mali. For a time, MOJWA shared control of the city with the MNLA, following the expulsion of the Malian army. The MNLA was later also expelled following a two-month conflict between the two groups.

During that time, the movement gained control of an increasing number of Northern cities, where it declared that Sharia law would be implemented. The group continued to stress that they did not wish to reach the capital of Bamako.

MOJWA stated that if it wanted, it could take control of the Malian capital within 24 hours, indicating that it possessed a formidable military arsenal that would enable them to take Bamako and subdue the regional armies in the event of a military confrontation.

Due to its financial resources, tribal ties, and strong field presence, MOJWA was able to expel all of its Tuareg adversaries from the city of Ansongo after soundly defeating them in Gao (one of the three largest cities of Northern Mali) on June 27.

One of the causes facilitating the MOJWA’s presence was that the local population, especially in Gao, looked on them favorably, since they confronted the Tuareg rebels belonging to the MNLA. Before the intense battle that led to their expulsion at the hands of the MOJWA, these rebels had gained a reputation as highway robbers, and had been accused of numerous acts of violence and aggression.

Like their armed allies, the MOJWA has resorted to kidnapping diplomats and foreigners, including several Algerians kidnapped in the region of Gao last April. They also carried out the execution of an Algerian diplomat after Algerian authorities refused to sign off on an agreement that would have included the release of imprisoned Islamists and a ransom of nearly 15 million Euros.

In recent days, MOJWA has announced the creation of four military squadrons: the Abdullah Azzam Squadron, the Abu Musab al-Zarqawi Squadron, the Abu al-Leith al-Libi Squadron, and the Martyrs’ Squadron. The organization stated in the statement they issued that the announcement of this new structure reflects the widening of their influence, and an increase in the number of their fighters. They went on to stress that the squadrons would be deployed according to the internal and external threats facing the region.

The movement also controls a brigade, known as the Osama bin Laden Brigade, which is headed by Ahmed Ould Amer, member of the Shura council of the MOJWA.

Ould Amer, known as Ahmed al-Tlemsi, declared in his first recorded appearance last December that the “international threat is a universal fate,” stressing that “it must be faced and repulsed through combat and jihad and by inciting Muslims to break the will of“ what he described as ”the global infidel system which seeks to ambush the Sharia of the Merciful One everywhere God has empowered his mujahideen servants.”

The Ansar al-Sharia Brigade

This brigade was founded by Omar Ould Hamaha, who had previously circulated among all of the Islamist groups in Mali, and who founded his own brigade immediately after leaving the MOJWA.

Ould Hamaha has been known since the beginning of the Islamist control of Northern Mali for his great ability to attract attention. Some have come to call him “The Red-Bearded Man,” and others “The Man of Great Charisma,” due to his striking presence, and his “sharp” French, which he speaks better than any other Northern Islamist leader.

Hailing from the Arab Barabiche tribes, Ould Hamaha has recently announced the formation of the Ansar al-Sharia Brigade, which seeks to become a new force embracing all members of the Barabiche and Arab tribes who have, in his words, "been remiss in Jihad.”

Ould Hamaha presents Ansar al-Sharia as a “popular, regional Islamic brigade for the implementation of God’s Sharia in all of Mali.”

The new brigade has been able to recruit most of the members of the Azawad Arab Front, whose members come from Arab tribes of Timbuktu, and who for a year had remained on the margins of the conflict. This is in addition to the Arabs of the Gao region.

Ould Hamaha denied that the brigade’s creation had met with any resistance from the tribal, Jihadist, or popular sectors, and in his speech has pointed to a relationship with the Gao-based MOJWA.

The leadership of Ansar Dine has made room for the brigade, whose specific character is that of “the only Arab, Islamist organization” in a region where there are as many organizations as ethnicities. According to Ould Hamaha, the brigade was founded out of “zeal on behalf of the Arabs and the Barabiche whose Tuareg brothers had surpassed them in the depth of their Jihad.”

In an attempt to downplay the geographic and ethnic aspects of the brigade, Ould Hamaha stated: “The door is open to any Muslim, Arab, non-Arab, or Songhai, and is not restricted to the residents of Timbukbu.” He also stressed that some Songhai tribes from along the Niger River had decided to volunteer and join the new brigade.

Ould Hamaha was an activist in the Tablighi Jamaat, before moving on to what he describes as his “period of the sword” with AQIM and the al-Mulathameen Brigade, then MOJWA as well as Ansar Dine. Following this interesting career, Hamaha denies that it was “resentment” that caused him to withdraw from these groups, for he believes that their goal is one: “Sound doctrine, and raising the banner of jihad.”

The Brigade of “Those Who Sign with Blood”

This brigade is headed by the Algerian Khaled Abu al-Abbas, or “Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” who founded it after he was ousted from the al-Mulathameen Brigade by AQIM. The decision, described by Al Qaeda as nothing more than “an administrative, organizational measure,” was taken by the head of the organization, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, and accepted by Abu al-Abbas.

Belmokhtar left to found a new brigade of commandos under the name “Those Who Sign with Blood,” but remained committed to the decisions made by armed groups during the Northern Mali conflict.

Jihadist websites later published statements from a leader known as “The One-Eyed Man,” claiming that the brigade would respect all decisions agreed to by Ansar Dine and MOJWA, and by tribes calling for the implementation of Sharia, as long as they do not conflict with the principles of Sharia, and that it would be “an aid and a support to them in peace and in war.”

In Khaled Abu al-Abbas’s statements, he calls on the world to respect the decision of the Azawadi people to implement Sharia law on their land, and threatens whoever would participate in or plan for war in Northern Mali, calling it a “cunning, malicious plan, tantamount to a proxy war with the West.”

He also has stated, in a video recording, that “we will respond with force, and you have our word that we will bring the fight to your doorstep, make you feel the sting of your wounds, and oppose your interests.”

He also issued a call to scholars and students and those preaching Islam in Mauritania, urging them to “emigrate to help your Muslim brothers in Azawad,” stating that they “know the scope of the suffering and ignorance prevalent in this land, and you should be the first to come and assist in this Islamic undertaking, by virtue of your kinship and proximity, for there are already those fighting who have come from farther away.”

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region,