Who are the Tuareg rebels conquering northern Mali?

With the Malian army in disarray, the Tuareg rebellion has taken over most of the country's vast north with relative ease. Led by the nominally secular MNLA, the Tuareg forces also include Islamist militants.


Tuareg rebels have conquered the three main cities of northern Mali, effectively taking full control of the impoverished country's vast Saharan region.


The rebels are led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), whose stated aim is to free the region that makes up the entire northern half of Mali.

Known as the Blue People for the indigo pigment in the cloth of their traditional robes and turbans that stains their skin, the MNLA Tuaregs consider this region, which they call Azawad, to be the cradle of their nomadic civilisation.

The insurrection began in January 2012. By April 1, the rebels had successfully taken the region's three main cities: Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.

The MNLA is well-organised and even keeps a regularly-updated website.

Defectors and fighters from Libya 

The MNLA’s ranks have swelled since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya in summer 2011.

“It was a decisive moment for the rebels,” Pierre Boilley of the Paris-based Africa research institute CEMAf. “Many Tuaregs who had been fighting for the Libyan regime returned, most of them heavily armed.”

Since the insurrection began, the MNLA has also been heavily reinforced by Tuareg defectors from the regular Malian army. Among these is Colonel Elhadi Ag Gamou, commander of the city of Kidal, who announced his support for the rebellion on March 31.

In addition to providing support to the rebels, the defections also underline the inherent weakness of the Malian military and help to explain the ease of the rebel advances.

They also took advantage of March's military coup, which threw the south of the country into chaos. Ironically, the coup happened because the army believed ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré's response to the Tuareg offensive was too weak.

An al Qaeda connection?

The MNLA says they have no religious affiliation and want to create a secular republic, but they cannot claim everyone fighting for them is unified on this ground.

Above all, international observers worry about the presence of salafist groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The salafist ideology is expanding in the region, and a number of Islamist militias have gravitated toward the independence struggle.

Residents of Gao and Kidal say they have seen flags of hardline Islamist group Ansar Dine flying among the colours of the victorious Tuareg rebels.

“Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghaly was the figurehead of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s and has since turned to salafism,” said Boilley. “He could not resist joining the MNLA offensive.”

But Boilley does not believe Ansar Dine has any affiliation to AQIM. “The two groups have similarities in terms of religion, but not politics.”

Other sources, however, do make a link between Ag Ghaly and senior members of AQIM.

Trouble on the horizon


The MNLA has officially recognised the role Ansar Dine played in the rebellion and praised the group as an ally able to rally Tuareg fighters attracted to the AQIM ideology.

"But if they seem to be cooperating on the ground, the two groups differ fundamentally on a number of points,” said Boilley. “The MNLA insists that it is waging a fight with secular intentions, while Ansar Dine’s stated intention is to impose sharia law.”

The MNLA and Ansar Dine tried to find common ground in March 2012, but talks broke down when the MNLA insisted Ansar Dine drop its wish to impose sharia law and sever all links with AQIM.

In addition to these tensions, the MNLA also faces the difficult task of uniting the various militias who have taken advantage of the chaos to extend their influence. Among these are another Qaeda-related group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), which claims that it, too, took part in the fight for Gao.



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