June 6, 2012: In northern Mali (just south of Algeria) the MNLA (Liberation Army of Azawad) is facing off with a former ally, Ansar Dine, over whether the government of the newly established Tuareg state in northern Mali (Azawad) should be secular or Islamic. Ansar Dine is run by a Taureg tribal leader, who participated in a failed uprising in 1990, and subsequently allied himself with al Qaeda and formed a small force (less than a thousand men) of Islamic radical warriors. Ansar Dine and MNLA agreed to merge on May 26th, but a week later split again when MNLA refused to allow the new state to be run by Islamic law (Sharia) and invade the south. Ansar wants to turn all of Mali into an Islamic dictatorship.
Other nations in the region, especially Algeria (which shares a 460 kilometer border with Mali), are alarmed at the appearance of a potential Islamic state and sanctuary for Islamic terrorists. The situation is murky because several Ansar Dine and MNLA factions are operating semi-independently. There is no single, reliable voice in the north. If there is a civil war between Islamic conservatives and secular minded Tuaregs, there will be chaos for a while. Meanwhile the AU (African Union) and ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States) is preparing to invade northern Mali and has already imposed economic sanctions on land-locked Mali. AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) has troops, aircraft, and Special Forces operators in the area.
This all began last January when thousands of Tuareg tribesmen in the north resumed their rebellion and began attacking towns and military bases. Then, in March, soldiers in the capital deposed the elected Mali government, complaining that the politicians had not sufficiently supported the military in its efforts to deal with the Tuareg uprising. That led to a collapse of army resistance in the north. This was the fourth Tuareg uprising since the first in 1963, and the most successful. By the end of April, Tuareg rebels had seized the three major towns in the north (Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu) as well as military bases in the area. In effect, the Tuareg rebels had seized the entire desert north and dared the more numerous southerners to try and take it back. But first the army coup had to be undone, the army restored to some semblance of order and then sent north to recapture the major towns and deal with the Tuareg. That has not happened yet.
The Tuareg rebels were initially assisted by several hundred Ansar Dine gunmen. Apparently deals were made to make life easier for the terrorists if the Tuareg gained control of the north. Ansar Dine gunmen soon went around shutting down places that sold alcohol or video and telling people they must act like "proper" Moslems (beards for men and covering up for women). This sort of thing is not popular among the Tuareg and caused friction with most Tuareg leaders.
The Tuaregs have been a problem for centuries, as they are ethnically distinct from the Malian majority in the south. Mali is as large as South Africa but has less than a third the population. Most (90 percent) of the 14.5 million people live in the southern third of the country, which gets more water. The north is largely desert, and most of the population up there are Tuareg (most of them not rebelling). Until the French arrived in the 19th century and created (for administrative purposes) a united "Mali", the black Africans in the south (along the Niger River) prospered and generally ignored the Tuareg in the desert north. But after the French left in 1960, and Mali became independent, the more populous south was forced to deal with the Tuareg dominated north.
These ethnic differences are complicated by recent Tuareg participation in smuggling cocaine and hashish north, through Algeria, to Europe. The drug smuggling is actually handled by Arab gangsters that are not terrorists. Al Qaeda gets paid lots of money to provide security for the drugs as they make the long run through forests, then the Sahara. The Tuareg provide local knowledge of the terrain, and people, at least in the far south. The Algerian government has long feared that the Tuareg would be tempted, by a big payday, to provide sanctuary for al Qaeda, as well as providing new recruits for Islamic terrorist operations (especially those that raise a lot of cash, like kidnapping Westerners). While the Tuareg are not fond of Islamic terrorism, young Tuareg are allowed to work with al Qaeda as hired guns. The pay is good and, so far, not too dangerous. But the young Tuareg are picking up some radical ideas from their al Qaeda bosses and that is causing some tension with tribal leaders. The mere fact that Tuareg are working for al Qaeda in southern Algeria has angered Algerian and Mali officials. Most of the 1.5 million Tuareg in the region are living in nations bordering Algeria (Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, and Niger). Mali has faced rebellious Tuareg for a long time and made peace with most of them in 2007. The MNLA insist they are not Islamic radicals but many other Tuaregs (like Ansar Dine) are and there's no denying that. On the southern border of Algeria, the Sahara desert turns into the semi-desert Sahel, a band of barely livable land stretching from the Atlantic coast to Somalia.
Ansar Dine has been growing rapidly this year. Islamic terrorists from Algeria, Nigeria, and other areas came to northern Mali to "help" as soon as it was obvious that the rebels were winning. A growing number of Tuareg see this as an invasion and the MNLA is breaking into factions over this issue. Islamic terrorist control in the north is spotty because they do not have as many followers (armed and unarmed) as MNLA (who comprise most of the northern population). The north contains only about 12 percent of Mali's population and is largely barren desert. A large minority of the northerners were originally from the black African south. The Islamic terror groups are making themselves unpopular in the north by forcing everyone to live a strict (no tobacco, alcohol, music, or video as well as shaved men and veiled women) Islamic lifestyle rules. The Islamic radicals have also damaged some non-Islamic cultural sites. There are a growing number of anti-Ansar Dine demonstrations. This has caused the Ansar Dine to back off a bit because many of the secular-minded Tuareg men in the north have weapons. While most of these guys did not join the MNLA rebellion, they still back the idea of a Tuareg controlled northern Mali and increasingly see outsiders (as most of the Islamic terrorists are) as invaders rather than allies. The Tuareg population is also suffering from increased banditry. Before the MNLA uprising the soldiers and police controlled crime and at least kept the main roads safe. MNLA has not established that kind of security and food and other goods, which have to be trucked in, are in short supply.