The role of Al-Qaeda in Mali: a lesson for Arab Spring future

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“Arab Spring” became “Islamic Winter”, many sentenced after the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Bengasi on 9/11 and the widespread protests in Middle East caused by the controversial trailer on Mahomet’s life. History demonstrates that the transition from authoritarianism to democracy is uncertain and rough. In this case, the main hindrance is Al-Qaeda (AQ) and Salafist Extremism. The international terrorist organization led by Al-Zawahiri exploitsa specific tactic to infiltrate the Islamic insurgencies[i]. Firstly, AQ establishes a presence in remote regions, preferably with Sunnis majority and destabilized by recurring conflicts (e.g. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM or Jemaah Islamyiah in the South-East Asia). Secondly, AQ regional affiliates infiltrate local rebels through tribal unions. For instance, AQIM sank in Tuaregs tribes through a marriage[ii]. Thirdly, they repeatedly accomplished terrorist acts against the local population, in order to internationalize the conflict and control the population. In sum, AQ aims to manifest itself as the new local power, acting as an international warlord and exploiting the strategy of violence. Alas, its conquest of Azawad is a successful demonstration of this tactic.

Azawad is the northern uranium-rich region of Mali, which amounts to about two/thirds of the entire country. It lacks border control with its neighbours Mauritania, Algeria and Niger and is thus a safe-haven for transnational crime. Since 27th June 2012 Ansar Dine (AD – Salafist extremist group) holds control on Azawad, after Tuareg achieved its independency on 6th April[iii]. This was the target of their insurgencies since post-colonial period. AD imposed Shari’a Law and destroyed Sufis symbols in Timbuktu, UNESCO heritage[iv]. AD is related to AQIM: its leader Iyag ag Ghaly is also the leader of former Tuareg insurgencies and the cousin of Hamada ag Hama, commander of AQIM[v] This was the former Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. Its founder Mokhtar ben Mokhtar is linked to Tuareg tribes through a marriage with four women of prominent families.

Tuareg are Saharan nomads, scattered and a minority in Sahel-Maghreb countries. In the aftermath of decolonization, the Tuareg were enclosed in States with arbitrary lines. For the last fifty years, Tuaregs have been fighting for the independence of Azawad, where more than one million of Berbers live[vi]. After backing Qaddafi (who reintegrated them in its army), Tuareg militias returned to their homeland with a new arsenal. This sparkle fomented the latest insurgency. Few days after the Military coup against the Malian President A.T. Touré, Tuareg (unified in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad – MNLA) achieved the independence of their contested region. AD, allied with the Tuareg in the last conflict, rejected the declaration of MNLA, The extremists led by Iyag ag Ghaly, very well equipped, managed to seize Azawad control from MNLA and imposed Shari’a Law. For the last six months there has been an ongoing “civil war” in a non-recognized State which is held by AQ[vii].

The role of AQ in Mali may represent a lesson for the future of the “Arab Spring”. During the uprising in winter of 2010-2011, the Salafist extremists mingled with rebels fighting for regime change in Mali. From the last events, it seems that AQ infiltrated this uprising. On Monday 17th September 2012 the leader of Ansar al-Sharia (AQIM proxy) Sheik Abou Iyadh was preaching in a Mosque in Tunisia. Although police surroundedthe place, he managed to disappear[viii]. Therefore, it is unlikely that AQ did not have a relevant position in stirring up the mass at the Arab Spring dawn. Likewise, the bombing steered against the local population, as well as against Western symbols, started before this summer. Notably, it might be defined as a continuum of violence. Finally, the Salafist ideology and affiliated groups have been spreading in all Sunni countries since  the 20s, from Egypt to Indonesia and Western Sahara[ix]. In this scenario, AQ may easily accomplish its strategy. Thus, the last tragic events may not be reduced to a consequence of political transition; otherwise it means losing control on AQ tactics.

AQ has not suddenly risen again from Abbottabad rubble. It has been almost six months since the Tuareg and AD have been fighting in a non-recognized State which is held by AQ proxies. Today, this international terrorist organization aims at State control. It is not similar to traditional terrorism; neither a mere post-conflict spoiler. AQ exploits local insurgencies in a tribal context to impose itself as the new local warlord. Consequently, violence is part of its strategy to control the population, increase its profits and enrol new members. Mali exemplifies its success, but it is widely downplayed. In Mali AQ achieved to infiltrate and take over Tuareg insurgency.  If AQ succeeds to keep the Arab Spring countries destabilized, this will lead to a viral reproduction of Azawad scenario. AQ is the “Islamic Winter”.


[i] Kilcullen, D.J. (2009); The Accidental Guerrilla. Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One; London : Gardners Books.

[ii] Keenan, J. (2009); The Dark Sahara: America’s war on terror in Africa; London : Pluto Press.

[iii] Council on foreign Relations, Addressing an Imploding Mali

[iv] http://temi.repubblica.it/limes/timbuctu-colpita-al-cuore-dai-jihadisti/37874

[v] Larémont, R.R. (2011); “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in the Sahel”, African Security, Vol.4, No.4, pp.242-268.

[vi] Emerson, S.A. (2011); “Desert insurgency: lessons from the third Tuareg Rebellion”, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol.22 No.4, pp.669-687.

[vii] http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/20123208133276463.html

[viii] http://www.ansamed.info/ansamed/it/notizie/stati/tunisia/2012/09/17/Film-anti-Islam-Tunisi-sceicco-via-moschea-assediata_7489086.html

[ix] Kilcullen, 2009.

Photo credit: Reuters

About Author

Alessandro Casarotti

Alessandro Casarotti is contributor at the International Security Observer. Alessandro holds the MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development at School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he specialized in Terrorism, Spoilers and Warlords in post-conflict context. Previously, he was awarded the MSc in International Relations and Diplomacy at University of Trieste and the BA in International Economics (European Union curricula) at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano. He gained experience with an internship at Political and Security Committee of European Union and Terrorism Prevention Unit of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. He writes as freelance for several webmagazine. He is Italian native speaker, fluent in English and French, working knowledge of German and Spanish, elementary in Russian.

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