Will Mali become the Next Terrorist Sanctuary?

In the aftermath of the Mali coup, northern secessionists have declared an independent Islamic state. With verifiable links to Al-Qa’ida, there is a real risk that ‘Azawad’, as it is known, will become the next wellspring of instability and terrorism in Africa.

By Valentina Soria, Research Analyst


The proclamation on 26 May of an ‘Islamic state of Azawad’,[1]  in the northern region of Mali,  came only two months after a military coup that forced former president Amadou Toumani Toure to flee the capital Bamako, plunging the country into a political crisis. The power vacuum left was swiftly exploited by rebel forces to seize a territory the size of France, turning such a crisis into a security and humanitarian emergency. The 26 May announcement indicated that the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar Dine (also spelt as Ansar Eddine) had apparently been able to reconcile divergent, if not clashing, ideological positions on government. An independent Azawad was first unilaterally declared by the MNLA in April but not backed by their Islamist allies, keen instead on pursuing the more ambitious aim of imposing Sharia law across the whole country. Yet, early attempts to do so immediately after the seizure of key towns in the north were met with firm opposition by the moderate Muslim local population, with MNLA also mostly hostile to the idea.[2]

Thus, last week’s joint declaration seemed to represent a ‘reasonable’ compromise between the Tuaregs‘ quest for independence from the south and the Islamists‘ desire to create an Islamic state. There was no doubting the opportunistic nature of the deal, with each side trying to secure their grip on power in a shared settlement that, although not ideal, must have been viewed by both at least as an acceptable outcome. Yet, its long-term sustainability is already in question, after ‘fundamental differences’ were blamed by the MNLA for the collapse of the deal only a few days later.

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CIA and Algiers’ AQIM differences

English: Thematic Maps of Algeria' economic ac...

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The Algerian regime’s politico-military response to AQIM is causing concern among the Western powers that have military forces in the Sahel. A French general officer who wished to remain anonymous told Intelligence Online that the situation was “a big black hole”. In Washington the same view is held, and with good reason.

For several months, there has been a stand-off between the Africom command, headed by General Carter Ham, and General Ahmed Gaid Salah, the chief of staff of the Algerian Army, over Algeria’s refusal to open its air space to U.S. Air Force and CIA drones in zones where the terrorists are believed to be in hiding.

This stance is not only to do with Algeria’s refusal on principle to have a Western military presence on its soil. It is also because Algeria would rather lead the operation against AQIM itself, in coordination with the forces of neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Mali, with whom it has set up a joint intelligence centre in Tamanrasset. The arms that have found their way from Gaddafi’s arsenals to AQIM have only strengthened Algeria’s conviction that AQIM is a regional problem that they are the best placed to deal with.

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