Rebels on the Rise in Northern Mali

After almost a century of fighting, the nomadic Tuareg people of North Africa are suddenly on the verge of accomplishing one of their premier goals — securing the territory needed to establish the state of Azawad in northern Mali.

The gains are among the unexpected consequences of the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, where many Tuaregs were active during the civil war, and of an alliance between them and Islamists in Mali.

The speed and firepower of the latest Tuareg offensive, which resulted in the seizure of large swaths of territory, was unexpected. Even before the fighting made headlines over the past week, town after town along the northern Mali-Algeria border had been falling to the Tuaregs and their National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. Some 200,000 people have been displaced in the last three months alone.

The Mali Army, largely composed of sub-Saharan Africans, which had previously held the upper hand against lightly armed Tuaregs, found itself facing a heavily armed and determined enemy in one of the harshest environments in the world.

The military setbacks since the rebellion began in January were apparently one reason junior officers in the army seized power from President Amadou Toumani Touré on March 22. Since then, little has gone the junta’s way, as the mutineers, led by U.S.-trained Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, have faced an international outcry and an intensified rebel offensive in the north that has now gained control of territory roughly equal to France. The last major government holdout in the north, the ancient city of Timbuktu, fell Sunday.

There is little question that the rebel successes are a consequence of the civil war in Libya last year.

The Tuaregs, along with other Arab and non-Arab African tribes, were heavily active in the war. Some Tuaregs fought alongside the Libyan rebels, while many served as mercenaries in Qaddafi’s army. The end of the war resulted in the return of many battle-hardened fighters to Mali, with a large arsenal of arms, including heavy weapons. Soon after their return, the Tuaregs relaunched their campaign — this time alongside the Islamist Ancar Dine group, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The surge of radical Islam in North Africa and the toppling of two regional dictators have spawned an increase in Islamist and Qaeda operations in the region. The volatile security situation has enabled the Islamic militants to secure large new financing through kidnapping and trafficking in drugs and weapons. Numerous jihadist groups have joined the Tuareg rebels against the Western-backed Mali government.

So while the Tuaregs had previously waged a nationalist campaign, the appearance of Islamists at their side could change the military objectives of the rebels. Shariah law is already said to be implemented in the conquered northern regions of Mali.

With only 1,000 kilometers now left between rebel-held Gao and the Mali capital, Bamako, it appears that the only thing blocking the rebels is some strategic or political calculation. Whatever the reason, Mali, with little hope of outside intervention, a broken army and an isolated junta, is clearly incapable of mounting an effective defense, let alone a counteroffensive.

Daniel Brode is an intelligence analyst with Max-Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk-consulting firm based in Israel.

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