The Mali coup d’état: The rise of a new Islamist state?

After almost a century of fighting and with little to show for, the traditionally nomadic and ethnic 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 within today’s northern Mali. The Tuaregs, who number some 1.2 million people in the region, are one of the many distinct ethnic groups who continue to shake North Africa’s geo-political future. In doing so, the Tuaregs have utilized their primary military front, the secular-nationalist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) to accomplish their military objectives. Furthermore, their latest offensive and the subsequent seizure of large swaths of territory has surprised many with the speed and firepower deployed. To that point, their latest gains are primarily due to two major developments – the fall of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and the alliance between Islamists and Tuaregs in Mali.

Even before Mali started hitting the headlines this past week, town after town along the northern Mali-Algeria border began to fall to the Tuareg-Islamist insurgents. Moreover, some 200,000 people have been displaced in the last three months alone. To that point, Malian soldiers – mainly ethnic sub-Saharan Africans – who once had the upper hand against the formerly lightly armed Tuareg insurgents were now facing a heavily armed, reinforced, and highly motivated fighting force. Simply put, the Mali army found itself outgunned and undersupplied to fight against a determined enemy in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Since the rebellion began in January, the mounting military defeats pressed the country’s junior officers and soldiers to seek a solution. Therefore, the now disgruntled and demoralized army decided to launch their coup d’état and seized power on March 22 from the Western-backed, now deposed President. Since then, little has gone the junta’s way, as the mutineers, including their leader – US military trained Captain Sanogo – were undoubtedly surprised, not only by the international outcry against them, but also the rebel offensive in the north that has seized territory roughly the size of France in just one week.

There is little doubt their successes were consequential of earlier events in Libya, as Tuaregs, along with various other Arab and non-Arab tribes, were heavily active in the 2011 Libyan Civil War. The Tuareg participation in that campaign was not uniform, as some fought alongside the Libyan rebels, while many served as paid mercenaries for Gaddafi’s army until his ouster. Needless to say, the war’s ending resulted in an influx of battle hardened and heavily armed fighters to Mali – with an unprecedented stockpile of arms, including heavy weaponry, straight from Gaddafi’s arms depots. Emboldened by their training, experience, and acquired weaponry, the Tuaregs decided to relaunch their campaign only months after Gaddafi’s collapse, but this time alongside the black flag carrying Islamist Ancar Dine group – an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The surge of radical Islam in North Africa and the toppling of two regional dictators spawned an increase in Islamist and al-Qaeda operations in the region. The volatile security situation in the Maghreb, especially in the Sahara, has led to a profitable venture for the aforementioned militants, who are able to secure plenty of finances through kidnapping, drug and weapons trafficking, and waging war. With that in mind, numerous Jihadist groups have joined the Tuareg rebels to take on the formerly Western backed Mali government. In doing so, the Islamists are able to increase their influence, utilize their new weaponry, defeat a US ally, and shake up the geostrategic makeup of North Africa. Although the Tuaregs traditionally have been involved in a nationalist campaign, the rising appearance of Islamists within and alongside their ranks is notable and could influence their Tuareg allies to push far beyond their initial military objectives. To that point, Sharia law is reportedly already being implemented in newly conquered territories in Mali and the leader of the Ancar Dine says he plans to do the same in the capital. Whether or not the Tuareg-Islamist alliance will attempt to do so will likely be decided in the coming days.

With little more than some 600 miles standing in the way from the recently conquered city of Gao and the Mali capital, Bamako, it seems the only thing stopping their offensive is a calculated decision on their part to either halt their advance for strategic and political reasons. It is important to note that the rebels hail from a tribal society, therefore it could take some time to ensure interests are met after dividing the spoils from conquered lands. That said, whether the offensive continues or not, Mali is, however, clearly in dire straits. With little hope of outside intervention, a broken army, and an isolated junta, Mali seems incapable of mounting an effective offensive meant to recapture lost territory, let alone mount a credible defense.

Above all, the West’s toppling of Gaddafi has enabled an unchecked weapons flow from Libya’s caches, coupled with the Islamist-Tuareg alliance have fostered insurgent gains in one of Africa’s poorest yet, historically most democratic states. Most importantly, the creation of a de-facto state, in the center of North Africa, under the leadership or direct influence of radical Islamists, will likely have dramatic consequences for the region as a whole.

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