Between April and June of 2012 three Jihadist organisations have managed to jointly impose their rigorist Islamist control over some 1.5 million inhabitants in northern Mali, a vast desert area of around 850,000 square kilometres between Mauritania, Algeria and Niger. These three organisations are al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Unicity and Jihad in Western Africa (MUJWA) and Ansar al Din (AD).
AQIM is the result of the merger in September 2006 of al-Qaeda and the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC). It has continued and expanded the process of penetration into Mali begun by the SGPC in 2003. Its splinter group MUJWA made itself known in late 2011 and has a more multinational membership, while it has adopted the same Sahelian territories as its main operational scenario. Ansar al Din, which emerged at about the same time, is mainly though not exclusively made up of Tuareg militants and uses the flag of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, which has now become a common symbol for Jihadists throughout the region.
The three organisations coordinated their strategies and efforts from January 2012 with the aim of imposing their rule in northern Mali. They now dictate strictly Salafist norms of behaviour and enforce a fundamentalist observance of Sharia law which is largely at odds with the traditionally open and tolerant understanding of Islam among the area’s population. Couples in Gao have been whipped for having children out of wedlock or stoned to death in Aguelhok accused of adulterous relations; ancient tombs and shrines in Timbuktu have been denounced as idolatrous and demolished; the teaching of philosophy and biology has been deemed heretical and forbidden in the schools of Kidal. A species of religious police patrol these and other surrounding localities, punishing people for engaging in customs and traditions that the Jihadists consider sinful.
AQMI, MUJWA and AD cooperate in sharing their domination throughout northern Mali, having formed a Jihadist condominium in the area resembling, despite many situational differences, that of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). The FATA are 30-times smaller in surface area and have more than twice the population of northern Mali, yet the kind of jihadist condominium that exists in the Asian enclave –still today the epicentre of global terrorism– is now being substantially replicated in the faraway Sahel.
As in the FATA, a hierarchy and division of labour can be identified between the organisations involved in northern Mali’s Jihadist condominium. AQMI is on the ground with two katibat or squads amounting to several hundred members, maintains training facilities and provides guidance to the considerably larger AD in the task of implementing Sharia law and enforcing a fundamentalist order at the local level, while retaining the monopoly over outside relations with the global jihad. MUJWA acts as AD’s collaborating partner and as AQMI’s subsidiary.
The three entities mobilised in 2011 to seize the opportunities provided by a new Tuareg uprising, which this time had a more secessionist character and was promoted by a few thousand individuals who, after serving as mercenaries for the Gaddafi regime in Libya until its collapse, relocated their expertise and stolen weaponry to northern Mali. As their rebellion advanced, a coup d’etat in Bamako further eroded the State’s counter-insurgency capabilities. The separatists of the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (NLMA), as they name northern Mali, became confident in their comparative superiority and allied themselves with AD. However, once they began operating together, the erstwhile allies started to disagree. AD and its two Jihadist partners, AQMI and MUJWA, took over, displaced the NLMA and started to impose their own agenda in northern Mali.
The establishment of a Jihadist condominium in the Sahel means, first of all, that the religiously fanatic collaborative design of AQMI, MUJWA and AD is inflicting real suffering upon the impoverished local population. Secondly, it means that northern Mali might easily become an attractive destination for Islamist extremists in nearby countries and an even greater source of instability for the region as a whole. It finally means that the territory can turn into a growing focus of a terrorist threat to the West in general and to southern Europe in particular, especially to countries like France, Spain and Italy.
The northern Malians are unlikely to loosen the Jihadist grip without external aid, at least in the short term. Negotiated solutions with collective actors of the same ideology have been only temporary solutions or simply impossible in other conflict zones. Any military intervention by the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) and supported by the African Union (AU) risks not only failure but also the raising of an international call for Jihad. However, the longer the current situation endures, the less likely it is to be reversed.