Originally posted on Stand Your Ground on April 11th 2012
For decades Touareg from the Sahara have been fighting for a, as they call it, a “free Azawad” in northern Mali. During the revolt in Libya against Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Touareg fighters have been reported fighting on both sides. In this conflict they’ve received training and weapons and when the revolt was over they renewed their offensive against the government of Mali in January of this year under the name of Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA). When a coup d’état by discontent soldiers, the discontent ironically enough came from the lack of support of the troops in their war in northern Mali, in March paralized the Malian government even more as they already were in their battle against the Touareg, the latter grabbed the opportunity and successfully intensified their offensive, occupying almost all of Azawad, including the three largest cities: Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
After, as they said, “achieving their goals”, the Touareg declared an independent Azawad. But as soon as the news of the victory spread, trouble doomed on the horizon. Pretty fast after the occupation of Timbuktu reports came in that not the flag of Azawad was flying over the city, but the black flag of Jihad.
Since the beginning of the new offensive in January, the Malian government claimed that members of Islamic extremist groups Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar Dine were fighting with the Touareg to “liberate” Azawad. The MNLA always denied that this was the case, but as soon as Timbuktu was occupied, the Islamic extremist fighters of Ansar Dine took control and imposed Sharia law on the city. This is a disturbing development. The main goal of the MNLA was to liberate Azawad, Ansar Dine and other extremist groups fight for imposement of the Sharia in the whole of Mali and reject independence. Another group of Islamic extremists from Nigeria also fight for imposing Sharia in their own country: Boko Haram.
The Malian web medium Maliweb.net reported that a few hundred fighters of Boko Haram were seen in Gao and if this is true then the fate of Azawad is uncertain. With AQIM, Boko Haram and other extremist groups taking advantage of the lack of government in Azawad, there is a chance that they will take up their arms together against the Touareg, try to expel the Touareg and make Azawad or parts of it an Islamic state, based on Sharia law and a safe haven for Islamic extremists. If this will happen, a new Yemen or Somalia (where government control is very limited and in some areas non-existent) isn’t unthinkable, this time in the unstable region of North West Africa where governments are struggling to take on and solve their internal problems and where the security situation is vulnerable to extremists who want to topple the imbalanced power of the government over distant and hard to control areas. By doing this they will be expanding their own power base and become a force that will be increasingly hard to defeat.
The near future will determine what the fate of Azawad will be. The consequences of an outcome in which the flag of Jihad will rule the whole of Azawad, can be far reaching.