The NMLA is a secular Tuareg movement, created in October 2011. It claims that the liberation of Azawad will allow better integration -- and development -- for all the peoples in the region. Its hardcore fighters are Tuaregs who were former members of Gaddafi's army. But there are also rebels who had not laid down their arms after the 2007-2008 Tuareg rebellion, and some that defected from the Malian army. Those who came back to Mali after Gaddafi was executed by the NATO rebels in Libya carried plenty of weapons. Yet most heavy weapons actually ended up with the NATO rebels themselves, the Islamists supported by the West.
AQIM is the Northern African branch of al-Qaeda, pledging allegiance to "The Doctor," Ayman al-Zawahiri. Its two crucial characters are Abu Zaid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, former members of the ultra-hardcore Algerian Islamist outfit Salafist Group for Predication and Combat (SGPC). Belmokhtar was already a jihadi in 1980s Afghanistan.
Abu Zaid poses as a sort of North African "Geronimo," aka Osama bin Laden, with the requisite black flag and a strategically positioned Kalashnikov featuring prominently in his videos. The historical leader, though, is Belmokhtar. The problem is that Belmokhtar, known by French intelligence as "The Uncatchable," has recently joined MUJAO.
MUJAO fighters are all former AQIM. In June 2012, MUJAO expelled the NMLA and took over the city of Gao, when it immediately applied the worst aspects of Sharia law. It's the MUJAO base that has been bombed by the French Rafales this week. One of its spokesmen has duly threatened, "in the name of Allah," to respond by attacking "the heart of France."
Finally, Ansar ed-Dine is an Islamist Tuareg outfit, set up last year and directed by Iyad ag Ghali, a former leader of the NMLA who exiled himself in Libya. He turned to Salafism because of -- inevitably -- Pakistani proselytizers let loose in Northern Africa, then engaged in valuable face time with plenty of AQIM emirs. It's interesting to note in 2007 Mali President Toure appointed Ghali as consul in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. He was then duly expelled in 2010 because he got too close to radical Islamists.
Gimme "a little more terrorism"
No one in the West is asking why the Pentagon-friendly Sanogo's military coup in the capital ended up with almost two-thirds of Mali in the hands of Islamists who imposed hardcore Sharia law in Azawad -- especially in Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, a gruesome catalogue of summary executions, amputations, stonings and the destruction of holy shrines in Timbuktu. How come the latest Tuareg rebellion ended up hijacked by a few hundred hardcore Islamists? It's useless to ask the question to US drones.
The official "leading from behind" Obama 2.0 administration rhetoric is, in a sense, futuristic; the French bombing "could rally jihadis" around the world and lead to -- what else -- attacks on the West. Once again the good ol' Global War on Terror (GWOT) remains the serpent biting its own tail.
There's no way to understand Mali without examining what Algeria has been up to. The Algerian newspaper El Khabar only scratched the surface, noting that "from categorically refusing an intervention -- saying to the people in the region it would be dangerous," if Algiers went to "open Algerian skies to the French Mirages."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Algeria last October, trying to organize some semblance of an intervening West African army. Hollande was there in December. Oh yes, this gets juicier by the month.
So let's turn to Professor Jeremy Keenan, from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University, and author of The Dark Sahara (Pluto Press, 2009) and the upcoming The Dying Sahara (Pluto Press, 2013).
Writing in the January edition of New African, Keenan stresses, "Libya was the catalyst of the Azawad rebellion, not its underlying cause. Rather, the catastrophe now being played out in Mali is the inevitable outcome of the way in which the 'Global War on Terror' has been inserted into the Sahara-Sahel by the US, in concert with Algerian intelligence operatives, since 2002."
In a nutshell, Bush and the regime in Algiers both needed, as Keenan points out, "a little more terrorism" in the region. Algiers wanted it as the means to get more high-tech weapons. And Bush -- or the neo-cons behind him -- wanted it to launch the Saharan front of the GWOT, as in the militarization of Africa as the top strategy to control more energy resources, especially oil, thus wining the competition against massive Chinese investment. This is the underlying logic that led to the creation of AFRICOM in 2008.
Algerian intelligence, Washington and the Europeans duly used AQIM, infiltrating its leadership to extract that "little more terrorism." Meanwhile, Algerian intelligence effectively configured the Tuaregs as "terrorists"; the perfect pretext for Bush's Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative, as well as the Pentagon's Operation Flintlock -- a trans-Sahara military exercise.
The Tuaregs always scared the hell out of Algerians, who could not even imagine the success of a Tuareg nationalist movement in northern Mali. After all, Algeria always viewed the whole region as its own backyard.
The Tuaregs -- the indigenous population of the central Sahara and the Sahel -- number up to 3 million. Over 800,000 live in Mali, followed by Niger, with smaller concentrations in Algeria, Burkina Faso and Libya. There have been no less than five Tuareg rebellions in Mali since independence in 1960, plus three others in Niger, and a lot of turbulence in Algeria.
Keenan's analysis is absolutely correct in identifying what happened all along 2012 as the Algerians meticulously destroying the credibility and the political drive of the NMLA. Follow the money: both Ansar ed-Dine's Iyad ag Ghaly and MUJAO's Sultan Ould Badi are very cozy with the DRS, the Algerian intelligence agency. Both groups in the beginning had only a few members.