The Divided Leadership of Northern Mali’s Arab Community: A Profile of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA)

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report

Aberfoyle International Security, April 2015

MAA 1Despite their small numbers, northern Mali’s Arab population maintains a high degree of influence in the region’s social, religious and political life since their gradual arrival through the 17th to 19th centuries.

The Arab community of northern Mali is composed of three main groups:

  • The Bérabiche moved into northern Mali in the early 17th century and established an important commercial center at Timbuktu. Before the Islamist occupation of the north in 2012, some members of the tribe played an important role in guiding al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) smuggling convoys through the north. In some cases, AQIM leaders and fighters married into the Bérabiche.
  • The Kounta are part of a large confederation of religious clans found across West Africa. Claiming a common 15th century ancestor, their religious authority is tightly tied to their importance in the Qadariya Sufi order in West Africa. Once wealthy through commerce and the payment of tribute by lesser Arab groups, a changing social order has presented the group with new challenges. Some Kounta sought new revenues through engagement in narcotics smuggling, though this has damaged their religious status in the north. Kounta relations with the Tuareg are complicated, while struggles for control of northern Mali’s smuggling routes have brought the Kounta into conflict with the Bérabiche and Tilemsi Arabs.
  • The Tilemsi Arabs (a.k.a. Tangara) arrived in the Tilemsi Valley region of Gao from Mauritania in the 19th century in response to a call for aid from the Kounta, to which they were once subordinate. Their position close to the Algerian border allowed the group to profit sufficiently to allow them to stop paying tribute to the Kounta over a decade ago. However, their smuggling activities brought them into close contact with AQIM, the result being the growth of religious extremism in the community.

MAA 2Sidi Brahim Ould Sidati

The original Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA – Arab Movement of Azawad) was created in late 2012 as a reorganization of the short-lived Front de libération nationale de l’Azawad (FNLA). The movement was designed initially as an Arab self-defense group with an interest in autonomy but not independence for the north or the implementation of Shari’a in the region. Azawad is the local name for northern Mali.

Since then, however, the MAA has split into two factions – one in favor of greater autonomy within a united Mali, the other taking a harder line on independence for the north. The pro-Bamako faction of the MAA is led by Professor Ahmed Sidi Ould Mohamed and is largely based in the Gao region with a military base at Inafarak (near the Algerian border), while the dissident or separatist faction is led by Sidi Brahim Ould Sidati and suspected narco-traffickers Dina Ould Aya (or Daya) and Mohamed Ould Aweynat, amongst others. Both men are subject to international arrest warrants for their alleged roles in narco-trafficking (L’Indépendant  [Bamako], May 28, 2014). The military chief of the dissenting MAA is Colonel Hussein Ould al-Moctar “Goulam,” a defector from the Malian Army.  This faction is based in the Timbuktu region.

Both factions of the MAA include former members of the Islamist Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) that joined AQIM and Ansar al-Din in briefly ruling northern Mali after expelling government forces and defeating the rebel Mouvement National pour la liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA).  A pro-government militia, the Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA) helpfully claims that the former MUJWA fighters in the pro-Bamako MAA simply joined the Islamists to provide security for their community during the Islamist occupation (Le Monde, February 11, 2015). The mainstream MAA is dominated by members of the Lamhar clan, a group whose recent prosperity and large new homes in Gao are attributed to their prominent role in moving drug shipments through northern Mali. Some reports have characterized the split in the MAA as being directly related to a struggle for control of drug-trafficking routes through northern Mali (L’Informateur [Bamako], May 28, 2014).

With their intimate knowledge of the Malian Arab community and the lands in which they dwell, a loyalist Arab movement is a natural threat to the operations of jihadists in northern Mali.  It is not surprising, then, that Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun organization issued a threat against the loyalist MAA and the independence-minded but officially secular and largely Tuareg MNLA on April 8, citing their alleged loyalty to the French (MaliActu.Info, April 8, 2015).

Yoro Ould Daha (a.k.a. Sid’Amar Ould Daha), one of the leaders of the pro-Bamako faction of the MAA, typifies the kind of political confusion and pliability that hinders the arrival of a negotiated settlement in the north and frustrates foreign supporters of Malian democracy. Ould Daha came to prominence as the MUJWA chief of security during the Islamist occupation of northern Mali, but now insists he and his movement are now seeking a unified nation with its capital in Bamako. Widely regarded as a major drug trafficker with a reputation for brutality gained during his time as security chief for MUJWA-occupied Gao, Ould Daha was arrested by French forces in Gao in July 2014 and turned over to Malian authorities, but was released only days later, though not before accusing the French military of supporting his enemies in the separatist MNLA (Le Témoin [Bamako], August 12, 2014; MaliWeb, August 2, 2014; RFI, September 8, 2014). The loyalist MAA’s chief of military staff, Colonel al-Oumarani Baba Ahmed Ould Ali, resigned from the movement in mid-March, citing internal reasons related to the loyalist alliance (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], March 19, 2015).

At present, armed groups active in northern Mali include the following:

1/ Coordination des Mouvements et Front patriotique de résistance (CM-FPR, incorporating the largely Songhai Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso militias) On June 24, 2014, this coalition allied itself with GATIA and the loyalist faction of the MAA. The movement seeks self-determination for the north, but exists mainly to resist Tuareg domination of the north.

2/ Le Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA – Viewed as the voice of the Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal, the HCUA includes many former members of the now dormant Ansar al-Din Islamist movement led by Iyad ag Ghali).

3/ Coalition pour le Peuple de l’Azawad (CPA – allied with Ganda Iso) The CPA was created from a split in the MNLA and seeks federalism rather than independence. Largely Tuareg, but claims membership from the Arab, Songhai and Peul/Fulani communities of the north.

4/ Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA – both pro and anti-Bamako factions use the same name despite the split). Both factions of the MAA include many former members of MUJWA.

5/ Mouvement National pour la liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA) A largely Tuareg movement seeking an independent northern Mali. The Kel Idnan and Taghat Mellit Tuareg are well represented in the movement.

6/ Mouvement Populaire pour le Salut de l’Azawad (MPSA) The Arab MPSA is the result of a split in the MAA, with MPSA dissidents claiming they wanted to remove themselves from the influence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Anadolu Agency, August 31, 2014). The group seeks self-determination for the north rather than independence but does not appear to be very influential.

7/ Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA). This pro-government group is closely tied to the Malian Army and is led by General al-Hajj ag-Gamou. It consists largely of Imghad Tuareg but also includes a number of allied Arab fighters.


GATIA: A Profile of Northern Mali’s Pro-Government Tuareg and Arab Militia

Andrew McGregor
April 3, 2015

A little more than a year after a French and African Union military intervention drove an Islamist coalition from their bases in northern Mali in early 2013, Prime Minister Moussa Mara ignited the seething tensions in the area with an ill-advised visit to the Kidal region (a stronghold of separatist Tuareg rebels) in mid-May 2014. Within days, the Malian Army was in full flight from angered Tuareg insurgents in Kidal and many other sites of strategic importance in the north, including towns along the main drug-trafficking and smuggling routes that connect northern Mali to the northern Sahara and the Mediterranean coast.

Mali - Hajj ag GamouGeneral Hajj ag Gamou (right), with Chadian officers during operations in Mali

As a result of the army’s rapid flight, a significant portion of the Tuareg and Arab communities of the north that have no interest in separatism or the formation of an Islamic state were suddenly once more at risk from politically-motivated violence. These communities responded by transforming their pro-government Tuareg militia into a more inclusive pro-government self-defense organization, the Groupe Autodéfense Touareg Imghad et Alliés (GATIA), led by the only Tuareg member of Mali’s general staff, General Hajj ag Gamou. With an estimated 1,000 fighters drawn from Tuareg and Arab communities, the movement announced its formation on August 14, 2014. Since then the group has emerged as a powerful obstacle to the ambitions of those militant groups in northern Mali seeking greater autonomy or the establishment of an independent state to be known as “Azawad.”

Formation and Aims

According to GATIA’s secretary-general, Fahad ag Almahmoud, the movement was formed after the May 2014 withdrawal of the Malian Army from its positions east and north of Gao rendered the Tuareg and Arab communities “defenseless” (Le Monde, February 9, 2015). Failing to obtain the support of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali-MINUSMA) or French military forces (which the movement suspects of supporting the Tuareg separatists of the Mouvement National pour la liberation de l’Azawad [MNLA]), GATIA’s founders observed that only armed groups were being given a seat at the peace negotiations that followed: “There was no mission to substitute ourselves for the army or [government] assistance, we just have the same enemy. In reality, when we took up arms, the Malian Army no longer existed [in northern Mali]” (Le Monde, February 9, 2015; RFI, August 16, 2014).

The establishment of GATIA, however, is not just a response to growing insecurity in the absence of government security forces. It is, in many ways, also the result of a long-simmering conflict between the noble Tuareg clans of Kel Ifoghas (a.k.a. Kel Adagh) and the Tuareg vassal clans known as Imghad. The introduction of democracy after independence in 1960 allowed the more-numerous vassal classes of Tuareg and Arab society to accrue authority as elected officials over the less numerous noble groups. For many in the non-noble classes, Malian citizenship also offered a chance to restructure traditional Tuareg and Arab society in their favor, while the noble castes objected to these developments and their own sudden political subordination to the Bambara ethnic majority in southern Mali.

The rivalry between nobles and vassals was intensified by struggles over smuggling routes, after a new outbreak of rebellion in northern Mali led by separatist Tuareg vassal clans in January 2012 and the military coup three months later that ended Bamako’s authority over the north. When the Islamist coalition occupied northern Mali, the noble Ifoghas group tended to favor Iyad ag Ghali’s Islamist Ansar al-Din movement, while the vassal Imghad (particularly the Tuareg militia led by Hajj ag Gamou) sided with the state. Ag Ghali of the Ifoghas is a bitter enemy of Imghad General Ag Gamou, and is now believed to be in the uncontrolled region of southwestern Libya while preserving his influence in northern Mali through intimidation and alleged death squads which target his opponents in the Tuareg community (Jeune Afrique, February 18, 2015).

Evolving Alliances

The French and African Union military intervention in 2013 shattered the Islamist coalition in northern Mali (which included the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa [MUJWA] and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] as well as Ansar al-Din), leading many Ifoghas to abandon Ansar al-Din to form a new and less overtly provocative movement, Le Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA). With Mali’s regular army still absent from the north, there have been calls from Mali’s press and political establishment for Ag Gamou’s GATIA to be formally integrated into the Malian Army (Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], October 24, 2014).

After the flight of the Malian Army from the north, GATIA joined Songhai fighters of the Coordination des Mouvements et Front Patriotique de Résistance (CM-FPR, incorporating the largely Songhai Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso militias) and the loyalist faction of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA). These took part in a successful battle against a coalition of rebels (HCUA, MNLA and the anti-Bamako faction of the MAA) led by veteran commander Hassane Fagaga at Anéfis on July 11, 2014. [1] Both the MNLA and GATIA use Malian fighters who returned from Libya after the defeat of the Qaddafi regime. One of these, Baye “Bojan,” was an important military commander in GATIA before his death in the battle for Anéfis.

The military weakness of the MNLA (exposed earlier when the movement was sidelined by Islamist militants in 2012) resurfaced in October 2014 when GATIA drove the MNLA from its base in the town of In Tillit (south of Gao) and several other smaller settlements (L’Indépendant [Bamako], October 20, 2014; Jeune Afrique, October 17, 2014). GATIA insists that the MNLA is deeply involved in drug trafficking, though in reality there are few armed groups in northern Mali that have not benefitted in some fashion from the lucrative drug corridors that run from West African ports through Mali to points north and east.

Mali - Didier DackoGeneral Didier Dacko

General Didier Dacko of the Malian Army  denied reports that government forces had provided support to the GATIA attack, adding that “the militia does not act under the orders of the Malian Army” (, October 16, 2014). Mali’s Ministry of Defense has also described suggestions that GATIA was formed from members of Ag Gamou’s militia (an important part of the re-conquest of northern Mali in 2013) and elements of a Malian Army technical weapons group as “part of a pure disinformation campaign aimed at discrediting the Malian Army” (Jeune Afrique, February 16, 2015).

Government denials that it is assisting GATIA may be a means of promoting GATIA as an independent (but Bamako-friendly) partner in the Algiers peace talks, which currently exclude GATIA. This is because if GATIA is too closely identified with the government through a formal relationship with the government there would be little reason for them to be part of the negotiations. General Ag Gamou continues to report to the Malian general staff, but GATIA Secretary-General Ag Almahoud insists that GATIA members receive no pay from Bamako: “Nobody pays us. We do it for honor, not for the unity of Mali” (Jeune Afrique, February 17, 2015).

GATIA’s goals remain only vaguely outlined; when asked directly what proposals GATIA intended to present at the peace talks, Ag Almahoud preferred to describe what GATIA did not stand for: “We are not part of the movements that have taken up arms against the state. We do not demand secession from Mali, nor federalism, nor autonomy” (, October 21, 2014). What is clear is that GATIA sees a future for northern Mali within a sovereign and secular Malian state. Less certain is what all this loyalty will cost, keeping in mind Ag Gamou’s apparent political ambitions.


The flight of Malian troops from northern Mali in May 2014 confirmed once again that Mali’s military is utterly incapable of controlling the north, convincing Mali’s leaders that the deployment of pro-government ethnic militias is preferable to further misadventures by the Malian Army. While the French have committed to a military presence in the region with the inauguration of Operation Barkhane in July 2014, both separatists and loyalists suspect the French of favoring the other side. [2] The HCUA, MNLA and the anti-Bamako faction of the MAA are likewise all determined to prevent GATIA from having a seat at the peace talks, in part because GATIA’s very existence challenges their claim to be the legitimate voices of northern Mali’s Tuareg and Arab communities. On the other hand, the question is whether any agreement reached in Algiers that excludes GATIA could restore peace and order in northern Mali. The internal struggle within the Tuareg and Arab communities is escalating and a failure to address this in the ongoing negotiations will fail to produce a workable solution to the violence in the north.

1. For Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso, see Terrorism Monitor, April 19, 2012, ; August 10, 2012, ; and February 21, 2014, . Both factions of the MAA include many former members of MUJWA.
2. For Operation Barkhane, see Terrorism Monitor Briefs, July 24, 2014, .

Mali’s Peace Talks: Doomed to Failure?

Andrew McGregor
August 7, 2014

Mali’s disaffected minority northerners are now at least equal in military power to the state. Outside of a few tribal units drawn from loyalist Tuareg and Arabs, Mali’s military (drawn largely from the nation’s southern population) finds itself severely outclassed when fighting in the unfamiliar terrain of northern Mali. Every Tuareg rebellion has seen a marked improvement in arms and tactics over the last and it was ironically only al-Qaeda’s intervention that prevented the utter defeat of the state military by encouraging foreign intervention. If this pattern continues, Bamako clearly cannot expect to survive another rebellion and continue to retain sovereignty over the north. This creates a certain urgency for the success of upcoming peace negotiations to be held in Algiers beginning August 17, a situation the armed opposition will attempt to use to its advantage.

MNLAImproved military training does not appear to provide an answer to this dilemma – indeed, it was American-trained troops that led the military coup in 2012 that overthrew Mali’s democratically elected government and then refused to fight in the north. Mali’s military remains badly divided and in dire need of reform before it can do more than pretend to be a stabilizing force in the north. Without an effective military presence, a Bamako-appointed civil administration will be reduced to giving suggestions rather than implementing policy. For now, however, the Tuareg and Arabs of the north do not trust the army, while the army does not trust its own tribal Tuareg and Arab militias. Until this situation changes, meaningful disarmament will be impossible and development initiatives unable to proceed regardless of what agreements might be made in Algiers.

The MNLA’s claim to represent northern Mali’s Arab, Songhai and Peul/Fulani communities is open to challenge. While individuals from these groups may belong to the MNLA, most members of these groups view Tuareg intentions with suspicion. Even though the Arab MAA sits side-by-side with the MNLA at the Algiers talks, recent clashes between the two groups in northern Mali suggest this unified front may not last long (Reuters, July 14; July 24). The Tuareg themselves are badly divided by class, clan and tribe, something reflected even within the senior ranks of the MNLA, with some leaders prepared to accept some form of autonomy, while others demand nothing less than complete independence (Inter-Press Service/Global Information Network, July 23; Xinhua, July 17).

MNLA 1France has complicated negotiations through its new redeployment of French military forces in Africa under the rubric Operation Barkhane, which establishes a series of French bases in sensitive areas of their former colonies in the Sahel (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 24). In Kidal, anger is growing in some quarters against the prolonged and now apparently permanent French military presence, while in the south, France is popularly perceived as a destabilizing element suspected of secretly backing Tuareg independence movements. The question is whether Bamako will now deal sincerely with the armed opposition in negotiations if it senses it now has French muscle behind it in the form of a permanent French counter-insurgency force. President Keita came to power on a platform of dealing firmly with the north but must obviously shift from the status quo without alienating his southern supporters.

While the inclusion of the three Islamist groups (Ansar al-Din, AQIM and MUJWA) in the talks could not be expected, they have increased their activity in northern Mali as talks get underway in order to remind all parties of their continued presence in the region. Again, this inhibits the creation and implementation of development projects, particularly if foreign nationals continue to be a target of the Islamists.

Bamako has laid out “red lines” it insists it will not cross with relation to Mali’s territorial integrity and republican system of government, but will have difficulty taking a firm stance given its weakened state and the defeat of its forces in Kidal in May (Echourouk al-Youmi [Algiers], July 19; All Africa, July 16). While it may be possible to persuade the opposition to settle for a robust form of autonomy, Bamako must be prepared to retain authority for little more than defense issues and foreign affairs. The northern opposition must, in turn, keep in mind that greater local authority will mean little without a budget. Mali is one of the poorest states on earth, and the more autonomy the north gains, the less likely it will be for Bamako to devote limited resources to its success. If development promises continue to be ignored as soon as the ink dries on yet another Malian peace agreement, then we are likely in for another round of phony disarmament campaigns, failed military integration and local discontent leading to rebellion.

This article first appeared in the August 7, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa

Andrew McGregor

July 24, 2014

With several military operations underway in the former colonies of French West Africa, Paris has decided to reorganize its deployments with an eye to providing a more mobile and coordinated military response to threats from terrorists, insurgents or other forces intent on disturbing the security of France’s African backyard.

France will redeploy most of its forces in Africa as part of the new Operation Barkhane (the name refers to a sickle-shaped sand dune). Following diplomatic agreements with Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania (the “Sahel G-5”), over 3,000 French troops will be involved in securing the Sahel-Sahara region in cooperative operations involving G-5 troops. Other assets to be deployed in the operation include 20 helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, 200 trucks, six fighter-jets, ten transport aircraft and three drones (Le Figaro [Paris], July 13).

Operation BarkhanePresident Hollande made a tour of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Chad between July 17 to 19 to discuss the new security arrangements with political leaders, but also to promote French trade in the face of growing Chinese competition (Economist, July 19). In Niger, Hollande was met by a group protesting French uranium mining operations in that country (AFP, July 18). In a speech given in Abidjan, French president François Hollande declared that the reorganization of French military assets in Africa would enable “quick and effective responses to crisis… Rather than having heavy and unwieldy crisis bases, we prefer to have facilities that can be used for fast and effective interventions” (Nouvel Observateur [Paris], July 19).

The official launch of Operation Barkhane will come in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena on August 1. The operation will be commanded by the highly-experienced Major General Jean-Pierre Palasset, who commanded the 27e Brigade d’Infanterie de Montagne (27th Mountain Infantry Battalion, 2003-2005) before leading Operation Licorne in Côte d’Ivoire (2010-2011) and serving as commander of the Brigade La Fayette, a joint unit comprising most of the French forces serving in Afghanistan (2011-2012).

The initiation of Operation Barkhane brings an end to four existing French operations in Africa; Licorne (Côte d’Ivoire, 2002-2014), Épervier (Chad, 1986-2014), Sabre (Burkina Faso, 2012-2014) and Serval (Mali, 2013-2014). Licorne is coming to an end (though 450 French troops will remain in Abidjan as part of a logistical base for French operations) while the other operations will be folded into Operation Barkhane. Operation Sangaris (Central African Republic, 2013 – present) is classified as a humanitarian rather than counter-terrorism mission and the deployment of some 2,000 French troops will continue until the arrival of a UN force in September (Bloomberg, July 21). Some 1200 French soldiers will remain in northern Mali (Guardian [Lagos], July 15). Existing French military deployments in Djibouti, Dakar (Senegal) and Libreville (Gabon) are expected to be scaled back significantly, a process already underway in Dakar (Jeune Afrique, July 19).

8 RPIMaSoldiers of the 8th Regiment of Marine Infantry Paratroopers (8e RPIMa), deployed in Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire

The force in Chad has been boosted from 950 to 1250 men. Chad will play an important role in Operation Barkhane – N’Djamena’s Kossei airbase will provide the overall command center, with two smaller bases in northern Chad at Faya Largeau and Abéché, both close to the Libyan border. Zouar, a town in the Tubu-dominate Tibesti Masif of northern Chad, has also been mentioned as a possibility (Jeune Afrique, July 19). Kossei will provide a home for three Rafale fighter-jets, Puma helicopters and a variety of transport and fuelling aircraft. Chadian troops fought side-by-side with French forces in northern Mali in 2013 and are regarded as the most effective combat partners for France in North Africa despite a recent mixed performance in the CAR. Four Chadian troops under UN command died in a June 11 suicide bombing in the northern Mali town of Aguelhok (AFP, June 11). Chadian opposition and human rights groups are dismayed by the new agreement, which appears to legitimize and even guarantee the continued rule of President Idriss Déby, who has held power since 1990 (RFI, July 19).

Intelligence operations will be headquartered in Niamey, the capital of Niger and home to French unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations in West Africa. There are currently about 300 French troops stationed in Niger, most of them involved in protecting, maintaining and operating two unarmed General Atomic MQ-9 Reaper drones and an older Israeli-built Harfang drone (Bloomberg, July 21). The French-operated Harfang drones are being gradually phased out in favor of the MQ-9s, though the Harfangs saw extensive service during French operations in northern Mali in 2013. Three Mirage 2000 fighter-jets will be transferred from N’Djamena to Niamey. A French Navy Dassault Atlantique 2 surveillance aircraft has been withdrawn from Niamey with the conclusion of Operation Serval.

Small groups of French Special Forces will continue to be based in Ougadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, and at Atar, a small settlement in northwestern Mauritania. Other small bases are planned for Tessalit in Mali, which controls the road running between the rebellious Kidal region and southern Algeria, and in Madama in Niger, a strategic post near the Malian border that was the site of a French colonial fort. There are reports that French troops have already occupied the nearby Salvador Pass, an important smuggling route between Niger and Libya that appears to have acted as a main transit route for terrorists passing through the region (Libération [Paris], July 16).

French forces in the Sahel-Sahara region will continue to be targeted by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Murabitun group, which claimed responsibility for the death of one Legionnaire and the wounding of six others in a suicide bomb attack in northern Mali on July 15 (al-Akhbar [Nouackchott], July 16; RFI, July 17). Much of the ground element for Operation Barkhane is likely to be drawn from the French Légion étrangère and the Troupes de marine, the successor to the French Colonial Infantry.

The implementation of Operation Barkhane, an apparently permanent defense agreement with five former French colonies, raises a number of important questions, not least of which is what attitude will be adopted by Algeria, the most powerful nation in the Sahara-Sahel region but one that views all French military activities there with great suspicion based on Algeria’s 132-year experience of French occupation. There is also a question of whether the new defense agreements will permit French forces in hot pursuit of terrorists to cross national borders of G-5 nations without obtaining permission first. The permanent deployments also seem to present a challenge to local democracy and sovereignty while preserving French commercial and political interests in the region. For France, Operation Barkhane will enhance French ability to fend off Chinese commercial and trade challenges and allow France to secure its energy supplies while disrupting terrorist networks and containing the threat from southern Libya.

This article first appeared in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

A Divided Military Fuels Mali’s Political Crisis

Andrew McGregor

June 13, 2014

Both short and long-term prospects for renewed stability in Mali’s restive northern region took a heavy blow with the May collapse of the Forces Armées du Mali (FAMA) in the face of Tuareg and Arab resistance in the northeastern Kidal region. The collapse reflected long-standing divisions and rivalries within the Malian Army that have gone unresolved despite new efforts at equipping and training the Malian military.

While the international community has pledged over $4 billion in funds intended for reconstruction, patience is beginning to run out with the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who appears to have wasted little time in re-introducing various ills of the previous government, including nepotism, poor governance practices and a lack of fiscal accountability most visibly manifested in the unnecessary purchase of a $40 million Boeing 737 jet for presidential use that has endangered Mali’s eligibility for foreign aid. Funds targeted for military reconstruction have produced new uniforms and a new logo for the army, but little else (Guardian, May 18).

Colonel Didier Dacko

When a small group of Islamist insurgents attacked the city of Gao shortly after its January 2013 liberation by French forces, a much stronger Malian force made an unsuccessful appeal to French forces to intervene. Malian operations chief Colonel Didier Dacko did not find the French refusal surprising: “I do not blame [the French] for not coming immediately. It was the first time that the two armies were facing a common enemy, with no real coordination,” adding that “Our army is the exact image of our country. The coup has accelerated its decay “(L’Indépendant [Bamako], February 19, 2013).

Miscalculation in Kidal

The trouble in Kidal began with a poorly considered visit to the region by Prime Minister Moussa Mara on May 17, intended as a demonstration of Bamako’s sovereignty over the region. Mara insisted on visiting Kidal despite several days of violent protests and runway occupations designed to prevent his plane from landing. Mara eventually arrived at the military base by helicopter, but violence erupted with Tuareg and Arab rebel factions seizing the government house, abducting civil servants as hostages and slaughtering some eight government officials. A Malian military offensive was launched on May 21 to retake Kidal, but faltered in the face of heavy opposition from the Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA – largely Ifoghas Tuareg), the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – largely Idnan and Taghat Mellit Tuareg) and the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA).

Once fighting broke out, Malian troops, many of them recent graduates of EU military training, quickly broke and abandoned their positions across northeastern Mali to take refuge in United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) camps or to flee south or north on the road to Algeria. With Malian forces on the run in most regions of northeastern Mali, MNLA forces easily occupied the towns of Anefis, Aguelhok, Tessalit, Menaka, Ansongo, Anderamboukane and Lere, seizing weapons and vehicles abandoned by the Malian troops without a shot being fired in many cases (Reuters, May 22). Without French intervention, the MNLA and its allies might have easily retaken all of northern Mali.

Malian authorities maintain that the forces opposing them in Kidal were far larger than originally estimated (2,000 as opposed to 700) and were reinforced by elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the allied Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA), an unlikely combination in the current political circumstances of northern Mali (Mali Demain [Bamako], June 5; L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 5).

The question of who actually ordered the disastrous offensive on Kidal remains unanswered (the president denies it was his decision), though the resignation of former Minister of Defense and Veterans Affairs and former intelligence chief Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga appears to have served to satisfy the demand for a scapegoat (Le Débat [Bamako], June 9). The new Defense Minister is Ba N’Dao, a retired colonel in the Malian air force.

Regardless of who ordered the attack on Kidal, the actual assault was directed by operational commander Brigadier Didier Dacko and led by Brigadier Ag Gamou, who was later accused by French sources of “pouring oil on the fire” (L’Opinion [Paris], June 10). Ag Gamou and his Imghad Tuareg militia have been engaged in a lengthy and bitter struggle with the Ifoghas Tuareg elites in Kidal, making Ag Gamou a provocative choice to lead the assault on Kidal. Leading a column of loyalist Tuareg, Red Berets and elements of three battalions of EU-trained Green Berets equipped with light armor, artillery and BM-21 Katyusha rocket launchers, Ag Gamou’s force appears to have encountered a superior force of rebels from the MNLA, HCUA and MAA. The Malian offensive quickly collapsed with the loss of as many as 50 soldiers, including Ag Gamou’s right-hand man, Colonel Ag Kiba. No attempt at intervention was made by the 1200 MINUSMA police and troops from Guinea, Chad and Senegal stationed in Kidal’s Camp 2. France eventually responded to the violence by sending an additional 100 troops from Abidjan to Gao, bringing the French deployment up to 1,700 soldiers (Reuters, May 21).

Return of the Red Berets?

Much of the weakness of the Malian Army is based on distrust between different factions that predates the January 2012 Tuareg/Islamist rising in northern Mali, but which was exacerbated by the March 22, 2012 military coup led by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo and the “Green Beret” faction of the Malian army. The coup was opposed by the 33rd Parachute Brigade“Red Beret” airborne units that also formed the presidential guard of Amadou Toumani Touré, himself a former Red Beret. Though unable to prevent the coup, the Red Berets succeeded in spiriting the president to safety before mounting an unsuccessful counter-coup in late April, 2012 (see Terrorism Monitor, February 22, 2013). The failed counter-coup was followed by the brutal torture and murder of roughly 30 captured Red Berets, who subsequently disappeared into mass graves near the Kati military base outside of Bamako that served as Sanogo’s headquarters. 33rd Brigade commander Colonel Abidine Guindo was arrested in July, 2012 for his role in the counter-coup and detained for 16 months. The two factions clashed again on February 8, 2013 (Le Flambeau [Bamako], February 13, 2013).

A reconciliation was effected between the two factions in June, 2013 that allowed the Red Berets to return to active service in northern Mali, with Sanogo describing the fatal conflict within the military as a series of “misunderstandings and differences of view” (Le Progrès [Bamako], June 29, 2013). However, after having failed in his attempt to position himself as a senior statesman in democratic Mali following the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta in September 2013, Sanogo and twenty of his relatives were charged with “kidnapping, abduction and murder” in connection with the murders of the Red Berets (AFP/MaliActu, June 6). Also charged were former defense minister General Yamoussa Camara, former state security director General Sidi Touré and two of Sanogo’s aides, Captain Amadou Konaré and Lieutenant Tahirou Mariko (L’Aube [Bamako], March 27). Responsibility for guarding the president was eventually passed on to Mali’s Garde Nationale.

It was not only Red Berets who suffered under Sanogo’s command, however, as demonstrated by a September, 2013 mutiny at the Kati military base by soldiers of Sanogo’s Green Beret faction angry at the cancellation of promised promotions (L’Aube [Bamako], March 27). The disturbance was ended by the intervention of Malian Special Forces under Lieutenant Colonel Elisha Daou, which arrested some 30 mutineers. The bodies of five of these soldiers, still in uniform but bound with rope and irons, were found in two bizarre graves alongside the heads of five crocodiles (L’Indépendant [Bamako], February 25). Many other victims of Sanogo’s manhunt for mutineers remain missing.

On June 6, Malian authorities revealed they had disrupted a new military plot against the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta allegedly led by members of the Red Berets. Some officials denied the plot was actually a coup and those detained were officially charged with intending to “destabilize the institutions of the Republic and endangering the security of the State” (22 Septembre [Bamako], June 9).

Lieutenant Muhammad Ouattara    (Jeune Afrique)

Among those arrested were the alleged ring-leader, Lieutenant Muhammad Ouattara, and ten non-commissioned officers, though there were reports authorities believed the plot was sponsored by “some senior military officers” (L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 6; Reuters, June 6). Otherwise, details of the plot remain scarce, and there is wide skepticism in Bamoko over the reality of the alleged coup. Ouattara previously spent 8 months in detention following the Red Beret’s unsuccessful counter-coup in April 2012 and was sent north to the Gao region after his release (L’Aube [Bamako], June 9).

Al-Hajj ag Gamou and the Pro-Bamako Tuareg Militia

Brigadier Ag Gamou, the leader of the failed assault on Kidal,  is one of Mali’s most experienced and controversial officers. After joining the Libyan Army at age 16, the future militia leader saw service in Chad, Lebanon and Syria before returning to Mali as a rebel leader in the 1990s before his integration into the Malian Army. Ag Gamou was decorated for his service as an ECOWAS peacekeeper in Sierra Leone before being posted to northern Mali, where he cooperated with Arab militia commander Muhammad Ould Abd al-Rahman Meydou in driving Tuareg rebels under the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga from northern Mali in 2009. Promoted Brigadier in September, 2013, Meydou is a Tilemsi Arab and highly capable desert fighter whose command is composed mostly of Bérabiche Arabs from the Timbuktu region (L’Indépendant [Bamako], September 13).

Finding himself isolated in the Gao region by the 2012 Islamist occupation of northern Mali, Ag Gamou rescued his men by declaring his allegiance to the Islamists before moving them through Islamist lines to the Niger border, which he then crossed with his troops while declaring his change of loyalties was only a subterfuge. While in Niamey, Ag Gamou survived an assassination attempt intended as payback for his trickery. When Chadian and Nigerien forces moved north to join the French-led Operation Serval, Ag Gamou’s troops joined them and played an important role in hunting down Islamists in the rough terrain of the Adrar des Ifoghas.

Despite these successes, Gamou found himself recalled to Bamako in March 2013 after arresting three MNLA rebels in Kidal who were cooperating with French forces involved in Operation Serval. According to sources within the military, Ag Gamou continued to operate independently and without regard for the chain of command, a habit developed during his time under former Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré, who gave the Tuareg militia leader a largely free hand to carry out operations in northern Mali as he saw fit (Procès Verbal [Bamako], April 3, 2013). While in Bamako, elements of MUJWA attacked a home belonging to Ag Gamou’s relatives, killing two (including a four-year-old girl) and severely injuring the child’s mother. Despite his controversial status, Ag Gamou was promoted to Brigadier General on September 18, 2013, a move received with popular acclaim in the Gao region (Le Débat [Bamako], January 3).

In February, a group of Fulani tribesmen attacked Gamou’s home village of Tamkoutat in the latest stage of an ethnic conflict between local Tuareg and Fulani herders. Gamou saw a political motive in the attacks: “They put pressure on me by attacking my family because they accuse us of having acted for various military forces to return the Malian government in the north. They used the same procedure as [the January 2012 MNLA/Ansar al-Din massacre of Malian troops at] Aguel-hoc, tying their victims hands behind their back and slaughtering them one by one” (Nouvelle Libération [Bamako], February 13).

Recently, representatives of the MAA and the Coordination malienne des Forces patriotiques de résistance (CMFPR – largely Songhai and Fulani “loyalist” self-defense militias such as Ganda Koy and Ganda Iso) involved in peace talks in Ouagadougou proposed Ag Gamou as the new Malian chief-of-staff to replace General Mahamane Touré, who resigned following the Kidal affair, suggesting that Ag Gamou was the individual most capable of uniting the badly divided military (L’Indépendant [Bamako], June 4).


The Kidal incident has revived popular anger at the French and the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, with both being accused of working in favor of Tuareg separatists. This perception is a natural development stemming from French cooperation with the MNLA during the Spring 2013 Operation Serval campaign against armed Islamists in northern Mali and subsequent French attempts to slow the reintroduction of central government authority in the Kidal region before a general peace treaty is agreed upon. In the meantime, the Keïta government has announced it will expand its underfunded and underequipped military by introducing mandatory national service for men and women aged 18 to 35 earlier this month (Reuters, June 5). Military training will last for a period of six months, though it was not clear whether this measure would be applied in northern Mali, where it would likely be a non-starter with both Tuareg and Arab groups. There is a sense that Keïta’s new measure is at least in part a response to student protests in Bamako.

President Keïta has lost the confidence of the international community – the IMF, World Bank and EU have frozen aid and development programs in the face of unanswered accountability questions.  Within Mali, the president has lost credibility and must now enter negotiations with rebels in Ouagadougou in a position of weakness. While there are serious questions regarding the reality of Ouattara’s Red Beret coup attempt, the conditions nevertheless exist in Mali that would encourage another military coup – corruption, military collapse, plummeting morale, internal challenges to sovereignty, international isolation, ineffective governance and loss of confidence.

This article was first published in the June 13, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Coalition of the People of Azawad: New Rebel Movement Declared in Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2014

On March 18, a statement issued from the “military base of Hassi Labiad” in the name of the political and military cadres of the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), notables and the religious and traditional leaders of Azawad (i.e. northern Mali) proclaimed the establishment of the Coalition du Peuple pour l’Azawad (CPA). [1] The self-described “politico-military” organization claims a strength of “nearly 8,000 veteran fighters” and pledges the group’s commitment to negotiations with the Malian government and “the fight against terrorism in the Azawad and transnational crime.” Ag Assaleh was one of four Turareg rebels to have Bamako lift a warrant for his arrest in October, 2013 in the interests of furthering national reconciliation (Jeune Afrique/AFP, October 29, 2013).

Ibrahim ag Muhammad Assaleh

The new movement is led by its chairman, Ibrahim ag Muhammad Assaleh, the former external affairs representative of the MNLA, and a bureau of 32 members, overwhelmingly consisting of Tuareg leaders despite the movement’s claims to represent a broad spectrum of individuals from the Tuareg, Arab, Fulani and Songhai communities of northern Mali. CPA leader Ag Assaleh has made reference to fighters joining the CPA from the “tribes of Ansongo Cercle,” likely a suggestion the movement was being joined by Songhai fighters from that region, which straddles the Niger River south of Gao (, March 20). However, one of the individuals named as an executive member of the CPA, Baye ag Diknane (a founding member of the MNLA), issued an open letter expressing his surprise at being named a top official of the CPA while reaffirming his commitment to the MNLA (, March 25).

Ag Assaleh was not present at the proclamation in Hassi Labiad, a village 350 kilometers northwest of Timbuktu, as he was in Niamey for talks with various representatives from northern Mali. The announcement was presided over by the CPA’s external relations official, Muhammad Ousmane ag Mohamedoun, in front of 700 attendees, including the Defense Attaché of the Algerian Embassy in Burkina Faso and the first adviser of the Algerian ambassador to Burkina Faso (Le Quotidien [Bamako], March 23). Ag Assaleh maintained that the event was also attended by representatives of the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA) and the largely Tuareg Haut Conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) as well as various representatives of the Songhai and Peul/Fulani peoples (Jeune Afrique, March 19;, March 19).

The CPA has divided northern Mali (or Azawad) into four military zones, with a commander appointed for each. Tahha ag Alfaki is responsible for military affairs in the western zone, Assaleh ag Muhammad Rabah (a former MNLA negotiator in the Ouagadougou peace talks) is responsible for the southern zone, Mossa ag Ahmedou (former MNLA communications director) is responsible for the eastern zone and Issouf ag Erfal is responsible for the northern zone.

Negotiations appeared promising last summer, when the Tuareg rebels signed the Ouagadougou agreement with Malian authorities on June 18 to allow the July general elections to proceed. However, after the elections, Bamako lost interest in meeting other provisions of the agreement, leading the rebels to suspend negotiations with the government on September 26, 2013 (AFP, October 6, 2013). Insisting that direct negotiations with Bamako are impossible, Ag Assaleh says he has sent requests to the government requesting new talks through mediators from Algeria, Burkina Faso and the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA), the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Mali (Reuters, March 25).