The Hunt for Mali’s Missing Islamists: Have Tuareg Rebels Returned to Darfur?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report – February 13, 2013

A century after West African Tuareg rebels fled from French forces to Darfur, various reports suggest that the Tuareg Ansar al-Din Islamists of northern Mali have again fled a French military offensive to take refuge in Sudan’s western province.

Jabal MarraJabal Marra (Kylie de Castro)

Numerous but unconfirmed reports are filtering out of Sudan’s western province of Darfur regarding the sudden arrival in the mountainous region of Jabal Marra of hundreds of Islamists escaping the French and Chadian offensive in northern Mali. Most of the armed men are said to be from the largely Tuareg, partly Arab Ansar al-Din movement led by veteran Tuareg rebel Iyad ag Ghali (a.k.a. Abu al-Fadl). If an Ansar al-Din convoy managed to escape to Darfur, it would most likely have followed a route taking it along the desert track in northern Niger and through poorly secured southern Libya before dropping down into northern Darfur via the road running south from Kufra Oasis. For the rebels, it would be important to avoid the territory of Chad, France’s main military partner in the intervention.

Sudan Liberation Movement-AW leader Abd al-Wahid al-Nur announced on February 8 that Islamists from northern Mali had arrived “to make our stronghold, Jabal Marra, as their base.” Al-Nur put their numbers in “the hundreds” and said they stood out locally by virtue of their dress, language and skin color (AFP, February 8).

One source provided a detailed deployment of the Islamists, who are alleged to have arrived in North Darfur in approximately 200 Land Cruisers since the start of February. Since then, the Islamists are reported to have set up three camps near Kutum; one  near the IDP camp at Kassab, one at Jabal Mari, seven or eight kilometers north-east of Kutum and one at Sijana, ten kilometers north of Kutum. The Islamists, who are reported to speak French and use Central African francs and U.S. dollars to buy provisions in the Kutum market, have covered their weapons and vehicles with large green tarps to conceal their position (Radio Dabanga, February 11).

The reports were apparently confirmed by Abul Gasim Imam, spokesman for the rebel umbrella group, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, who reported the presence of Islamist militants at Mulagat, some 15 kilometers north-east of Kutum. SLM-MM leader Minni Minawi claimed that Khartoum was working with the new Libyan government to establish Ansar al-Din in the Sudan-Libya border region in north Darfur (homeland of Minawi’s Zaghawa tribe) (Sudan Tribune, February 6).

Yet another confirmation came from Gibreel Adam, a spokesman for Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the most powerful of Darfur’s rebel groups. According to Adam, the fighters had entered Darfur in armored Land Cruisers through the lawless rural bushlands of the Central African Republic (CAR) (New Vision [Khartoum}, February 9). The route through the CAR would require passing through Niger, the Borno region of Nigeria and northern Cameroon if Chad is to be avoided on the way to the CAR. It seems unlikely that the heightened Nigerian security presence in Borno during the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency would miss hundreds of armored battle-wagons topped up with Tuareg and Arab fighters. There remains the possibility, however, that some kind of deal could be cut in crossing these borders by convoys with enough cash.

Another senior JEM leader, Tahir al-Faki, noted that JEM fighters had spotted the Islamists in the Um Sidr and Kutum areas, but added that JEM operatives who watch desert traffic near Jabal al-Uwaynat on the route from Libya’s Kufra Oasis to Darfur had not seen any unusual movement towards Darfur in recent days, leading al-Faki to describe reports that the Islamists may have used this route to enter Darfur as “not accurate.” Al-Faki speculated that Khartoum might demand a reward for extraditing the Islamists to Western countries, but might also “plan to use them to control areas of Golo and Kutum and force the indigenous population to leave their land in Jabal Marra” (Sudan Tribune, February 12).

Hama ag Sid Ahmed 2Hama ag Sid Ahmad

When asked earlier this week to speculate on the location of the missing Islamists, Hama ag Sid Ahmad, spokesman of the largely Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), did not mention Darfur as a possibility: “Some think they are between the Niger-Mali, Algeria-Mali and, finally, the Mauritania-Mali borders. Others have left heading toward Libya. A goodly portion of the groups is still present in Gao, Timbuktu and Tessalit” (Le Temps d’Algérie, February 12). Despite Bamako’s objections, the separatist MNLA is working together with French and Chadian troops in the hunt for Islamist rebels in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

Jabal Marra is not exactly a haven of peace these days. Rebels belonging to the Sudanese Liberation Movement – Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW, drawn largely from the indigenous Fur tribe and named for movement leader Abd al-Wahid al-Nur) claim to have scored recent successes in a campaign that began in western Jabal Marra in late December. Jabal Marra is the ancestral homeland of the Fur and the center of a Fur dynasty that ruled the region for two and a half centuries until it was overthrown by the British-led Egyptian Army in 1916. After a two-day battle last week, the rebels claimed to have taken the town of Golo and a nearby military base in Derbat, a serious reversal for Khartoum’s military (AFP, February 5; Radio Dabanga, February 7). The SLM-AW claims to have killed eleven Malians fighting alongside Sudanese troops in the battle for Derbat and to have captured one Islamist militant from Mali, a badly wounded individual named Abu Ala al-Issawi (Radio Dabanga, February 8). Fighting also continues in eastern Jabal Marra, where villages have come under aerial bombing from the Sudanese air force combined with attacks by pro-government militias operating out of al-Fashir (Radio Dabanga, February 6).

The Qatari Connection?

One of the most bizarre explanations for the disappearance of northern Mali’s Islamist commanders came in a report carried by an Algerian daily that described two Qatari planes landing in northern Mali to carry the jihadists away to safety. The account did not provide any details regarding the source of this information (Le Temps d’Algérie, February 5).

There is growing speculation in France that Qatar has provided covert support to the Islamists in northern Mali (particularly Ansar al-Din), but so far there is little evidence to support such allegations (France24, January 21; Le Canard Enchaine, June 6, 2012). Support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates would not seem to be in the interests of Qatar, which depends entirely upon the United States and other Western nations for its defense. Qatar nevertheless supports the international spread of Salafism and was the only foreign nation to provide humanitarian assistance to northern Mali during the Islamist occupation. Qatar vigorously opposed the French military intervention, calling for a process of dialogue instead.

Attempts to Secure Darfur’s Borders

Libya and Sudan agreed on February 2 to both move troops up to their mutual border to control movement along the “Libyan Road” that leads south from Kufra, past Jabal al-Uwaynat and into Darfur. The Kufra region was designated a military zone and the border with Sudan closed on December 15, 2012. [1] Libyan warplanes are monitoring the Kufra region from the border with Chad to Jabal al-Uwaynat and Jabal al-Malik near the border with Egypt and have already struck a smugglers’ camp in the region (Libyan News Agency, December 19, 2012). Even given the Libyans’ limited military capacity, it is hard to imagine a large number of armed vehicles passing through this region unobserved and unchallenged, especially by the Tubu militias operating in the area. Avoiding the customary route through the Kufra-Darfur border would require local guides and a challenging drive through trackless wastes.

Chad and Sudan have operated joint border patrols to restore security along the traditionally volatile border with Darfur since agreeing to end a long-standing proxy war in the region in 2010. Prior to that agreement, the Zaghawa political elite in Chad were major backers of the largely-Zaghawa leadership of Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). This relationship appears to have deteriorated greatly since N’Djamena withdrew its support for the rebels after the 2010 rapprochement with Khartoum, with JEM claiming to have repulsed an attack on their fighters in late January by Chadian forces near Um Dukhun in South Darfur (Sudan Tribune, January 31). JEM’s account of a major clash with Chadian troops was refuted by a Sudanese Army spokesman. (The Citizen [Khartoum], February 7).

Reasons to Question Ansar al-Din’s Presence in Darfur

Despite the multiple accounts seeming to confirm the arrival of Ansar al-Din in Darfur, there are still several reasons to remain wary. Most of the accounts originate with rebel groups who would be happy to embarrass the Khartoum government by suggesting some type of collusion between the Islamist/military regime and al-Qaeda associated jihadists. The way to Darfur from northern Mali is extremely long and difficult, roughly 2,000 miles through some of the most forbidding terrain on Earth.  Getting all the way to Jabal Marra would mean passing by more inviting refuges in southern Libya, where government control barely exists.  Many Ansar al-Din are familiar with southern Libya through their military service in Qaddafi’s armies; Darfur, however, is terra incognito, a land where language and appearance would quickly mark the fugitives and prevent them from melting into the local population. Jabal Marra is a highly militarized zone where operations are carried out regularly by the Sudanese Army and a variety of rebel groups pursuing the decade-old insurgency against Khartoum. Confrontations with other armed groups would be inevitable unless a number of deals could be quickly worked out. Khartoum would also appear to have little to gain by granting the Islamists refuge on Sudanese territory, a necessity if the Islamists intended an extended stay in Darfur. Khartoum has invited West African Arabs to migrate to Darfur in the past with the intention of displacing the indigenous non-Arab population, but none of these arrived with the kind of international heat that will follow Ansar al-Din and other Islamists escaping northern Mali. If Ansar al-Din elements have actually succeeded in making it to Darfur, they may find it more difficult to get out than to get in.

Tuareg Rebels in Kutum: Not for the First Time

The movement of Tuareg rebels from West Africa to Darfur, if independently confirmed, would oddly parallel a similar flight of Tuareg rebels from French troops to Darfur a century ago. Having taken the worst of it in several engagements with French colonial troops in what is now Mali, Niger and southern Algeria, a large number of Tuareg warriors moved east to the Fezzan (southern Libya) and the Ennedi region of modern Chad, where they joined with the forces of the Sanusi confederacy, an emerging Islamic proto-state led by the Sanusi Sufis of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya). The Sanusis welcomed the Tuareg fighters, recognizing that their defeats at the hands of the French had come not from lack of fighting ability, but from a reliance on the now antiquated “white arms” – swords, spears, knives, etc. Retrained by the Sanusis in the use of firearms, the Tuareg acquitted themselves well in several battles with the French over Saharan wells and ancient forts, but ultimately were forced to give way before French artillery and the seemingly inexhaustible number of well-trained Malian and Senegalese tirailleurs (colonial riflemen) France could continue to throw at the Tuareg and their Sanusi allies.

By 1909 the surviving Tuareg were exhausted by war and began to move east to Darfur to seek the protection of its Sultan, Ali Dinar. Though Ali Dinar ruled independently, the British had made a claim of sovereignty over Darfur in 1899. This and the Sultan’s substantial army provided the roughly 10,000 Tuareg refugees some reassurance that they would not be pursued there by the relentless French colonial forces. Unfortunately, the Tuareg could not resist returning to the raiding lifestyle they had enjoyed before the intrusion of the French. An infuriated Sultan ordered the Tuareg expelled for “their deeds of wickedness and immorality,” but after protests from the Sanusi, Ali Dinar settled for disarming and despoiling the Tuareg. A number of Tuareg women were taken off to the royal harem and the Tuareg slaves were impressed into the Sultan’s own army. Most of the remaining Tuareg (known in Darfur as Kinin) were disarmed and resettled near the lead mines of Kutum in Jabal Marra, the same region cited in nearly all reports of a Tuareg Ansar al-Din presence of the last few days.  In 1913, the Sultan softened his position and allowed the Tuareg to resettle a half-a-day south of the capital of al-Fashir. While small units of Tuareg joined the Sultan’s army, most of the tribesmen did not, nor was any effort made to impress them, the Sultan being as wary of the Tuareg as they were of him.

When Ali Dinar decided to flee al-Fashir in the face of the approaching British-led Egyptian Army in 1916, he took with him his soldiers, slaves, concubines, relatives, retainers, eunuchs and most of the royal court – in other words, a good part of the town of al-Fashir. By the time the invaders entered the capital, the “Kinin” had already ridden in to begin the looting of the nearly deserted city. They were quickly joined by the Egyptian, Sudanese and British troops of the “Government Army.” In the following days, groups of veiled Kinin featured strongly in the photograph collection of most British officers armed with a camera.  A British intelligence report suggested that the Tuareg of Darfur “would be valuable allies since they are reputed good fighters and fearless.” [2] At home, however, the French defeat of the last great Tuareg revolt, the Kaoçen Rebellion of 1917, meant that a form of peace, if not freedom, now prevailed and the Tuareg began to drift home rather than ally themselves with the Anglo-Egyptian government of Sudan.


1. See Andrew McGregor, “Tribes and Terrorists: The Emerging Security Threat from Libya’s Lawless South,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013,[tt_news]=40367

2. National Records Office, Khartoum: NRO INTELL 5/3/38, H.A. MacMichael, “Notes on the Tribes of Darfur,” October-December, 1915.