Merger of Northern Mali Rebel Movements Creates Political Distance from Islamist Militants

Andrew McGregor

November 14, 2013

Proclaiming that the move was the only means of securing peace in northern Mali, the three largest rebel movements in the region announced their merger on November 4. The merger brings together the normally hostile members of one Arab militia, the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), and two Tuareg groups, the secular Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA), which contains many former members of the al-Qaeda-allied Islamist Ansar al-Din movement.  No name has been chosen for the new movement, which will be effective “within 45 days” after approval had been given by the membership of each group (Soir de Bamako, November 4; al-Jazeera, November 5; AFP, November 5). The rebel movements are looking to present a united front after withdrawing from peace talks with the central government on September 26. Reports of a forthcoming decision to merge, undertaken by delegations of the three groups based at the now-suspended peace talks in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, were given a hostile reception by groups of youths in Kidal (, November 1). 

French Chief-of-Staff Admiral Guillaud Reviews Malian Troops (RP Defense)

In Bamako, there are fears that jihadists are re-infiltrating the north to recover weapons caches buried beneath the sand, as well as concerns about what much of the Malian press regards as duplicity from Paris in dealing with the north – the locally so-called “Dutch policy” (in reference to French president François Hollande), under which Paris is accused of arranging a separate deal with the MNLA with only a symbolic presence in Kidal from the Malian national government (L’Annonceur [Bamako], November 7;, October 30; Les Échos [Bamako], November 6). During a recent visit to Mali, French Armed Forces chief-of-staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud expressed the ambivalence in France’s relationship with the MNLA rebels by saying that “France is neither pro, nor anti-MNLA.” Admiral Guillaud was reported to have discussed a defense agreement between the French and Malian militaries of a type unique to the former French colonies in Africa. Guillaud also promised to maintain French air support, Special Forces units in northern Mali and an operational headquarters at the Bamako-Senou International Airport (, October 17; L’Essor [Bamako], October 10).

The Arab MAA was formed in February 2012 (initially under the name Front de Libération Nationale de l’Azawad – FLNA) as a self-defense militia incorporating members of earlier Arab militias and Arab soldiers of the Malian Army who deserted after the fall of Timbuktu to Islamist groups last year (For clashes between the MNLA and MAA, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 3).

Despite the merger, the MNLA was accused of mounting a November 8 attack on a Malian military patrol in Egazargane, roughly 86 miles from the town of Menaka, though it is possible the clash was the result of a disagreement that followed a small collision between vehicle belonging to the army and the MNLA, respectively (, November 8; AFP, November 10).

Efforts to arrive at a settlement in northern Mali have been further complicated by the abduction and murder on November 2 of two French nationals working for Radio France Internationale, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon. Malian intelligence sources have said the kidnapping was the work of Baye Ag Bakabo, an ethnic Tuareg who was a low-level member of Abd al-Karim al-Targui’s unit of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) before he was expelled on suspicion of stealing money. In this regard, the kidnappings may have been a failed attempt to compensate al-Targui through significant ransoms for the two journalists and work his way back into the group, a scenario suggested by Bakabo’s relations in Kidal (Journal du Mali, November 9; AP, November 6). Al-Targui is a prime suspect in a number of high-profile abductions carried out in recent years in northern Mali. A statement issued by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the abductions and murders as “a response to crimes committed by France against Malians and the work of African and international forces against the Muslims of Azawad” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], November 6). There was speculation from military sources that Baye ag Bakabo had joined the MNLA in the interests of obscuring his past engagement with AQIM (, November 8). Many Tuareg have displayed a notable fluidity in their organizational allegiance.

The two French nationals were seized outside the home of an MNLA official in Kidal that they had planned to interview. The pursuit of the kidnappers started quickly and in force, with ground troops on the trail being assisted by two Rafale fighter-jets diverted from another operation in northern Mali and a pair of helicopters dispatched from the air-strip at Tessalit (Le Monde, November 8). Although the kidnappers escaped, the bodies of the two journalists were discovered, killed either through panic on the part of their abductors or on the orders of al-Targui as pursuers closed in.  Nine militants were reported to have been arrested in connection with the case on November 8 (Reuters, November 8).

MNLA vice-president Mahamadou Djeri Maiga said the movement had been “humiliated” by the abductions and were further concerned by the attitude of security authorities, who have declined offers of assistance from the MNLA in finding the perpetrators, though the movement is making its own enquiries: “We will share our results with those responsible for the case. We cannot sit idly by and do nothing” (AFP, November 4). The deaths of the journalists have been used in some quarters in Bamako to argue that the Tuareg movements are incapable of administering Kidal or Azawad as autonomous regions (Le Pays [Ouagadougou], November 6). A French government spokesman said on November 4 that France would “probably” increase its military presence in Mali in response to the slayings (, November 4).

Bamako has backed off from its prior insistence that all arrest warrants issued for leading Tuareg rebels be carried out prior to arriving at a settlement for the north. On October 29, the central government announced it was lifting arrest warrants issued for Ibrahim ag Muhammad Assaleh of the MNLA and Ahmada ag Bibi and brothers Muhammad and Alghabass ag Intallah of the HCUA, the latter pair being the sons of the powerful leader of the Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal, Intallah ag Attaher (for Alghabass ag Intallah, see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2013). The reason given was the measure was needed to “facilitate the pursuit of the process of national reconciliation” (AFP, October 29). Ag Bibi and the Intallah brothers are all candidates in the November 24 parliamentary elections.

A number of Malian and African human rights organizations have opposed lifting the arrest warrants, claiming they would promote a climate of impunity for individuals accused of serious crimes, such as war, crimes, murder, rebellion and terrorism. According to the leader of the Malian Association of Human Rights, a political solution to the Mali crisis “cannot be at the expense of the victims of the crisis or the independence of the judiciary” (L’Essor [Bamako], October 24).

Further talks with the rebel movements are scheduled to take place this month, but Bamako’s position has been consistent – it will not consider autonomy for the north under any circumstances.

This article was first published in the November 14, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.