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June 01, 2012

Deal Between Mali Tuaregs, Islamists Breaks Apart

by Nancy Palus

Only days after Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters announced an alliance for a new Islamic state in northern Mali, the Tuareg rebels have backed away from the deal.  An analyst says this latest move points to a dilemma the Tuaregs have faced since the start of this latest rebellion - how to handle their relationship with Islamists that fought alongside them.

Malian rebel group the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, has said it is pulling out of a short-lived alliance with Islamist militant group Ansar Dine.

The groups signed an accord May 26 to create the Islamic republic of Azawad.  But the alliance immediately showed signs of strain.

In the chaotic days following Mali’s coup d’état in March, the groups seized control of northern Mali, but to very different professed ends.  Ansar Dine wanted to impose a strict interpretation of Islamic law throughout the country.  The MNLA wanted an independent secular state of Azawad.

The MNLA was quick to distance itself from the ideology of Ansar Dine, which is widely seen as allied with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.  The Tuareg rebels wanted to bolster their legitimacy by portraying themselves as a partner with Western countries in the fight against terrorism.

Yvan Guichaoua, a lecturer at University of East Anglia in Britain, says during the military phase of the rebellion, the political relationship between the two groups remained completely unclear.

"It’s a chaotic process on the part of the armed groups in the north," said Guichaoua. "AQIM is behind one of the two groups, which makes things even more complicated.  But what’s happening right now is sort of a natural result of the absence of a clear political line at the very start of the rebellion.”

Guichaoua, who recently spent time researching Tuareg separatist groups in Mali and Niger, says the timing of a deal between the MNLA and Ansar Dine stemmed in part from the lack of an international reaction to the MNLA’s anti-terrorism stance.  It also stems from existing divisions within the MNLA.

He points out that the MNLA’s political wing has backed away from the recent accord.  This is typical of any non-state armed group, he says - a divergence between its political and military wings.

Guichaoua says MNLA’s political wing understands that a deal with Ansar Dine is basically seen by outsiders as a deal with AQIM, and that this is not in the rebels' best interests.  Not only is AQIM terrorist, he says; it is also a foreign force, and this runs counter to the MNLA's cause of a Tuareg homeland.

Amid the wrangling between armed groups in the north, Malians and the international community reject an independent Azawad altogether and insist Mali must regain control of the north.  Right now, however, there is no clear plan for doing so.

Guichaoua says the alliance announced between the MNLA and Ansar Dine would have been a green light for those calling for a robust military intervention to drive both armed groups out of northern Mali.  Even if there is no immediate plan for armed intervention, talk of alliances between the two groups could make that more likely.

“Clearly if the deal between the two groups is confirmed and consolidated, that leads to further isolation of Azawad," he said. "That will force the international community also to maybe accelerate the process leading to a military intervention.  It will be hard for the international community to try to start negotiating with groups which are in a clear joint venture with AQIM.”

Regional leaders and Malians say they continue to hope for a diplomatic solution in the north, but a harder line by the armed groups there could make that an increasingly remote option.