06 September, 2012

Independent Azawad No More: Northern Mali in Islamist Hands

Since declaring the independence of Azawad in April, control by northern Mali's MNLA rebels has been usurped by the hardline Islamists of Ansar Dine and MUJAO. The new regime, while still bitter enemies of the Malian government, does not claim independence. Presented here is a map and brief guide explaining the current situation.

Map of Islamist rebel control in northern Mali as of September 2012
Area held by Islamist rebel groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA in northern Mali. Map by Evan Centanni, modified from Wikimedia map by Orionist, using images by Carport and NordNordWest (source). License: CC BY-SA.
Separatists vs. Islamists
Last April, the Tuareg-dominated separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) swept into victory in northern Mali, completing their control of the region and declaring independence as the State of Azawad. But their victory was won only with the support of Ansar Dine, an Islamist militia led by veteran Tuareg fighter Iyad Ag Ghaly. The MNLA and Ansar Dine then alternated between cooperation and conflict for months, with the Islamists grabbing ever more control of the region's cities.

Tensions came to a head on June 26, when a second Islamist group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), violently expelled the MNLA from their capital city of Gao. By month's end, Ansar Dine had fully pushed the MNLA out of key city Timbuktu, and two weeks later the separatists were driven from their last stronghold in the town of Ansongo. Then just this weekend, MUJWA again made news by seizing the town of Douentza from a formerly cooperative local militia.

Flag of Mali Country Name:  
• Mali (English, French, Bambara)
Official Name:  
• Republic of Mali (English)
• République du Mali (French) 
• Mali ka Fasojamana (Bambara)
Capital: Bamako
Though northern Mali is still not controlled by the national government in Bamako, the Islamist militias do not seek independence. Instead, they pursue a vision of strict sharia law throughout Mali. Since these new rulers no longer consider Azawad a sovereign nation, its claim to independence has faded away.

Current Rebel Control
Ansar Dine and MUJWA together appear to hold all of the territory originally seized by the MNLA, with the line of control lying between the towns of Douentza and Sévaré. Bandiagara in the nearby Dogon region may have an army presence, but other towns such as Koro do not, and have seen rebel raids.

Administration is divided between the two Islamist militias, with Ansar Dine apparently controlling regional capitals Timbuktu and Kidal, and MUJWA controlling at least Gao (also a regional capital) and Douentza. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a branch of the terrorist group, also maintains a strong presence in northern Mali. MUJWA is historically associated with AQIM, though Ansar Dine's relationship to the organization is more tenuous.

Special thanks to Peter Tinti (@petertinti), who has provided invaluable commentary throughout the Mali conflict, and has repeatedly pointed me in the right direction in my research.

Note on Names:  
The acronym "MNLA" is based on the French, and is sometimes rendered "NMLA" to match the English. 
MUJWA is also known as "MOJWA" (from an alternate translation) or "MOJAO" (from the French). 
Ansar Dine is pronounced "an-SAR (uhd)-DEEN" and sometimes spelled "Ansar Eddine" or "Ansar ud-Dine". 
AQIM is also known by its French acronym "AQMI"; its Arabic actually means "Al Qaeda in the Islamic West".

Graphic of Malian flag is in the public domain (source).