a) What will be the future of the Tuareg political movement?
b) What should be the role of regional powers (notably Algeria) in the long-term settlement of the conflict?
In April, 2012 Islamic groups temporarily allied with rebels from the Tuareg-dominated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), led a broad based offensive against the Malian army. The occupying groups had free and unrivalled access to the region, until the French army with the support of soldiers from Mali, Niger and Chad, was able to regain control of the main strategic cities in January 2013. The French army and its regional allies remain in hot pursuit of the Islamist insurgents, in the Adrar des Ifoghas, a mountainous area of Mali.
Despite its apparent success, the French-backed military operation does not address the root cause of the conflict, which lies in the the marginalization of the northern populations. The situation is even more complicated today than it was for the governments that have faced previous northern rebellions in Mali, because this conflict involves Tuareg rebels in Islamist movements. Northerners who have not participated in the conflict are now convinced that the Tuareg and Arabs should be held accountable for having allied with the Islamists. Reprisals against the Tuareg and Arab populations are already taking place and could multiply if other ethnic groups feel that the Tuareg are not held accountable for their past alliances to secure the independence of Azawad, the state that was originally claimed by MNLA.
The process of national reconciliation is also hindered by the fact that most of the usual brokers who were key negotiators during previous crises are now being accused of playing both sides in this conflict. One shining example of the instability and fragile nature of social relations in the region is Iyad Ag Ghaly. He was a fighter in the Islamic Legion of Muammar Gaddafi; a rebel in the 1990-1996 Tuareg rebellion; a negotiator in the release of European hostages; a consular councilor in Saudi Arabia; before trying to take the lead of the MNLA and finally founding the Islamist group Ansar al-Dine.
Beyond the national sphere, Algeria remains a key constituent and its position will be crucial to the outcome of this crisis. By withdrawing to the Adrar des Ifoghas, the Islamist insurgents (who are said to have links with Al Qaeda) are now critically close to Algeria, from where they were successfully expelled in the early 2000s. Ten years later, the Algerian strategy of containment seems to have reached its limit. Expelling radical groups to Mali has not only led to a massive intervention by the former colonial power (France), it has also had disastrous consequences at the national level as evidenced by the attack of the gas complex of In Amenas in January 2013. Algeria can not establish itself as an oasis from terrorist insurgency, by threatening the stability of the entire region. Further efforts to strengthen cooperation in the region are needed if Saharan and Sahelian states want to address the cross-border development of terrorism in the region.
Dr. Olivier Walther is an ASA member, and Visiting Scholar at the Center for African Studies at Rutgers University