After concluding weeks of tense political negotiations - at times conducted through the assertion of military and religious power - with an informal declaration of the Islamic State of Azawad, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine finalized their "protocol agreement" during Saturday's a high-profile ceremony in Gao.
In an emailed statement to the AFP, the two groups announced to the world that they "have created the transitional council of the Islamic state of Azawad." Nearly the entire international community rejects both group's claims to northern Mali, but they have so far avoided direct and potentially suicidal confrontation with each other. The MNLA had previously contested the formation of a strict Islamic state, while Ansar Dine's proxy alliance with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was preparing to oppose a secular Azawad before choosing a more patient strategy. The MNLA continues to soften its actions by clarifying, "The Koran will be a source of the laws of the state," a non-absolute stance that could prove intolerable to Ansar Dine's interpretation of Sharia. For now, though, the two groups insist, "We are all in favor of the independence of Azawad... we all accept Islam as the religion."
This loose alliance should stay relatively intact as long as the international community remains united against both networks.
Gao might have hosted another event of significance when Ansar Dine members allegedly unearthed the government's emergency arms stockpile. According to a Mali security official, the "impressive" cache will "really boost AQIM's striking power" and equip the network beyond "the combined armies of Mali and Burkina Faso." Such information is conducive to conspiracy theory; AQIM has been questioned by locals and regional observers, who attribute its control to Algeria's security apparatus, and the Mali official speaks as though Ansar Dine is AQIM. The existence of a massive arms cache thus begins to sound like justification for a foreign military operation, but this possibility cannot be readily dismissed when so many accounts of AQIM are surfacing.
Alarmed Timbuktu mayor Hallé Ousman told Maghrebia, "Al-Qaeda's elements can enter and exit anytime. This has become a usual thing for us. They can pass in front of me without being observed."
How the international community plans to react in northern Mali remains hidden from view. Mali's transitional information minister, Hamadoun Toure, "categorically" rejected the declaration of Azawad in comments to AFP (apparently handling most of the conflict's information flow), while ECOWAS's Abdel Fatau Musah stated the established line between African and Western capitals: "The territorial integrity of Mali is non-negotiable." Problematically, neither Mali's incomplete government nor ECOWAS is military capable of retaking and holding the vast northern territory from a coherent insurgency, as Musah threatens. This mission can only be accomplished once Mali's government has been permanently stabilized and a unified strategy is developed at the international level.
Further complicating this process is the ambiguous merger between the MNLA and Ansar Dine, which is almost certain to obstruct an international dialogue with the MNLA. Musah claims that ECOWAS "is not going to entertain any negotiations with groups that we consider terrorist groups," but ECOWAS officials are stalling for time that they don't have. The passage of time has already driven the MNLA and Ansar Dine into a temporary alliance and time will allow the groups to prepare for a foreign intervention. Given the urgency in northern Mali, the Western response (for once) is either underestimating or muting the unfolding situation - a situation that is reminiscent of Somalia circa 2006. The possibility remains that AQIM intends to use Ansar Dine's foothold as a training ground for global jihadists, rather than a staging ground for attacks on the West, but the two tracks are likely to blur in the futute. Move Mali's events to Yemen and the U.S. media would hyperventilate over America's nightmare scenario, Pentagon statements drones and Special Forces ("training" in Mali as of late 2011).
The U.S. response, or lack thereof, is a crucial piece of the strategic puzzle being scrambled by the day in Azawad.