Unpredictability has reached a tangible level of predictability in northern Mali. Following weeks of tense negotiations between the Taureg-dominated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine, an Islamic group with self-pronounced ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), another AQIM affiliate has staged a hostile takeover of the MNLA's position in Gao. A spokesman for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), AQIM's formal offshoot, told Al Jazeera that the group killed several dozen MNLA members, captured more than 40 prisoners and seized a group of tanks over the past week.
"Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and all the mujahidin are with us here in Gao, including Ansar al Din and all the al-Qaeda emirs," Abu Al Waleed al Sahraoui triumphantly announced on Thursday. "The entire city is happy and celebrating now that we have gotten rid of the MNLA."
Although the MNLA has refuted key elements of al Sahraoui's version of the battle, its members paint a picture with rough similarities to his account. They claim that two of AQIM's lieutenants, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Hamid Abou Zeid, arrived in Gao to personally direct an offensive against the MNLA. Neither side disputes the fact that MUJAO attacked both the MNLA's headquarters in Gao's governors' building and the house of its secretary-general, Bilal Ag Acherif. Belmoktar, the commander of an AQIM "battalion" in Algeria, has since been reported killed in action by Algerian state media (Ennahar TV), while an MNLA official said that Ag Acherid was "accidentally shot" by friendly fire. He currently rests in a hospital bed in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso.
Belmokhtar's ultimate fate remains unknown.
As for Gao itself, another MNLA source said that a military convoy had been dispatched from Kidal to regain total control of the town. Yet the MNLA is also minimizing its losses by exploiting Mali's information vacuum, just as MUJAO has exaggerated its victory and local support. Colonel Asaleth Ag Khabi, the MNLA's deputy chief of staff and commander of military operations in Gao, told the Associated Press, "I cannot confirm that the HQ of the NMLA, which is located inside the governor's building in Gao, has been taken by the Islamists from MUJAO.”
"But in any case this headquarters is just a political office, not a military building."
Despite Gao's confusion, the status between the MNLA and Ansar Dine is clearing with each passing battle. Both groups have validated the expectations of many analysts; incompatible with each other's ideology and political objectives, the competing insurgencies attempted to join forces due to their overlapping interests. However the MNLA seeks an own autonomous state based on ethnic factors, along with a system of governance that includes the moderate version of Sharia followed by most Tauregs. Ansar Dine and MUJAO are pursuing a strict Islamic state that would host international jihadists. While the groups might have joined forces against an imminent intervention, the MNLA is now actively collaborating with foreign powers in order to negate Ansar Dine's influence.
Beyond this relative certainty, though, lies a host of unanswered dilemmas. Ansar Dine now claims over half of a territory the size of several American states, a measurement that the MNLA rejects, but residents and journalists have persistently alerted the outside world of Ansar Dine's expanding authority. Realistically, the group only needs to control a fraction of Mali to pursue its militaristic ends. Holding Azawad in its entirety - an area that exceeds all of al-Qaeda's territory in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Mauritania - is almost too good to be true. One can begin to understand why Islamic militants believe that their "new state" fell from the heavens.
Equally clouded is the number of foreign fighters populating Ansar Dine and MUJAO's ranks. The latter is mostly composed of Mauritanians that publicly seek to expand AQIM across West Africa, though other sources allege that MUJAO subscribes to a leading conspiracy in the Sahel: Algerian intelligence founded or else infiltrated AQIM in order to suppress the Tuaregs, Polisario and other separatist groups in the area. Regardless, MUJAO is suspected of trafficking in fighters from Algeria and Libya, a stream that flows into Ansar Dine and AQIM's own recruitment. According local residents and an intelligence report from Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, Pakistani gunmen are also busying themselves patrolling Timbuktu's streets and building training camps near Gao. AQIM officials have toured the process (if local journalists are to be believed).
On the other hand, one MNLA member warned, "We are dealing with Islamists that are from Gao, that are here from a long time ago. Who were born and raised here. And this combat is not over."
No concrete estimates are available on the MNLA, Ansar Dine or MUJAO's strength ratios. Figures on each group range between several hundred fighters to over a thousand, putting the likely total in between, but this number is rising with northern Mali's profile. Their arsenal has also been ambiguously boosted by the leftovers of Mali's fleeing army and Libya's revolution, adding to the many uncertainties that complicate the organization of an international counteroffensive. With Mali's interim government still struggling to stay afloat after March's coup, the (ECOWAS) has stepped in to apply the majority of political pressure on the MNLA. Threats of war have been issued and mobilization is inching forward. Just recently, Johnnie Carson admitted that "one has to take into account that the government in the south has no effective military now."
The Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Africa said that Washington doesn't expect a presidential election until May 2013, a year-long delay, and cautioned, "Any effort to look at retake the north would be a significant undertaking for ECOWAS."
Problematically, the combination of northern Mali's size and a multi-layered enemy could exhaust all but the largest force. ECOWAS must commit several battalions (possibly more) and President still expects a healthy dose of Western airpower. The Obama administration has remained unusually quiet for an event of this magnitude, but northern Mali may be an outlier in Washington's grander plan for Africa. This is territory that didn't need to be openly defended a mere four months ago. Now a great deal of resources and time - more force than the U.S. has deployed in the area - must be devoted to the Sahel's center.
A large-scale counterinsurgency, even when "led" by African powers, is not what U.S. policy-makers have in mind for their "light" wars.
Given the current state of events inside and outside of Mali, urgent foreign capitals appear to have accepted the reality that a military campaign will be measured not in months but years. Many actors have appeared in the asymmetric environment and many hurdles obstruct a UN-approved mission carried about by ECOWAS and NATO powers. The sheer number of challenges could eventually yield a political resolution with the MNLA, but the odds of pacifying Tuareg grievances are low and al-Qaeda's roots still need to be dug up by force. Thus one more possibility must be considered: fomenting an internal rebellion.
Speaking through a communique issued after Ansar Dine's execution of a local Gao official, Communications Minister Hamadoun Touré promised that the interim government "hasn't forgotten" and "will not abandon" the citizens of northern Mali. He also praised the youth's demonstrations against Islamist rule, calling them "one facet of the Malian people's resistance."
Instead of directly confronting all parts of the insurgency's network at once, Mali's government and other powers may attempt to stage a preemptive rebellion before launching their assault. This strategy, if timed exactly, would disperse al-Qaeda's influence and produce a more effective sweep of the north. Such a possibility may have multiple angles too. According to the MNLA's Communication Minister Moussa, Ag al-Sarid, Algeria has deployed intelligence agents officers inside northern Mali to coordinate an "anti-Azawad rebellion alongside al-Qaeda operatives." If half true, operatives from Mauritania, Algeria, Niger and Western states could all find themselves tasked to the amplification of a local uprising.
All involved actors and observers have no choice except to keep watching, trust no information absolutely and expect the unexpected.