As representatives from the United Nations, NATO, European Union, African Union and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) continue their pursuit of a multilateral response to northern Mali, the Islamist militants in control this territory are busy fashioning their own international coalition.
Reports of their latest troop movements surfaced over the weekend after multiple news sources inquired into their whereabouts and origins. In Timbuktu, the insurgent group Ansar Dine allegedly received and armed an estimated 200 recruits over the last five days. Local witnesses estimate that some fighters traveled from the nearby Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, whose Polisario Front has experienced trouble fending off al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) infiltration of refugee camps. The majority, however, are identified as Sudanese by locals and government officials alike.
"In the Timbuktu region and around Gao, hundreds of jihadists, mostly Sudanese and Sahrawis, have arrived as reinforcements to face an offensive by Malian forces and their allies," a Malian security official said.
A source from a local aid group added that they were accompanied by fighters from several other countries.
The same pattern was reported eastward in Gao, where Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) have established a de facto capital for their autonomous zone. Residents claim that reinforcements arrived from Friday through the weekend, counting dozens of armed trucks as they checked into MUJAO's main office. Local journalist Oumarou Moumouni told the German news agency DPA that he saw over 120 trucks full of militants. Another witness, religious leader Bilal Toure, claims that "more than 90 pickups full of fighters" had arrived to secure the area around Gao. Whether all of these forces are one and the same is difficult to conclude, but MUJAO announced that it had welcomed "more than 355 new fighters... all from Sudan."
"They want war, we'll give them war," Habib Ould Issouf, a MUJAO official in Gao, told AFP. "This is why our brothers are joining us from all over. They are coming from the camps of Tindouf in Algeria, from Senegal, from Ivory Coast, from everywhere."
MUJAO's operations add a complex dimension to northern Mali's situation. Whereas Ansar Dine's Iyad Ag Ghaly pairs local Tuareg sources with AQIM's connection to the international jihadist scene - bringing Arab and South Asian Muslims into Mali - MUJAO has styled itself as an African coalition. If its background story is to be believed, MUJAO broke away from AQIM's focus on the Sahel (and the Algerian government's influence) in the process of opening a wider African movement. Equally likely is the possibility that cooperative elements within AQIM and MUJAO put their heads together to expand out of the Sahel. Thus many of its recruits allegedly travel from regional African sources. A MUJAO spokesperson told DPA earlier this month that the Nigerian Islamist sect Boko Haram maintains a presence in Gao.
Yet MUJAO seems no less willing to accept members of any Muslim nationality, including the lucrative quartet of Algeria, Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan. All four countries remain entangled in unpopular connections with the U.S., making them ideal recruitment centers for al-Qaeda's latest enterprises. Ansar Dine and MUJAO may share control of these particular forces by employing them in various locations, or MUJAO could now be operating as the dominate faction within Mali. Either way, the combination of local, regional and international forces adds to the balance and capabilities of the Islamic front awaiting African and Western capitals in Gao, so long as they retain a unified agenda for northern Mali.
Reports of Islamist recruitment efforts are inevitably obscured by their propaganda value; discerning accurate numbers, nationalities and the level of their training from outside Mali is impossible. Those inside are experiencing enough trouble of their own. This weekend's information was accompanied by two denials, one each from the Malian government and Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). On Monday a Malian security source confirmed to AFP, "the arrival of new terrorists in the north of Mali," but rejected the estimation of "several hundred" fighters.
"The arrival of convoys of jihadists from Sudan and the Western Sahara are totally false," said Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, an MNLA spokesman currently living in Burkina Faso's capital Ouagadougou. "We categorically deny it. We recognize that for a long time there have been a few Sudanese in the forces of MUJAO, of whom one is at the police post in Gao to oversee the application of shar'iah.'"
All three factions, including the Islamists, are motivated to exaggerate or downplay various narratives in northern Mali, but the government and MNLA appear most guilty in this case. Too many witnesses have reported sizable troop movements and Sudanese cadres to doubt their presence. Asseleh claims that the Islamists' "propaganda" is designed to "intimidate the international armies who want to intervene in northern Mali," a true statement in itself. Ansar Dine and MUJAO are committed to trading politico-military blows with African and Western forces as they race to establish their respective fronts. The MNLA naturally wants to blunt the public momentum of its Islamic competitors, and the Malian government similarly hopes to minimize the arrival of international fighters.
Problematically, several thousand entrenched militants may await a proposed ECOWAS-Malian coalition of 6,000. This ratio is less than favorable for retaking Mali's vast northern expanse, and only made manageable by Western air support.