November 17, 2012

AQIM Reinforcements Part of Unfolding Offensive In Mali

Small incidents often leave big footprints in small wars, and Friday's skirmish between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) is a typical example. Fierce info-warfare has also broken out after the MNLA and MUJAO exchanged hostilities in northern Mali, with both sides claiming victory and government sources weighing in MUJAO's favor. An MNLA statement claimed that MUJAO was forced to retreat after losing over 20 men in an ambush.

However one Malian intelligence official put MUJAO on the offensive and attributed the majority of casualties in the MNLA. MUJAO spokesman Walid Abu Sahraoui subsequently told the AFP that his group, a trans-African jihadist umbrella, is preparing to sweep the MNLA out of its home territory.

Friday's hostilities are strikingly geopolitical in nature. Fighting began at around 10 a.m. near Ansongo, around the same time that the MNLA and Ansar Dine, a supposed ally of MUJAO and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), held a joint-mediation session with Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré. The minutes of these preliminary negotiations have yet to be made public, but Friday's fighting increases the pressure on Ansar Dine to pick a side and stay on it. According to Moussa Salem, an MNLA fighter, "our goal remains to retake Azawad from the hands of AQIM and its allies. We can fall back, but it's only to be able to better push forwards after."

The question is who Ansar Dine truly considers itself an ally of, as the situation could flip from 3-on-1 to 2-on-2.

Eyewitness reports of AQIM reinforcements have since followed Friday's attack, escalating the current anxiety of locals and international observers. This worry is justified by the apparent reality of northern Mali's future. Rather than a sporadic ambush or political message, MUJAO's ambush near Ansongo fits into a larger strategy to uproot the MNLA from its current position. For months MUJAO and AQIM have been stockpiling foreign recruits from West Africa and the Middle East, with varying estimates of success, as part of their effort to counter a foreign intervention. In the meantime MUJAO and AQIM want to reduce the MNLA before the middle of next year, when ECOWAS and NATO are finally expected to act.

To this end MUJAO deployed south to Ansongo, the main town situated between Gao and the eastern city of Menaka, where the MNLA established its headquarters after being pushed out of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu. According to Djibril Moussa Diallo, village chief of the nearby Fafa, said that MUJAO has been sending fighters into the area to clear MNLA positions, pulling them "from Bourem, from Gao, from Timbuktu." Located some 250 miles east of Gao, Menaka's objective requires that MUJAO shift its forces and gives additional meaning to AQIM's new reinforcements in Timbuktu.

They represent MUJAO and AQIM's emerging supply chain through northern Mali's population belt.

These collective actions also reinforce the asymmetric battle-lines being drawn through northern Mali. The war is now being fought between Mali's Tuareg independence movement and the offshoot of an al-Qaeda branch originally allowed in by Ansar. Diallo explained of the MNLA, "MUJAO says that they are 'kafirs' (infidels). They say they are people who don't want to apply Shariah." Government and MNLA officials are presumably leaning on Ansar Dine's representatives at this moment, and Ansar Dine in turn must address its foreign allies.

A large amount of military and political fallout can be expected in the coming weeks and months.

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