In every manifestation Ansar al-Sharia operates either as a loose front for al-Qaeda's general ideology or a masking agent for the group itself, as in Yemen's case. However Mali's new group has reportedly received specific directions from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). On top of decentralizing the group's network and tapping into local human resources, Ansar al-Sharia has been tasked to build a logistics highway between eastern Libya and northern Mali - and, if AFRICOM is to be believed, establish a base in east Libya to strike the West.
"In return, AQIM is offering to provide Libyan Islamist groups with training and finance," The Telegraph reported earlier this month.
Somewhat oddly, this news created no initial splash in the U.S. media and is just now reaching American ears in the form of an ABC News report. New information is only presented in small portions, namely a welcoming statement from one of Ansar Dine's senior leaders. Although potential disinformation, no mention of the connection between Ansar al-Sharia and Libyan militants is made. Instead, speculation of the offshoot's cause revolves around Ansar Dine's leadership and the absorption of fighters from the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).
In the latter case, ABC News claims that MUJAO has been losing fighters to Ansar Dine and Ansar al-Sharia due to their local reputations, which carry more weight inside and outside Mali.
Unnamed "analysts" attribute this trend to Ansar Dine's legitimacy at the negotiating table, but local credibility and momentum is the likeliest culprit of any established pattern. The network of AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar Dine acts as a jihadist funneling system, drawing fighters from across the MENA and shaking them down into appropriate roles. Both Ansar Dine and MUJAO fighters have joined Ansar al-Sharia because the group is allegedly involved in expanding eastward, where MUJAO hopes to go. MUJAO's military planner, Omar Hamaha, also doubles as an Ansar Dine official, reinforcing the connection between all three groups.
While decentralization can instigate personal feuds within a network of militant groups, Mali is big enough to necessitate a portfolio of groups tasked with specialized agendas. The inflation of open territory and density of local actors are determining factors in slicing up northern Mali's pie.
Coincidently, ABC News's reporting is equally sluggish as the international community's response to northern Mali's conflict. Today, almost a year after the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine began to overrun Mali's military, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed a resolution authorizing a two-track intervention in Mali. Except negotiations with Ansar Dine amount to a stalling tactic for AQIM and MUJAO, meaning that an ECOWAS force of 3,300 won't land in Mali until the second half of next year at the earliest. The Trench has frequently reported on the obstacles facing an international coalition, starting with Mali's fractured government and ending with the virtual certainty of guerrilla warfare.
"It is likely that [the MNLA and MUJWA] will avoid direct confrontation, in which case [the intervention force] would have no chance," a senior French officer told the AFP after the UNSC's vote. "If the force sent to deal with them is credible, [the MNLA and MUJWA] will certainly leave the towns and head for their sanctuaries in the mountain ranges close to the Algerian border... and that will become a different ball game to dislodge them."
One "former intelligence chief" states the problem in even blunter terms: "It's not 3,000 men that are needed, it's 100 times as many, and for a long time. We are far from what's required. Take Afghanistan as a reference and you'll understand."
This estimate, while excessively high, still offers a more realistic assessment than the international community (UN, NATO, AU, ECOWAS) has tabled. Roughly speaking, a minimum of 30,000 troops and 3-5 years (plus Western logistics) appear to be needed to control northern Mali's population belt and wage asymmetric warfare against the Islamists. Give Ansar Dine and its allies another 10 months and they will embed themselves that much deeper in northern Mali's terrain.
The international community is trapped between the dilemma of an immediate but reckless campaign, and waiting for Mali's government to put itself back together first.