January 24, 2013

Ansar Dine Split Clouds Mali's Netwar

In their quest to create larger and more organized structures than their individual parts, non-state actors (both military and civilian) are driven by necessity to connect with like-minded groups and their own hierarchies. Unless commanded by strong central leadership at the network's hub, they generally assume flatter shapes that make them harder to kill but easier to divide - especially in insurgency environments where everyone has interests to pursue. The benefits of netwar can evaporate as quickly as one network breaks away from another, and time will soon tell how much Mali's Islamist alliance suffers from division.

Speaking to the Associated Press on Thursday, former Ansar Dine official Alghabass Ag Intalla has announced the creation of a new all-Malian Tuareg front: the Islamic Movement for Azawad (IMA). Ag Intalla had initially chosen Iyad Ag Ghaly's newly-established Ansar Dine over the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) during their joint takeover of the north, locking down the Kidal region that both call home. The urgent question is whether Ag Intalla's intentions are sincere. Chafing under Ag Ghaly's authority would be natural for multiple reasons; Ag Intalla is considered a moderate Muslim and the heir to Kidal's tribal leadership. Just as the ambitious Ag Ghaly has involved himself in the Tuareg movement to the point of several failed takeovers, Ag Intalla doesn't want to take orders from someone else.

“We are neither AQIM or MUJAO,” he said, referring to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa. “We are a group of people from the north of Mali who have a set of grievances that date back at least 50 years.”

Ag Intalla's actions are believed to be driven by French air-strikes in the Kidal region, the first phase of bombardment on AQIM's catacomb bases located along the Mali-Algerian border. This must be partially true if his loyalist forces reject fighting and dying for "al-Qaeda's war," but Ag Intalla is also working a deal with international mediators and seems to expect his terms to be considered. For months African and European diplomats had used him in their attempts to pry Ansar Dine away from AQIM and MUJAO, with the intention of jelling it back together with the MNLA. Except Ag Ghaly was never serious about negotiating - later deemed a "miscalculation" by foreign sources - and instead offered MNLA fighters an ultimatum to join or die before storming their last towns with AQIM and MUJAO's assistance.

Ag Intalla and his foreign handlers presumably reached out to each other when the French landed last week in Sevare, and the first details are now going public.

Accordingly, French officials say they are taking Ag Intalla at his word until his actions prove otherwise. They likely trust his immediate motivation to distance himself from al-Qaeda's flag, but they expect the type of rapid assistance that could shorten Mali's operation and win praise at home. Demanding that they "prove it on the ground," one anonymous diplomat said that Paris is looking for the IMA to "free up territory" and work with the Malian army in Kidal. Plugging into Ag Intalla's local network should ease the burden of fighting the Islamists' embedded positions in Mali's rugged north, so one can understand how eager the international community is to flip him.

For his part Ag Intalla claims his men are prepared to fight Ansar Dine and its allies. Less clear is his willingness to cooperate with the MNLA; forming a new group suggests a loose relationship, but they may be forced together by the circumstances. Also uncertain is the long-term effects on the Islamist alliance. Can Ag Ghaly afford to target Ag Intalla and risk provoking his own Tuareg base? Does Ag Intalla possess enough strength to confront Ag Ghaly and his allies head on? Will other groups splinter off and create a web of networks operating on competing agendas, and will this patchwork facilitate or obstruct a political resolution to the north's conflict?

And what if Ag Intalla wants what the international community isn't prepared to give any Tuareg: autonomy or independence? This current situation, like everything else in Mali, is shrouded in a fog of asymmetric warfare.

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