INSIGHT: Arms and men out of Libya fortify Mali rebellion
Fri Feb 10, 2012 3:28pm GMT
By David Lewis and Adama Diarra
DAKAR/KIDAL, Mali (Reuters) - Equipped with heavy weapons from Muammar
Gaddafi's looted arsenals, the Tuareg-led rebels who assaulted the town of
Aguelhoc in northern Mali last month overwhelmed the remote garrison.
Fighters hardened by combat in Libya swelled the ranks of the desert
insurgents who in their first attack on January 18 surrounded the local army
base with machinegun-mounted four-wheel drive vehicles. They destroyed army
communications, local cellphone towers and laid down a barrage of mortar
After cutting off water supplies and ambushing resupply convoys, they came
back a week later to overrun the base.
"They had the advantage of being more numerous, being better armed and
having better logistics, including satellite phones," a Malian government
soldier who took part in the fighting told Reuters on condition of
"It is the sad truth," he added.
As the anniversary of the February 17 uprising against Gaddafi approaches,
Mali and other states to the south are paying a price for the revolution by
Western-backed insurgents in Libya.
The flood of weapons and fighters out of Libya has now added to an arc of
insecurity across West Africa, stretching from Boko Haram Islamists behind a
spate of lethal bombings in Nigeria to al Qaeda allies who have targeted
Westerners and armed forces in the Sahel all the way to Mauritania in the
Mali is no stranger to rebellions - this is the fourth led by the Tuareg
nomads of the north since independence from France in 1960. The last ended
only in 2008.
But this time the turbaned rebels' arsenal includes SA-7, SA-24 and Milan
portable missile systems, according to the Malian soldier who faced them.
And rather than just melting back into the desert after an attack, the new
firepower has emboldened them to take on the army on three fronts and resist
A Malian defence ministry official, who also asked not to be named, said the
rebels were equipped "just like Libya's army", with heavy machine guns on
four-wheel drive vehicles, anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets as well as
"In other rebellions, they have been under-equipped," said Jeremy Keenan, a
Sahara expert who has long studied the Tuareg.
"These guys back from Libya have heavier arms and they know how to use
them," he said of the MNLA, or National Movement for the Liberation of
This is the name the rebels give to the homeland they would like to carve
out of three regions in Mali's north.
It is the latest security challenge for a Malian government 1,500 km (900
miles) away in Bamako, which has already failed to stop allies of al Qaeda
implanting themselves on parts of its remote north and using it as a base to
hold Western hostages.
Since the fighting in Mali erupted in mid-January, dozens have been reported
killed on both sides and at least 60,000 civilians have fled their homes in
a Sahel region already facing a humanitarian crisis from the latest of its
Anti-terrorism training and cooperation between the Malian government and
key allies like the United States and Algeria have been disrupted. The
fighting could also force Mali to postpone a planned April 29 election.
Bamako accuses the MNLA of joining forces with al Qaeda's North African
wing, AQIM, in the Aguelhoc attack. Several soldiers involved said they
faced bearded fighters in Afghan-style dress. One resident who helped bury
the dead said more than 115 soldiers were killed, many with their hands
The MNLA rejects the charges, accusing the government of seeking to
discredit it and scare the West.
While decades of frustrations over unfulfilled peace deals and
underdevelopment simmer in Mali's north, the trigger for the emergence of
the MNLA, a force estimated by diplomats and analysts to be 1,000-strong,
was the fallout from Libya's war.
Three months after Gaddafi's death, Libya's new leaders are still struggling
to impose their authority on the country and do not have full control of
their borders that have been leaking arms and fighters into neighbouring
states to the south.
As Gaddafi's regime collapsed, hundreds of armed Malian Tuareg recruited
into his army over the years started returning home, where job prospects are
bleak and the national government holds little sway.
Some handed their weapons back to the Malian authorities and have since
become civilians or joined the army. Others didn't.
In October, these fighters gathered in the oasis settlement of Zakak in
hills by the border with Algeria. They were joined by career rebels, Malian
army deserters and young, internet-savvy activists in a conclave that gave
birth to the MNLA.
Some of those who returned from Libya were recently hired guns. But many,
like Colonel Mahamed Ag Najim who is now the MNLA's top military commander,
are battle-hardened veterans who served in Gaddafi's ranks for years.
They were joined by men who fought under late rebel leader Ibrahim Ag
Bahanga, who died in a car crash last year just as he was laying the
groundwork for the rebellion, and by members of the homegrown youth-led MNA
movement that emerged in 2010.
"This year we have all the generations together," senior France-based MNLA
official Hama Ag Sid'Ahmed said by phone.
Adding to Bamako's woes, Tuareg soldiers who were integrated into the Malian
army after the last rebellion and have an intimate knowledge of the local
terrain have deserted in their droves, Malian officials say.
As the well-armed newcomers drifted home late last year, the government
dispatched delegations to try and head off trouble. The group that rejected
government appeals to hand over weapons went on to form the rebellion's
A Reuters journalist who visited one of the groups in Mali that decided to
hand over their weapons saw four-wheel drives mounted with 14.5 mm
machineguns and multiple rocket launchers.
"They feel strong because they have the weapons and are ready to use them,"
said El Hadj Baba Haidara, parliament deputy for the northern town of
Timbuktu, who took part in the talks.
"When we heard their tone and saw them planting the (Azawad) flag, we
suggested (Bamako) should act quickly to open talks but also make military
preparations ... But the government wasn't quick enough," Haidara added.
AMBITIOUS BID FOR HOMELAND
Tuareg nomads who roam the vast desert spaces between Mali, Niger, Algeria,
Libya and Burkina Faso have resisted central authority since colonial times.
But previous rebellions have sought more local autonomy and integration of
Tuareg fighters into the army rather than outright independence for Azawad.
Capturing the ambitious new mood of the insurgency and citing last year's
creation of South Sudan, Africa's newest state, the pro-Tuareg website
www.toumastpress.com declared in a December editorial that is was "now or
The rusty old weapons that let down Kaocene Ag Gedda, a hero in the
anti-French colonial struggle in the early 20th century, had been replaced
by the Grad rocket launchers and other heavy weapons now in desert camps,
the editorial said.
The movement has a slick PR machine, with a regularly updated website and
easily contactable Europe-based spokesmen.
Mali has rejected any talk of an independent state. The rebels, who
represent some, but not all of the Tuareg, let alone other communities in
the north, have said they will target towns, one by one, until they have
created their northern homeland in the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
Yet prospects of broader support for their cause appear dim. Libya's new
rulers, busy with their own problems, are unlikely to mimic Gaddafi's
penchant for meddling in Tuareg affairs.
Algeria, which retains a strong influence to its south, is looking to
improve cooperation with Mali, especially in the fight against local al
Qaeda cells. Its state oil company Sonatrach also has interests in Mali's
section of the Taoudeni Basin, in the north, though exploration has not
Algerian officials have confirmed they are hosting talks between Mali's
government and some Tuareg leaders. But the MNLA has denied sending any
representatives to the meetings and shown no sign of listening to
international appeals for a ceasefire.
Niger's Tuareg, who have in the past sometimes linked up with those in Mali,
appear unlikely to revolt. They are better represented in the central
government and fewer Nigerien Tuareg returning from Libya were able to keep
hold of their weapons.
"Ultimately, they are surrounded by countries who won't support any
independence movement so the best they can hope for is greater autonomy and
a decent pay package for the leaders," said one diplomat who is following
the conflict closely.
DISTRACTS FROM ANTI-AL QAEDA FIGHT
Yet even if the rebellion is unlikely to succeed in creating a new Tuareg
state, it is a direct challenge both to Mali and the international fight
against al Qaeda cells and trafficking gangs that have made the desert north
their stamping ground.
The mingling of Islamists in the multi-million dollar ransom economy fuelled
by kidnapping Westerners and the trafficking of cocaine and other goods have
forced the region onto the West's security agenda.
A second diplomat said that while Mali's military may be facing a more
muscular rebellion than ever before, independence was an "unattainable goal"
and the rebellion could be resolved through a political solution.
"The bigger existential threat to Mali is the threat of international drug
trade and terrorism," the diplomat said.
Washington has tried to bolster Mali's army, providing $17 million in
military aid over the last year to equip and train forces in everything from
desert warfare to winning hearts and minds. European nations have offered
their help too.
But many of these men and much of this equipment are now likely to be
diverted to tackle the MNLA, not Islamists.
A Reuters reporter travelling on February 4 on the road south from Kidal saw
convoys of Malian soldiers heading north to reinforce units there, many
travelling in trucks Washington had provided last year for counter-terrorism
Operation Flintlock, an annual U.S.-run counter-terrorism training operation
in the Sahara, was due to take place in Mali next month but will have to be
delayed due to the rebellion.
According to www.magharebia.com, a North African news website sponsored by
the U.S. military, a small unit of Algerian trainers dispatched to Mali's
north to train and equip local units has since been forced to leave due to
"That is the sort of coordination and movement that is being diverted (by
the rebellion)," the second diplomat said.
REBELLION, CRIME AND JIHADISM
For those who fear fragile governments in the region are losing control of
their desert zones, the question is where the MNLA fits into the complex web
of groups, including al Qaeda cells, international traffickers and local
bandits, who have filled the void out of reach of the distant central
The Tuareg do not have any ideological links with al Qaeda's North African
wing, AQIM. But family ties and sheer opportunism mean that clear
distinctions are hard to come by in a zone where rebellion, crime and jihad
Iyad Ag Ghali, a former rebel who served briefly as Mali's Consul General in
Saudi Arabia before returning home to turn his hand at hostage-negotiations
in the north, is a case in point.
Ag Ghali has since formed an Islamic movement yet diplomats say his only
concrete link with al Qaeda is through a cousin who is a local commander.
Diplomats and analysts say at least some of his men seem to have fought with
the MNLA in recent fighting.
The rebels say they have recruited several dozen Tuareg gunmen who had
previously been with AQIM.
Local alliances and loyalties often appear as shifting as the desert sands
that blanket the hostile Sahara wastes.
"Today, no one really knows who is with whom," said Haidara, the
parliamentary deputy from Timbuktu.
C Thomson Reuters 2012 All rights reserved
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Received on Fri Feb 10 2012 - 17:00:01 EST