What Is This “New Refuge” For Al Qaeda In The Sahara? For the Tuareg The Islamists Have Been Long Term Neighbours.


There’s a line that creeps into most reports on the Mali situation which troubles me. Here’s an example from the Washington Post:

“Many fear that the uncertainty in Mali will allow militant groups such as al-Qaida to find a new refuge in the Sahara nation.”

This “new refuge” in Mali is 3 years old. This “new refuge” arose since the arrival of US and French secret services and troops in the region, not the other way round.


This “new refuge” has been permitted, sanctioned/encouraged/accepted/known about – choose your verb – by the Mali and the Algerian governments and by the US and France. But nothing has been done and the new refuge has been allowed  to bed itself down. 

The Tuaregs have for 3 years bemoaned the creation of this “new refuge” for Al Qaeda in their midst. In the beginning it was a band of a hundred or so lightly  armed men, hold up in the middle of nowhere with desert all around. But nobody dared touch them. Western governments warned about them, kidnappings were attributed to them, but no one did a thing.

Their presence has destroyed the Tuaregs only cash crop – tourism. The MNLA have consitently mentioned the “new refuge” as the major trigger current rebellion (leaving aside the return of heavily armed Tuareg from Libya after Gadaffi, which was the event that permitted action).

Previous rebellions have had lack of development and lack of political/military control of their own region as their primary  causes, and still these rebellions have not been fully supported by all Tuareg factions. When the current MNLA led rebellion started up back  in January the Tuareg population were divided along traditional factional lines in their support for an independent Azawad. Most of the Tuareg I know have traditionally been on the  side of a unified Mali. Their overriding reason for this is economic. But with the economic benefit of being part of Mali withdrawn in the  shutting down of tourism to the desert, this standpoint has been sorely tested. Nevertheless, I’d say that back in january, as the rebellion kicked off, it was not supported by the majority of Tuareg.

Apart from taking the opportunity thrown their way in the roll of the die of history, firstly with the influx of arms after the fall of Gadaffi and scondly with the coup in the south, the thing that has swung the Tuareg population round to support the MNLA , the thing that is the cause of the desperate urge that drives people to risk their lives, their families’ lives, and perhaps even their survival as a people –  the thing that has proven to the Tuareg that their government is not serious about living up to the promises about increased development and more autonomy to run their own affairs made after previous rebellions, is the presence of Al Qaeda. After 3 years of this presence, they know they cannot count on anyone else to secure their lives.

Some of us have been questioning for some time now why this “new refuge” (or these new refugees depending on your perspective), have been at best accepted and at worst encouraged. The main “refuges” are positioned so close to the reach of Malian, Algerian and, if required, Nigerian forces, aided and abetted by the US and France. With kidnappings undermining their  tourism why have regional countries acepted this refuge? And with European citizens being kidnapped, and us supposedly in the middle of a war to defeat Al Qaeda ideology, why have western powers not sought to nip this in the bud before it finds ways to infiltrate into society?

Now perhaps it is too late. Al Qaeda elements – in the form of AQIM and Ansar Dine, have hijacked the MNLA rebellion for their own purposes from these “new refuges”. Who is supplying them? The MNLA want an independent Azawad, but the refugee islamists  want nothing of the sort, preferring to go for the impossible – complete take over of Mali and sharia law. If the Tuareg are as linked up with AQIM as is made out why would the latter not support a new desert state and then work its ideological magic from within?

And now what do we have? The bizarre siuation where all the regional bodies and governments, all the western powers and the UN want the same thing as Al Qaeda: no independent Azawad. And of all the players, there is only one group of people stating that the priority should be talking about gettiing rid of Al Qaeda in the desert and that is  the  MNLA and the Tuareg. Evereybody else screams shock and horror but does nothing.

What could they do?

ECOWAS and/or the African Union and perhaps the UN or France could broker talks between the Mali government and the MNLA, agreeing a basic strategy for future talks on the future make up of Mali and Azawad. This has to happen at  sometime, why not now? An interim agreement could be made, with the carrot of independence/autonomy negotiations on the table, to provide the MNLA with logistical support and air cover to rid the region of the islamists. No foreign troops on the ground would be needed. The MNLA could not turn this unfairly to their advantage: they have their territory anyway, and the support could be withdrawn at any time. And anyway, they have no desire to expand their claim from what they have now.

Once AQIM are pushed back home to Algeria, Mali can begin to negotiate its future without foreign influence.

Cooperation with the MNLA and Tuareg like this would rebuild a smidgen of trust between the north and the south to give each sidea chance of having their bottom lines met. If bottom lines are met, peace could folllow.

Southern Mali’s bottom line is keeping Mali as a unified state. The Tuareg bottom line will be some form of real autonomy. A devolved power solution, a bit like the Welsh assembly or the Scottish parliament wiithin the UK, would provide channels of aid and development to Azawad independent of the Mali governemnt, thus taking a way a mojor cause of the rebellions.

With a bit of imagination a structure could be established whereby the Tuareg control security in their own region and for the northern and western borders and southern Mali (the current Malian militray) secure the south and western borders. You could even have a de-militarised zone along the Niger from Mopti to Gao.

In this way Mali could remain unified:one nation, two countries. 

With this structure Al Qaeda could be defeated, the corrupt official channels that maintain the drugs smuggling could be interrupted, peace could be restored, development in the desert could begin, and no borders are redrawn to cause knock on effects elsewhere in the region. Everyone gets their way, except Al Qaeda and the drugs barons.

So just watch the world make sure this does not happen.

I leave you with a quotation I was sent:

J’ai 95 ans et suis le voisin des cieux. Par les cieux je jure que moi et tous les Touaregs sommes décidés à naviguer dans les maux de notre nation, à naviguer jusqu’à parvenir à tenir de nos bras le gouvernail de nos destinées et de notre pays.

Touaregs, nageons, nageons jusqu’à atteindre notre jour et si nous périssons dans l’océan de la libération de notre nation, alors notre résistance sera une leçon pour les mondes qui adviendront.”

“I am 95 years old and am a neighbour of the heavans.  By the heavans I swear that I and all the Tuareg have decided to navigate  our way through the troubled waters of our nation, to navigate until we are holding in our arms the governance of our destiny and our country. Tuaregs – let us swim, let us swim until until we reach our day and if we perish in the ocean of the liberation of our nation, well our resistance will be a lesson for the world that follows us.” 

Mohamed Ali Ag Attaher Ansari