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On February 4 1998 the Community of the Saharan Sahel States, better known with its acronym CEN-SAD, was created. Sponsored by Khadafi, the initiative initially saw the membership of 6 countries (Libya, Niger, Mali, Sudan, Chad and Burkina Faso). Its declared aim was the creation of a free trade zone that could favor economic integration. Something similar to the COMESA (Common Market for Easter and Southern Africa) in Eastern and Southern Africa or the ECOWAS (Economic Community for  West Africa States) in Western Africa or the SADC (Southern  Africa Development Community) in Southern Africa.

Its true aim though was to create, to the benefit of Libyans, an area of influence in favor of its geo-strategic interests. Headquartered in Tripoli, the financing of the economically stricken and thus easily influenceable neighboring countries mainly came from Libya. With time CEN-SAD expanded to 28 countries, well beyond the geographical boundaries of the sub-Saharan belt (more countries joined in with the ill concealed aim of obtaining Libyan investments and money). But basically, besides Khadafi's megalomania (he used this organization to obtain the necessary consensus to yearly lead the African Union), CEN-SAD's main objective remained Libya's will to control the politics and finances of the countries in the sub-Saharan region.

CEN-SAD allowed Libya to interfere – within a legal institutional framework – in the internal affairs of its neighbors, to maintain relationships with the Tuareg communities in the area sometimes employing them or fostering their claims for autonomy and then mediating between the Tuareg and their respective central governments. By doing so Tripoli controlled what was happening in its Southern borders, benefited from a certain security and, at the same time, kept its neighbors under pressure. The problems with another Tuareg ethnic group, the Toubou, from the Tchadian Tibesti and who often clashed with the people in Kufra were also addressed.

Libyan incursions in Tuareg affairs also provided the regime with low cost manpower that could be used for internal security, like the massive employment of sub-Saharan mercenaries, mainly Tuareg, that fought alongside the loyalists during the last uprising. Algeria did not appreciate Libya's meddling in Northern Mali (thus South of Algeria), where the collusion between Tuareg groups and AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) formations created huge security problems. Regardless of its interference, Tripoli also feared this welding because several Libyan former Libyan Islamic Combat Group members had joined ranks in AQIM's katibahs (battalions).

Former Libyan foreign minister Musa Kusa

Such was Libya's worry in this field that CEN-SAD's General Secretariat also included a Peace and Security Department, an office whose purpose was none other than the coordination among the Secret Services of member countries. But this was yet not enough for Tripoli who launched, around 2005, the idea of building in Bamako an Operational Coordination Central where all the information regarding regional terrorism would flow into and to build a rapid deployment force together with other sub-Saharan countries. To build this structure Western aid (training, financing and equipment) was asked for. The Americans adhered in principle but were distrustful, the British followed, the French were reluctant to witness other countries interfere in a French speaking former colony as Mali, Italians and Spanish were in favor of the initiative if it were well detailed. The person running all the contacts was Musa Kusa, at first in his role of director of the External Security Service and then as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Finally, the details never came in and the project was never followed up especially since Libyan affairs have taken a different twist.

In synthesis, Libyan interference in the region swung between two contrasting aims: on one side the unscrupulous use of the Tuareg communities to destabilize and politically subjugate countries in the Sahel, on the other to avoid that the growing instability would lead to an expansion of terrorism in the area.

Before the so called Arab Spring, the Tuareg/terrorism issue stood in these terms: Libya and Algeria developed their contrast and repression of any form of terrorism with some good results, Mali and Niger (and to some extent Mauritania) obtained the necessary support and the only worrisome aspect was the welding/cohabitation that emerged in the kidnapping of foreigners, arms and drug trafficking and banditry.


Khadafi's fall has modified the terms of the issue. The presence of Malian Tuareg mercenaries alongside the regime's loyalists (around 600 men) meant that after Khadafi's killing this heavily armed mass of people fled Libya and returned to their countries of origin in the Sahel. Along the Tuareg were also all those illegal immigrants who had come to Tripoli looking for a job or to buy a ride to Italy (only the Malians were around 2000 people) and who fled Libya. Libyan rebels that took over power associated any black person to a mercenary that could be prosecuted or executed.
Moving South, this mass of people irreversibly exacerbated the social and security problems of the countries in the area. The Tuareg (now better armed than ever before) began to use their strength to bring forth their secessionist claims (and joined forces with the AQIM groups that roamed freely in destabilized areas), while the illegal migrants who returned home worsened social conditions. On top of this, countries like Mali and Niger ran short of the financing from the dethroned Rais.

Another element has to be added to this socially explosive picture: the escape South of Khadafi's men who tried to use the Tuareg against the new Libyan government and the fascination and power of their money.

Tuareg rebels


It is through this glass that we have to look at events that came about in Mali. At the beginning of 2012 a new wave of Tuareg protests came about. The central government in Bamako had proved incapable of dealing with the new military emergency. On the night between March 21 and 22 2012 a military coup in Mali: 2 military contingents in the capital uprise, especially the Kati garrison, in the outskirts of Bamako, the biggest in the country. Lieutenant Amadou Haya Sanogo leads the rebellion, suspends the Constitution, imposes a curfew and shuts down borders and airports. President Amadou Toumani Touré, an old friend of Khadafi's (ATT had lead the African Union mediation between the Supreme Leader and the rebels), is deposed. ATT is accused of being incapable in contrasting and eliminating the Tuareg rebellion in the country's North.

But it was only half a coup d'etat since not all garrisons adhered to the overthrow of the President elect. The deadlock weakened the army even more, paving the way for the Tuareg take over in the North. The irony of it all is that Sanogo's actions instead of overcoming the rebellion, boosted it. After a mere month Amadou Haya Sanogo was forced to quit power. He had tried asking for military aid and for a mediation lead by Nigeria and ECOWAS. Sanogo negotiated his exit with impunity. Power was transferred back to civilians. A national unity government lead by Sheikh Modibo Dialla was formed and an interim president, Dioncunda Traoré, nominated. Chaos reigned in Bamako.

A failed counter-coup lead by the “red berets” parachutists (as opposed to Sanogo's “green berets”) was attempted by former president Touré. Amadou Haya Sanogo's victory allowed the army to hold to three key roles in the new civilian government. A report by Amnesty International has detailed the heavy price of this blood feud. Former president Amadou Toumani Touré was wounded by an angry crowd, fleeing to Paris to be cured.

Today we're not facing a fight between the Bambara, sedentary ethnic group representing more than 50% of the population of Mali and strongly present in the army, and its historic enemies: the nomadic Tuareg. It is an internal power struggle in Mali.


On January 17 2012 the Tuareg advance lead by the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) conquered Gao, Kidal, Ansongo. Anderamboukane, Ménaka, Tinzawaten and Tessalit soon followed. After two days of siege and profiting from the chaos in Bamako following the coup, on April 1 also Timbuktu fell. The front line is now in Douentza (Bandiagara region), a city 150 km from Mopti and around 600 km from Bamako. Competing for an area three times the size of Italy are several armed groups with different aims.

The MNLA is a secular organization, with a force of 7-8000 men (including child soldiers), well armed and equipped, formed mainly by mercenaries who fled Libya, lead by a former Libyan army colonel (until July 2011) named Mohamed Najem. The movement aims at independence for the Azawad, an area North of the Niger river (800,000 square km, around 1 million inhabitants) where Tuaregs are the majority. Following the take over of Timbuktu, on April 6 2012 the MNLA declared independence and the birth of a new country (whom nobody recognized). This is where Abdallah Senussi, Khadafi's brother-in-law found refuge before being arrested in Mauritania and extradited to Libya.

But MNLA's political claim is not shared by the other armed factions active in Northern Mali. Not by Ansar Dine (“defenders of the faith”), lead by Iyad ag Ghali, aka Abu al Fadl, a man involved in the Tuareg rebellions of the 1990s (when he struggled for the secession of the Azawad) and whose deputy is Omar Oukd Hamaha. Hamaha is a fanatic who had been chased out of Saudi Arabia for his extremist ideas. Ansar Dine's aim is to conquer the whole of Mali and to found an islamic state. Sharia law has been imposed on the conquered territory, tombs and mausoleums of Sufi marabouts in Timbuktu (all UNESCO world heritage sites since 1998) have been destroyed, amputations have been carried out in Timbuktu and Gao, a stoning took place in Aguelhok, alcohol has been banned, women veiled and promiscuity, use of television and listening to music have all been prohibited. Iyad ag Ghali, who comes from Kidal, can rely on a force of 3/400 armed men from the Ifoghas Tuareg tribe (one of the most important ones) and has strong links to AQIM with whom he shares the same Salafist vision of Islam.

While in Gao ag Ghali appeared alongside three AQIM commanders:

Mokhtar  Benmokhtar, one eyed commander from Ghardaia, with experience from the madrassas in Pakistan and married to a Malian

Abdulhamid abu Zied (and his “Tarek bin Zayad” katiba) alias Mohamed Ghadir (according to Algerian Secret Services) alias Abdulhamid al Sufi alias Abid Hamadou (according to an Interpol arrest warrant issued in 2006)

Yahya abu Hammam (nominated head of the Saharan region by AQIM's emir Droukdal after the death of Makhlouf) and head of the “Al Furqan” katiba

All three formations (all lead by Algerians) do not follow AQIM's supposed chief, Abdulmalek Droukdal, anymore accusing him of not being charismatic enough. This means that in a Mali overridden by chaos, here is not a unique AQIM front in the North, but several self ruling factions.
Another fundamentalist group has also appeared: the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), yet another AQIM splinter faction formed in December 2011 and lead by Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou.

While the MNLA attempts to secession from Bamako, Ansar Dine wants an Islamic state, while all the AQIM groups simply look for a territory where they can roam undisturbed and export their Islamic revolution. These divisions have lead the MNLA out of Gao and Timbuktu, chased out by Ansar Dine. As we talk, it is difficult to understand who rules and where and whether, among such an heterogeneous bunch, there exists any cooperation at all.

The Tuareg advance has also caused an exodus of people South and in neighboring counties. International organizations have estimated the refugees in 250 thousand people.


Several attempts have been made to try to resolve the stand off between the Tuareg and the authorities in Bamako. The president of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré, has tried on ECOWAS' behalf, the Algerian Minister for Maghreb and African affairs Messahel has taken a tour in the Sahel to propose a dialogue (even though he specifies that no “terrorists” will be part of that). The main problem is that it is not clear with whom one should negotiate and what to negotiate about since the issue is not between the Tuareg and Mali, but also sees the presence of other actors.

Based on a French proposal, on October 10 2012 the UN Security Council has given ECOWAS and the African Union 45 days to draft a military intervention plan in Northern Mali that will deploy an African contingent. The UN resolution also talks about negotiations between rebels and government that will preserve Mali's territorial integrity. In the mean time, former Italian PM Romano Prodi has been nominated by Ban Ki Moon as the UN's Special Envoy in the Sahel. France is extremely susceptible to events in Mali, has a significant military presence in the area (Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, Chad, Mali, Center African Republic, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Djibouti for a total of around 6000 men), claims a pre-emption right over its former colonies in the region, has 8 citizens in the hands of AQIM and exploits – through AREVA – the uranium mines in Niger that supply its nuclear plants (it not by chance that these mines are located in the Ayr region dominated by the Tuareg).

AREVA, uranium mines in Niger


There is a high risk that the Sahel issue will become an international problem. On one side this is what Mali wants to receive more foreign aid. Bamako will try to link its concerns about its territorial integrity with the menace – whose impact is definitely more effective – of the spread of islamic terrorism in the region.

Another major issue following the downfall of the different regimes in the area caused by the Arab Spring is the decay of the intelligence collaboration that existed both in the Sahel and in North Africa against islamic terrorism.

In prospect, the most worrisome scenario is the so called “Somalization” of the region (a lawless area without any governmental rule), a no man's land in the hands of terrorists and crooks. The convergence of separatist claims, terrorism and banditry determines a dangerous social mix that can go beyond Mali's border and export instability elsewhere. People linked to Nigeria's Boko Haram (who participated in the attack against the Algerian consulate in Gao) have surfaced in Northern Mali and so have men associated with deposed Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo. As often happens, chaos calls for more chaos and the transhumance to Mali of men and groups whose lifestyle is based on rebellion and subversion from the Middle East and Afghanistan has already started.

Tuaregs have made of nomadism a self-ruling characteristic that has lead them to ignore boundaries or central authorities. They are attached to their freedom of movement and customs, but not to the idea of a properly structured State. Neglected and economically marginalized, they have found a source of revenue in banditry and in the kidnapping of foreigners alongside terrorist groups. This is where their connivance with terrorism comes in. Tuareg islam was definitely not Salafist (as the massive presence of Sufi mausoleums testifies), but converging interests have brought them down that path.

There are no reliable statistics on how many Tuareg live in the Sahel. Around 1 million in Mali (over a total population of 15 million), 1,5 million in Niger, 800 thousand in Algeria for a total of around 4 to 5 million (if we add Mauritania and Chad). The very same countries that host them avoid a proper count to deny further space for their claims.

But, as stated before, the issue is not only the Tuareg claim for a country they have never had. The main problem is islamic terrorism that could infect a continent where a series of elements favoring subversive movements like poverty, instability, social inequality, evanescent borders, lack of effective central authorities are widespread. The first issue is hence the danger of a geographical welding between the North of Mali and other areas of instability: the North of Nigeria and Somalia. Basically, events in Mali are the worrisome and evident signal of what could happen elsewhere.

If under UN aegis an international military contingent is created to return the North of Mali to  Bamako's control and to crush down the different terrorist groups, this will only happen through the direct support (not direct participation) of Western countries that will have to provide money, intelligence, training and logistical assistance. The mere thought that such a political and military crisis could be resolved by Mali or by an African force means underestimating the menace and, at the same time, implying that African peace missions have proved an effectiveness they have never shown before.

The African contingent will act under Chapter VII of the UN and will go from “peace keeping” to “peace enforcement”. In other words, the use of weapons will be a recurrent priority. The UN rapid response force should be made up of 6000 men, half of whom from Mali and the rest from the ECOWAS or AU countries. The main problem is the timeframe for setting up such a military force (Nigeria and South Africa are willing to contribute). Mali does not have adequate infrastructure, the countries participating don't have adequate equipment, thus someone will have to finance them. If this were to take too long, Tuareg rebels and the different AQIM factions would have plenty of time to settle in and consolidate.

Italy has adhered in principle and is ready to provide its assistance. So has Spain. France and the US are already training the Malian army. But the true dissuasion forces (and imposition ones if case be) will be the French garrisons in the region, the AFRICOM base in Djibouti and the drones taking off from Burkina Faso and who are already monitoring the area.

But besides from the issue of terrorism, it is worth remembering that in Northern Mali and in neighboring Algeria and Mauritania oil fields have recently been discovered. Mali is the world's third exporter of gold. So there are definitely security issues, but also economic interests at stake. And these are elements that can surely attract international attention.