Mali has experienced perhaps the most significant external repercussions from the downfall of the regime of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Stratfor has discussed the impact of the conflict in Libya on the wider region since international intervention began in March 2011. Instability in Libya due to that country's deep internal fault lines meant that re-establishing a government would prove difficult. As we pointed out, that instability could spread to neighboring countries as weapons and combatants flow outward from Libya.
Reports now indicate that thousands of armed Tuareg tribesmen who previously served in Gadhafi's military have returned home to Mali. The influx of this large number of well-armed and well-trained fighters, led by a former Libyan army colonel, has re-energized the long-simmering Tuareg insurgency against the Malian government. These Tuareg insurgents have formed a new group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). In mid-January, they began a military campaign to free three northern regions of Mali from Bamako's control.
The government of Mali has claimed that the MNLA is aligned with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). MNLA, however, has strongly denied any link to the group and said it will serve as a bulwark against AQIM. Given the U.S. and European interest in preventing the strengthening of AQIM, both sides have considerable incentive to take their respective positions. These developments make it an opportune time to examine the MNLA, its current offensive and the potential implications for Mali and the region.
The Tuaregs are a semi-nomadic people who inhabit the interior of Africa's Sahara region, including parts of Mali, Algeria, Niger and Libya. (Click here for background information on the Tuaregs.) Tuareg militancy extends to pre-colonial times; the current conflict is merely the latest manifestation of a longstanding struggle between the Tuaregs and their ruler of the moment. In modern times, Tuareg insurgencies seem to occur almost every decade. They have fought the governments of Mali, Niger and Algeria since those countries' independence from France. Major Tuareg rebellions occurred in Mali from 2007 to 2009 and from 1990 to 1995.
During these rebellions, Tuareg militants typically exploit their mountain bases in Mali's northeast to launch hit-and-run guerrilla attacks against military targets across Mali's vast northern region, leaving the Malian armed forces spread thin.