So defeated Algerian militant Islamists, with ties to other terrorist groups, retreated south into the forbidding desert to lick their wounds. By early 2007, the militants had reorganized as part of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The Tuareg needed allies. AQIM despised the infidel French who supported Mali's government. An alliance of convenience began, with a Tuareg Islamist faction, Ansar al Dine, something of a go-between. An AQIM splinter group also became involved, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).
The Tuareg have a secular, separatist political faction that despises the Mali government and al-Qaida. The separatist group had led the insurgency until it was undermined by hardline members of Ansar al Dine and AQIM's guns and money.
Last year, West African diplomats began meeting with Tuareg representatives to discuss a political solution. The Tuareg secularists demanded autonomy. In November, West African diplomats asked Mali's government to offer Mali's Tuareg separatists regional autonomy similar to the political arrangement Tuaregs enjoy in neighboring Niger.
Meanwhile, extremists in AQIM and Ansar al Dine have committed the same mistake their fellow hardliners made in Iraq and Somalia: imposing a harsh brand of Islamic law upon tribespeople, often at gunpoint. Stories circulate that Arab militants have demanded the Tuareg give them women to marry. That coercive demand appalled Iraq's Sunni tribes. In December, diplomats indicated Ansar al Dine moderates would throw in with the secularists if Mali made the autonomy deal. This would split the rebellion. The Tuareg are also wise to the stiff price in mortality paid by al-Qaida's tribal allies.
In this context, the AQIM-led offensive into southern Mali makes sense as a battlefield attempt to avoid a political defeat. France, however, decided to counterattack, to blunt AQIM's desperate move and buy time for diplomacy. The stage is set for another bitter, chaotic al-Qaida defeat. The sad thing is, many indigenous Muslim tribespeople exploited by al-Qaida will die in the chaos.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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