Mali’s Growing Crisis

Mali, a landlocked West African country, is one of the poorest in the world and poses one of the most serious challenges facing the African continent due to growing threats from al-Qaeda. The environment created in north Mali has become a refuge for terrorist groups which constitute a serious threat to regional peace and security and international peace.

Al Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters took advantage of the chaos following a military coup in the West African nation to seize key towns in the north. The jihadists have chased away Tuareg separatist rebels and have enforced strict Islamic law and destroyed ancient World Heritage sites they consider idolatrous.

Mali’s democratically elected leader was ousted in a military coup in March 2012. A military junta accused him of failing to quell a rebellion in the north, which began earlier in January. After the coup, Tuareg rebels took advantage of the power vacuum and within weeks took control of the north, aided by an Islamist faction. But the Islamists quickly ousted the Tuaregs and took control of half the country, creating fear among the population and in the region.

The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Islamist Ansar Dine are the two major Tuareg groups involved in the takeover of northern Mali – an area the size of France. Other small groups have also taken part in the fighting, including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao). Despite having very different aims, MNLA and Ansar Dine have joined forces to fight together from time to time, including in the capture of Timbuktu – but there are serious tensions between them, which have boiled over into clashes between the two groups.

In March 2012, Amadou Toumani Toure – the army general widely credited with rescuing Mali from military dictatorship and establishing democracy in Mali – was deposed as president by a coup. Known as ATT, his term of office was due to expire in April and on April 8 he formally resigned. However, after several of his allies were later arrested, he fled to neighboring Senegal. Mr Toure first came to power in a coup in 1991 – overthrowing military ruler Moussa Traore when security forces killed more than 100 pro-democracy demonstrators.

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Removing al-Qaeda from Northern Mali remains just one of many challenges and concerns for this African nation

Foreign military assistance has been limited. Some Malians want troops under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to arrive. But conflicting interests and lack of military muscle are putting the idea on hold. Nigeria, the main power in ECOWAS, has problems with its own security. None of ECOWAS’s members has the logistics and intelligence to retake a large territory.

Today, the northern half of Mali is now a virtual no-go area for journalists and humanitarian workers: Al-Qaeda linked groups controls the northern cities and AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) fighters have free reign throughout the countryside. Together they have instituted a harsh form of Sharia law (Islamic law) and destroyed centuries-old monuments including ancient Muslim shrines in Timbuktu.

The Al-Qaeda takeover in northern Mali has also sparked an exodus of half a million people. Around 100,000 refugees have already turned to Mali’s neighbors, Mauritania, and its rapidly swelling refugee camp, Mbera, a few hours from the border.

What Mali needs now is a legitimate political process and a strong military that the majority of Malians will accept to stabilize the nation and prevent it from becoming a “failed state.”

Abdul Sharif is a Somali-American freelance journalist and independent Africa researcher based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.