ISLAMIST GROUPS MOUNT JOINT OFFENSIVE IN MALI
Just as the days of cooperation between the three Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali last year seemed to be over, the three groups appear to have mounted a joint push southwards towards Malian Army lines near Mopti and Sévaré. The move may be intended to present a united front before peace talks resume in Ouagadougou on January 19, though the exact composition of the force remains uncertain. The advance may also offer an opportunity to test the resolve of the Malian Army and its allied militias, which have been talking tough but showing little sign of mounting an offensive against the Islamists any time soon.
In the last few weeks, a combination of internal racial and religious tensions between the Islamist groups has been exacerbated by a perceived need to reconfigure alliances in the region to prepare for an inevitable external military intervention. Also, the largely Tuareg Ansar al-Din movement commanded by Iyad ag Ghali (a.k.a. Abu al-Fadl) appears to be making efforts to consolidate a leading role amongst the militant groups. Important changes are afoot in the command structure of the other Islamist groups in northern Mali which have, until now, been dominated by Mauritanian and Algerian Arab commanders.
In an interview with an Algerian newspaper, Shaykh Awisa, a leading member of Ansar al-Din’s military command, referred to the movement’s shift away from an alliance with the largely Black African Islamists of MUJWA (Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa) in favor of closer ties to its former partner, the Tuareg nationalist MNLA: “Our relations with the MNLA are very good. We have a common enemy [i.e. MUJWA]. There are no problems between our movement, Ansar al Din, and the MNLA” (Le Temps d’Algérie, November 27, 2012). The MNLA fought a fierce battle with MUJWA on November 16, 2012.
MUJWA has identified a replacement for Hisham Bilal, believed to have been the first sub-Saharan individual to command an al-Qaeda-associated jihadist combat unit. Bilal and a number of his men returned to his native Niger and surrendered to authorities there on November 8, 2012, complaining that the Arab commanders of MUJWA viewed Black African jihadists as “cannon fodder” and believed “a black man is inferior to an Arab or a white” (AFP, November 9, 2012). Bilal’s successor is a Beninese national using the nom de guerre “Abdullah.” The new commander is reported to speak Yoruba, a major language in Nigeria as well as Benin, and may have been responsible for contacts between MUJWA and northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement (Radio France Internationale, December 31, 2012). According to one report, MNLA leader Bilal ag Acherif was in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in mid-December, trying to convince authorities there that his movement could, with Nigerian arms and logistical support, provide a bulwark against the expansion of Boko Haram (Jeune Afrique, December 16, 2012).
MUJWA speaks of itself as an alliance between native Arab, Tuareg and Black African tribes and various muhajirin (“Immigrants,” i.e. foreign jihadists) from North and West Africa. According to MUJWA, their “war” against the MNLA was sparked not only by the Tuareg nationalists’ refusal to adopt Shari’a as the law of the land, but also by their racial attitudes, suggesting that in the MNLA, “the Black has no rights, while the White has rights” (in Malian usage, “white” is applied to Tuareg, Arabs and Mauritanians).  To further its official position on race relations, MUJWA cites a familiar hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) recorded by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855 C.E.): “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety” (Musnad Ahmad 22391).
On January 2, MUJWA’s Salah al-Din Brigade announced it had decided to leave MUJWA and join Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement. The decision by Brigade leader Sultan Ould Badi (a.k.a. Abu Ali) to swear allegiance to Ag Ghali apparently came after lengthy efforts by Ansar al-Din leaders to unify the Islamists. Most of the fighters in the Salah al-Din Brigade are reported to hail from Gao and Kidal (Sahara Media, January 2).
A leading member of the MNLA and its provisional Azawad government denied rumors of dissent within his movement while warning at the same time that any member of Ansar al-Din who allies himself with MUJWA will be treated as a MUJWA fighter (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 10, 2012). At the moment there are no hostilities between the MNLA and Ansar al-Din, both primarily Tuareg rebel movements who have been engaged in joint peace talks being held in Ougadougou and Algiers despite their conflicting goals. However, on January 3, Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghali announced that his movement would no longer abide by its offer to end hostilities with the Bamako government due to the latter’s failure to bring anything of substance to negotiations in Ougadougou and its decision to recruit mercenaries from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire to fight in northern Mali (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], January 3; AFP, January 3).
Within al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Mauritanian, Muhammad al-Amin Ould al-Hassan Ould al-Hadrami (a.k.a. Abdallah al-Shinqiti), is reported to have been appointed the new amir of the Furqan Battalion to replace Yahya Abu al-Hammam, who took over as amir of AQIM’s Sahara command (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 18, 2012). Al-Shinqiti finished a degree from Nouackcohott’s Higher Institute for Islamic Studies and Research in 2006 while serving a 14-month prison term before joining AQIM (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], December 31, 2012). AQIM’s penchant for cigarette and drug smuggling has created friction with Ansar al-Din, which has vowed to eliminate the trade in areas under its control (Le Temps d’Algérie, November 29).
In order to broaden its base, Ansar al-Din now appears to be abandoning its strict adherence to the non-native Salafism that brought the movement into conflict with many residents of northern Mali. In negotiations being held in Burkina Faso, Ansar al-Din has backed away from its insistence that Shari’a be applied throughout Mali rather than just northern Mali (Azawad). Movement leaders such as Iyad ag Ghali and Algabass ag Intalla have been meeting with local religious leaders and tribal chiefs to assure them Ansar al-Din does not intend to interfere with the traditional form of Islam practiced in the region (Jeune Afrique, December 21). By doing so, the movement hopes to marginalize the foreign Salafists commanding AQIM. If Ansar al-Din is to have any success in the ongoing negotiations with Bamako it must be able to demonstrate some degree of popular support and thus cannot afford to continue alienating local Muslims. Such moves also help bring Ansar al-Din closer to the MNLA, which rejects the introduction of Islamist extremism into the region.
Meanwhile, Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), who split from AQIM after a dispute with the movement’s leadership in November, is reported to have relocated with a detachment of loyalists and MUJWA fighters equipped with dozens of vehicles armed with heavy machine-guns to al-Khalil, an important transit point for smugglers and legitimate traders alike near the Algerian border (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 26, 2012; for Belmokhtar’s split, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, November 15; November 30). The occupation of al-Khalil gives Belmokhtar an opportunity to control fuel smuggling in the region as well as shipments of food and other goods to northern Mali. 
While northern Mali was once neatly divided between the three armed Islamist groups in the region, Ansar al-Din has now moved its forces out of Kidal into Timbuktu and Gao regions, once the preserves of AQIM and MUJWa, respectively. AQIM appears to have responded to this move by creating a new brigade to operate in Kidal, the Katibat Yusuf bin Tachfine, led by a Kidal Tuareg named Abu Abd al-Hamid al-Kidali (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 3, 2012). In the current environment of mistrust in northern Mali, a joint operation may be the only way of preventing an outbreak of clashes between the sometimes cooperative, sometimes antagonistic Islamist movements operating in the region.
1. Statement from the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, Gao, November 23, 2012.
2. For al-Khalil, see Judith Scheele, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, 2012.
AFRICAN TROOPS POUR INTO CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC TO HALT REBEL ADVANCE
African troops from several nations have begun to arrive in the Central African Republic (CAR) in an effort to save the embattled regime of President François Bozizé Yangouvonda. The latest threat to the Bozizé regime began on December 10, 2012, when a coalition of three rebel movements began an offensive in the north of the country, covering 500 kilometers over rough terrain in only 19 days before halting close to the capital of Bangui. The rebels met only minimal resistance from government troops (the Forces armées centrafricaines – FACA) and troops belonging to the Mission de consolidation de la paix en République Centrafricaine (MICOPAX), an international force of over 500 troops from Chad, Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo. Bozizé has dismissed his own son, Jean-Francis, from his post as Defense Minister over the failure of the army to offer any resistance to the rebel advance (PANA Online [Dakar], January 4). For now the rebel advance has halted outside Damara, roughly 100 miles from the capital of Bangui as both parties head to talks in the Gabon capital of Libreville.
The CAR has abundant reserves of uranium, diamonds and timber, but continued insecurity and corruption have left the landlocked nation one of the poorest and most underdeveloped on earth. The military often goes unpaid for months at a time and has occasionally relied on emergency shipments of cash from France to prevent new rounds of mutinies. As a result, the poorly trained and ill-led force has come to resemble yet another bandit group that rarely conducts operations of any size outside the capital. The Presidential Guard is largely composed of Chadian mercenaries.
The rebel coalition has adopted the name “Seleka,” and is composed of three groups that came to terms with the government in the 2008 Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement; the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR), the Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP) and the Front démocratique du people centrafricain (FDPC). These groups accuse Bozizé of failing to meet the terms of the agreement over the last five years and now demand his ouster. Seleka is under the nominal command of Michel Djotodia, a founding member of the UFDR and is represented in Paris by Eric Massi, the son of Charles Massi, a former government minister and CPJP leader who was killed in mysterious circumstances after his arrest in 2009 (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 25, 2009). Seleka’s military chief is Aubain Issa Issiaka. Though the coalition is united in their hatred of Bozizé, they appear to be unable to agree on little else (Jeune Afrique, January 2). Despite the unwillingness of the international contingent to confront the rebel advance so far, Gabonese MICOPAX commander General Jean-Felix Akaga has warned Seleka that “We will not give up Damara, this must be clear. If the rebels attack Damara, this will mean that they have decided to take on the ten countries of Central Africa” (Jeune Afrique, January 2).
The CAR’s Territorial Administration Minister, Josué Binoua, claims that the rebel groups are in fact composed of rebels from Darfur and the remnants of Mahamat Nouri’s Alliance nationale pour le changement démocratique (ANCD), a relatively inactive Chadian rebel group since it lost the backing of Khartoum in 2010 (for the collapse of the Chadian rebellion, see Terrorism Monitor, October 28, 2010). The ANCD has denied any involvement in the rebellion (AFP, January 4). According to Binoua, the leaders of the rebellion studied in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and intend to impose Wahhabist beliefs on the CAR (Jeune Afrique, January 7). Though many of the rebels are indeed Muslims from the northern CAR, these claims seem designed to rally international support behind the Bozize regime by raising the specter of a takeover by Salafi-Jihadists similar to that in northern Mali.
Several nations have responded to an appeal for more troops from Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno, chairman of the Communauté économique des Etats d’Afrique centrale (CEEAC), the multinational body sponsoring MICOPAX. Congo-Brazzaville has committed 120 troops, as has Gabon and Cameroon. These forces are expected to join the 400 Chadians deployed at Damara, the last outpost before Bangui (PANA Online [Dakar], January 1; RFI, January 2; January 4; AFP, December 31, 2012). The reinforcements will operate under the command of MICOPAX. However, Gabonese Defense Minister Ruffin Pacome Odzonga has made it clear that “the mandate of the Gabonese troops is to provide a buffer and not to fight the rebels” (RFI, January 2). CEEAC is composed of Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Sao Tomé and Principe.
South Africa is also sending 400 members of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) to the CAR on a limited deployment ranging from January 2 to March 31. Whether these troops would participate in operations against the rebels remains uncertain, as their mandate mentions only assisting FACA with “capacity building” and assisting in the “planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilization and re-integration processes” (SANews [Tshwane], January 7).
A detachment of several hundred French troops in Bangui as part of Operation Boali (intended to support the CAR military and international forces of the CEEAC) have been detailed to protect French nationals and diplomatic premises in the CAR capital.  CEEAC forces are expected to replace local vigilante groups in the capital known as Kokora. Armed with machetes and bows and arrows, these groups have detained or abused Muslims in the capital whom they accuse of being a fifth column for the rebels (AFP, January 2; January 5).
1. France Diplomatie, December 27, 2012, http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/central-african-republic-188/france-and-the-central-african/political-relations-6283/article/central-african-republic-q-a For Operation Boali, see http://www.defense.gouv.fr/operations/autres-operations/operation-boali-rca/dossier/les-forces-francaises-en-republique-centrafricaine.