MERGER OF NORTHERN MALI REBEL MOVEMENTS CREATES POLITICAL DISTANCE FROM ISLAMIST MILITANTS
Proclaiming that the move was the only means of securing peace in northern Mali, the three largest rebel movements in the region announced their merger on November 4. The merger brings together the normally hostile members of one Arab militia, the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), and two Tuareg groups, the secular Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA), which contains many former members of the al-Qaeda-allied Islamist Ansar al-Din movement. No name has been chosen for the new movement, which will be effective “within 45 days” after approval had been given by the membership of each group (Soir de Bamako, November 4; al-Jazeera, November 5; AFP, November 5). The rebel movements are looking to present a united front after withdrawing from peace talks with the central government on September 26. Reports of a forthcoming decision to merge, undertaken by delegations of the three groups based at the now-suspended peace talks in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou, were given a hostile reception by groups of youths in Kidal (Maliactu.net, November 1).
In Bamako, there are fears that jihadists are re-infiltrating the north to recover weapons caches buried beneath the sand, as well as concerns about what much of the Malian press regards as duplicity from Paris in dealing with the north – the locally so-called “Dutch policy” (in reference to French president François Hollande), under which Paris is accused of arranging a separate deal with the MNLA with only a symbolic presence in Kidal from the Malian national government (L’Annonceur [Bamako], November 7; Maliactu.net, October 30; Les Échos [Bamako], November 6). During a recent visit to Mali, French Armed Forces chief-of-staff Admiral Edouard Guillaud expressed the ambivalence in France’s relationship with the MNLA rebels by saying that “France is neither pro, nor anti-MNLA.” Admiral Guillaud was reported to have discussed a defense agreement between the French and Malian militaries of a type unique to the former French colonies in Africa. Guillaud also promised to maintain French air support, Special Forces units in northern Mali and an operational headquarters at the Bamako-Senou International Airport (Maliactu.net, October 17; L’Essor [Bamako], October 10).
The Arab MAA was formed in February, 2012 (initially under the name Front de Libération Nationale de l’Azawad – FLNA) as a self-defense militia incorporating members of earlier Arab militias and Arab soldiers of the Malian Army who deserted after the fall of Timbuktu to Islamist groups last year (for clashes between the MNLA and MAA, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 3).
Despite the merger, the MNLA was accused of mounting a November 8 attack on a Malian military patrol in Egazargane, roughly 86 miles from the town of Menaka, though it is possible the clash was the result of a disagreement that followed a small collision between vehicles belonging to the army and the MNLA, respectively (Maliactu.net, November 8; AFP, November 10).
Efforts to arrive at a settlement in northern Mali have been further complicated by the abduction and murder on November 2 of two French nationals working for Radio France Internationale, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon. Malian intelligence sources have said the kidnapping was the work of Baye ag Bakabo, an ethnic Tuareg who was a low-level member of Abd al-Karim al-Targui’s unit of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) before he was expelled on suspicion of stealing money. In this regard, the kidnappings may have been a failed attempt to compensate al-Targui through significant ransoms for the two journalists and work his way back into the group, a scenario suggested by Bakabo’s relations in Kidal (Journal du Mali, November 9; AP, November 6). Al-Targui is a prime suspect in a number of high-profile abductions carried out in recent years in northern Mali. A statement issued by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the abductions and murders as “a response to crimes committed by France against Malians and the work of African and international forces against the Muslims of Azawad” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], November 6). There was speculation from military sources that Baye ag Bakabo had joined the MNLA in the interests of obscuring his past engagement with AQIM (Maliactu.net, November 8). Many Tuareg have displayed a notable fluidity in their organizational allegiance.
The two French nationals were seized outside the home of an MNLA official in Kidal that they had planned to interview. The pursuit of the kidnappers started quickly and in force, with ground troops on the trail being assisted by two Rafale fighter-jets diverted from another operation in northern Mali and a pair of helicopters dispatched from the air-strip at Tessalit (Le Monde, November 8). Although the kidnappers escaped, the bodies of the two journalists were discovered, killed either through panic on the part of their abductors or on the orders of al-Targui as pursuers closed in. Nine militants were reported to have been arrested in connection with the case on November 8 (Reuters, November 8).
MNLA vice-president Mahamadou Djeri Maiga said the movement had been “humiliated” by the abductions and were further concerned by the attitude of security authorities, who have declined offers of assistance from the MNLA in finding the perpetrators, though the movement is making its own enquiries: “We will share our results with those responsible for the case. We cannot sit idly by and do nothing” (AFP, November 4). The deaths of the journalists have been used in some quarters in Bamako to argue that the Tuareg movements are incapable of administering Kidal or Azawad as autonomous regions (Le Pays [Ouagadougou], November 6). A French government spokesman said on November 4 that France would “probably” increase its military presence in Mali in response to the slayings (Maliactu.net, November 4).
Bamako has backed off from its prior insistence that all arrest warrants issued for leading Tuareg rebels be carried out prior to arriving at a settlement for the north. On October 29, the central government announced it was lifting arrest warrants issued for Ibrahim ag Muhammad Assaleh of the MNLA, Ahmada ag Bibi and brothers Muhammad and Alghabass ag Intallah of the HCUA, the latter pair being the sons of the powerful leader of the Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal, Intallah ag Attaher (for Alghabass ag Intallah, see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2013). The reason given was the measure was needed to “facilitate the pursuit of the process of national reconciliation” (AFP, October 29). Ag Bibi and the Intallah brothers are all candidates in the November 24 parliamentary elections.
A number of Malian and African human rights organizations have opposed lifting the arrest warrants, claiming they would promote a climate of impunity for individuals accused of serious crimes, such as war crimes, murder, rebellion and terrorism. According to the leader of the Malian Association of Human Rights, a political solution to the Mali crisis “cannot be at the expense of the victims of the crisis or the independence of the judiciary” (L’Essor [Bamako], October 24).
BERBERS SEIZE LIBYAN OIL TERMINAL TO PRESS DEMAND FOR RECOGNITION
The ongoing and economically crippling occupation of Libya’s Mellitah gas and oil terminal (63 miles west of Tripoli) by armed Berber protesters actually became worse on November 12, when workers at the terminal launched a 72-hour strike to protest the occupation, leaving open the possibility of major power cuts to Libyan coastal and mountain communities (Libya Herald, November 12).
The Mellitah oil terminal, which has a capacity of handling 160,000 barrels per day (bpd), is one of several major terminals in Libya suffering blockades by armed gunmen; others include the 340,000 bpd al-Sidr and the 220,000 bpd Ras Lanuf terminals (for the broader implications of the various blockades, see Terrorism Monitor, October 31). The Berber protests at the terminal began on October 26, when armed men gave the ruling General National Congress (GNC) energy committee a one-week ultimatum regarding language rights and increased representation on Libya’s constitutional committee before they would shut the terminal down.
Libya’s constitutional committee has allotted six seats of 60 to Libya’s minorities; two for the Berbers (the self-called Imazighen), two for the Tuareg and two for the Tubu of southern Libya. The method of assembling the committee has been a source of intense disagreement over whether members should be selected or elected directly, with the latter choice eventually prevailing, even though it has meant further delays in beginning the committee’s work. In the meantime, much of the country is at a standstill until the new Libyan state is defined and organized. Berber representatives to the GNC resigned in July after failing to persuade the Congress to make Amazigh, the language of the Berbers, an official language of Libya.
Berber anger at the constitutional process has been building for several months. In mid-August, Berber protesters demanding recognition of minority rights forced their way into the Libyan parliament in Tripoli, smashing furniture and breaking windows (Reuters, August 14). In late September, Berber youth from the western Jabal Nafusa region cut off a gas pipeline to protest the absence of the Amazigh language from the proposed constitution (Middle East Online, September 30; AFP, October 1).
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has warned of serious consequences if the oil blockades are not removed soon, including impediments to Libya’s ability to cover its budget expenditures, beginning in December. The GNC’s inability to pay nearly $100 million owed for earlier imports of wheat now threatens the ability of Libyan wheat importers to make further purchases for the heavily subsidized bread industry (Reuters, November 6). Zeidan specifically mentioned the blockage of the Mellitah terminal as having the potential of forcing Italy to seek its oil and gas elsewhere (Reuters, November 10). The Mellitah terminal is owned jointly by Italy’s Eni Petroleum and the Libyan state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC). According to Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni, the Berber occupiers are pressuring the company to cut gas supplies to Italy (Reuters, November 6). Eni is the largest foreign oil company operating in Libya and was responsible for producing some 270,000 bpd before the fall of Qaddafi.
The Berber gunmen are led by Adel al-Falu, a former Libyan army officer once tasked with protecting the Mellitah terminal. With oil exports from the terminal halted, al-Falu is now seeking to halt gas exports through trans-Mediterranean pipelines to Italy, with the objective of pressuring Italy and the European Union to force Libya’s GNC to recognize the Amazigh language (Reuters, November 8). Most of the 50 to 75 gunmen occupying Mellitah arrived from the nearby town of Zuwara in coast-guard boats the Berbers seized during the 2011 revolution. Many of the occupiers are veterans of the revolution. Zuwara has been in the midst of a revival of Berber culture and language since the launch of the revolution (Agence de Presse Kabyle, September 19, 2011). The Amazigh name for Zuwara incorporates the name of the Berber group that lives in the area, Tamurt n Wat Willul (Town of the Ait Willul) (for Berber communities in Libya, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, Pt. 1, May 5 2011; Pt. 2, May 12, 2011). Zuwara is the hometown of Nuri Abu Sahmain, the chairman of Libya’s ruling body, the Tripoli-based GNC. The largest concentration of Libya’s approximate 600,000 Berbers (roughly 10 percent of the population) reside around the western town of Jadu in the Jabal Nafusa region, the home of a Berber militia that played a vital role in the overthrow of the late Mu’ammar Qaddafi.
The Libyan protests are part of a larger movement to revive the Berber language and its dialects in North Africa after centuries of official and unofficial repression designed to replace Amazigh with Arabic. The problem now, however, is finding qualified instructors of Amazigh. Few such qualified instructors exist in Libya, meaning that only one school in southern Libya will begin teaching Amazigh next year (The National [Abu Dhabi], November 5). In Zuwara, some primary schools have succeeded in hiring Amazigh language teachers from Algeria and Morocco (Reuters, November 8).
There is little consensus on the exact extent of the blockade at the Mellitah terminal, in terms of both oil and gas exports. Even as the Prime Minister warns of the long-term impact of the blockade, NOC spokesmen have maintained that the occupiers are limited to a small part of the terminal and that “the complex is working as normal,” with ships loading oil and gas continuing to flow through the Greenstream pipeline to Sicily. On the same day, however, Eni CEO Paolo Scaroni said the Mellitah terminal was “under attack” (Libya Herald, November 6). The Mellitah occupation does not appear to have affected gas flows to Italy through the Greenstream pipeline from the offshore al-Bouri field. The Berber occupiers announced on November 6 that they would cut off the Greenstream gas pipeline (AFP, November 6). On November 8, however, the militants said they would restore gas flows on November 10 as a “good-will gesture,” but with the warning that the pipeline would be cut if the number of seats allotted to the Berber community on the constitutional committee was not increased (Libya Herald, November 8).
Unable to enforce the writ of the central government anywhere in Libya without the cooperation of local armed militias, the Libyan Prime Minister has also warned recently of the possibility of foreign military intervention unless the nation rallies to eliminate the armed groups: "The international community cannot tolerate a state in the middle of the Mediterranean that is a source of violence, terrorism and murder" (al-Jazeera, November 10).