“The Sons of the Land”: Tribal Challenges to the Tuareg Conquest of Northern Mali

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 8

Press event with Amadou Sanogo

After the last month’s shocking developments in Mali, including a military coup, the collapse of the national security forces, the conquest of northern Mali by Tuareg rebels and the emergence of an Islamist group with apparent ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the land-locked African nation has entered into a tense stand-off in which next steps are being planned by all parties.  Even as the military staff of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) form plans for a possible military intervention and neighboring Algeria places a reinforced garrison and substantial air elements on high alert at their military base in the southern oasis of Tamanrasset, the most immediate source of further conflict may be Arab and African tribal militias unwilling to accept Tuareg dominance in northern Mali.

Ganda Koy

The most prominent of these militias is known as Ganda Iso (“Sons of the Land”), the successor to an earlier group notorious for its attacks on civilians known as Ganda Koy (“Lords of the Land”).  According to Seydou Cissé, regarded as the “founding father” of Ganda Iso, the earlier Ganda Koy movement was formed over 1994-1995 by Imam Muhammad n’Tissa Maiga to resist attacks on the sedentary and semi-nomadic population (largely black African Songhai and Peul/Fulani) from bandits and lighter-skinned nomads (primarily the Tuareg, Arabs and Mauritanians, collectively and commonly referred to in Mali as “the whites”).

After its formation, Ganda Koy engaged in brutal attacks on the lighter-skinned peoples of northern Mali in a conflict that became racially and ethnically defined. Ganda Koy’s most notorious operation involved a massacre of 53 Mauritanians and Tuareg marabouts (holy men) of the Kel Essouk clan near Gao in 1994. The militia was alleged to have received support and funding from the Malian army and was composed largely of former Malian soldiers, many of whom were granted an amnesty and reabsorbed into the military when the movement was officially dissolved in March, 1996 (Jeune Afrique, September 24, 2008). In reality, however, the movement had merely entered a dormant phase and has since been resurrected in one form or another whenever tensions rise between the rival communities of northern Mali.

Ganda Koy was effectively disrupted by Colonel Amadou Baba Touré, who succeeded in infiltrating the movement with his own agents so that their every move was known in advance. The Colonel also harassed the leadership of the movement, including Cissé, with short periods of detention without charge. Cissé attempted to convince Colonel Touré that Ganda Koy was not engaged in an ethnic struggle, but the continued pressure from security forces split the movement (L’Indépendant [Bamako], August 12, 2010; Mali Demain [Bamako], September 26, 2008). 

Efforts by Ganda Koy in 2008 to enter the political process were rebuffed by the Malian establishment. Refusal to hear Ganda Koy grievances led to threats from the movement that they would resume their military activities (Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], November 19, 2008; Le Tambour [Bamako], November 25, 2008).

A Ganda Koy unit believed to be largely Fulani in origin attacked a military camp at Ouattagouna in Gao region in March 2011. The attack closely followed the arrest of a Ganda Koy commander, Aliou Amadou (a.k.a. Sadjo), on charges of possessing illegal weapons (22 Septembre [Bamako], March 25). When the president of the Ganda Koy movement, Colonel Abdoulaye Maiga, did not appear for a press conference in July, 2011 it was believed that his absence was due to pressure from the military (22 Septembre [Bamako], July 4, 2011).

A statement attributed to Ganda Koy was issued in December 2011, in which the movement declared it was reactivating its armed units in Mali as of December 11 to counter Tuareg fighters returning from Libya with their arms and called on Songhai and Fulani members of the Malian military to join the fighting units of Ganda Koy as soon as possible (Le Politicien [Bamako], December 16, 2011).

Ganda Iso

Seydou Cissé says he formed Ganda Iso in 2009 in the interests of “maintaining social stability in the region” and ensuring there would be justice rather than immunity for malefactors: “We had no choice in creating the Ganda Iso. Each community had its own militia. And to be feared and dreaded, we needed to have our own militia” (L’Indépendant [Bamako], August 12, 2010).

Sergeant Amadou Diallo, a Peul/Fulani, was appointed head of the military arm of the movement with responsibility for training recruits, while Seydou Cissé was to be the civilian head of the political movement. This arrangement fell apart after Sergeant Diallo conducted a broad daylight massacre of four Tuareg civilians in the village of Hourala on the weekly market day, bringing swift retaliation from armed Tuareg (Mali Demain [Bamako], September 5, 2008; Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], September 9, 2008).  At this point Cissé says he realized Diallo had “deviated from our goal” and “deflected our plans.” Though Ganda Iso was blamed for this attack, Cissé claims it was the result of Diallo allying himself with the Tolobé Peul/Fulani of Niger, whom Cissé described as “great bandits.” When Cissé was called to account by then Malian president Ahmadou Toumani Touré, he told the president he was only seeking respect for his people and asked for the transfer of his nemesis, Colonel Ahmadou Baba Touré. A split followed between Diallo and the civilian leadership of the movement; according to Cissé: “Sergeant Diallo did not understand our struggle. While we are fighting for the security of the area, he was fighting for his own account. In a document that the State Security gave me, Ahmadou Diallo required as a condition of peace that the state gives him 30 million FCFA [West African CFA Francs], a villa and a car” (L’Indépendant [Bamako], August 12, 2010). An ex-member of Ganda Iso echoed this evaluation: “The movement of Diallo is not a product of the Ganda Koy. It pursues the unsatisfied plan of a man who manipulates his brothers to try to intimidate the Malian nation in the sole goal of making money” (Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], September 26, 2008).

Ganda Iso’s September, 2008 killing of the four Tuareg civilians was variously reported to have occurred in reaction to the murder of an elderly Peul man by an armed group in Tin Hamma or as the result of damage to Peul herds during a May 12 attack by Imghad Tuareg on a Malian gendarmerie base in Ansongo (L’Essor [Bamako], October 7). [1] It is uncertain whether the Ganda Iso killers were aware that three of their Imghad victims were also cousins of Colonel al-Hajj Gamou, the powerful leader of a loyalist Imghad Tuareg militia, but a reported call from Diallo after the killings to the office of the Malian president complaining that Colonel Gamou’s militia was harassing Peul/Fulanis in the Ansongo region suggests that this had a role in the selection of targets. However, making a personal enemy of one of the most effective and occasionally ruthless desert fighters in northern Mali was ultimately a poor decision and Diallo soon had new complaints that Gamou had buried many of Diallo’s relatives up to their neck in holes in the desert. [2]

On the night of September 14, 2008 a gun battle broke out in Gao when one of Colonel Gamou’s patrols surprised a group of Ganda Iso (possibly led personally by Ahmadou Diallo) allegedly caught in the midst of an assassination attempt on Muhammad ag Mahmud Akiline, the director of Mali’s Agency for Northern Development (Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], September 16, 2008; L’Indépendant [Bamako], September 18, 2008). While the Army was busy arresting some 30 suspected members of Ganda Iso and hunting down the movement’s leadership, its communications branch was simultaneously denying the presence of any militias in Mali, insisting the Army’s deployment in Gao was intended only to “prevent people from creating a mess” (Le Republicain [Bamako], September 24, 2008). 

Colonel Gamou retaliated against Ganda Iso in a September 16, 2008 attack on Fafa, Ahmadou Diallo’s hometown in the movement’s Ansongo district stronghold (Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], September 19, 2008). The raid yielded a large store of guns, grenades and mortars, but many of the movement’s supporters claimed they could not understand why security forces were focused on a “self-defense” unit rather than rebels and brigands in northern Mali (L’Indépendant [Bamako], September 19).

Security sweeps arrested dozens more members and Ahmadou Diallo fled to neighboring Niger, where he was arrested only days later and extradited to Mali, where he was soon released “on the sly” by his friends in the government (Radio France Internationale, September 27, 2008; Info-Matin [Bamako], June 15, 2009).

Ganda Iso was far from finished, however, and on January 1, 2009 members of the movement hurled hand grenades at the homes of three prominent Imghad Tuareg leaders in Timbucktu, including Muhammad ag Mahmud Akiline, who had escaped an earlier Ganda Iso assassination attempt in September, 2008. General Ahmadou Baba Touré claimed that the grenade-throwers were among those arrested in the September, 2008 security sweep and later released. [3] In June, 2009, an armed group believed to be Peul/Fulani members of Ganda Iso attacked a Tuareg camp in Tessit, part of the Ansongo district of Gao Region, killing six Tuareg (Info Matin [Bamako], June 15, 2009). It was reported by some sources that the murderers were the same as those suspected in the September 2008 killing of four Tuareg civilians (Info-Matin [Bamako], June 16, 2009).

After talks with the government, a demobilization and disarmament “peace flame” ceremony for Ganda Iso was held in 2010, emulating an earlier and better-known “peace flame” commemorating the Tuareg demobilization and disarmament following the 1996 rebellion. The event was widely regarded as a failure in which old and obsolete weapons were turned in for public incineration before an audience that included neither senior members of government nor the military leader of Ganda Iso, Ahmadou Diallo (22 Septembre [Bamako], August 9, 2010).

Ganda Iso in the Current Conflict

There have been reports that the post-coup Malian military has resumed its old patronage of the “Ganda” movements by providing food and military equipment to 1,000 members of Ganda Iso and Ganda Koy (Le Combat [Bamako], March 28). Ganda Iso clashed with the independence-seeking Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) in mid-March, reportedly killing six rebels and wounding seven others. The MNLA attacked a Ganda Iso training camp in the Ansongo district in retaliation on March 15, suffering the loss of al-Her ag Ekaratane, a deserter from the Malian Army and the former chief of the camel corps in Ansango (L’Indépendant [Bamako], March 20; 22 Septembre [Bamako], March 19). Ganda Iso fighters gathered at Gao are reported to have melted away when combined MNLA/Ansar al-Din forces approached.

The MNLA has maintained from the beginning of the rebellion that the movement brings the various peoples of northern Mali together in pursuit of an independent state of “Azawad,” including the Kel-Tamashek (the Tuareg self-name), the Songhai, the Peul/Fulani, the Arabs and the “Moors” (Mauritanians). In practice, however, there has been little evidence that any of the non-Tuareg communities are represented in the MNLA in any significant numbers.

Ahmadou Diallo appears to have shared the concerns of the military coup leaders over the handling of Tuareg rebels by the Bamako politicians, telling an interviewer in 2008 that Bamako’s response to Tuareg rebellions in the north was “too politicized.” According to Diallo, “The military had the means and the weapons to fight dissidents and bandits in the north, but had its hands tied and was forced to follow orders” (Le Temoin du Nord [Bamako], October 17, 2008). Though this may have been true at the time (as the 2009 defeat of Tuareg rebel leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga attests), this was no longer the situation when the Tuareg began the new rebellion last January, wielding firepower superior to that of the Malian Army courtesy of the looted armories of Libya.

Diallo is reported to have met his end in a battle with MNLA rebels in the Ansongo district on March 25 (Reuters, March 25; L’Essor [Bamako], March 28). A Bamako report that honored this “outstanding” warrior claimed that Diallo’s death had dealt a serious blow to the morale of Ganda Iso and its civilian supporters (Le Combat [Bamako], March 28). It is for now unclear who might succeed Diallo as military leader of the movement.

In the meantime, a somewhat less aggressive and more diverse alternative to Ganda Iso may have emerged in the north. On April 4, the newly formed Coalition of People from North Mali brought together a variety of former politicians and administrators from the northern provinces under the chairmanship of former Prime Minister and Gao native Ousmane Issoufi Maigi (2004-2007). The Coalition urged soldiers and civilians to prepare for a liberation struggle and there are reports that the recruitment of volunteers has begun, possibly with an eye to opening a corridor for humanitarian aid as severe food shortages loom in the north (L’Essor [Bamako], April 7; Le Républicain [Bamako], April 6).

Pro-Government Tuareg Militias

After the current rebellion began on January 17, there were early reports of victories by Colonel Gamou’s pro-government Tuareg militia, followed by the surprising news in late March that this arch-loyalist had defected to the MNLA. However, when Colonel Gamou arrived in neighboring Niger in early April he admitted that his defection was only a ruse following the collapse of the Malian Army in the north, one that enabled him to shift 500 men and dozens of combat vehicles through rebel lines to safety without losses. For now his men have been disarmed and Gamou and his leading officers moved to Niamey (Radio France Internationale, April 6). In the event of an ECOWAS intervention, they would likely be returned to the field. There are other Tuareg, particularly of the Imghad, who want no part of the MNLA or the Ansar al-Din, but organized resistance in the current circumstances would be difficult. Many who oppose the rebels have simply fled across the borders until a safe return is possible.

The Arab Militias

Though Ganda Iso may treat the Arabs and Tuareg as a common enemy, there are in fact enormous differences between the two communities exacerbated by a traditional lack of trust and the recent introduction into northern Mali of the largely Arab al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb movement (AQIM). AQIM’s apparent alliance with the newly-formed Salafist-Jihadist Ansar al-Din group under the command of veteran Tuareg militant Iyad ag Ghali has only complicated affairs.

After the Malian Army fled Timbuktu, the strong Arab trading community in that city formed its own resistance group of several hundred men to combat Tuareg rule, the Front de Libération Nationale d’Azawad (FLNA).  According to the movement’s secretary-general, Muhammad Lamine Sidad, the Arabs “have our own interests to defend – a return to peace and economic stability” (Reuters, April 9). Unable to match the firepower of the rebels, the Arab militia has decamped to the outskirts of Timbuktu, waiting for an opportunity to expel the Tuareg. 

The pro-government Bérabiche Arab militia led by Colonel Muhammad Ould Meidou appears to have ceased operations in northern Mali for the present, though there are reports of a new Bérabiche militia in training (Le Combat [Bamako], January 31). The Bérabiche have often turned to self-defense militias in the past and it is possible that Mali’s Kounta and Telemsi Arabs may do the same now if it is the only alternative to Tuareg rule.


Many Malians believe that Ganda Koy and its successor Ganda Iso enjoy a certain immunity in their relationship with Mali’s security forces as a means of applying pressure on the nation’s northern communities. A 2009 U.S. Embassy cable noted that Bamako’s “catch and release policy” regarding Ganda Iso suspects “does not seem to have helped matters” [4] With the looming possibility of a clash between nationalist and Islamist Tuareg in northern Mali (with the latter possibly receiving support from AQIM), there is a growing likelihood that Arab and African-based “self-defense” militias may take advantage of such an opportunity to try and reverse the recent Tuareg gains in the region. A descent into tribal and ethnic warfare in northern Mali would be sure to devastate an already marginal region for years to come.

Andrew McGregor is the Editor of The Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor and Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world.


1.  Wikileaks: U.S. Embassy Bamako cable 08BAMAKO778, September 9, 2008.

2. Ibid

3. Wikileaks: U.S. Embassy Bamako cable 09BAMAKO3, January 5, 2009.

4. Ibid