tuareg rebellion mali

Written by Adam Abass 8:06 pm Articles, Current Affairs, Published Content

The Tuareg Rebellion and the Emergence of Jihadist Groups in Mali

The 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali precipitated the rise of jihadist armed groups in the Sahel region, which are now flourishing and expanding to other West African states. Adam Abass argues that the relationship between jihadist groups and the locals is the primary reason for the groups’ expansion. The inter-group violence and the lack of state presence in local communities make the country more vulnerable to jihadist exploitation.
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Adam Abass is an undergraduate student of political science and international relations. His research focuses on Middle Eastern politics, counter-terrorism, peace, and security in Africa.

The 2012 Rebellion

The dominant Tuareg ethnic group in the north had been leading the insurrection against the Malian state since gaining independence from the French in the 1960s. Several rebellions in the north had been staged which shaped the political situation of the Sahelian state in the post-colonial era. The 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali was no doubt a watershed event in the history of the country’s post-colonial politics, and this was due to the geopolitical tension that shaped the region at the time.

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The deposition of Ghaddafi in neighboring Libya and the return of ethnic Tuareg mercenaries who served under the Ghaddafi regime spearheaded the insurrection for an autonomous state. The ethnic Tuareg rebels called themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and claimed to fight against the discrimination and marginalization of the ethnic groups in the northern region.

They formally began a military campaign in early 2012 against the Malian government, with well-armed and trained fighters, gaining the upper hand in the struggle for self-rule. Amidst the escalation between the Tuareg rebel group and the Malian forces, the civilian president Amadou Toure was overthrown by the military, with the military citing the inability of the civilian government to contain the ethnic armed insurrection.

Leveraging on the political vacuum, the armed Tuareg rebels seized a large swath of the northern region and captured strategic cities including Timbuktu and Gao, and subsequently declared the independent states of the Azawad.

Jihadist Emergence & Alliance

During the 2012 Tuareg rebellion in Mali, there was the active involvement of jihadist groups; three different Islamist militant groups rose to prominence: Al-Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar-Deen, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).

AQIM has been actively present in the region since the 2000s and has been engaged in high-scale bombing attacks and kidnapping. The MUJAO emerged in late 2011, a splinter group of AQIM, and has also been carrying out small-scale attacks, while Ansar-Deen was born out of the faction of some ethnic groups who desired an Islamic state. Ansar-Deen had little significance prior to the rebellion, but after that, the group began to leverage the chaotic situation in northern Mali to carry out its activities such as training its fighters, expanding recruitment, and plotting transnational terrorist attacks.

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The presence and involvement of these jihadist groups in the Tuareg rebellion led to a swift victory on the battlefield against the Malian forces. While most of the battlefield gain has been attributed to the MNLA rebel fighters, the jihadist fighters under the commander of Al-Qaida Mokhtar Belmokhatr had been a major factor in the success.

However, the fruitful alliance between the jihadist and ethnic groups was short-lived as both sides had differences on the ideological front, with the jihadist proposing a pure Sharia law to be implemented in the region, while the Azawad leadership wanted a secular state, with no strict imposition of rule. These rifts led to skirmishes between the two groups, and within weeks, the jihadist group ousted Tuareg fighters from most of northern Mali including strategic cities like Gao and other towns and villages.

The Current State of the Relationship

The coalition of the jihadist group to counter the Islamic State in the Sahel expansionism led to the formation of Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an Al-Qaida affiliate born out of the coalition. While both jihadist organizations had a history of cooperation with each other in the fight against both local and foreign military forces in the country, the division and infighting started in late 2020 on the ideological front.

In both groups’ quest to forge an alliance with the local population, JNIM seems to be gaining an upper hand in the business, with its leader Iyad Ag Ghaly leading the support to the Tuareg tribe. In the Meneka region, where the Islamic State has been carrying out its heinous activities against the local tribe, JNIM has been soliciting the support of the tribal elders and requesting an anti-Islamic state resistance and armed offensive.

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The recent visit of JNIM’s top leaders to the Kidal region to forge an alliance with the Tuareg leadership was also centered on creating an anti-Islamic state alliance with a pact of non-aggression signed between JNIM and local leaders. On the other hand, the Islamic State has been receiving massive support from the Dawsahk and  Fulani tribes against the Al-Qaida affiliate. However, JNIM has modelled itself as a viable local protector and continues to exploit the growing anti-Islamic state sentiment to its own advantage, filling the void of a state presence, while consolidating control over Islamic state hostility.  


To conclude, the inter-Jihadist groups’ violence continues unabated in the struggle to assert dominance with innocent local civilians caught in the middle. The French troops’ withdrawal from Mali has compounded and increased jihadist activities and strengthened their control over the region. An increasing state presence and state community resilience and trust building are required, and failure to accommodate the exposed region will continue to undermine the counter-terrorism strategy which might have wider regional implications.  

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