A Second Afghanistan in Mali?
Mali, like other sub-Saharan countries, has been facing growing attacks from al-Qaeda's North African branch – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Islamists are involved in a multi-million-dollar ransom industry fuelled by kidnapping Westerners and drug-trafficking in Northern Mali, where al-Qaeda militants and other Islamist combatants share ground with the Tuareg, a minority of perhaps 1 million of Mali's 15 million people and about a third of the population of Northern Mali.
In March 2012 the country collapsed into chaos after soldiers toppled the president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled the rebels to take control of the northern part of Mali, approximately two-thirds of the country. This is the fourth rebellion led by Tuareg nomads since independence in 1960. The last ended only in 2008.
In October 2011 the Tuareg fighters gathered in the oasis settlement of Zakak in the hills by the border of Algeria. They were joined by career rebels, Malian army deserters, and young activists in a conclave that gave birth to the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad).
The Tuareg offensive occurred after the return of Tuareg fighters to Mali following the fall of their historical patron, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, in neighboring Libya. Most probably their rebellion would not have taken place had Gaddafi remained in power. Gaddafi's Malian fighters returned to Mali bringing with them battle experience and equipped with heavy and sophisticated weapons looted from Gaddafi's arsenals.
As has been the case in Tunisia, Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Syria lately, the Tuaregs's struggle for an independent homeland has been hijacked by better-organized and armed Islamists from Mali and abroad, creating a safe haven for militants in the Sahara – a west African Afghanistan. The implications of such a development could become a new nightmare for the West.