The secular rebel group of Saharan Tuareg tribesmen known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has agreed to merge with the al Qaeda-supported Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) Islamist rebel group. The new entity has declared the creation of an autonomous state in northern Mali, the Islamic Republic of Azawad.
After the signing of the accord on May 26, “Colonel” Bouna Ag Attayoub, an MNLA commander in Timbuktu, told the BBC that “[t]he Islamic Republic of Azawad is now an independent sovereign state.” The declaration of the breakaway state and the merger of the secular Tuareg rebel movement with the al Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine have deepened the ongoing political and security crisis facing Mali since a coup shook the central government on March 22.
“The Koran will be a source of the laws of the state,” said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, an MNLA spokesman, according to The Telegraph. “But we will apply the things we want and leave aside those we don’t. It will not be a strict application of the law.” The signing of the accord, which took place in the northern area of Gao and was accompanied by celebratory gunfire, followed last week’s brazen seizure of a key Malian military armory by suspected Ansar Dine gunmen in the same area of Gao.
Regional security sources confirmed the attack and seizure of the arms depot, adding that Islamists linked with al Qaeda in Mali are now “more armed than the combined armies of Mali and Burkina Faso,” AFP reported. Burkina Faso borders Mali to the east. Islamist rebels are now in the process of implementing sharia law in various urban areas of northern Mali, including Timbuktu.
Mali’s northern regions of Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu have been under the de facto jurisdiction of Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine since April 1. The Islamist group Ansar Dine had first opposed the MNLA’s previous declaration of an independent state in April, preferring to maintain its stance to enforce sharia throughout all of Mali. Similarly, the MNLA had for some time resisted the Islamist views of Ansar Dine and preferred to remain secular. The recently announced merger of MNLA with Ansar Dine and the creation of the Islamic Republic of Azawad has apparently laid to rest the mutual distrust between the groups, at least for now.
Meanwhile, officials in Mali’s transitional administration have strongly rejected the merger and partition of the north, and Mali’s Communications Minister Hamadoun Toure demanded that “other countries should help Mali tackle al Qaeda in the region,” according to the BBC.
The MNLA has fought to make Mali’s northern Azawad region, roughly the size of France, into a separate state since Mali’s independence from colonial rule in 1960. The Ansar Dine movement is affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), and is determined to implement sharia law across all of Mali.
In mid-April, three senior Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb leaders were spotted in northern Mali after the government lost control of the region. Abu Zeid, Mukhtar Belmukhtar, and Yahya Abu al Hammam reportedly met with Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghaly in Timbuktu. Hammam is said to have been named the leader of Islamist forces in Timbuktu.