Map of Al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and neighboring countries since 2014. Map made by Caleb Weiss for The Long War Journal.
Ansar Dine, a jihadist group which operates in Mali and is a front for Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claimed responsibility for three attacks in northern Mali over the past few days. The attacks were claimed by AQIM on behalf of Ansar Dine.
In a statement released online by AQIM yesterday, the Al Qaeda branch claimed Ansar Dine targeted a military barracks “of the agents of France” on Dec. 24 in the remote northern village of Talhandak, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. The jihadist group said it targeted a “local agent of the Crusaders known as Trawa Trawa,” who heads the so-called “internal security cells” funded by France in northern Mali to fight Islam and the Muslims.” AQIM also said the jihadists were able to kill 11 MNLA fighters and free “a number” of its prisoners held by “Trawa Trawa.” It is unclear who this “agent” is, but the town of Talhandak was controlled by the Tuareg separatist movement the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
According to Sahara Media, Ansar Dine was able to take control of Talhandak in the assault. In coordination with the larger attack in Talhandak, AQIM also claimed Ansar Dine ambushed a convoy of MNLA troops near Kidal. The MNLA forces were reportedly on their way to Talhandak to provide reinforcements to the besieged forces there. The ambush resulted “in the elimination of four agents, including the commander of the movement,” said AQIM.
However, before these assaults, AQIM reports that Ansar Dine targeted Chadian and French military vehicles with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) near Tessalit. The jihadist say the blasts “destroyed them completely,” however neither the UN nor France has released a statement confirming this attack.
Part of the statement is also directed to the MNLA. “You know very well that the Crusaders and with them their puppet regimes, strive by all means to involve you to fight a proxy war against your oppressed people,” AQIM says, “So why do you insist on widowing your wives and orphaning your children in defense of the Crusaders, who killed and displaced our people in the past and present?” AQIM then calls on the MNLA to stop assisting the “Crusaders” and warns those who refuse that “our swords will reach everyone who is lured by himself to join the ranks of the Crusaders in the war on Islam and its people.”
The statement released by AQIM marks the second time this month that the Al Qaeda branch claimed attacks on behalf of Ansar Dine. On Dec. 15, AQIM also claimed the attack on the central Malian town of Niono for Ansar Dine, as well. AQIM views Ansar Dine as its local arm in Mali. In a “confidential letter” found in Timbuktu in early 2013, AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel instructed his followers to mask their operations and “pretend to be a ‘domestic’ movement” under Ansar Dine in an attempt to evade international attention. A leader of Ansar Dine was killed alongside the leader of AQIM’s largely Tuareg Katibat al Ansar in northern Mali earlier this year.
The MNLA worked with various Al Qaeda groups to take over Mali’s north in 2012 before Al Qaeda turned its guns on the Tuareg fighters. For instance, the town of Kidal was taken over by the MNLA and Ansar Dine, while the Gao Region was overran by MNLA and the Al Qaeda-group the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The MNLA also helped capture Timbuktu with Al Qaeda before the Tuareg group was kicked out of most major towns in the north.
These attacks come at a time when al Qaeda forces in Mali are likely rebranding and restructuring its forces as a current French-led counterterrorism mission and a UN peacekeeping mandate patrol the country. In 2015, Mali has seen a significant increase in Al Qaeda-linked attacks compared to 2014 (see map above). This includes over 30 attacks in the country’s south, compared to zero last year. This includes many attacks by the Macina Liberation Movement, which is a front group of Ansar Dine. It also includes two major attacks in the country’s capital of Bamako by Al Murabitoon, which has since merged into AQIM.
Meanwhile, the steam of attacks in the north remains constant. Just last month, Ansar Dine targeted the UN base in Kidal with rockets, killing three. That attack marked the third time this year alone that base had been targeted. In March, rockets struck the facility, killing a Chadian peacekeeper and two civilians. On Jan. 17, suspected al Qaeda fighters assaulted the Kidal base using two car bombs driven by “martyrs” and a barrage of rockets. At least one Chadian peacekeeper died as a result.
Despite France’s intervention in Mali in early 2013 and current counterterrorism mission in the region, al Qaeda and its allies continue to launch regular attacks. More than 50 UN peacekeepers have been killed in Mali since 2013, making it one of the most dangerous UN missions in the world.
Article updated with corrections to the translation of AQIM’s statement.