"Before we can come to any appreciation of what is actually happening in Mali, the narrative we are being sold needs first to be debunked. News accounts refer to the rebels as "Islamists," an easy label to affix to groups very few know anything about. The reality, however, is quite different: the rebels are Tuaregs of Northwest Africa, a nomadic group whose historic homeland crosses the boundaries of Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger, and Burkina Faso. They are herders and smugglers, whose caravans once provided the only source of commercial contact between the empires of central Africa and the Arab lands to the north. Their fight for independence precedes the existence of Al Qaeda by a hundred and fifty years.
In the Great Scramble for European colonies that began at the end of the 19thcentury, French colonialists invaded, seized the land, and subjected the locals to a program of forced "assimilation" into "French civilization." The Tuaregs have been fighting to regain their independence ever since. Today, however, that struggle has been reinterpreted as yet another example of "Islamic terrorism."
This is outright false. The Tuareg independence movement is led by the National. Movement for the Liberation of Awazad (MNLA), a secular organization that only wants autonomy for the Tuareg areas of Mali. There are active Islamists in Mali, affiliated with Ansar Dine, which has no known affiliation with Al Qaeda in the Mahgreb other than the fact that Ansar Dine’s leader, Ag Ghaly, is a cousin of AQIM commander Hamada Ag Hamada. "It is true that Ansar Dine have the black flags, but they are not Al Qaeda," said MNLA spokesman Ag Assarid. "They want stability on the streets," which the "government" of Mali is unable to provide, and "they are against Al Qaeda too." North African specialist Salma Belaala concurs: “We can’t make a systematic link between the AQIM and Tuareg. It’s completely false."
In any case, the tactical alliance between the MNLA and Ansar Dine has been an on and off affair: days after the "merger" of their forces was announced, the MNLA began to back off – and, a week later, the lash up was back on again. This link to "terrorism," never mind Al Qaeda, is tenuous indeed – but how else will the revanchist dream of a revived French empire in Africa be realized except under the rubric of the "war on terrorism"?
If the French invasion – or, rather, re-invasion – of Mali is really aimed at expunging Al Qaeda, then perhaps they ought to be attacking the Algerians: Professor Jeremy Keenan, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says the Algerians have longtime links not only to Ag Ghaly, but also to important Al Qaeda figures, including Abdelhamid abou Zaid. The Algerians, he says, have an interest in supporting the "specter" of Al Qaeda looming in the Sahel because it increases their value to the US – and promises to reap a bonanza in military and economic aid."