On June 28, after two days of fighting, the three main towns of Azawad ― a west African nation mostly occupied by Mali ― were captured by Salafi Islamist militias.
The towns Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal had been captured on April 6 by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). It unilaterally declared the independence of Azawad from Mali, a move met with hostility by regional and global powers.
The Islamist groups ― the Defenders of the Faith (Ansar ad-Din) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) ― are opposed to the independence of Azawad.
However, this has not stopped regional and Western political leaders and media from conflating the secular, pro-MNLA forces with the Islamists.
Despite Azawad’s extreme poverty, the Azawadi capital Timbuktu is an ancient city that in the Middle Ages was known for its wealth and importance as centre of Islamic learning.
Since taking Timbuktu, Ansar ad-Din has systematically destroyed the city’s medieval mosques, libraries and cemeteries, because of a theological doctrine rejected by the great majority of Muslims in Azawad and the world. These had been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1988.
The medieval prosperity of Azawad’s cities was due to their role in the trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean, particularly in gold and salt. Timbuktu’s political importance was enhanced by its role in the dissemination of Islam in west Africa.
However, the rise of European mercantile capitalism and the Atlantic slave trade caused trans-Saharan trade to almost entirely disappear. By 1893, when French forces seized Timbuktu, it was a poor, provincial town.
However, Timbuktu remained a regional centre of Islamic education. Its historic religious sites remained intact and in use, including libraries containing hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, some almost 1000 years old.
French colonial rule accelerated the impoverishment of Mali in general and Azawad in particular as the colonial administration concentrated infrastructure in the south.
Since achieving independence in 1960, Mali has continued to suffer from neocolonial domination. The economy is dominated by foreign mining interests. These include Australian gold mining companies Golden Rim Resources, Papillon and Resolute Mining Limited and Australian-owned Oklo Uranium, the website of the Australian High Commission in Ghana says.
Considerable mineral wealth has not stopped the population becoming among the poorest in the world, a situation made worse by successive agreements pushing neoliberal reforms since 1988 with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (which Mali joined in 1995).
The neoliberal reforms included the privatisation of government-owned enterprises, including railways and telecommunications, and the liquidation of several government-owned industries.
Mali’s literacy rate is 26%, the US State Department website says. Its health statistics are among the worst in the world. The infant mortality rate is 109.08 deaths per 1000 live births and there is only one doctor for every 20,000 people, as listed by the CIA World Factbook.
Azawad is in the arid northern region. Azawad is the name used by the Touareg (or Temashek) people, who are 80% of the region’s population and suffer the greatest poverty due to neglect by successive military and civilian governments and a rise in global warming-induced droughts and floods.
Touareg rebellions took place in 1962-64 and 1990-92. A third rebellion began in 2007, but a ceasefire was brokered in 2009 by then-leader of neighbouring Libya, Muammar Gadaffi.
In 2005, the US military's Africa Command established the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership. This includes annual joint training exercises in Mali and 10 other west and north African countries, codenamed “Flintlock”, by troops from these countries and the US, Canada and European Union countries including France and Germany.
This, and other US support to the Malian army, has been justified by the need to fight Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other Islamist terrorist groups.
The growth of religious terrorism in the region originated at the end of the Cold War, when fighters returned from the CIA-run war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with Salafi jihadi ideology.
Salafi Islam is associated with the US-backed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as well as the dissident veterans from the Afghan War who turned against the US in the 1990s.
Promotion by the oil-rich Saudi state, continued CIA sponsorship of certain groups and recruitment by groups such as Al Qaeda led to a worldwide growth in Salafism. However, some of its doctrines conflict with the beliefs of most Muslims.
AQIM originated in the brutal civil war in Algeria between the Western-back government and Salafis in the 1990s. Ansar ad-Din is a local Touareg Salafi group whose leader is the cousin of an AQIM leader, AFP said on March 13.
MOJWA emerged in December last year. It claimed responsibility for kidnapping three European aid workers from a refugee camp on the border of Algeria and Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara run by secular Saharawi independence movement, POLISARIO.
The March 3 Johannesburg Times said MOJWA “had broken off from … AQIM in order to spread jihad to west Africa and not confine themselves just to the Maghreb or Sahel regions”.
The Times said as “ideological references” they cited “Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar but [put] more emphasis on historical figures of west African Islam.”
Targeting Westerners working with a left-wing national liberation movement is consistent with Salafi jihadi ideology, but its motivations may be more mercenary than ideological. The only demand MOJWA has made for the aid workers’ release has been a 30 million euro ransom.
The overthrow of Gadaffi in Libya by NATO’s military intervention led to the breaking down of the ceasefire between the Mali government and the Touareg rebels who coalesced into the MNLA in October last year.
It also led to a proliferation of weapons in the region, the strengthening of armed Salafi militias in Libya and the persecution of Touarg people in Libya.
The Touareg are nomadic, live in all the countries of the Saharan region and regularly cross border.
On March 22, the Malian army overthrew the elected civilian government, citing its inability to crush the rebels in the north as justification. Spearheaded by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Mali’s regional and Western allies put sanctions on the military junta.
However, after the MNLA’s declaration of Azawadi independence, ECOWAS lifted sanctions in return for the appointment of an unelected civilian government.
ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union, the US and Russia all condemned the April 6 declaration of independence.
The theological justification for Ansar ad-Din’s cultural vandalism is the belief that too much attachment to religious sites is an idolatrous departure from monotheism. However, to most Muslims the destruction of Islamic sites is an attack on their religion.
On July 2, the BBC reported that the 55-nation Organisation of the Islamic Conference condemned the “rich Islamic heritage of Mali [being] destroyed and put in harm’s way by bigoted extremist elements”.
MNLA spokesperson Hama Ag Mahmoud told Reuters on July 2: “The perpetrators of these heinous acts, their sponsors, and those who support them must be made accountable.”
The desecration has also been condemned by UNESCO and the governments of Mali, the US, France and Russia.
International Criminal Court prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told AFP on July 2: “This is a war crime which my office has authority to fully investigate.”
On April 12 Al-Ahram reported: “A humanitarian catastrophe is in the making with 200,000 starving civilians fleeing northern Mali.”