Mali’s Rebels and their Fans–Suffering and Smiling

Strange bedfellows in the Malian Sahara of late. The Tuareg rebel movements that took control of northern Mali last month looked to have struck a deal over the weekend, only to have it come into question since. The supposedly secular, progressive, and multi-ethnic MNLA shook hands with the Ansar Dine, the Salafist movement that has been more or less playing host to sundry terrorists, criminals and hostage-takers like AQMI, MUJAO, or Boko Haram. It’s tough to say just what this deal means, or how long it will last, but it ought to have put some of the MNLA’s foreign fans in a bind.

What’s the deal? Ansar Dine accepted the idea of creating a new Saharan state, what the Tuareg ethno-nationalists known as the MNLA dub “Azawad.” Abandoning the secularism it had long proclaimed, the MNLA agreed that this new state would be an Islamic one governed by sharia—although they did not specify whether by that they mean the broad and deep tradition of Islamic jurisprudence or the reductive, crude vigilantism of the Ansar Dine. This is a true 180. Not so long ago, the MNLA was talking gender equality and hinting at support for Mali’s proposed family code, which Islamists in Bamako had blocked since 2009.

In short, the agreement came as a surprise, at least to me. The two groups have been jockeying for territory since the collapse of the Malian army in April, and the MNLA has proven to be weaker than its rival. Ansar has controlled the towns and tried to establish its own version of law and order. This has meant punishing thieves—including MNLA fighters—and offering some strong-armed protection in the towns and on the highways, which people appreciated, at least early on. But over the last few weeks Ansar fighters have been busy abusing unveiled women and harassing young men watching television or playing soccer. Three weeks ago, they destroyed a saint’s tomb in Timbuktu, an act that the city’s residents as well as the MNLA roundly condemned. All this provoked protests against them, in Timbuktu and Gao, where the Malian flag—and not the MNLA banner—appeared overnight as graffiti. In short, neither group had great popular support, and relations between them seemed to be going from bad to worse. Many observers expected conflict between the two groups to come out into the open, but instead of a break-up, we got a marriage (now we’ll see how long it lasts).

What gives? The MNLA had been swearing up and down that AQMI and its friends were their worst enemies. In terms of the organization’s image abroad, this is surely still true, but things have changed on the ground, and the MNLA looks to be fracturing. A month ago, the chief of the Tuareg Kel Adagh, Intallah Ag Attaher, spoke in favor of the MNLA’s bid for independence, and he told the Ansar and other foreign fighters to get out of his territory. Last weekend, his son appeared in the pages of the New York Times identified as a leader of Ansar Dine. The turn-about is striking, but it can be explained. Ansar Dine is not only more formidable, but also richer than its new supposed ally. Jihad is expensive, but so is cocaine and some of the other things that get smuggled across the desert. So indeed are the lives of European hostages, for which their governments have paid handsome ransoms to AQMI over the years. Ansar Dine and its allies might not be good company, but they are not broke. On the other hand, the MNLA appears to be stronger in French television studios than on the ground, and apparently the movement can’t pay its fighters. Its leaders seem to have realized that if they could not beat the Salafists, they would have to join them, as many of their men in arms already had.

It’s hard to imagine that the MNLA’s international supporters will feel the same way. Over the last few months, French politicians, Parisian professors, some Tinariwen fans, and various others have been championing the MNLA. This is a motley and ideologically incoherent bunch of partisans, but their support has had real consequences. It’s widely held—and le Figaro has obliquely confirmed—that under ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, France had been backing the MNLA. Many believe that Sarkozy hoped to play the organization against AQMI to win the release of French hostages before he faced their fellow citizens at the polls. Their liberation would have been a real coup for Sarkozy’s troubled campaign, had it come to pass. But is such a scenario plausible? You bet. Le Petit Nicolas had already launched several military mis-adventures in the Sahel, and he and ATT, Mali’s recently deposed president, had a particularly sour relationship. Sarkozy was never known for his scruples; Mediapart recently published evidence that the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi helped finance his 2007 victory, after which Sarkozy tried to sell him nuclear technology. Having since bombed Libya into chaos, Sarkozy could hardly go back to that particular well, but cynical opportunism is nothing new in French African politics. Still, some friends stay true. After he lost his re-election bid, the MNLA made a special point to thank Sarkozy for his support.

So much for the Right, which lost the presidency last month. Marginal players on the Left are in the mix, too. Last week, a Corsican nationalist and member of the Green party invited the MNLA to make its case before the European parliament. That PR stunt backfired when Mali sent its own delegation to make the case for peace and reconciliation. Since then, the Ansar deal. I don’t know much about Corsican nationalism, but I am guessing that legitimizing Ansar Dine’s less-than-progressive politics is not what François Alfonsi or his constituents had in mind.

It gets worse. Over the last few weeks, championing Tuareg ethno-nationalism has meant disregarding serious reports of human rights abuses catalogued, confirmed and analyzed by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Take the report of the latter group. It lays out in distressing detail a pattern of rape, pillaging, and indiscriminate killing of civilians and disarmed combatants alike. Some of this is the work of Ansar Dine or unknown aggressors, but some of these crimes were just as clearly the doing of MNLA fighters. The Malian army does not have clean hands either. In February, an indiscriminate bombing near Kidal cost the life of a little girl and grievously wounded several other civilians. In the last few months, the army has killed civilians in North and South alike—some were Tuareg, many were not. According to Amnesty, in at least one instance Malian soldiers even killed one of their own Tuareg comrades. Nobody’s defending the conduct of the Malian armed forces, least of all me. But it is the bare minimum of intellectual honesty for outsiders—especially academics—to attempt to recognize what’s going on on the ground before they dismiss the reports of human rights groups out of hand, and before they speak as partisans of an ethno-nationalist movement whose opportunistic politics they would abhor at home, but enable abroad.

As for the world music fans, what to say? Ignorance isn’t really bliss, but it’s more blissful when other people do the “shufferin’,” and you get to do the “shmilin’.”

11 thoughts on “Mali’s Rebels and their Fans–Suffering and Smiling

  1. “Nobody’s defending the conduct of the Malian armed forces, least of all me. But it is the bare minimum of intellectual honesty for outsiders—especially academics—to attempt to recognize what’s going on on the ground before they dismiss the reports of human rights groups out of hand, and before they speak as partisans of an ethno-nationalist movement whose opportunistic politics they would abhor at home, but enable abroad.”


  2. Thank you for this quality insight and discussion of the issues.

    I have heard a lot from you (as well as Peter Tinti, who commented above) about those who ignorantly support the MNLA without considering the big picture, but I haven’t heard so much about the other side – that much of the international press (including the AFP) as well as the diplomatic community seem to lean in favor of the Malian government often with as little rational basis or understanding. Peter tweeted awhile back that most of the pro-MNLA stories start with “the bass player of Tinariwen told me….”; however, I’ve seen far more stories centered around “a Malian government official said….”.

    If all sides are committing human rights violations, perhaps the most appropriate position for outsiders is that of neutral listeners?


    • Hi Evan,
      Your point is very well taken.

      There are certainly numerous cases of bad journalism across the board. Sometimes it is a result of carelessness, other times it comes from agenda. I think most of the time, however, it stems from the natural friction that comes with wanting to cover a conflict, but not having access to it.

      To that end, my general frustration is a reaction to the conventional wisdom that interviewing someone is better than nothing. This mentality, I believe, is not only misguided, but dangerous.

      As an example: Al Jazeera regularly interviews a Tuareg student based in Leeds, UK who is pro-MNLA. He is an Anglophone who can speak eloquently to the cause and I think it is great that AJE offers his perspective to its audience.

      My concern, however, began once AJE started turning to him for insight on the negotiations taking place between MNLA and Ansar Dine… in Gao (remember, he is a student in Leeds).

      This phenomenon of interviewing someone sets up false dichotomies (one is either pro-MNLA or pro-government) and portrays bystanders as knowledgeable insiders.

      Tommy Miles recently touched on this through a series of tweets:
      – The problem with reporters building stories around quoting MNLA spokespeople is that there’s little evidence they have ANY say on the ground
      – And there’s even less evidence the “official” MNLA spokespeople actually answer to or guide the few MNLA units…
      – But MNLA spokespeople are always available for interviews. Unlike Iyad or AQIM, or the panoply of militias now running northern #Mali
      – And because I complain a lot, note how the reporter here identifies all Touaregs w the MNLA and Islamists as other than Touareg
      – Surprise: entire ethnic groups are not reducible to political opinions.

      Poor journalism aside, there is the separate issue of partisan hackery. My grievance with the “French politicians, Parisian professors, some Tinariwen fans, and various unprincipled fools” who have been “championing the MNLA” is that they do so unconditionally. When events on the ground do not jive with their narrative, the only “explanation” can be that the source has an anti-Tuareg bias (note the sleight of hand here: criticism of the MNLA = bias against the Tuareg people).

      As the situation grows more complex, the alliances more tangled and the situation more fluid, many of these commentators have made the conscious decision to double down on unsophisticated narratives. I just don’t understand how people who purport to care about Mali refuse to grapple with the very complexity that makes it so interesting.

  3. Thanks for these comments, Evan & Peter. I’m all in favor of listening, but I think irresponsible talking ought to be called out as well. Peter’s last paragraph puts it nicely.

  4. Oh, & two corrections. My good friend Baz Lecocq tells me that Intallah is no longer the amenokal, or chief of the Kel Adagh. His son Alghabass, mentioned above, replaced him late last year. All of which gives further weight to the alignment of the Ifoghas with Ansar, even if it may prove (is already proving to be?) short-lived.

    • This about Intallah is especially interesting. I saw the bit about Alghabass naming himself “CEO” of the Ifoghas in 20111, in lieu of more traditional title, but it’s odd that a big deal was not made of formal succession — perhaps because Intallah’s alive (?) These power dynamics should be interrogated, especially in the timing of this rising, and what was trying to be accomplished by it. Myself, I think the elections had more to do with the rising happening in January than is generally assumed…

      Anyway, thanks for sharing that!

  5. “As for the world music fans, what to say? Ignorance isn’t really bliss, but it’s more blissful when other people do the “shufferin’,” and you get to do the “shmilin’.”

    The world music machine has been selling Tinariwen as ‘rebel-chic’ for a long time, which was fairly apolitical when the rebellion was some ancient grievance. But in the context of war, dominated by anarchy, the romanticism stretches to a breaking point, dehumanizing the Tuareg into an idealized victim that can do no wrong.

    A personal note: When I lived in Kidal, bad stuff happened on a regular basis. There was rape, assaults, and theft. These were not organized affairs and usually the offenders were young boys, like anywhere. Perhaps the only thing unique to this particular place was that the bush and borders offered a porous and uncontrolled domain in which to run off and hide. When I reflect on the worst stories coming from the North, I’d not be too surprised. An army of young kids, armed to the teeth and the lack of any government invites these type of human right abuses.

    Exoticism has never had a more poignant effect, though I would question how much any of the discourse in the West really matters. What’s happening on the ground still remains a large part disconnected from the internet. Tinariwen can win a Grammy and drunk Westerners can dance to the lyrics* they don’t understand, and if this makes the Tuareg ethnicity into an untouchable victim, I doubt it will make a difference in Kidal. The only casualty will be the truth.

    *”If the BBC is standing by, it will call Mali and broadcast: “Beware! You will soon burn! They have spent years sleeping with this anger Because of those elders you killed Those animals you burnt” (“Chatma” – Tinariwen)

  6. Peter and Gregory,

    Thanks for your replies. I’m glad we can engage in discussion about this. I agree that it’s important to call out bad journalism, and your points here are all well taken. Tommy Miles’s point about “identifying…all Islamists as other than Tuareg” is one that has been especially getting to me, as this is very widespread in the English-language media, and yet seems to be a hands-down factual error, as Iyad himself is a Tuareg (my impression was that most of Ansar Dine was as well, though of course I haven’t seen proof).

    The one source I’ve actually been reading which is sympathetic to the MNLA is Andy Morgan ( Although he is a music reporter who works with Tinariwen, I think he’s avoided some of the worst of the intellectual irresponsibility you two have pointed out. He doesn’t get his information from Tinariwen, and he’s been watching the relationship between the MNLA and Ansar Dine rather objectively (with constant dismay, I might add). He was also among the first to point out how the deal with Ansar Dine was a sign of the MNLA’s lack of power. I think his semi-support of the MNLA’s objectives is more about countering what he sees as a media bias against them than anything else.

    I haven’t actually encountered very much other pro-MNLA commentary, which is part of the reason I was compelled to comment here. But I haven’t dug very deep, and I haven’t been following French-language sources, so perhaps that accounts for the discrepancy.


    • Evan,

      Andy Morgan is an interesting example, as his entire approach to this conflict is one with which I cannot relate. It is clear from his writing that he thinks the Tuareg people should have their own country, and that Azawad ought to be that country. Fair enough.

      What I don’t understand, is why he has chosen the MNLA as the instrument through which to channel his infatuation with Tuareg culture.

      Per Chris Kirkley’s comment above, this type of writing/advocacy “dehumanizes the Tuareg into an idealized victim that can do no wrong”. It reduces an entire population to a narrow political agenda and strips them of agency.

      I have many friends and loved ones in northern Mali. Some of them have made good decisions, some have made bad decisions, most have made both. Some of them have been victims, some of them have been oppressors, many have been both.

      And that’s why I can’t relate to Mr. Morgan. He prefers a northern Mali of victims and oppressors, democrats and tyrants, secularism and islamism. It is a world in which RFI and AFP are always wrong and Mossa Ag Attaher is always right. I wish it were that simple.

      I don’t know Mr. Morgan and I certainly do not claim to know his motives. I admire much of his writing on West African music and I think his backgrounder on the Tuareg rebellion is first-rate (

      For me, however, it is arrogant and condescending to portray the current conflict and suffering in northern Mali in Manichean terms. Much of Mr. Morgan’s commentary does just that.

      • Peter,

        I know from Morgan’s writing, especially his background information about the conflict, that he doesn’t actually believe the Tuareg can be reduced to a political agenda, though you may be right that dehumanization results all the same from his approach. I sense that he hopes to avoid the trap you accuse him of falling into, and in fact that may be exactly the problem – his commentary revolves around hopeful/wishful thinking.

        As you said, he clearly feels the Tuareg should have an independent Azawad, so seeing the MNLA claiming to seek the creation of such a state (and a democratic, secular, pluri-ethnic one to boot – again, claiming), it seems to me only natural that he would *hope* (or *wish*, as he is now increasingly doing) that the MNLA has the solution.

        Although I agree with you that the situation is much more complicated and probably doesn’t justify taking sides, I also think it’s worth pointing out that it can be difficult NOT to emotionally take sides in a conflict like this when you have strong feelings about the outcome. I can only imagine that’s what accounts for the opinions of Tinariwen’s bass player himself as well.

        Thanks for the link to that background article. I don’t think I’ve read that particular piece before, and the fact that one of his critics thinks it’s good work as well is valuable knowledge.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s