Magharebia, a surprisingly reliable news site given its AFRICOM sponsorship, has reported the next phase in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) politico-military strategy in northern Mali.
Building on its recent promotion of a Mauritanian commander, a move attributed to AQIM's diversification from Algerian leadership, the group has now announced the creation of a 6th "Tuareg Brigade" in Mali's Kidal region. Dubbed the "Youssef ben Tachfine," AQIM is employing al-Qaeda's standard operating procedure by intertwining itself with local militant networks, a key component of its force multiplication. El Kairouani Abu Abdelhamid al-Kidali, "a local Touareg" active with Ansar Dine, has been tasked to oversee his units' fortifications along Mali's mountainous border with Algeria. These cavernous bases serve negligible strategic interests for international powers except when occupied by militants, and the international coalition will be forced to entertain mountain warfare in order to clear the whole territory.
al-Kidali's area of operation extends from Mali's northeastern border to the towns of Kidal and Augelhok, both seized by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) before Ansar Dine took over.
This move also represents the latest sign that Ansar Dine is not negotiating with Mali's neighbors or the MNLA, but attempting to stall the foreign coalition assembling itself for an intervention. The two groups possess incompatible political and religious agendas; just as the international community opposes secession from southern Mali, Ansar Dine and the MNLA view northern Mali's prize as indivisible. Maghrebia has separately reported that Ansar al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former MNLA member, sent an envoy on November 24th to the MNLA camp in Lere.
"Ansar al-Din invites all MNLA fighters to lay down their arms and join its ranks; otherwise they will be fought and the group will establish its control all over Azawad," the emissary supposedly announced.
These words, whether truly spoken or not, align with the ground's reality and explain the recent events around Lere. Ghaly's message was predictably rejected and the MNLA appears to have shredded any remaining fibers connected to Ansar Dine. How each group now sits with the other, in the same room as international mediators, is uncertain. Realistically they have nothing to discuss - battlefield negotiations have yet to give way to table negotiations. According to MNLA activist al-Hasan Ag Mohamed el-Khair, "the MNLA has categorically rejected Iyad Ag Ghaly's request and considers it to be an express alliance with the terrorist groups that fight against the movement."
"Ansar al-Din's position in support of the terrorist groups became very clear when we managed to defeat MUJAO last week," said the MNLA's Attay Ag Mohamed in an attempt to spin the group's own defeat. "They now want to support these groups so as to exact revenge for their fallen victims. This position completely contradicts what the group said earlier this month about putting an end to ties with the terrorists."
Accepting the fact that they won't siphon too many MNLA loyalists to their Islamic vision, Ansar Dine deployed reinforcements to assist the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa's (MUJAO) capture of Lere. The town was captured later that night, and now a Tuareg-styled brigade has been announced to compensate for the MNLA's response. International blocs are trying their best to show unity and organization in Mali, but the Islamist alliance is outdoing them in both regards. The three-headed hydra of Ansar Dine, AQIM and MUJAO serves all of their necessary functions: Ansar Dine contributes at the local level, MUJAO is recruiting from West Africa and AQIM is bringing in jihadists from outside the continent. Whether these forces can unite, rather than clash as Somalia's al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda have, will determine a significant factor in Mali's conflict.
At this point, though, the Islamists don't have nearly as much to complain about as their anxious foreign opponents.