9 questions about the Mali conflict

A look at some of the issues and main players involved in a regional conflict with global implications.

Who started it, and what's it all about?

A look at some of the issues and main players involved in the conflict in the west African country of Mali.

Who is fighting?

Several rebel groups in the north of the country have been waging an insurgency against the Malian government, based in the capital, Bamako, in the south. 

Foreign countries are also officially involved. France has supplied fighter jets and a few hundred troops, and Britain and Canada have both provided cargo planes to support the French operation. 

Who are the rebels?

The rebels are far from a united group. They are made up of secular nationalists and radical Islamists from within Mali's ethnic Tuareg population, and Islamic fundamentalists from neighbouring countries with their own agendas.

The main rebel groups are:

National Liberation Movement of Azawad (known by its French acronym MNLA): Made up of ethnic Tuaregs, a nomadic people who have been seeking autonomy for a large northern swathe of Mali they call Azawad, which technically also takes in parts of Algeria and Niger, although MNLA has said it would respect the territorial integrity of other countries.

Although Muslims like the majority of the Malian population, who are moderate Sufis, members of MNLA are generally secularist and do not subscribe to the more radical form of Islam that the rival rebel group Ansar Dine promotes, known as Wahabism or Salafism. Nevertheless, they entered into an alliance of convenience with Ansar Dine following the March 2012 military coup that deposed Mali's president. The alliance soon fell apart, and the better armed and funded Ansar Dine was able to set about imposing harsh Sharia law in rebel-held territories.

A map showing the areas of Mali controlled by rebels and government forces. The ground is constantly shifting as rebels continue to advance south and government troops get more intense air support from the French air force. (CBC)

Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith): A militant group of Tuaregs who subscribe to the more radical form of Islam known as Wahabism or Salafism and want to impose Sharia law in the north. The group is headed by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a charismatic figure who once served as a diplomat, representing Mali in Saudi Arabia, and negotiated on behalf of the Tuaregs with the central government and international representatives, including the U.S. ambassador in Mali.

Since seizing control in the north last spring, Ansar Dine and its allies have instituted harsh punishments on anyone found to be violating Sharia law, including stoning offenders to death or amputating their limbs. The group's members have also destroyed Sufi shrines, Christian monuments and other cultural and historic sites they found offended their strict interpretation of Islam — including in the historic city of Timbuktu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site now controlled by rebels.

Although it has made comments denouncing the group and its terrorist actions, Ansar Dine is thought to be allied with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Qaeda's North African wing that operates in several countries in the Sahel-Sahara region of northern Africa and traces its origins to militant Islamist groups in Algeria. Ag Ghaly has acted as a negotiator in hostage takings carried out by AQIM in the past — and reportedly profited handsomely from them.

Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA or MUJAO — after the French acronym): A small jihadist group thought to be an offshoot of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that operates mainly in northern Mali and Algeria. It has allied itself with Ansar Dine, whose Wahabist interpretation of Islam it shares.

The presence of other militant Islamist groups, such as Nigeria's Boko Haram, have also been reported in Mali since the fighting began.

Who are the Tuareg?

Nomadic pastoralists related to the Berbers of the Sahara who make up a unique ethnic group different from the sub-Saharan ethnic communities of southern Mali. The Tuareg live in a western stretch of the Sahel-Sahara region that encompasses several countries, including Mali, Algeria, Libya, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Hostilities between the Tuareg and Mali's central government, based in the southern city of Bamako, have existed for generations, with the Tuareg feeling like their needs and rights have been ignored and their people discriminated against.

There have been several Tuareg uprisings against the central government and attempts to negotiate greater autonomy for the Tuaregs since independence from the French colonial government in 1960. The separatist movement was given new life — and new weapons and funds — after the end of the Libyan conflict in October 2011, when a number of Tuareg returned to Mali after fighting in Moammar Gadhafi's army.

How did the current conflict start?

The most immediate origin of the current crisis was the March 2012 military coup that deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré ahead of the planned April 2012 presidential elections. Officers of the military, led by the U.S.-trained Capt. Amadou Sanogo, rose up against Touré over his inability to contain the rebels, who had been escalating their fight for autonomy in the north of the country since January 2012 and whom the Malian soldiers said they were ill-equipped to fight.

Capt. Amadou Sanogo, an American-trained officer who led a military coup against Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré. (Malin Palm/Reuters)

Touré fled to Senegal and was replaced with an interim civilian administration headed by Dioncounda Traoré, although the military continued to wield control.

The rebels used the coup as an opportunity to make a push for control in the north and on April 6 declared independence for the "state of the Azawad," which encompasses about two-thirds of the country, an area slightly bigger than France. Since then, they have been pushing farther and farther south.

The rebels' cause has been helped by the instability of the central government and defections within the military.

The country's interim prime minister, Cheick Modibo Diarra, was arrested by soldiers loyal to Sanogo and forced to resign in December after reportedly trying to flee the country. He was replaced by Django Cissoko, a former official in the office of the president.

Even before that development, the International Crisis Group warned that neither the prime minister nor the president nor Sanogo "has sufficient popular legitimacy or the ability to prevent the aggravation of the crisis."

How are the rebels funded and armed?

The kidnapping of Westerners has long been a lucrative revenue-generating activity for Islamist groups operating in the Sahel region, which, geographically speaking, is a transitional region that stretches across northern Africa, dividing the Sahara desert to the north from the tropical savanna to the south, but that has become known as a lawless area where militants operate with impunity, trafficking in drugs, weapons and people.

Some of the millions of dollars raised from ransoms and drug trafficking are now helping to fund the Malian insurgency.

The rebel groups are using some of this money to buy weapons and military equipment on the black market, from dealers in countries like Chad and Russia, but a good deal of their weapons have been brought back from Libya by Tuaregs who fought alongside Moammar Gadhafi's forces. Many analysts have pointed out that had Western nations not retreated from Libya so quickly and paid more attention to what was done with the arms and equipment left behind after the war, they might have stemmed the escalation of the Malian conflict.

The rebels have also managed to acquire weapons and military equipment left behind by retreating Malian forces.

What has been the international reaction to the conflict?

Any foreign intervention is motivated mainly by a fear that allowing the rebels to gain greater control in Mali would consolidate the foothold that al-Qaeda and other Islamists already have in northern Africa and give them freer rein to launch terrorist strikes against other nations. French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has warned that allowing Mali to fall to the rebels could result in "a terrorist state at the doorstep of France and Europe."

After the March 2012 military coup, Western and African countries, including Canada, instituted sanctions against Mali, but these were soon lifted after the junta turned over control — at least nominally — to a civilian government.

A French army officer, right, talks to his Malian and Senegalese army counterparts in Bamako on Jan. 15 outside of where West African and French military officials were meeting to discuss the deployment of troops from the ECOWAS grouping of West African states. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

In December 2012, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution authorizing a military intervention in Mali led by about 3,300 troops from several members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Senegal. Originally, mobilization of these troops was not expected until fall 2013, but the unabated advancement of the rebels and France's intervention in the conflict moved up that timeline to February 2012.

France, which has 6,000 citizens in Mali, some of whom have been held hostage by Islamist militants, was the first country to provide military support to the Malian forces. It began air strikes against rebel positions on Jan. 11, 2013, and has kept up military pressure in an effort to allow the Malian military to push back the rebels.

The air strikes had mixed success, with rebels initially overpowering Malian forces in the strategic town of Konna, despite French air support, and seizing the strategically important town of Diabaly, which has a military base and lies south of what until then had been the dividing line between rebel and government territory.

The Malian forces eventually regained Konna but not before a French helicopter pilot was mortally wounded during an aerial raid intended to keep rebels from advancing on the nearby town of Mopti. He died later in hospital.

Laurent Fabius, France's foreign affairs minister, has said he expects France's intervention in Mali will last only a few weeks. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius initially said the length of the French operation was "a question of weeks," and the country's president, François Hollande, has stressed that it was only intended to lay the groundwork for the eventual deployment of an African force that would, "allow Mali to recover its territorial integrity."

French President Francois Hollande said on French television on April 20 that French forces had attained their objectives in Mali, a country which until January had lost its northern half to an al-Qaeda cell and their allies. France's military intervention pushed the Islamic extremists from the main cities in Mali's north, but outside the heavily fortified cities like Timbuktu, the jihadists were still present in late April, leading an insurgency marked by suicide bombings, land mines and attacks on the cities.

Analysts have warned that Western nations could become embroiled in a much-longer, more complicated conflict in the way that they have in Afghanistan and Iraq and that their intervention could be read as yet another attack on Muslims.

Britain and Canada offered logistical support to the French operation, each sending cargo planes to Mali, but vowed they would not send combat troops to the country. The U.S. has said it might also offer limited logistical support.

On April 26, 2013, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a new UN peacekeeping force for Mali. The resolution authorizes deployment of a UN force comprising 11,200 military personnel and 1,440 international police. The UN peacekeepers would take over from a 6,000-member African-led mission now in Mali on July 1, although the deployment date would be subject to review.

The key jobs of the new UN force will be to stabilize key population centres in the north, support the re-establishment of government authority throughout the country, and assist the transitional authorities in restoring constitutional order, democratic governance and national unity.

The new UN force is not authorized to undertake offensive military operations against insurgents. Instead, the resolution authorizes French troops to intervene to support UN troops "under imminent and serious threat" at the request of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

What is Canada's role?

Canada sent one Royal Canadian Air Force C-17 cargo plane to Mali. It was initially to be in operation there for about one week, helping to transport equipment and supplies to the Malian capital Bamako, but in March Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the aircraft would be available in the region as long as he felt it was necessary.

Canadian troops and special forces have helped train Mali's military, but have not participated in actual combat in the country.

In a March 14 news conference with French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault in Ottawa, Harper repeated that Canada is not seeking a combat role in Mali.

"Canada is not considering a military presence in Mali," Jay Paxton, spokesman for the defence minister, added on April 25.

Canada has strong ties to Mali, which is one of the biggest recipients of Canadian foreign aid, having received more than $110 million in 2010-11. Canadian direct aid to Mali was suspended following a coup last spring, although multilateral aid — provided along with other countries through organizations like the UN — continued.

Canada announced on Jan. 29, 2013, that it would provide another $13 million in aid to Mali. The funding appears to be for humanitarian relief alone, including:

  • $3 million for food and nutrition through the UN World Food Program.
  • $2.5 million for health care and medical supplies.
  • $1 million for hygiene and sanitation promotion through World Vision Canada.

How many people have been killed or displaced?

The UNHCR has said more than 475,000 people, out of a total population of 15 million, have been displaced by the conflict, about 175,000 of them to neighbouring countries. The number of people killed in the fighting so far is unclear. Abuses have been reported on both sides of the fighting. Amnesty International has reported that the Islamist groups in the north have used child soldiers and employed flogging, amputations and stoning to death against "those who oppose their interpretation of Islam."

Government forces have, in turn, been accused of carrying out extrajudicial executions and "arresting, torturing and killing Tuareg people apparently only on ethnic grounds," Amnesty International reported in December.

Could the conflict spread beyond Mali?

The conflict has already sucked in neighbouring countries like Algeria and Niger, which are struggling to contain their own  Islamist insurgents who have now allied themselves with the Mali rebels. Other African nations, such as Senegal and Nigeria, have committed troops to the UN-sanctioned and African-led International Support Mission.

It also threatens to have much broader consequences that extend not just beyond the borders of the region, but beyond Africa itself.

Oumar Ould Hamaha, a Malian rebel commander affiliated with several of the Islamist groups in the Sahel region and notorious for his role in the kidnappings of Westerners, including that of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, warned on French radio that by intervening in the Mali conflict, France has "opened the gates of hell for all the French" and "has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia. And that is only the beginning." 

Rebel leaders have also warned that the intervention will have consequences for French citizens being held hostage by AQIM.

France raised its domestic terror threat level after deploying its forces to Mali and advised the 6,000 French citizens who remained in the country at the start of its operation to leave.