Truman National Security Project

Crisis in Mali 101: A Turning Point for U.S. Foreign Policy?


In the past two weeks, Mali–known primarily for its rich musical traditions and the whimsical connotations of the city of Timbuktu–has become front-page news.  The crisis there is important not just for its humanitarian implications, but also because it indicates the type of activity the U.S. defense community will see from major terrorist threats in the years ahead.  If left unresolved, the events in Mali could result in a growth of terrorist operations in Africa.  Given the difficulty of conducting a military operation in the terrain of northern Mali, the crisis may continue for months to come.

Read on for an explanation of the major players and events in this escalating crisis.


On January 10, Islamist militants captured the Malian town of Komma.  The attack marked an unprecedented move towards the capital of Bamako, in the southwest region of the country.  The following day, French president François Hollande authorized Opération Serval, sending air support and some 500 troops to the aid of the Malian government.  The French forces quickly retook Konna and began air strikes on the militants’ northern stronghold in Gao.  However, several days later, the militants successfully invaded the city of Diabaly, roughly 250 miles from Bamako.  As of January 21, French troops had regained control of Diably and rebuffed militants from the city of Douentza.  The French involvement in the conflict has sparked the wrath of Mali’s Islamist militant groups.  One fighter warned that the French intervention had opened the “gates of hell.”

However, not all of the militants wish to continue fighting the French forces.  The successes of the French and Malian troops have created a rift in one of the militant groups, Ansar Dine, between those who wish to continue fighting and those who would would rather negotiate a peace settletment.  On January 24, Tuareg leader Alghabass Ag Intalla formed a splinter cell, the Islamic Movement for the Azawad (IMA).  The IMA is willing to negotiate with the French.  They have even offered to fight their former allies.

The crisis in Mali expanded to Algeria on January 16, when a group of approximately 20 militants from the terrorist cell Al-Mulathameen seized a natural gas field outside the town of In Amenas.  The attackers took hostages from the workers in the field.  Many foreigners were among those captured, including American, French, British, Japanese, and Norwegian citizens.  The attackers revealed their motive in a statement sent to the Mauritanian news agency ANI, in which they demanded the “immediate halt of the aggression against our own in Mali.”

On Januray 19, the hostage crisis concluded in a bloody siege of the gas field, conducted by the Algerian military.  The details of the battle are unclear, but Prime Minister Abdel Malek announced that the strike killed 29 kidnappers.  Algerian troops captured three other militants alive.  At least 37 hostages were killed in the crisis and a handful remain unaccounted for.  There were three Americans among the dead.  Al-Mulathameen has promised further strikes if French forces do not withdraw from Mali.


While the Islamist militants did not begin launching attacks on Malian towns until the beginning of 2012, the current conflict is rooted in events from a decade ago.  In 2003, militant groups crossed the border from Algeria into Mali.  Over time, they collected $89 million in ransom payments from European governments.  In late 2011, fighters from Mali’s Tuareg ethnic minority who had supported Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhaffi returned to Mali.  They formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) with the aim of creating an independent state for their people.  Using their ransom funds, as well as the support of the MNLA, the Islmaist militants launched an offensive in 2012 that resulted in joint Tuareg-Islamic control of northern Mali.

Last March, a cabal of mid-level military officers removed President Amadou Touré from power, dissatisfied with his response to the attacks to the North.  The Tuareg and Islamist militants took advantage of the resulting military and governmental destabilization to take more of the country’s northern territory.  By April, the militants had declared an independent state of Azawad.

However, the disparate goals of the militants caused friction between the groups in the following months.  These tensions came to a head in late June when the MNLA faced-off against the Islamist groups at the Battle of Gao.  By July, the Islamist militants had solidified sole propriety of northern Mali.  The Islamist militants began enlarging their territory to the South: In response, the UN authorized the development of a retaliatory African force.  The Economic Community of West African States began drafting plans to regain control of northern Mali.


Today, there are five primary militant groups active in Mali.  Three of these groups–al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA)–are composed of Islamist militants with strong al-Qaeda sympathies.  The other groups, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamic Movement for the Azawad (IMA), have offered their support to the French troops.  Each group has different goals for their activity in Mali.

National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is a secular rebel group that hopes to establish an independent Tuareg state in Northern Mali.  The Tuareg minority consider themselves ethnically white and have historically had bad relations with their countrymen in the South.  Since breaking ties with the Islamist militant groups, the MNLA has offered to support France in its efforts to defeat the Islamic militants.

Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) is a militant group that broke-off from the MNLA.  It aims to bring Muslim leaders to power in West Africa by establishing Islamic caliphates in the region.

Ansar Dine is another splinter cell of the MNLA.  Its goal is to impose Sharia law on all of Mali.  Much of the country currently practices a moderate form of Islam, but the militants have made it clear that they plan to enact stricter laws.  They have gone so far as to carry out public amputations.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is seeking to gain control of northern Africa.  Ansar Dine recruited members of this cell to join the fight in Mali.  The group is primarily composed of Algerians, Mauritanians and Malians.  Experts report that it is unlikely they have more than several hundred members.

Islamic Movement for the Azawad (IMA) broke off from Ansar Dine due to tactical differences conerning how to engage the French forces.  The IMA is willing to negotiate with the French, and have offered to fight their former allies.


Beyond the obvious humanitarian concerns surrounding the crisis in Mali (the UN refugee agency warns that as many as 700,000 Malians could be displaced by the violence), there is consensus in the national security community that a militant-controlled Mali would have dire repercussions for the United States.

Speaking with Michael Castner on the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Wrap, Truman President Rachel Kleinfeld described the power that terrorist cells gain when they control governmental assets:

“Last time Al-Qaeda had an actual country in its hold, which was in Afghanistan prior to 2001, it could print passports; it could print money.  What a terrorist group can do when it has a country–as opposed to just a little piece of land somewhere… is exponential.  And, so, preventing al-Qaeda from actually gaining control of a country is very important.”

Allowing al-Qaeda sympathizers to take over the Malian government would give these militant groups access to incredibly valuable governmental infrastructure and resources, increasing their danger to the U.S.

Writing for the New York Times, former U.S. Ambassador to Mali Vicki Huddleston draws ties between the Islamic militants in Mali and the terrorist cells Boko Haram and Ansar al-Shariah.  These groups are responsible for the attack on the UN offices in Abuja, Nigeria and the strike on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, respectively.  Mali borders seven other countries, many of which are hotbeds of militant activity.  Allowing AQIM, MOJWA, or Ansar Dine to gain a foothold in West Africa would strengthen these dangerous terrorist cells, as well.


Experts caution that the U.S. cannot afford to let al-Qaeda sympathizers gain control of governmental infrastructure in Mali.  Many assert that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to commit substantial resources–human or otherwise–to the country.

As Truman CEO Rachel Kleinfeld told the Wall Street Journal:

“This isn’t just about Mali.  Al-Qaeda has a foothold in places like Yemen–and lots of different countries–so we have to remember that this isn’t about getting mired down in a single place, the way we did in Iraq, or arguably, even in Afghanistan.  They’re going to exploit lots of local grievances, in different places, and keep trying for opportunities.  We have to be ready to deal with that, and not get too mired down in any one place ourselves.”

Realistically, the U.S. will be forced to combat al-Qaeda in many locations across the globe in the coming decades.  Committing too many resources to fighting the militant groups in Mali would undermine our ability to effectively engage dangerous terrorist cells in the future.  Leading experts have recommended that the U.S. provide limited support to the region, while asking our allies to help shoulder the burden of this crisis.


Looking ahead to the next phase of the conflict, France hopes that an African force will be able to assist in military operations against militant groups.  As of January 22, 400 military trainers from surrounding countries have arrived to assist African forces, and a summit will be held in Ethiopia on January 29 to raise funds to expand the African force.  It is expected that as many as 3,000 African troops will be mobilized, while France is willing to commit 4,000 troops.  The New York Times states that France must decide whether it will ramp up its involvement and try to resolve the conflict in the next eight weeks, or if it will wait for support from the UN-sanctioned force, after Mali’s rainy season.

Events in Mali in the coming months will reveal two important developments in the narrative of global security:

First, the events in Mali will point to how al-Qaeda will operate in coming years, and how the burden of counterterrorism will be shared by the U.S. and its allies.  If militant groups successfully gain control of the Malian government, this crisis could mark a major amplification in terrorist activity in Africa.

Second, the U.S. must decide how it will allocate its defense resources towards the terrorist threat in the years ahead.  Will the U.S. become mired down in Mali, like it did in Afghanistan?   Or will the response to this crisis mark a new era of international cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda?

Stay tuned to the events in Mali.  They may shape U.S. foreign policy for years to come.

Nick Baker is a member of the Truman National Security Project and Center for National Policy. Additional research by Arie Kuipers.