top of page

The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA)

Updated: Mar 22

Insurgency Overview​​


The CMA is a mostly secular, Tuareg-Arab separatist political-military coalition seeking independence for Azawad – the Tuareg Berber name for the region they inhabit across the Sahara-Sahel region – northern Mali, Burkina Faso and Nigeria, northwestern Niger, western Libya, and southeastern Algeria. Founded in 2014 and formally merging in 2023, it was formerly composed of the Tuareg-led Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and Arab-led Arab Movement of Azawad – Dissident (MAA-D).


The CMA is in conflict with the Malian government and its supporting armed groups, and with transnational Salafi Islamist groups, including Al-Qaeda-linked JNIM and IS-GS. Allied with future JNIM co-founder Ansar Dine and briefly assisted by the Libyan government, the MNLA led the 2012 rebellion that kickstarted the Northern Mali conflict, before being sidelined by its more powerful Islamist ally. In the context of the ensuing Islamist insurgency, the MNLA formed the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) with other groups and began peace talks with the government. These continued until 2023 when war broke out between the CMA and the ruling military junta after the latter requested the UN withdraw from Mali.


Controlling the city of Kidal for many years until its capture by the Wagner-supported Malian army in 2023, the CMA, now embedded in rural northern Mali, continues to play a key role in the conflict. At various times since 2012 the CMA and its components have also controlled territory across the Kidal, Gao, Timbuktu and Mopti regions of Mali. It commands thousands of forces that engage in urban and desert warfare with the government and other armed groups and enforce strategic blockades. Its political wing effectively utilises international mass media and has organised numerous domestic protests.


History & Foundations


Background


The Tuareg, who dominate the CMA, are a traditionally Muslim, tribal, nomadic-pastoralist Amazigh (Berber) ethnic group divided into regional kels (tribal confederations). The ‘noble’ Kel Ifoghas are the dominant Tuareg group in the desert Kidal region and have played a key role in the extensive Tuareg history of rebellion against French colonial encroachment on their traditional social and political dominance over Azawad as well as Malian state mismanagement of the region. Meanwhile, Ifoghas ‘vassal’ tribes have increasingly cooperated with the Malian government and developed lucrative smuggling operations in an attempt to overcome their traditional suzerainty.1 This perceived insubordination “has been a core issue in nearly every rebellion in northern Mali since independence.” (McGregor, 2016)

Secular Tuareg groups fought against French West Africa between 1916–17, the newly independent Malian state between 1962–64, and Mali and Niger between 1990–95 and 2006–09. Repeated rebellion since the ‘90s led to the fragmentation of the Tuareg nationalist movement into multiple competing armed groups, some affiliated with the Malian military, and the development of ethnocentric self-defence militias. Successive Malian governments have relied on unstable alliances with these forces to counter rebels. The Northern Mali conflict, beginning in January 2012, marked a new phase in Tuareg nationalist history. (Lecocq and Klute, 2013)


Emerging from campus activism in 2010, the mixed Tuareg Azawad National Movement (MNA), reignited demands for separatism, for which its leader Moussa Ag Acharatoumane spent some weeks in prison. By October 2010, the MNA had become the intellectual-political arm of the armed National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), with Ag Acharatoumane as its spokesman. The MNLA, a secular, separatist political-military organisation, was led by Secretary-General Bilal Ag Chérif and headquartered in the northern Malian town of Kidal. Former Libyan army officer, Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim, an Idnan Tuareg, was its military chief, assisted by Malian defector Colonel Assalat Ag Habi. Idnan and Taghat Mellit Tuareg, tributary ‘vassals’ of the Ifoghas, were well represented in the movement composed primarily of: (i) former insurgents from previous Tuareg rebellions (some of whom were integrated into the Malian army); (ii) Tuareg and Arab defectors from the Malian army; and (iii) Tuareg fighters who fought alongside both Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya and the National Transitional Council during the 2011 Libyan Civil War. (McGregor, 2017, p. 10; Desgrais, Guichaoua and Lebovich, 2018, pp. 661, 663, 666)


In October 2011, an MNLA meeting took place in Kidal to decide the political-military strategy for a new rebellion. Iyad Ag Ghali, an Ifoghas Tuareg veteran of Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion and noted rebel commander since the ‘90s, nominated himself for the candidacy of secretary-general, but was rejected by its young militants. In response, Ag Ghali created the Tuareg-dominated Islamist insurgent group Ansar Dine. Ag Ghali and other Ifoghas notables were then instrumental in the development of the MNLA-Ansar Dine alliance. Separately, Ansar Dine concluded an alliance with Salafi Islamist groups including the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Four main types of violent non-state actor exist in the multi-party Malian civil war – secular rebels, jihadist groups, ethnically-oriented self-defence militias, and pro-government paramilitaries, although these are fluid categories. Achieving cooperation between the multitude of non-state armed groups and their internal factions during the conflict is difficult due to differing objectives, ideologies and ethnic compositions. Even when political agendas match, personal, tribal and clan rivalries can hinder collaboration. Moreover, competition for power intersects with competition for control of legal and illegal trade routes across the Sahel-Sahara region. To complicate the conflict further, “as in Darfur, many of the factional “splits” are intended to place the leaders of self-proclaimed armed movements in the queue for post-reconciliation appointments to government posts.” (Bencherif and Campana, 2017, pp. 120, 128; McGregor, 2017, p. 8; Desgrais, Guichaoua and Lebovich, 2018; Bencherif, Campana and Stockemer, 2023, pp. 664–665)


Tuareg-Islamist Rebellion (2012)



January–May 2012

On January 18th 2012, the MNLA and Ansar Dine triggered the rebellion by attacking the small city of Aguelhok in northern Mali, killing numerous soldiers camped there and executing those who surrendered. Attacks on military posts in Ménaka and Tessalit quickly followed.


Fighting the Malian government extensively throughout early 2012, the MNLA, alongside the militarily superior Ansar Dine, cleared northern Mali of any government military presence within weeks. Utilising the instability that followed a March 2012 coup d'état that ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré, they overran the three largest cities in northern Mali – Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu – in three days. NGOs reported high levels of violence against civilians after their capture. (Desgrais, Guichaoua and Lebovich, 2018, p. 666; Bencherif, Campana and Stockemer, 2023, pp. 659, 661–662, 664)


On April 6th, following the capture of Douentza in central Mali, the MNLA ceased its offensive and declared Azawad’s independence from Mali, its goals apparently having been accomplished. MNLA Secretary-General Bilal Ag Chérif was made President of the Transitional Council of the State of Azawad. (Al Arabiya, 2012) This was followed by a joint declaration on May 26th by the MNLA and Ansar Dine announcing the formation of the Islamic Republic of Azawad. (BBC News, 2012)


MNLA's adopted flag for their Independent State of Azawad

June–December 2012

Ag Chérif’s presidency was brief, however, as conflict over the future of the Azawadi state broke out in June 2012 between the Tuareg nationalist MNLA and the Islamist coalition of Ansar Dine, MOJWA and AQIM. The MNLA and Ansar Dine largely avoided direct confrontation and violence against civilians in the Kidal region in 2012 as both groups drew from Tuareg tribes and clans in the region. This is bar one incident on June 8th where the MNLA encouraged local women and youth to protest against Ansar Dine’s implementation of their radical interpretation of the Sharia, where a few people were wounded.

In Gao, many anti-independence Songhaï and Arabs rallied to the ethnically diverse MOJWA2 following MNLA-perpetrated atrocities.3 As well as creating a perceived need for communal self-defence, these had stoked existing ethnic rivalries that MOJWA exploited for recruitment. Notably, they reactivated narratives from the ‘90s civil war between Tuareg rebels and the Songhaï Ganda Koy (Lords of the Land) militia of the persecution of “black” sedentary communities, including Songhaï, Fulani and Ikelan (black ex-slaves in the traditional Tuareg order), by “white” nomad Tuareg. On June 27th, MOJWA captured the city after clashing with the MNLA, leaving 20+ dead and 40+ wounded, including Ag Chérif. (AFP, 2012) Further clashes led to the capture of Ansongo and Ménaka in November.

Lacking the military capabilities to confront AQIM, the dominant jihadist group in the Timbuktu region, the MNLA retreated to areas outside their control. The first incarnation of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA), founded two days after the Azawadi independence declaration, claiming to consist of 500 mostly Arab fighters opposed to Tuareg and jihadist domination of Timbuktu, had occupied part of the region on April 26th before withdrawing the next day without incident, at AQIM’s request, to avoid civilian deaths. The group later split into a number of factions, including the pro-rebel MAA-Dissident and the pro-government MAA-Tabankort. AQIM captured Timbuktu on June 28th and Léré on November 28th without major violent confrontation.


Islamists groups had expelled the MNLA from all major cities in southern Azawad by July, and the rest of its urban territory by December. Despite mass defections to the Islamists for better pay since the independence declaration, and the formation of the Azawad Popular Front (FPA) splinter group4, the MNLA sustained control of large areas of rural desert in northeastern Mali. (Lecocq and Klute, 2013, p. 431; Bencherif and Campana, 2017; McGregor, 2017, p. 10; Bencherif, Campana and Stockemer, 2023, pp. 669–671)


MNLA/CMA-Government Peace Talks (2013-2019)


By 2013, the MNLA had renounced its internationally unrecognised claim to Azawadi independence, shifted its aims to autonomy for northern Mali, and began peace talks with the Malian government. It began supporting French and Chadian forces in restoring state authority to Islamist-controlled cities in the north and in operations against their mountain strongholds, particularly with intelligence, while still opposing the Malian army. In response, Islamists increasingly utilised remote violence, orchestrated a series of suicide bombings against MNLA checkpoints and bases, and murdered members of General Ag Gamou’s family, beginning a cycle of Tuareg-Fulani ethnic violence. (McGregor, 2016)


A fierce international campaign of airstrikes forced many Islamists into the Ifoghas’ Mountains and across neighbouring borders, severely reducing their access to funds with which to pay their fighters, leading many to return to the MNLA. Others however, embedded themselves in local communities. After capturing several important towns in the Kidal Region, the MNLA initially refused to disarm or cede control to the Malian government, but in June, signed a peace deal that permitted the military to return to some cities. This led to both pro-MNLA and pro-army demonstrations in Kidal. The deal collapsed at the end of the year after the MNLA claimed the government failed to respect its terms and opened fire on unarmed protestors. Tuareg rebels clashed multiple times with the Malian army between 2013-2014, notably in mid-May 2014 during a prime ministerial visit to Kidal. This event precipitated the creation of pro-government militias including GATIA and MAA-Tabankort (see Relations & Alliances). (Al Jazeera, 2013; Reuters, 2013; McGregor, 2016; Desgrais, Guichaoua and Lebovich, 2018, p. 667; Bencherif, Campana and Stockemer, 2023, pp. 665, 671, 673)


Meanwhile in recaptured Kidal, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) was formed in a May 2013 merger of the High Council of Azawad (HCA) and Azawad Islamic Movement (MIA). Founded by the amenokal (moral-spiritual chief) of the Ifoghas, Mohamed Ag Intalla, the political-military organisation was led by his brother, Alghabass Ag Intalla, former high-ranking member of the MNLA and Ansar Dine. It absorbed many former Ansar Dine members despite a rivalry between the Ag Intalla brothers and Ansar Dine/JNIM founder Iyad Ag Ghali over the Ifoghas leadership. (Bencherif and Campana, 2017, pp. 125, 129)

As a means of facilitating peace talks with the government in 2014, most armed groups in northern Mali agreed to join either the rebel Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) or the pro-government Plateforme coalition, while Islamist groups were excluded. However, political negotiations served to exacerbate intra and inter-communal tensions in northern Mali. This engendered greater factionalisation, precipitated new local conflicts, and created more self-defence groups, further increasing the level of insecurity. Although initially composed of many groups, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) consistently maintained three key members: the Tuareg-dominated (i) National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and (ii) High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and (iii) the Arab Movement of Azawad – Dissident (MAA-D). The MAA-D consisted mainly of Bérabiche Arabs from Ber and Timbuktu, many of whom were Malian army deserters, including MAA-D military chief Colonel Hussein Ould al-Moctar ‘Goulam’. Other leaders include suspected drug traffickers Dina Ould Aya and Mohamed Ould Aweynat.

Months of tense negotiations produced the Algiers Accord in June 2015, which sought to decentralise Mali, integrate former rebels into the army, and develop the northern economy, but it only widened the gap between its parties.5 



Bamako’s strategy of instrumentalising tribal/clan antagonisms led to a number of groups leaving the CMA, many perceiving the alliance as promoting further violence rather than reconciliation. These include the Coalition for the People of Azawad (CPA), Congress for Justice in Azawad (CJA), and Coordination of Patriotic Resistance Movements and Fronts II (CMFPR-II). The multi-ethnic CPA, led by former MNLA head of external relations Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh, departed over the supposedly hardline position of Bilal Ag Chérif in government negotiations, while the CJA is almost entirely composed of ex-MNLA Kel Antessar Tuareg based around Timbuktu and Taoudeni.6 The CMFPR-II, made up of sedentary Songhaï, Bambara, Fulani, and Ikelan tribesmen from the Gao region, also left the coalition. Its leader, Ibrahim Abba Kantao, head of the Ganda Izo (Sons of the Land) self-defence movement, split from the pro-government CMFPR in January 2014 and had joined the CMA to avoid being left out of negotiations, despite Kantao being against the partition of Mali and many members viewing the Tuareg clans as rivals for resources and political authority.


Pushed through by a frustrated international community, the accord is “widely regarded in the north as an imposed agreement that does not address the often subtle and deep-rooted grievances that fuel the ongoing conflict.” (McGregor, 2017, p. 8) Fighting continued due to repeated coups and constant violence, mostly involving jihadists, halting progress, preventing disarmament, and ravaging the economy. (Reuters, 2022) In an ongoing assassination war between the CMA and Islamist groups, the MNLA has suffered the greatest.7 (McGregor, 2017, p. 10) Nonetheless, “armed politics” was said to have taken the place of civil war in the Tuareg-government conflict by December 2015. (Bencherif, Campana and Stockemer, 2023, p. 665) 


In 2016, Mohamed Ag Intalla suggested engaging in talks with “Malian jihadists” (i.e. JNIM) in exchange for them helping “get rid of jihadists from elsewhere” (i.e. IS-GS). (McGregor, 2017, p. 9)

In September 2016, MNA founder and ex-MNLA spokesman Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, a Daoussahak Tuareg, split from the MNLA and founded the Ménaka-based Movement for the Salvation of Azawad (MSA) with Chamanamas Tuareg, Colonel Assalat Ag Habi. Most members were from these clans. The unilateral management of the CMA and the predominance of the recurring Imghad-Ifoghas conflict over Kidal were cited as reasons for their departure.


Moussa Ag Acharatoumane during the 1st MSA congress in Menaka


The MSA would itself split along clan lines in 2017 into the MSA-D and MSA-C. Later that year, the CPA, CJA, CMFPR-II, MSA-C and FPA, along with other MNLA/MAA splinter and CMA/Plateforme dissident groups, formed the rival Coordination of Inclusivity Movements (CMI). (European Council on Foreign Relations, 2019) The CMA and Plateforme (mainly GATIA) continued to clash throughout 2016. In spite of this, Ag Acharatoumane managed to broker the organisation of joint security patrols between the groups in September. A suicide bombing in Gao on January 18th 2017 temporarily halted the implementation of mixed patrols between the CMA, Plateforme and the Malian army. (Bencherif, Campana and Stockemer, 2023, p. 673)


An increase in violence from 2016 onwards, mainly attributed to IS-GS commander Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui,against all parties to the conflict led the MSA-D to openly collaborate with French, Nigerien and GATIA forces on security and in aggressive operations against the group. In response, IS-GS attacked Daoussahak and Imghad communities. Meanwhile a number of Daoussahak notables accused Ag Acharatoumane of using GATIA to target those opposed to his increase in authority in the community, and rejoined the CMA with their fighters. The remainder of the MSA-D then joined Plateforme in July 2019. (McGregor, 2016, 2017, pp. 8–13; Desgrais, Guichaoua and Lebovich, 2018, pp. 670–672, 676)


CSP-PSD Formation & Breakdown (2020-present)


In early 2020, a reconstituted Malian army, now integrated with forces from Plateforme and the CMA, began deploying to the Kidal and Timbuktu regions. They were met with small anti-state, pro-independence protests in Kidal city. DDR discussions between the government and the CMA nonetheless continued into 2021. The CMA and Plateforme also began discussions to reconcile their differences over the 2015 Algiers Accord, and in May 2021, agreed to form a new coalition later joined by the CMI – the Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development (CSP-PSD) – in order to mark their reconciliation, implement the accord, and jointly combat insecurity in northern Mali.


In August 2020, a military coup led by Colonel Assimi Goïta forced Malian President Keïta to resign following months of mass anti-government protests over a recent election widely perceived as fraudulent. A transition to military rule quickly followed and was completed when Goïta assumed the presidency in mid-2021, a role he holds to this day. West African regional bloc ECOWAS imposed sweeping sanctions against Mali in January 2022 after the ruling military junta announced a five-year transition timeline. These were largely lifted in July 2022 after the Goïta administration adopted a two-year transition period before presidential elections scheduled for February 2024. However, in September 2023, this was extended and the election indefinitely postponed, while protests planned in response were banned.


Tensions between the interim authorities and their international partners grew as hundreds of mercenaries from Russian-funded private military contractor Wagner Group were deployed across Mali and immediately began supporting the military in fighting JNIM at the end of 2021. Malian and Wagner counter-insurgency forces were swiftly implicated in a new wave of serious human rights violations that continue to the present day, including numerous massacres, extrajudicial executions and incidents of sexual violence. One massacre of 500 civilians in March 2022 could amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, the UN suggested. The government suspended the broadcasts of French media outlets RFI and France24 for reporting on these exactions. In mid-February 2022, France and its European partners announced a full troop withdrawal within six months, citing Wagner’s presence. After thousands protested in Bamako against French presence and ECOWAS sanctions in April 2022, the transitional government withdrew from defence agreements with France and announced further political, economic and security cooperation with Russia. On Malian Independence Day on September 22th, hundreds marched again, carrying Russian flags and chanting anti-UN slogans.


Jihadists attacked CSP members the HCUA, MSA-D and GATIA on multiple occasions between 2021 and 2023 in the Gao and Ménaka regions, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands of civilians. CSP forces supported the government in an offensive against IS-GS in the Ménaka region in June 2022. In August, the government and CSP met to address the stalled implementation of the Algiers Accord and continue DDR talks after the CMA decried its abandonment by the transitional authorities. Although they agreed to integrate 26,000 CSP fighters into the national army over a multi-year period, and senior CSP military officers into the military hierarchy, the CMA criticised the lack of clarity around the role of CSP group leaders in future integrated units. (Ahmed, 2022) Relations between the CSP-PSD and the post-coup Goïta administration sharply deteriorated thereafter. In December, the CSP-PSD withdrew from peace talks in response to the Malian military junta’s alleged refusal to negotiate or implement the 2015 agreement, and lack of action over the hundreds killed and displaced by jihadist and state violence in Ménaka, Gao and Timbuktu. (Reuters, 2022) NGOs suggested 2022 would be the deadliest year in Mali since 2012, owing to such violence and the impunity of those responsible. After France suspended development aid to Mali, Bamako banned French and French-funded NGOs and tightened state control of the rest.


Intense fighting between rival jihadist groups IS-GS and JNIM over control of the north in the Ménaka, Gao and Timbuktu regions between September 2022 and July 2023 killed and displaced many civilians. While inter-jihadist violence abated in August 2023, both groups continued targeting civilians, in addition to pro-government and UN forces, and occasionally CSP members. After the CMA called on young Tuareg to join the fight against IS-GS in Gao in November 2022, more than 400 CSP vehicles gathered in the Kidal region the following March in preparation for operations against the group. JNIM founder Iyad Ag Ghali even toured northern Mali in early 2023, meeting local notables and CSP leaders to discuss cooperation against IS-GS.


Throughout 2023, the interim authorities repeatedly blocked CSP attempts to implement the accord’s international mediation mechanism by declining Algerian proposals to host meetings. In February, the CMA’s three constituent groups formally merged into a single entity, a priority of Alghabass Ag Intalla since at least 2019. (Laplace, 2023) After the CMA fired at a military aircraft that flew over its stronghold of Kidal in April, the army arrested 12 CMA members in a rare operation in the Ménaka region. In mid-2023, Goïta consolidated his power through a cabinet reshuffle and a new constitution approved in a questionable referendum. The CSP, which did not allow the vote to proceed in their stronghold city of Kidal, lost two of the four ministries it held to loyalists.


When the junta then requested the UN withdraw from Mali and transfer all its bases to the government by year’s end, major fighting erupted between the CMA and the military, now supported by Wagner, for the first time since 2015, over previously UN-held areas in the Timbuktu region. Wagner mercenaries committed numerous war crimes against civilians during this time, while the army launched airstrikes on CMA positions in the Kidal region. (ADF, 2023) From late 2023 into 2024, civilians in the Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao regions were repeated targets of state violence, including airstrikes, drone strikes and the burning of IDP encampments.


In September, the CSP accused the junta and Wagner of multiple ceasefire breaches and repeated human rights violations. Later that month, the CMA issued the first ‘Azawadian National Army’ communication, declaring it at war with the junta and calling on civilians to “contribute to the war effort with the aim of defending and protecting the homeland, and thus regaining control of the entire Azawadian national territory.” (AfricaNews, 2023) Ben Bella of the CMA claimed fighters from Niger, Algeria and Libya were coming to their aid. (Ibrahim, 2023) Plateforme, including the MSA-D and most of GATIA, withdrew from the CSP over the declaration of war against Mali, while a GATIA faction led by Fahad Ag Almahmoud remained. Moussa Ag Acharatoumane claimed the conflict only benefited jihadists. (Baché, 2023) As the UN hastily withdrew between September and October, the CMA/CSP attacked Malian and Wagner personnel and temporarily seized a number of military camps and posts in the Kidal, Gao, Timbuktu and Mopti regions. The CMA fired upon various Malian military aircraft attempting to capture bases in Kidal and Gao recently departed by MINUSMA, successfully shooting down multiple, including the Malian airforce’s only remaining Russian Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet. Unconfirmed reports suggest this may have been achieved with rare American FIM-43 ‘Redeye’ MANPADs likely smuggled into Mali from Libya or Chad. (Abdul, 2023)




Following its seizure of the town of Anefis in Kidal from the CSP in October, the army pressed onto the regional capital of Kidal, capturing the CMA stronghold with Wagner support on November 15th after clashes that occurred when the UN left their base earlier than planned. Hundreds of soldiers and police were then sent to enforce order, while GATIA leader General El Hadj Ag Gamou was appointed Governor of Kidal by Goïta’s military junta. Both CSP and jihadist groups still remain implanted in rural areas of the region. In December, the CSP began blockading the major northern cities of Kidal, Ménaka, Gao, Timbuktu and Taoudeni, now under government control, and the roads leading to Mauritania, Algeria and Niger. JNIM had already been blockading Timbuktu on-and-off since August in opposition to the Malian army’s deployment. On December 20th, the military recaptured Aguelhok, the only remaining vacated UN camp captured by the CSP. In January 2024, accusing Algeria of interfering in its affairs, the interim authorities then terminated the 2015 Algiers Accord and launched a new national peace initiative, which the CSP quickly rejected as sidelining international mediation. It claimed the junta’s decision “totally calls into question all [the] principles” enshrined in the accord, including the unity and sovereignty of Mali, and called on its components to “review and update their respective objectives to face this new situation.” (Jeune Afrique, 2024) Alongside near-constant jihadist attacks, fighting for control of the vast regions of northern Mali will thus continue for the foreseeable future. (International Crisis Group, 2024)


Objectives & Ideology


The CMA, and its main constituent the MNLA, are mostly secular, Arab-Tuareg nationalist political-military organisations seeking independence from or autonomy within Mali for Azawad. The MNA/MNLA was the first Tuareg separatist movement to explicitly declare its objective was independence,9 adopting a national flag. The CMA includes fighters from ethnic groups across the Sahara-Sahel region, including Amazigh (Tuareg), Arabs, Fulani and Songhaï. MNLA representatives asserted the Saharan peoples’ right to self-determination given their 50-year oppression under the Malian state and its anarchy following the 2012 coup. It pledged to restore security in the face of terrorist and criminal networks and build democratic state institutions, and rather cryptically, to “respect all the colonial frontiers that separate Azawad from its neighbours.” (Al Arabiya, 2012; FRANCE 24, 2012b; Lecocq and Klute, 2013, p. 430)


Approach to Resistance


The MNLA/CMA engages in urban and desert warfare as their primary methods of violent resistance. This has been supplemented by the occasional use of protests and road blockades. Unlike many Islamist groups, they eschew the use of suicide bombings and remote violence (landmines, IEDs, rocket attacks) and do not regularly utilise guerilla warfare. (Bencherif, Campana and Stockemer, 2023, p. 671)


They have engaged in peace talks with the government and its allies in various capacities on and off since 2013. At the end of 2022, having withdrawn from peace talks, the CSP-PSD said they would only return to the table if talks were held under international mediation in a neutral country. (Reuters, 2022)


Military & Political Abilities


Political


At its peak in 2012, the MNLA, along with its Islamist partners, controlled 800,000 sq. km. of Mali (two-thirds of its territory). Gao, the largest city they had conquered, was the self-declared capital of Azawad. Following its recapture, Kidal remained the stronghold of the MNLA and then the CMA in the years following.


The young, educated MNLA political wing, represented by then Paris-based intellectual and propagandist, Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, had significant media experience and expressed their demands across the English, French and Arabic-language Internet using the language of human rights and the indigenous right to self-determination. The MNLA’s tactic of projecting itself as a pro-Western, anti-AQIM secular force in the hope of receiving support from France and its allies mostly failed and its resources shrank.


Although it successfully organised protests for Azawadi self-determination across Northern Mali in November 2011, the MNLA lost political legitimacy in its territory in 2012 as it was unable to develop administrative structures or maintain justice and security due to its ill-disciplined fighters destroying popular support through atrocities. In southern Mali, the general view is that the CMA is “feudal, anti-republican and anti-democratic.” (McGregor, 2016)

The CMA presidency currently rotates every six months between the leaders of its constituent groups. CMA President and MAA-D leader Sidi Ibrahim Ould Sidati was assassinated in Bamako, Mali in April 2021. His successor in the MAA-D, Ibrahim Ould Handa, is the current president of the CMA, having succeeded the HCUA’s Alghabass Ag Intalla in July 2023. Upon their formal merger in 2023, a CMA representative expressed a desire to move to a fixed presidency structure. The current CMA press secretary is Ilad Ag Mohamed. (Lecocq and Klute, 2013, pp. 430–431; Desgrais, Guichaoua and Lebovich, 2018, pp. 665–666; Laplace, 2023; Monteau, 2023)


Military


In June 2012, MNLA military chief Colonel Mohamed Ag Najim was claimed to be able to draw on a force of 9,000-10,000 across northern Mali, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger (according to unverified MNLA sources). A reported 2,000 were stationed at the airport in Gao training young volunteers in military discipline and weapons use, and were in possession of large quantities of submachine guns of various calibres, and 30 functional tanks, and in the process of repairing 10 more and a helicopter. (FRANCE 24, 2012a) Despite many Malian and Libyan army veterans in its ranks, the MNLA has performed poorly on the battlefield. (McGregor, 2017, p. 10)


The majority of CMA arms and ammunition have been obtained from Malian stockpiles. Arsenals captured during previous rebellions were supplemented with materiel from army deserters, officials and soldiers selling weapons, and attacks on military bases, including the MNLA’s early 2012 capture of Aguelhok, Gao and Timbuktu, and May 2014 raid on Kidal, where 50 new EU-provided 4x4 vehicles, 12 armoured vehicles and several tonnes of ammunition and weapons were captured. Tuareg fighters also brought a considerable amount of ammunition, small arms, light weapons, vehicles, and heavy weaponry to Mali from both government and revolutionary stockpiles after the end of the First Libyan Civil War. These included AK-pattern rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, vehicle-mounted ZU-23-2-pattern anti-aircraft auto-cannon, and mortar projectiles and artillery rockets (sometimes without launchers).10 This enabled the MNLA-Islamist coalition to fight a larger, more intense insurgency in 2012 than in previous conflicts.


Materiel analysis has shown small amounts of ammunition have also been sourced from military stockpiles in Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire, as well as a number of other west African countries. These are likely obtained in limited numbers by individuals and small criminal networks. The CMA also benefited from the proliferation of arms in non-state actor possession in northern Mali after the government armed pro-government militias and self-defence units. However, much of the heavy materiel was lost to Islamist forces in 2012 or destroyed by the Malian military and its supporters in the years following. Nonetheless, the abundance of professional smugglers and poorly accounted for arms in the southern Libyan Fezzan region continues to provide new materiel for combatants in northern Mali in spite of the erosion of Tuareg control over traditional trade routes since 2014. (Anders, 2015, pp. 171–178)




International Relations & Potential Alliances


Local/Regional


Although briefly allied to Ansar Dine, the MNLA/CMA has repeatedly clashed with the Salafi Islamist group and its affiliates, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Oneness & Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), Al-Mourabitoun, Boko Haram, and Ansaru, since 2012. The CMA continues to clash with Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (IS-GS), a MOJWA/Al-Mourabitoun splinter group formed in 2015, and Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), the product of a 2017 merger of Ansar Dine, AQIM, MOJWA and Al-Mourabitoun. JNIM, led by Iyad Ag Ghali, is a mix of Tuareg, Arabs, Fulani and Songhaï, while IS-GS is mostly Arabs and Fulani.


Although once allied, the CMA is frequently in conflict with the pro-government Plateforme coalition of armed groups, of which the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defence Group (GATIA), is the most powerful. GATIA is a paramilitary ethnic militia composed mostly of ‘vassal’ Imghad Tuareg locked in a struggle with the ‘noble’ Ifoghas. Many members are Malian/Libyan army veterans, including its leader, Malian General El Hadj Ag Gamou, now governor of Kidal. Plateforme also includes the Arab Movement of Azawad – Tabankort (MAA-T), dominated by wealthy Gao-based Lamhar Arab businessmen – many prominent drug traffickers11 and former key MOJWA military and civilian officials; the Coordination of Patriotic Resistance Movements and Fronts I (CMFPR-I), a coalition of Songhaï and Fulani self-defence movements from the Gao and Mopti regions; and the Movement for National Defence (MDP), a Fulani self-defence militia led by Liberian Civil War veteran of Charles Taylor’s forces, and one-time MNLA member, Hama Founé Diallo.


Before their withdrawal in late-2023, many rebels viewed the deployment of United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) forces as providing quiet support for government efforts to recapture the north through proxies including GATIA. Equally, others viewed the UN presence as vital to security. (McGregor, 2017, pp. 8–9, 11–13; Desgrais, Guichaoua and Lebovich, 2018, pp. 672–673)


International


Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi directly supported the MNLA until 2012. The CMA continues to receive informal support from Tuareg living across Mali’s immediate borders and from the international Tuareg diaspora. The main international opponent of the CMA remains the Malian government. French and Chadian forces, which led Malian counterinsurgency operations from 2012–2022, largely managed to avoid confronting the CMA and sometimes even collaborated with them. They were replaced by Wagner Group mercenaries supported by Russian and Turkish forces, following Goïta’s second coup in 2021, who engaged in major fighting with the coalition. Despite CMA opposition to their replacement, Wagner’s weakness, brutality against civilians, and focus on fighting the Islamist insurgency has served to empower the movement.


Meanwhile, since 2023, Mali has increased cooperation on security and collective sanctions evasion with neighbouring West African states Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea, all military-junta led following recent coups. This culminated in the first three’s creation of the Alliance of Sahel States in September, and the formation of a three-state confederation in December, with a stabilisation fund, investment bank, and apparently in the future, a common currency. However, given they are all facing serious domestic insecurity problems primarily caused by Islamist insurgencies, they would realistically be unable to assist one another in the event of an international conflict, something ECOWAS has threatened. In early 2024, as the MINUSMA withdrawal was nearing completion, the new confederation withdrew from ECOWAS over their respective post-coup sanctions. (International Crisis Group, 2024)



Notes

[1] Ifoghas influence on northern Mali’s communities has thus waned since the early 2000s.


[2] Although it was composed of members from ethnic groups across Mali and the Sahel, MOJWA was initially dominated by Mauritanian Arabs and had minimal Tuareg.


[3] NGOs recorded instances of theft, robbery, plunder and rape.


[4] The FPA reportedly split with the MNLA over a perceived need to focus on the Islamist threat, rather than advocating for independence.


[5] Part of this process is known as disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR).


[6] Largely Tuareg but claiming to include Arabs, Songhaï and Fulani, the CPA, established in a March 2014 merger of 11 groups, seeks the federalisation of Mali, but is relatively weak due to a rivalry between Assaleh and Secretary-General Shaykh Mohamed Ousmane Ag Mohamedoun. The CJA is similarly beset by leadership rivalries.


[7] Other members were also seriously affected – HCUA military leader Cheikh Ag Aoussa was assassinated after leaving a UN meeting in Kidal in October 2016. (Bencherif, Campana and Stockemer, 2023, p. 673)


[8] French forces killed al-Sahraoui in the tri-border area between Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso in August 2021.


[9] However, the Tuareg claim to autonomy or independence has existed since the 1960s period of African decolonisation, “sometimes in conjunction with and sometimes in opposition to an ‘Islamic claim’ to promote Islam and to install an Islamic mode of societal organization.” (Lecocq and Klute, 2013, p. 433)


[10] Islamist groups used the latter to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs), but this tactic was not deployed by the MNLA.


[11] Arabs of the Lamhar clan formerly occupied a subaltern rank in the Malian Arab hierarchy as vassals of the prominent Kuntas who were privileged both by tradition and the French colonial system of clientelism that continued into the postcolonial period. They are now heavily involved in long distance, cross-border trafficking in the Sahara, as well as in public works and transport. In one notorious incident, the French bombed Lamhar trucks after Idnan traffickers in the MNLA tipped them off, whereupon they seized their goods and took control of their warehouses in the commercially strategic location of In-Khalil, near the Algerian border. (Desgrais, Guichaoua and Lebovich, 2018, pp. 672–673, 677)


Works Cited (Harvard-style)

(1) - Abdul, K. (2023) ‘Last remaining Malian air force Sukhoi Su-25 aircraft crash’, Military Africa, 11 September. Available at: military.africa/2023/09/last-remaining-malian-air-force-sukhoi-su-25-aircraft-crash/.


(2) - ADF (2023) ‘More Wagner Atrocities Reported in Mali’, Africa Defense Forum, 15 August. Available at: adf-magazine.com/2023/08/more-wagner-atrocities-reported-in-mali/.


(3) - AFP (2012) ‘Ansar Dine Islamists oust Tuareg rebels from Timbuktu’, FRANCE 24, 29 June. Available at: france24.com/en/20120629-ansar-dine-islamists-oust-tuareg-rebels-timbuktu-mnla-mali-unrest.


(4) - AfricaNews (2023) ‘Mali: ex-CMA rebels say they are “in wartime” with the junta’, AfricaNews, 12 September. Available at: africanews.com/2023/09/12/mali-ex-cma-rebels-say-they-are-in-wartime-with-the-junta.


(5) - Ahmed, B. (2022) ‘Mali pledges to incorporate 26,000 ex-rebel fighters in army’, AP News, 5 August. Available at: apnews.com/article/africa-army-mali-6ab28ae81456d31dda2f8ce45e35ab3e.


(6) - Al Arabiya (2012) ‘Tuareg rebels declare the independence of Azawad, north of Mali’, Al Arabiya, 6 April. Available at: english.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/04/06/205763.


(7) - Al Jazeera (2013) ‘Mali’s Tuareg fighters end ceasefire’, Al Jazeera, 30 November. Available at: aljazeera.com/news/2013/11/30/malis-tuareg-fighters-end-ceasefire/.


(8) - Anders, H. (2015) ‘Expanding Arsenals: Insurgent Arms in Northern Mali’, in Small Arms Survey 2015: Weapons and the World. Cambridge University Press, pp. 170–185.


(9) - Baché, D. (2023) ‘Mali: division au sein des groupes armés du Nord, le MSA quitte le Cadre stratégique permanent’, RFI, 25 September. Available at: rfi.fr/fr/afrique/20230925-mali-division-au-sein-des-groupes-armés-du-nord-le-msa-quitte-le-cadre-stratégique-permanent.


(10) - BBC News (2012) ‘Mali Tuareg and Islamist rebels agree on Islamist state’, BBC News, 26 May. Available at: bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-18224004.


(11) - Bencherif, A. and Campana, A. (2017) ‘Alliances of convenience: assessing the dynamics of the Malian insurgency’, Mediterranean Politics, 22(1), pp. 115–134.


(12) - Bencherif, A., Campana, A. and Stockemer, D. (2023) ‘Lethal Violence in Civil War: Trends and Micro-Dynamics of Violence in the Northern Mali Conflict (2012-2015)’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, 46(5), pp. 659–681.


(13) - Desgrais, N., Guichaoua, Y. and Lebovich, A. (2018) ‘Unity is the exception. Alliance formation and de-formation among armed actors in Northern Mali’, Small Wars & Insurgencies, 29(4), pp. 654–679.


(14) - European Council on Foreign Relations (2019) Coordination des Mouvements de l’Entente (CME), Mapping Armed Groups in Mali and the Sahel. Available at: ecfr.eu/special/sahel_mapping/cme.


(15) - FRANCE 24 (2012a) ‘Images et témoignage exclusifs du nord du Mali: un colonel du MNLA dévoile son arsenal militaire’, FRANCE 24, 21 June. Available at: observers.france24.com/fr/20120621-mali-nord-gao-mnla-ansar-dine-chars-arsenal-armes-equipement-capacite-guerre-cedeao.


(16) - FRANCE 24 (2012b) ‘Tuareg rebels declare independence in north Mali’, FRANCE 24, 6 April. Available at: france24.com/en/20120406-france-24-exclusive-tuareg-rebels-declare-independence-mlna-mali-ansar-dine-azawad.


(17) - Ibrahim, M. (2023) ‘Mali crisis: Life in Timbuktu and Gao under siege by Islamist fighters’, BBC News, 8 October. Available at: bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-67027659.


(18) - International Crisis Group (2024) CrisisWatch | Mali, International Crisis Group. Available at: crisisgroup.org/crisiswatch/database?location[]=26.


(19) - Jeune Afrique (2024) ‘Après avoir enterré l’accord de paix d’Alger, le Mali crée un dialogue national’, Jeune Afrique, 27 January. Available at: jeuneafrique.com/1530840/politique/apres-avoir-enterre-laccord-de-paix-dalger-le-mali-cree-un-dialogue-national/.


(20) - Laplace, M. (2023) ‘Mali: What the fusion of the Azawad movements will change’, The Africa Report, 14 February. Available at: theafricareport.com/283521/mali-what-the-fusion-of-the-azawad-movements-will-change/.


(21) - Lecocq, B. and Klute, G. (2013) ‘Tuareg separatism in Mali’, International Journal, 68(3), pp. 424–434.


(22) - McGregor, A. (2016) ‘“Why Take Up Arms?” Tuareg Loyalty to the State in Mali’, Aberfoyle International Security, 1 December. Available at: aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4783.


(23) - McGregor, A. (2017) ‘Anarchy in Azawad: A Guide to Non-State Armed Groups in Northern Mali’, Terrorism Monitor, XV(2), pp. 8–13.


(24) - Monteau, F. (2023) ‘Nord du Mali: dix choses à savoir sur Ibrahim Ould Handa, nouveau patron de la CMA’, Jeune Afrique, 20 July. Available at: jeuneafrique.com/1464631/politique/nord-du-mali-dix-choses-a-savoir-sur-ibrahim-ould-handa-nouveau-patron-de-la-cma/.


(25) - Reuters (2013) ‘Mali Tuareg separatists suspend participation in peace process’, Reuters, 26 September. Available at: reuters.com/article/idUSDEE98P0EE/.


(26) - Reuters (2022) ‘Mali’s northern armed groups pull out of Algiers peace talks’, Reuters, 23 December. Available at: reuters.com/world/africa/malis-northern-armed-groups-pull-out-algiers-peace-talks-2022-12-22/.


Comments


bottom of page