Something ugly is happening in the Sahel, the vast stretch of desert in the Western Sahara. In March, an Islamist group known as Ansar Dine, fighting alongside Tuareg insurgents, ousted the hapless Malian army from the northern half of the country -- the desert half -- and proclaimed the independent state of Azawad. Now, Ansar Dine has imposed the same medieval version of Sharia law practiced by al-Shabaab in Somalia, or the Taliban during their rule over Afghanistan. "Women are now forced to wear full, face-covering veils," according to one recent account. "Music is banned from the radio. Cigarettes are snatched from the mouths of pedestrians." An Ansar Dine spokesman described al Qaeda as "our Islamic brothers."
So should America start worrying about yet another haven for Islamist terrorists? Intelligence officials have been speculating for years about links between Sahelian tribes and the group known as al Qaeda in the Maghreb, or AQIM. Azawad looks like the realization of their worst nightmares. AQIM could treat Azawad as a host site, just as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has done with southern Yemen. And with the recent killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda's No. 2, American officials have begun to think that the locus of jihadi activity may increasingly shift away from the Afghan-Pakistani border to the Persian Gulf and to North Africa. Azawad, in short, could be the next destination for the armed drones which have become the Obama administration's weapon of choice in the war on terror.
This would be a terrible idea. Mali isn't Yemen, and Ansar Dine isn't AQAP. Iyad Ag Ghali, the Ansar chief, is a Tuareg leader who, along with others, adopted a harsh, South Asian version of Islam in the mid-1990s; Ansar Dine itself is an indigenous movement which seeks to impose a fundamentalist vision of Islam on Mali -- but only on Mali. A 2007 academic study of the group concludes that they "have done everything in their power to make it clear that their fight is not a part of a worldwide jihad." One European NGO official who has held talks with the group says that Ansar leaders "have a more Tuareg-y feel than an AQIM-y feel." Ansar, he says, is essentially an Islamicized local insurgency.
What's more, Ansar is only half the story in northern Mali. The group has joined forces with a Tuareg movement, known as the MNLA, which has been fighting the government in Bamako for decades. The MNLA is a secular organization, which in the past has sought greater autonomy for the region and a larger role for Tuaregs in the national government. And the two groups are not getting along very well. After announcing an agreement to form a joint government, the MNLA and Ansar have had a falling out over Ansar's demand for Sharia law, as well as the MNLA's insistence that Ansar distance itself from AQIM.
What is happening in northern Mali right now is fundamentally about Mali. The Tuaregs rose up against the central government in 1996 and 2006. Then they rose up again this year. They succeeded this time for two reasons: first, because in March a military junta overthrew Mali's democratically elected government, leaving the country in even greater shambles than usual; and second, because Tuareg rebels based in Libya returned home after Moammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown, and brought heavy weapons with them.