Backgrounder: Crisis in Mali

What is the crisis?
Actually, several crises overlap in the West African country. After the elected government was overthrown in March 2012, insurgent groups including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb took over the northern part of the country, which lies in the Sahara Desert, according to an August report (.pdf) by the Congressional Research Service. AQIM is designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States. Other insurgent groups include Ansar Eddine, led by an ethnic Tuareg separatist, and Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, described as a violent offshoot of AQIM. Also active is the MNLA, a Tuareg nationalist militia that now seeks to ally with Mali's capital, Bamako.
How did the crisis occur?
The causes were complex, the CRS says, but the collapse of the Gaddhafi regime in Libya sent Tuaregs back to Mali and increased the flow of weapons in the region. Tuaregs are an ethnic group that have been fighting a secessionist war in Mali's north for decades, according to a report (.pdf) just issued by David Ottaway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. Tuaregs comprise about 11 percent of the population in north Mali. Half the country is now in the hands of Islamist separatists, according to the report.
Who is affected?
More than 420,000 Malians had been displaced as of last August, exacerbating an "already dire" regional food emergency, the CRS says. The Islamist groups have imposed a severe version of sharia law, recruited child soldiers and reportedly committed a number of human rights abuses. They also have damaged or destroyed historic and cultural sites, including ancient mosques and tombs designated as World Heritage sites by UNESCO. Drug trafficking is on the rise. The groups took over several cities, although over the weekend rebels were driven from the cities of Gao and Timbuktu by French-aided troops.
What is the bigger picture?
The United States worries about threats to regional security and to Western interests in the region. Those worries were verified Jan. 17 when an al Qaeda splinter group seized a natural-gas plant in neighboring Algeria and took 134 foreign workers hostage, reportedly in retaliation for French intervention in Mali. An Algerian Army assault took back the facility after 4 days but resulted in the deaths of 38 hostages, including three Americans.
What has the U.S. done so far?
Foreign aid was suspended after the coup, with the exception of humanitarian aid. The United States has expressed support for plans by the Economic Community of West African States to negotiate a settlement and help a civilian-led transitional government. A regional intervention force to protect government facilities and possibly fight the insurgencies has not yet been formed.
What about international military intervention?
France sent 3,700 troops to Mali, and is using fighter jets to provide air support for ground combat. The United Kingdom is helping out with logistics and a couple of additional aircraft. The United States also agreed Jan. 26 to use aerial tankers to refuel French jets. Algeria has refused to sanction the military intervention, especially from former regional colonial power France, Ottaway notes. The African Union on Friday gave its member states one week to commit troops to the African-led force in Mali, known as AFISMA, and said it needed to increase the size of the planned force, according to news reports.
For more:
- download the CRS report to Congress (.pdf)
- download the Woodrow Wilson Center report (.pdf)
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