On July 30, 2012, the leading Touareg media outlet Toumast Press (toumastpress.com) published an interview with Mossa Ag Attaher,the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad's (MNLA's) Coordinator for Diplomatic Action in Europe. Since April 6, 2012, when it unilaterally declared the independence of the region of Azawad from Mali, the MNLA has been struggling to hold on to that independence. Following the declaration of independence, the MNLA found itself surrounded by many enemies, mainly two countries – Mali and Algeria – and jihadi organizations – Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Al-Din, the Al-Qaeda splinter group Monotheism Movement for Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and the Nigerian movement Boko Haram.
In the interview, Ag Attaher explains that secularism is the main pillar of the movement and that the MNLA stands against the implementation of shari'a law. He also stresses that the movement's goal is the establishment of a secular state in which the rights of all ethnic groups in the Azawad region – the Tuareg, Moors/Arabs, Songhoi, and Peul – will be respected. Furthermore, the movement has declared itself a partner of the West in the war on terrorism.
However, on June 26-27, 2012, the city of Gao – the transitional capital of Azawad – was set ablaze. Heavily armed contingents of MUJAO and AQIM seeking to gain control of the city attacked the headquarters of the Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (CTEA), the provisional government of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Toumast Press stated that the attack was organized with the support of the Algerian secret services, and with the blessing of Mali and Qatar.
Although during the battle the MNLA lost control of Gao to the Islamist movements, it claimed to have weakened the AQIM by inflicting multiple casualties. Now, the MNLA is reorganizing its political and military echelon and preparing to fight back. On July 23-24, 2012, the MNLA met in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, in order to review its internal organization. The meeting was organized at the initiative of an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediator, namely Burkina Faso Minister of Foreign Affairs Djibril Bassole, and facilitated by the Swiss federal government.
Following are excerpts from the Toumast Press interview with Ag Attaher:
The MNLA Considers Separation Between State and Religion Essential
Toumast Press: "After the total liberation of Azawad from the Malian colonization last March 29, and the declaration of independence on April 6, it took more than two months before the government of Azawad [i.e. the Transitional Council of the State of Azawad CTEA], was formed. How do you explain this delay?"
MNLA Coordinator for Diplomatic Action in Europe Mossa Ag Attaher
Mossa Ag Attaher: "Every Azawadian, as well as the international community, has noticed that the MNLA accumulated an enormous delay between the proclamation of independence of Azawad and the set-up of a provisional government in Azawad.... This delay was due to many reasons, and in particular to the negotiations that took place in the city of Gao, when the [Islamist] Ansar Al-Din group tried to make the MNLA believe that it could change [its political orientation] and could go in the same directions as the MNLA: to proclaim the independence of Azawad and work together for the consolidation of the gains of [the revolution] in Azawad.
"For the MNLA, [these negotiations with Ansar Al-Din] were very damaging, since the MNLA wasted a lot of time without obtaining any results [...]. Finally, the MNLA realized that – unfortunately – Ansar Al-Din never had the political will to go the same way as the MNLA, for what concerned the independence of Azawad and [the setting up of] an Azawadian administration to serve the people of Azawad.
Azawad is mainly desert; the main cities, such as Gao and Timbuktu, are situated along the Niger River, which is the country's main source of water.
"Ansar Al-Din tried to make us accept the implementation of shari'a law and have our fundamental laws inspired by the shari'a and the Sunna, meaning a purely Islamic and religious leadership. The MNLA clearly stated that would not compromise over the issue [of secularism], since the very foundations of our combat and of our political project are based on the building up of a democratic state. The MNLA consider the separation [of powers] between state and religion to be an essential point [of our program]. This separation between religion and state implies the respect of all political and religious beliefs of the people of Azawad....
"The MNLA is in favor of secularism, which simply implies the separation of state from religion and the respect of all religious beliefs within Azawad. It is important to remind that the population of Azawad is Muslim, Christian, and Animist, and there are also followers of many other religions. It is vital to protect all the populations in Azawad without any distinction.
"This does not mean at all that we forget that Islam is a religion, which is predominantly practiced by the people of Azawad. But we shouldn't forget that Christian and Animist populations are also Tuareg, Songhai, Peul and Arab. Ansar Al-Din did not express an opinion about these fundamental points. This made the MNLA understands that to make a compromise with Ansar Al-Din meant to renounce to our political project and fall under an Islamic state system that our people neither asked nor chose. Moreover, democracy requires that the aspirations of the people of Azawad are taken into account."
Algeria Is Plotting Against The MNLA
TP: "On June 26, 2012, following a plot [against the MNLA] organized with the support of the Algerian secret services, and with the blessing of Mali and Qatar, violent clashes broke out in the city of Gao. Terrorist groups such as AQIM, MUJAO and [the Nigerian jihadi group] Boko Haram attacked the MNLA. Could you tell us about these events and the initiatives that the MNLA is going to take?"
MNLA logo, written in Arabic, French and Berber. The MNLA motto is "Unity, Justice, Freedom"
MAA: "The Gao events are the fruit of a plot [that had been] prepared for several months against the MNLA. The attack which was perpetrated by terrorist groups to undermine the territorial security of Azawad is a serious violation of the right of the Azawadi people to decide for itself, to make its own political choices and to choose its own political leadership. The different communities of Azawad expressed themselves on the occasion of the congress that we organized in Gao. The overwhelming majority of congress participants reaffirmed that the MNLA, and only the MNLA, is the political force around which they intend to rally.
"Due to the MNLA's political and popular successes, and due to the MNLA's extraordinary ability in gathering all Azawad's elements, terrorist groups such as AQIM and MUJAO realized that they were losing ground in Azawad and that they could not implement all the projects that they wanted to impose on Azawad.
"At a time when the MNLA was about to organize the territory of Azawad both administratively and politically, and while our military leaders were about to dismantle outlaw organizations on the borders of Azawad – it was then that AQIM and MUJAO implemented their destabilization plan for Azawad, with the complicity of certain foreign powers [i.e. Algeria, Mali and Qatar] which were providing [Aqmi and MUJAO] with all the logistics, materials and financing needed for this operation against Azawad's institutions.
"I would like to point out that on that day, contrary to what was reported, there were only two MNLA vehicles in the town. It was these vehicles that managed to break the siege and take the CTEA members to safety. The personnel inside these two vehicles fought valiantly to protect the CTEA members, who were the direct target of the terrorists.
"There were some casualties and some wounded, but it was MUJAO that suffered the largest losses. On our side we had six casualties, while MUJAO and AQIM lost about 30 fighters in the clashes. Among the dead terrorists were some important MUJAO and AQIM leaders.
"Azawad national opinion realized that the MNLA and the CTEA had withdrawn from the city of Gao in order to reorganize. We would like to stress that we rejected the idea that reinforcement troops from the MNLA would immediately start a military counteroffensive, because that would have meant human carnage within the city of Gao. We didn't want that. It is not acceptable that [first] we fight for the population of Gao and liberate the city from the Malian occupation, and then endanger the population by engaging in street combat with the use of heavy weapons.
"This is why all MNLA fighters were ordered out of the city of Gao. Otherwise, there was no match in terms of military strength. Although AQIM and MUJAO are made up primarily of foreign troops, MNLA's military strength is much greater.
"Due to this situation, we adopted a series of resolutions. The first one was to order all the military personnel of Azawad's army to withdraw from the cities, for two reasons:
· "The first reason was that we intended to completely distinguish ourselves from the terrorists, in order to avoid any possible confusion. Anywhere where AQIM and MUJAO are present, MNLA is not going to be there. It was after we left the city of Timbuktu, that terrorists destroyed mausoleums and other cultural heritage. It was after the MNLA left the city of Gao that women were raped and that the population was forbidden to leave the city, because of landmines placed by terrorists. We never hindered the free circulation of people and goods. Throughout the territory of Azawad, we are ensuring the security of buses shuttling from Bamako and Gao. Today, the national and international public opinion understood that the MNLA has engaged its own responsibility in regards to the security of the populations.
· "The second resolution taken by the MNLA was to gather all the forces of the [MNLA's] National Army of Azawad around the military command of MNLA. The goal of this [decision] is to devise a new strategy to fight terrorist groups."
The MNLA Will Never Allow Terrorists To Sow Disorder And Anarchy Within Free Azawad
TP: "So the MNLA is not losing any momentum, as a certain international press outlet claims?"
MAA: "On the contrary; MNLA is anything but losing momentum. Rather, it became aware of the tricks and plots that are hatching around it. These terrorist attacks allowed everyone to have no more doubts about the real intentions of the islamo-terrorist groups. Everyone understood that these groups' only objective is to challenge Azawad's independence.
"At this very moment, Azawad's three most important cities [Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal] are about to be surrounded by the MNLA, and further orders are about to be given to finish the job. Today, our strategy is to issue no communiqués... concerning the strategies of the military staff. We have no doubt that these strategies will be successful.
Mossa Ag Attaher
"The cities of Gao and Timbuktu will soon be liberated from drug dealers, thieves and rapists, whose only objective is to create chaos within Azawad. The MNLA will never allow any of these [terrorist] groups to sow disorder and anarchy within free Azawad.
"The present military strategy is handled solely by the MNLA military staff. We stand behind the military staff concerning its activities....
"The international community, our partners and all the parties who are in contact with the MNLA are convinced that the only credible interlocutor in Azawad is the MNLA. [Now] they all say that the MNLA is their only valid partner and the only one with a political project that takes into account all the different components of Azawad."
Mali Is A State In Total Disintegration, A State Without An Army, With Almost No Institutions
TP: "Some of our [Toumast Press] readers, as well as part of the population of Azawad became concerned upon learning that a CTEA member declared that the MNLA was willing to abandon [the idea of] Azawad's independence. What is the real position of the MNLA and of the CTEA on this issue"?
MAA: "...Azawad's independence is irrevocable... Azawad's independence is a fact... It has been stressed over and over that any declaration casting doubts about the independence of Azawad will be considered intolerable.
"We would like to reassure the public opinion in Azawad and Azawad's friends and supporters, that our struggle has, as a sole objective, to allow the people of Azawad to take their own destiny in their hands and to have their own administration and justice. Whoever does not share this objective has no place within the MNLA and the CTEA."
TP: "On July 23-24, 2012, a conference was held in [the Burkina Faso capital] Ouagadougou reuniting MNLA officials and the representatives of the Azawadi civil society. What issues were discussed?"
MAA: "The Ouagadougou meeting [was organized] at the initiative of an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediator, namely Burkina Faso Minister of Foreign Affairs [Djibril Bassole], and facilitated by the Swiss federal government.
"This meeting had two objectives:
· "The first was to allow the MNLA to review its internal organization, to restructure itself and to adapt itself to the new situation for what concerns Azawad and the expectations of the international community.
· The second was to allow the creation of a commission for drafting political platforms with a view to [future] negotiation with ECOWAS, the international community, and also with Mali.
"...I can tell you that these two goals were totally accomplished. By the end of the two-day-meeting, we reached an understanding about the initiatives to be taken. At the level of the structural and institutional organization, the MNLA took some important decisions for the amelioration and adjustment of its activities.
"...From now on, the CTEA president will be the basis for the functioning of the CTEA and of the MNLA. At a different level, we created a commission whose task is to draw up the political platform of the MNLA... Once this political platform is completed, it will be presented to the CTEA, to the ECOWAS, and to our Swiss partners....
"Many Azawadians and many of our friends are convinced that the MNLA is in Ouagadougu in order to start negotiations with Mali. I totally deny that. Today, Mali is not a state with which we should talk. Today, Mali is a state in total disintegration, a state without an army, with almost no institutions, and whose president is under threat and cannot exert his powers.
"This is what we told the mediator of the ECOWAS. It is important that ECOWAS help Mali organize democratic elections, and that it puts some pressure on the Malian political class, which is torn by power struggles. Only when Mali has a legitimate government elected by its people will the MNLA meet with ECOWAS and Mali in order to discuss Azawad's independence.
"This is the information that I would like to convey, not only to the readers of Toumast Press but also to national and international public opinion."
TP: "As a last point, what will be the MNLA's next initiatives to gain recognition for Azawad's independence?
Mossa Ag Attaher announcing Azawad's independence on France 24 TV, April 6, 2012
MAA: "... Under the instructions of the CTEA and the MNLA, I have entertained some diplomatic activity aiming at recognition of Azawad... The good news is that we have achieved important results in regards to recognition... I would like to reassure national and international public opinion that the MNLA's general military staff is working hard in order to allow the city of Gao... to be again free, meaning that the populations of Gao will be liberated from terrorist and drug-trafficking organizations."
 Mossa Ag Attaher is MNLA Communications Officer and was recently appointed MNLA Coordinator for Diplomatic Action in Europe.
 On June 7, three months after Azawad's declaration of independence, the MNLA established the 28-member Transitional Council of the State of Azawad. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 848, The MNLA's Fight For A Secular State Of Azawad, June 19, 2012.
 Image source: Ara.cat
 On May 26, 2012, following three weeks of negotiations, a memorandum of understanding (MOU), also referred to as "protocol agreement," was signed in Gao, the provisional capital of Azawad, between the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist movement Ansar Al-Din. The MOU was signed by MNLA secretary-general Bilal Ag Cherif and by Ansar Al-Din deputy leader Alghabass Ag Intallah. However, no final agreement was signed between the MNLA and Ansar Al-Din. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 848, The MNLA's Fight For A Secular State Of Azawad, June 19, 2012.
 On June 26-27, 2012, heavily armed contingents of the Al-Qaeda splinter group MUJAO and AQIM, seeking to gain control of Gap, attacked the headquarters of the Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (CTEA), the provisional government of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 854, The Fight For A Secular State Of Azawad – Part II: Fighting Terror In The Sahel, July 5, 2012.
 The First National Congress of Azawad was held in Gao on April 25-26, 2012. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No.4728, At 'First National Congress of Azawad,' MNLA Chief of Staff Calls on All Other Armed Groups to Relinquish Their Arms, May 14, 2012.