January 28, 2013 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 923

MNLA Supports France's Military Intervention, Demands Respect For Azawad's Independence, Human Rights

January 28, 2013 | By Anna Mahjar-Barducci*
Africa | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 923


On January 11, 2013, France launched a military intervention, Operation Serval, against several jihadist movements – chiefly Ansar Al-Din, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) – that had taken control of parts of Azawad (northern Mali). The operation was launched one day after Islamist forces captured Konna, a strategic town situated outside of Azawad itself, about 500 kilometers northeast of Mali's capital Bamako. The secular and democratic organization National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which unilaterally declared the independence of Azawad in April 2012, responded to the French intervention in a communiqué issued on January 12, 2012 by its secretary-general, Bilal Ag Cherif. In the communiqué, the organization expressed its willingness to participate in the fight against terror, but also demanded that the Malian army refrain from entering Azawad and that the civilian population of the region not be harmed. The MLNA obviously fears that France's ultimate goal is to re-annex Azawad to Mali, and that the Malian army will seize this opportunity to restore its control over the region with the backing of the international community. The organization also fears that the Malian army will punish the region's Tuareg and Moor population; this concern has already been justified by reports of severe human rights violations by the Malian army.

The MLNA, as well as figures in Europe, have rebuked France for failing to engage the secular and democratic forces in Azawad as part of their intervention in Mali. They argued that these forces could be a military asset in the war against terror, while also helping to protect the civilian population of Azawad from being harmed; moreover, they could form the basis for a long-term political settlement in northern Mali.

MNLA: The War Against Islamist Forces Cannot Be Won Without Our Military Involvement

In January 7-9, 2013, while Islamist forces were preparing to defy an international military intervention, the MNLA held its Second Congress in the city of Tinzaouaten under the title "Assessing and Restructuring the MLNA Political and Military Institutions." The conference focused on launching a new bid to obtain international recognition of Azawad's independence. Following this conference and the launching of the French intervention, Ag Cherif issued the MLNA communiqué, which stated: "The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) alerts the international community [to the fact] that the foreign military intervention against terrorist groups [in Azawad] should not be grounds for the Malian army to cross the border between Azawad and Mali before a political agreement is reached regarding the [Mali-Azawad] conflict. The MNLA is willing to participate in the struggle against terrorism in order to reduce the risk to innocent civilians. We demand that the civilian population of Azawad not be the victim of the armed intervention, and that there be no confusion between civilians and terrorists. We remind that the MNLA has always respected its commitments, in particular regarding the cessation of hostilities between the MNLA and the Malian army. The MNLA remains open to negotiations".[1]

Other MNLA representatives reiterated the organization's commitment to participating in the war on terror as long as the independence of Azawad is respected. MNLA official Mossa Ag Assarid told AFP: "We're ready to help, we are already involved in the fight against terrorism. We can do the job on the ground. We've got men, arms and, above all, the desire to rid Azawad of terrorism."[2] Ag Assarid added that the MNLA opposes any presence of the Malian army in Azawad without a prior agreement between Mali and the MLNA, and that this organization is ready for dialogue aimed at finding a solution to the Azawad problem. CTEA[3] Chargé of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh told Reuters that the organization's fighters could take part in a UN-mandated intervention by ECOWAS forces. "The MNLA wants to fight the terrorists alongside ECOWAS and the international community," he said, while stressing his concern that Mali might retaliate against the Tuareg and Moor population of Azawad: "The population of Azawad, for whom we are fighting, are the first victims of this terrorism, and we are afraid they will also become victims of the military operation, especially from the Malian army."[4]

MLNA officials have long declared their organization's willingness to participate in a military intervention against the Islamist forces, stressing that their involvement would be an asset for the international community. On September 26, 2012, Mossa Ag Attaher (now CTEA Chargé of Communication and Information) published an open letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in which he assessed that the international community could not win the battle against Islamist forces on the ground without the MNLA's military help, since none but the Tuareg could fight well in the harsh desert conditions of Azawad.[5] As a matter of fact, apart from the French forces, the MNLA is the only force that has successfully fought the Islamists on the ground.[6]

MNLA: The Malian Government Has Never "Fired A Single Bullet" Against AQIM

In his open letter, Ag Attaher emphasized that excluding the MNLA from a military intervention would expose the civilian population in Azawad to danger, and rebuked the international community for ignoring his organization: "The Malian army, whose irresponsibility is a known fact, and the [Malian] militias, which will not pass up an opportunity to join the proposed military intervention, will certainly attack the Tuareg and Moor civilian populations [in Azawad]... Why do the international community and ECOWAS continue to distrust the MNLA in seeking a final solution to the conflict? The MNLA [is] the only credible and inevitable ally in the fight against the [Islamists], which have been rooted in Azawad for almost 15 years." [7] In fact, MNLA officials have claimed that the jihadists gained their grip on Azawad with the complicity of the Malian regime,[8] and that the Malian government has never "fired a single bullet" against AQIM or against other terrorist groups, who have been present in Azawad for over 15 years.[9]

The MNLA lost ground to the Islamists due to the lack of financial and logistical support. With more help, it could recruit Tuareg fighters to retake lost territories. In fact, many Tuareg currently living in refugee camps are willing to join the MLNA in order to fight for Azawad, but they are waiting to see this organization receive greater international support. Furthermore, many fighters who joined Ansar Al-Din for money, or because they considered this the "safest" bet, are likely to leave this organization following the French intervention, and they could be easily recruited to the MNLA.

Despite this, the international community seems reluctant to support the secular and democratic forces in Azawad, in particular the MNLA. The exclusion of this organization from the military intervention suggests that the goal of the international community is indeed to restore Mali's control over Azawad and thus perpetuate what many Azawadis see as a state of occupation.

MEPs: France Wants To Restore Mali To Its Former Condition

Three European Parliament members from the Green Group/European Free Alliance – François Alfonsi, founder of the Berber-Amazigh Friendship Group, Frantziska Brantner and Indrek Tarand – have issued a communiqué discussing the weakness of a military intervention that is not coupled with a clear political strategy for bringing stability to Azawad. The communiqué argues that, in order to win the fight against terrorism, it is necessary to support a democratic political process that respects Azawad's bid for self-determination. It says: "France does not say a word about the causes... that led the people of Azawad, regardless of ethnicity, to reject the central Mali [regime]. On the contrary, French policy is apparently aimed at restoring Mali to what it was: a country in which jihadists thrived and engaged in kidnappings and smuggling, while protected by the apparent stability of the Malian state... No international intervention has any chance of succeeding politically unless it is backed by forces on the ground that enjoy the trust of the Azawadi population itself. The political future of this French military intervention hinges on the following question: What will be the institutional makeup of the future Mali? It will be necessary to engage the MNLA in talks, and the democratic self-determination of the populations of Azawad will have to prevail. This position must be asserted with force, and Europe must work to foster political dialogue. At the same time, European humanitarian aid must be rapidly extended in order to relieve [the suffering of] civilian populations, which are the first victims of this conflict."[10]

French airstrike on jihadist stronghold. Image:

Human Rights Violations By Malian Army

An article published by the Paris-based magazine Jeune Afrique on January 20, 2013[11] noted that the Tuaregs and Moors of Azawad, though happy to be liberated from the jihadis, fear the presence of the Malian army in their region. Their apprehensions are partly fueled by past experience: in the 1990s, following a Tuareg rebellion, the Malian Gandakoy movement perpetrated several massacres in the Gao and Timbuktu areas with the support of the Malian regime, and also killed some 60 Tuareg marabouts in a camp near Gao in October 1994.[12]

The fears of the Azawadis and the MLNA appear to be materializing. In a report titled "Abuses Committed by Malian Military: Urgent Need for an Independent Investigation Commission," the France-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) warned of an increasing number of summary executions and other human rights violations committed by Malian soldiers against Tuaregs and Moors as part of the French-Malian operation. The report (in English) says:[13] "FIDH has learned of a number of summary executions carried out by the Malian armed forces as of Thursday, 10 January 2013, in particular in Sévaré, Mopti, Niono [outside of Azawad itself] and other places in the conflict zones. In Sévaré, at least 11 individuals were executed in a military camp, near the bus station and the hospital. Reliable information report[s] close to 20 other executions in the same area, where bodies are said to have been buried very hastily, in particular in [water] wells. In the Niono region, Malian soldiers killed two Malians of Tuareg origin. We are also being told of other allegations of summary executions in the central region.

"Our organization also wishes to take note of the abduction of the imam Cheik Hama Alourou by Malian soldiers [on] the evening of 21 January in Gnimi Gnama, a village between Bore and Douentza [also outside Azawad itself]. In Bamako, during the week of 14 January, the Malian army intimidated a dozen of Tuaregs whose homes they searched and plundered.

"The victims of these exactions are people who are accused of complicity with the jihadists..., persons in possession of weapons, people who have no proof of their identity during military patrols, or simply people [who are] targeted because [they] belong to certain ethnic groups commonly called the 'light skins.'"[14]

Toumast Press has circulated a video showing Malian troops killing 52 Tuaregs in Djoura on October 25th, 2012. According to the intro of the video, which has been posted on YouTube,[15] the massacre was filmed by a Malian soldier who is heard laughing as the soldiers execute Tuareg civilians. The video also shows the Malian soldiers taking the victims' money and the other possessions before killing them. [16]


* Anna Mahjar-Barducci is Research Fellow for North African Studies at MEMRI.



[1], January 12, 2013.

[2] AFP, January 14, 2013.

[3] The Conseil de Transition de l'Etat de l'Azawad (State of Azawad Transitional Council) is a 28-member interim government formed by the MLNA in June 2012.

[4], January 20, 2012.

[5], September 26, 2012. For the full test of the open letter, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 892, MNLA Reaction To ECOWAS Intervention Plan In Azawad: 'We Are The Only Credible Ally In The Fight Against Terrorism In The Sahel', October 24, 2012.

[6] See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 854, The Fight For A Secular State Of Azawad – Part II: Fighting Terror In The Sahel, July 5, 2012.

[7], September 26, 2012.

[8], August 9, 2012.

[9], May 30, 2012. The Azawadi people's desire for independence is also fueled by years of frustration over Mali's neglect of their region. See for example an article by Mustapha Dahi, a moderator on Azawad's leading internet forum, Kidal info. Dahi, who is a Moor (though he refers to himself simply as an "Arab") is no supporter of the MNLA and claims to be against Azawad's secession. Despite this, he wrote that the independence of Azawad would eventually come, be it "five, ten, or 100 years" from now, because nothing durable could be build upon the frustration of the people. He stressed that Azawadis built schools and startup companies without help from the Malian state, because the latter did not invest in Azawad's infrastructure. He also said that, since the secession, there is actually less shortage of food in the region. Kidal info, January 23, 2013.

[10], January 15, 2013.

[11] Jeune Afrique, January 20, 2013.

[12] Think Africa Press, February 6, 2012.

[13], January 24, 2013.

[14] The Tuaregs and Moors are often referred to pejoratively as "light skins" or "red skins."

[16], January 18, 2013.

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