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Special Reports

Mali’s Tangled Mix of Jihad and Civil War

A hostage situation in Bamako, Mali, has ended with at least 18 people killed. Details are still streaming in, and much of what has been reported is still tentative. My colleague Adam Chandler has a running post on the facts so far.

The attack has drawn new attention to the West African country, but it’s just one milestone in a long-running conflict that has included a separatist civil war, a split between Islamist allies, a large foreign-military operation, and a comeback by jihadists. Even while Friday’s siege was ongoing, questions arose about whether the Bamako attacks were at all connected to last week’s Paris attacks by the Islamic State, or if they were intended as retaliation for French military intervention in Mali in 2013—just as ISIS portrayed the November 13 attacks in Paris as vengeance for French airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. But there are many facts still unknown, and the situation in Mali is too complicated to allow any simple answers.

Mali is shaped like an uneven bow tie, with Bamako and much of the nation’s population in the smaller, southwestern triangle. The upper, northeastern triangle is more sparsely populated, and includes a swatch of the Sahara Desert. Tuareg people living there have long resisted the Malian government’s control. Their decades-long, low-level rebellion gained firepower in early 2012, as arms streamed across the Libyan border after the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi. In the spring, as an army coup toppled the central government, the Tuareg separatist Mouvement National Pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) declared independence, saying it had formed a new state called Azawad.

The MNLA, which includes many secular Tuareg, was bolstered by its alliance with Islamist fighters with ties to al-Qaeda. But the MNLA soon found it was unable to contain its allies. The Tuaregs were pushed aside and some became refugees. The Islamists began imposing an extremely harsh style of rule in northern Mali, forcing many people to flee the area and suppressing those who stayed behind. They destroyed historical shrines and records in Timbuktu, capturing the world’s attention briefly. By January of 2013, The New York Times was counting at least six different Islamist groups operating in northern Mali, including Tuareg-led Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

Click here to read The Atlantic report.

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