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Special Reports

A look at Mali's Islamic extremist groups

The competing claims by the Macina Liberation Front and Al-Mourabitoun to have carried out Friday's attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako highlight the number of militant Islamic groups flourishing in Mali, a country with a weak central government and vast ungoverned spaces.

Most of the groups trace their origins to al-Qaida's North Africa branch, and membership has also been very fluid between them. For the most part, they have not allied themselves with the Islamic State group, which is al-Qaida's rival for dominance of the world's jihadi movements and carried out the Nov. 13 Paris attacks.

Mali became a focal point for jihadi groups in 2012 when for nine months the Ansar Dine movement, composed mainly of ultraconservative Tuareg tribesmen, and other Islamic extremists held sway over all over northern Mali until pushed out by a French-led military intervention in 2013.

The radical groups have suffered heavy losses in France's Operation Barkhane, begun in 2014 and targeting groups in their havens in northern Mali and Niger and along the Libyan border. Further south, the Nigerian government has been struggling in the fight against Boko Haram, which - unlike the Mali-based groups - has pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State group.

Here is a glance at the various groups.


AQIM - Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, al-Qaida's North African branch, expanded south into Mali under pressure from Algerian security forces in the early 2000s and went on to make a fortune in smuggling and ransoming hostages. Under renowned militant Moktar Belmoktar, the group recruited disaffected Malians and Mauritanians and expanded its presence in the Sahara.

ANSAR DINE - Led by Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghali, the group emerged in 2012 as a religious alternative to the largely secular Tuareg separatists operating in northern Mali. Ansar Dine allied itself with al-Qaida and took over much of the north before being driven back into the desert by the French.

MUJAO - Founded in 2011, the movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, has been described as a splinter group from AQIM objecting to its predominantly Algerian leadership. It carried out attacks across West Africa, including kidnapping aid workers and Algerian diplomats and briefly controlled the northern Mali city of Gao. It later joined forces with Moktar Belmoktar after he split from al-Qaida.

Al-MOURABITOUN - Founded by Belmoktar in 2013 and named after a 12th century North African Berber dynasty, it combined MUJAO with Belmoktar's own Masked Brigade and completed his shift to a more Saharan-focused entity. The group claimed an attack on a Bamako restaurant that killed five in March. There were reports Belmoktar was killed by U.S. airstrike and unconfirmed claims that others now lead the group and that it had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

MACINA LIBERATION FRONT - The MLF appeared in January 2015 and has been attacking Malian security forces in the central regions of Mopti and Segou that in the 19th century were part of the Macina jihadi state. Many of its members are believed to have formerly been with MUJAO and are members of the Peul ethnic group.

BOKO HARAM - Boko Haram in Nigeria has expanded its aims from wanting strict Shariah law imposed in Nigeria's northeast to recreating an ancient Islamic caliphate across the borders into Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group. Its ties to Malian groups are not clear but some of its fighters were training there in 2012.

ANSARU - Ansaru broke away from Boko Haram in part because it, and al-Qaida, disagreed with the indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims. Ansaru is blamed for the kidnappings of foreigners in northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon, who usually are released in return for ransoms. This group is said to have ties to Algeria, AQIM and the Sahel.

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