Bamako accuses the Tuaregs of lending support to AQIM by sharing their desert expertise and navigational skills, acting as auxiliaries, opening up their trade networks. It would be impossible for AQIM to operate in northern Mali without some sort of acceptance by the Tuaregs, say Sahel researchers.
There may be little spiritual affinity between AQIM's Salafists and nomads in the north, but former hostages like Robert Fowler say AQIM's fighters are respectful of local needs and customs. They also offer important fringe benefits. A Bamako-based peace activist with extensive research in the Kidal region, explained. "What are the alternatives for young [Tuareg] people? It's not difficult to put yourself in their place, to see the temptations of getting involved in drugs trafficking or some other kind of adventure."
Tuareg leaders, not least from the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la liberation de l'Azawad, or National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), which is fighting to carve out an independent state in the north, have consistently called for the expulsion of AQIM from Malian territory, and accuse the authorities of giving free rein to criminal elements.
Alliances have shifted constantly in the north over the past 20 years, but a recurring figure is veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali, founder of the MPLA (Mouvement Populaire pour la Libération de l'Azawad, or Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) in 1988. He has been used by the government as a mediator and could win over hardliners.
Sent as a diplomat to Saudi Arabia, Iyad famously converted to the Pakistan-based Tablighi Jam'at faith while in Jeddah. He now heads the Ansar dine movement, which has a nominally pacifist orientation. Iyad is thought to have been involved in hostage releases in the past, giving him a wide range of contacts and the opportunity to interact with key individuals in AQMI. In recent statements, MNLA has distanced itself from Iyad, suggesting that Ansar dine is more of an irritant than an ally.
Arguments over Aguelhoc
The government's contention that there is an MNLA-AQIM link grew stronger after a Commission of Enquiry confirmed reports of a massacre of over 70 government soldiers at Aguelhoc (in Kidal) when it was overrun by rebels in late January, and said this was the work of "Salafist extremists" in cahoots with the MNLA.
The MNLA accused Malian intelligence services of staging an elaborately fake by rearranging the corpses to make it look as if they had been slaughtered using AQIM methods. An MNLA communiqué warned: "There is no relationship between us and any kind of Islamic movement. Our mission is clear and we don't intend to be distracted."
This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations