The MNLA is not Jihadist. It is the main group representing the Azawad independence movement and has aims similar to those of other ethnic nationalist groups.
On Friday April 6, the MNLA (National Tuareg Liberation Movement) unilaterally declared the independence of Northern Mali. The situation in Mali leading to this declaration has already been the subject of media coverage, which seems to have been drawing a connection between the Tuareg insurgency and jihadism. However, Tuareg secessionism must not be confounded with Islamism. Mistakenly labeling the MNLA as jihadist might alienate the group and reduce the chances of peaceful settlement or negotiations with the Tuareg rebels.
The political context of Mali, a sub-Saharan, land-locked African country, has changed rapidly over the past few months. The fall of Gaddafi has sent hundreds of armed nomadic Tuareg mercenaries back to their home base in Northern Mali. On returning to the Sahara, they rejoined the MNLA and began what they consider the fourth Tuareg rebellion, resuming their struggle of the past decades to establish the State of Azawad that would cover all of Northern Mali down to the Niger River. The MNLA is the main group representing the Azawad independence movement and it has aims similar to those of other ethnic nationalist groups such as the Kurds.
In parallel to the MNLA, one main Islamist group has also been trying to gain control of Northern Mali. The group initially emerged after the Algerian army refused to recognize the election of the FSI (Islamic Salvation Front) in 1991. This refusal fueled frustration amongst the FSI supporters, some of whom reorganized into the armed Islamic factions. These factions then moved south into Mali, recruiting young men from Algeria, Mali and other neighboring countries. In 2006, they officially became a part of Al-Qaeda under the name Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
It is only comparatively recently that Ansar Dine emerged as a new player in the Malian political landscape. Ansar Dine is a conservative Islamic group, seemingly independent from AQIM, and with yet unclear political aims. Its leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, was also the instigator of the 1990 Tuareg rebellion. He has since moved away from the Tuareg secessionist struggle and joined conservative Islamic movements. He recently founded Ansar Dine, a group seeking to implement an orthodox interpretation of Islamic law in Mali. Although it is not known yet whether Ansar Dine shares some of AQIM's aims, it is clear that Ansar Dine is not concerned with secession. It is probably the emergence of Ansar Dine with its former Tuareg rebel leader and its unclear links with AQIM that has caused the conflation of Islamism with Tuareg nationalism.
On March 22, with the turmoil in the North caused by AQIM, Ansar Dine and the MNLA as a backdrop, young officers of the Malian army declared a Coup d'État, removing President Amadou Toumani Touré from office. These three groups seized the opportunity to further their aims in the North of Mali. Before the coup, there had been some collaboration between the MNLA and AQIM. Both groups shared the same trade routes and subsisted through smuggling goods, people, drugs, cigarettes and weapons through the border between Algeria and Mali.
Despite this collaboration, the MNLA, which is in effective control of Northern Mali, remains secular and has always rejected jihadism. The MNLA has a long history in Mali and has more supporters and fighters than Ansar Dine. There have been reports that with the recent coup and instability, Iyad Ag Ghaly and his men took this opportunity to steal some of the MNLA's weapons in a warehouse in Kidal, thus reinforcing their divergence and competition. Since the beginning of the coup, however, AQIM has kept out of the spotlight whilst Ansar Dine benefits from disproportionate media coverage compared to the MNLA. This tends to misrepresent the current political situation in Northern Mali.
In order to address the conflict in Mali adequately, it is important not to confuse the MNLA, a secessionist-nationalist movement, with Ansar Dine, an Islamic pro-sharia group, or with Al Qaeda. In the midst of the American Global War on Terror, to label yet another group or state as terrorist could lead to misdirected interventions that would only exacerbate the unrest in Mali. Mali ranks 175 out of 187 according to the 2011 Human Development Index Report, and this political crisis is aggravating the plague of famine and poverty for civilians. In order to support peace in Mali, incautious use of words such as terrorist or jihadist must be avoided, and each group must be understood through its aims and history.