While ethnicity is not a key driver of the current conflict in northern Mali, there is a real danger violence could become organised along ethnic lines.
Bamako - Northern Mali has seen conflict before, but the ascendancy of Islamist militants and the salience of organised crime - particularly the drug trade - suggest that this iteration is qualitatively different from its predecessors.
Accordingly, the current diplomatic discourse emphasises a regionally-coordinated approach to defeating Al-Qaeda-linked militants and restoring the territorial integrity of Mali.
Even the best-planned, adroitly executed military campaign, however, is likely to yield adverse humanitarian consequences in the short term, providing ample opportunity for local actors motivated by a mix of ideological affiliations, economic interests, pre-existing grievances, ethnic identities, tribal networks and even personal animosities to pursue their own agendas.
Right now, the presence of ethnic and local militias might seem like a peripheral concern, but the international community may soon find that failing to marginalise or demobilise these groups could make it difficult to translate tactical military gains against Islamist militants into more strategic goals, such as regional stability.
One of the key challenges for the international community therefore will be to ensure that a protracted, internecine conflict does not emerge from the fog of war. While ethnicity is not a key driver of the current conflict in Mali, there is a real danger that violence could become organised along ethnic lines.
Identity politics by other means
Though violent conflict in northern Mali has rarely been initiated by ethnic animosity, there is some precedent of armed groups forming according to ethnicity. A previous rebellion led by ethnic Tuareg groups in the early 1990s, for example, was originally motivated by political grievances, but later took on an ethnic dimension. These grievances manifested themselves in the establishment of Tuareg and Arab movements that sought to gain concessions from the state through armed rebellion.
While the primary motive for these uprisings was economic marginalisation, the conflict did take on an overtly ethnic dimension with the emergence of non-Tuareg militias who were dissatisfied with the Malian government's handling of Tuareg rebel groups. To take just one example, the Ganda Koy ("Masters of the Land" in Songhai) was formed in 1994 by ethnic Songhai deserters of the Malian army who were frustrated by the inability of the Malian state to protect northern Mali's sedentary populations, such as the Songhai and Fulani, from Tuareg rebel attacks and banditry.
The Ganda Koy quickly gained notoriety for its ruthless tactics and penchant for targeting Tuareg and Arab civilians. These communities responded in kind by reactivating old groups and forming new ethnic-based militias. What had been a conflict between state and anti-state actors became inter-communal, with ethnic affiliations coming to the fore.
After years of score-settling and mutual atrocities, negotiations in 1996 led to a sharp decline in violence. The Malian government pursued a policy of demobilising some armed groups while integrating others into state military structures.
The past is present
Personal conversations with ethnic Songhai in the region of Gao in 2008 and 2009 revealed a general hesitation to speak candidly about the Ganda Koy. Though most interviewees acknowledged that the Ganda Koy provided the military and political space for the Malian state to reassert itself in parts of northern Mali, they were also painfully aware of the methods employed at the expense of their Tuareg and Arab neighbours. Some topics, it seemed, were better left in the past. Residents of cities like Timbuktu and Gao were more eager to highlight northern Mali's pluralism and prove that ethnic violence was an aberration.
But these days, hints of ethnic animosity are already surfacing. Six ethnic and regionally based militias of northern origin are preparing for a "war of reconciliation" under the banner of the Force Patriotique de Resistance (FPR). One of these groups calls themselves the Ganda Koy. Personal interviews with several original Ganda Koy members, as well as with those who fill the ranks of its newest incarnation, suggest that links between the two are tenuous. To a large extent, "Ganda Koy" has become a label, but the brand resonates powerfully and differently with various populations in the north.
Though the secular, Tuareg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has since been marginalised by its one-time Islamist allies of convenience, non-Tuareg politicians from northern Mali and members of the northern diaspora routinely go out of their way to blame the MNLA for what has come to pass.
While Western media understandably highlights the brutal and destructive version of sharia law being implemented by Islamist groups in northern Mali, calls for revenge in Bamako often focus on the MNLA and Aguelhok, a garrison town in northern Mali where detained Malian soldiers were summarily executed by their captors.
Though details are sketchy regarding who was responsible for the massacre, Aguelhok and the abuses that occurred in Gao during the MNLA's brief reign over that city are still fresh in the minds of many Malians who refer to the MNLA as "war criminals" and "traitors". Local press outlets are full of polemicists who deliberately conflate the MNLA with all Tuaregs, thus couching their rhetoric in ethnic terms.
Last month, reports emerged that nine Tuareg civilians were allegedly rounded up and executed by members of the Malian army. These acts may have even been carried out by the same military unit responsible for the execution of Mauritanian preachers only a few months prior. Meanwhile, in the capital city of Bamako, several Tuareg homes and Tuareg-owned businesses have been targeted amid mob violence.
All this is to say that there are plenty of raw feelings flying around, and these animosities are driven by variables that defy the prevailing media narrative that pits traditionally moderate Malians against foreign Islamist occupiers.
No short cuts
With the Malian military in disrepair and analysts openly wondering if ECOWAS is up to the task, the international community should be sceptical of calls to "leverage" or to co-opt ethnic or regionally based groups like the Ganda Koy or the MNLA against AQIM and its affiliates.
Any policy that elevates the status of these types of groups will be inherently divisive and risks alienating large segments of a population whose buy-in will be essential if durable security outcomes are to be achieved. Supporting local militias also confers a degree of unearned political legitimacy to groups who, despite their rhetoric, do not necessarily represent the aspirations of their broader ethnic group. Without a government to represent them, citizens will have no choice but to seek security through non-state actors whose existence is predicated on ethnicity.
Marginalising, demobilising and disarming ethnic militias and other non-state actors will be a long, complicated process requiring political capital and military capacity that neither the Malian government nor ECOWAS currently possess. A meaningful first step, however, would be for the broader international community to acknowledge that the spectre of ethnic violence looms over Mali and to consider how short-term calculations aimed at defeating the Islamist groups in the north might affect long-term prospects for peace.
Peter Tinti is a freelance journalist and analyst based in Bamako, Mali and Dakar, Senegal. He was previously based in Gao, Mali and writes on politics, culture, and security in West Africa and the Maghreb. You can follow him on twitter @petertinti.