The Tuareg secessionist movement in Northern Mali (now Azawad) may not be formally recognized as an independent nation anywhere yet, but in many ways it is a fait accompli, having decisively defeated the Malian military at every turn.
But what comes next for the desert region, one of the world’s poorest, is still unclear, as the overwhelmingly secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) is finding itself at odds with the Islamist Ansar Dine and its allies in al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Indeed, it was a new member of Ansar Dine who attacked the tomb of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar in Timbuktu. The attacker reportedly objected to pilgrimages to the tomb of Ben Amar, an influential African Muslim of the 15th century, saying that saints should not be venerated.
Ansar Dine’s vision of Azawad is starkly different from NMLA’s, with its followers attacking sellers of alcohol and performing public floggings. Though the population of the region is overwhelmingly Muslim, most of them are moderates, and will likely prefer NMLA’s Tuareg nationalist policies to the theocracy Ansar Dine is pushing.