Reports on the Islamists in control of northern Mali often just label them all “al-Qaeda,” but the reality of the situation is that in addition to the al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) faction, several other independent Islamist factions, including MUJAO and Ansar Dine, have as much, or more influence across the region.
The groups have some commonalities, but have often been at odds since taking over the north, in many cases clashing openly over control of key areas. Ansar Dine in particular openly talked about severing all ties with AQIM and backing elections in an effort to avoid war.
But since France launched its invasion over the weekend, those differences and rivalries have dried up. Northern Mali is under attack from abroad and the myriad fighters are now unified by a common enemy.
Ansar Dine and MUJAO both have deep ties in Mali, and support among the local population in several of the northern towns. They were initially distrustful of the foreign fighters flocking to the region, and efforts to split them away from the other factions could have dramatically changed the complexion of a war which is now shaping up to be extremely long and ugly, with little chance left for dialogue.