All the Tuaregs who participated in the takeover of northern Mali were not Islamists, right? You said some were nationalists. Explain the relationship between the two groups.
The Tuaregs are Muslim, but few Tuaregs who participated in the rebellion were radical Islamists. The stated goal of the main Tuareg rebel organization, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (known by its French acronym, MNLA) is to set up a secular state where the Tuareg can live unmolested. The name of that state, Azawad, is a Tuareg word for “pasture.”
However, among the jihadists are some Tuaregs. For example, one of the main jihadist rebel groups is called Ansar Dine (an Arabic term that means “Defenders of the Faith”), whose members include some Tuaregs and whose leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, is a Tuareg and former Malian diplomat (he served in Mali’s embassy in Saudi Arabia) and longtime Tuareg rebel leader. He took up leadership of Ansar Dine only recently, in 2012.
After the Malian army withdrew from the north in March 2012, the MNLA and the three jihadist groups in the north (Ansar Dine, the Movement for Openness and Jihad in West Africa, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) signed a powersharing agreement to rule the north together. By June 2012 that agreement had fallen apart. The MNLA leadership disagreed with the jihadist aim of establishing Muslim sharia law over the north and the rest of Mali. The agreement fell apart by June and the MNLA leadership, and many of its fighters, fled into refugee camps in Niger and Burkina Faso.
Does jihadism have long roots in northern Mali? Or is this a recent phenomenon?
The roots are deep. Jihadists, for example, fought the French and British colonial domination of the Sahel in the 19th century. In French Soudan, the colony now known as Mali, two jihadist empires, the Fulani Massina Empire and later the Tukulor Empire of Al Hajj Umar Tall, ruled from the Mopti Region. French forces fought for 50 years to destroy the Tukulor Empire. They succeeded in 1893. Ironically, the French began their operations against the jihadists on January 11 of this year in the same area where Tukukor power was strongest — the region of Mopti.
There is at least one al-Qaida linked group that is part of the trouble in northern Mali. Do we know if there are foreign fighters from outside of Africa participating in the rebellion?
The group you are talking about is The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (known by the acronym MOJWA), an al-Qaida splinter group. The other important jihadist group, Ansar Dine, is made up of Malians, including Tuaregs. There have been reliable reports that MOJWA has reinforced its ranks with fighters from Algeria, Morocco, Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram is also reportedly involved in northern Mali.