Inside Story

Northern Mali: An Islamic state?

As rebel groups debate how to impose Sharia, we examine the regional implications of the creation of an Islamic state.

Two rebel groups that took over northern Mali earlier this year had agreed to form an alliance and create an Islamic state. But just what are the regional implications of an Islamic territory in the West African country?

Ansar Dine is said to have links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, while the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or the MNLA, is led by the Tauregs.

The winners [from this union] are the MNLA, the Azawad people and also the region when we avoid fighting between groups …. The MNLA are [forcing] Ansar Dine to make some concessions regarding Sharia law. Sharia law has many interpretations. In Islam there are two types and the one the MNLA agreed with is the modern one – it is not one that is going to cut off hands or prevent women from going outside.

– Akli Sh’kka, a spokesman for Imu-hargh Organization for Justice and Equality

The two sides signed an agreement on Saturday but now their deal appears to be unraveling because they disagree over how strictly to impose Islamic Law, or Sharia.

Ibrahim Assaley, a member of the MNLA, explained: “We have refused to approve the final statement because it is different from the protocol agreement which we have signed.

“It is as if they want us to dissolve into Ansar Dine. That is unacceptable.”

The West African bloc ECOWAS was quick to reject the idea of an Islamic state in northern Mali, while Francois Hollande, the newly elected French president, was categorical – saying France would only consider involvement in Mali under the framework of a UN Security Council decision.

The conflict in Mali began in March after a coup was staged by low-ranking soldiers angry at what they said was a failure by the government to stamp out a separatist rebellion in the north. They attacked various parts of the capital, Bamako, including the presidential palace. Within 24 hours they had announced that they had overthrown the elected government of President Amadou Toumani Toure.

Three weeks later the coup leaders agreed to relinquish power to an interim government, but by then it was too late and the rebellion in the north had split the country in two.

This [union] is not going to change the basics of the conflict. These two groups are now proclaiming an independent state that ECOWAS is not going to accept  and all the countries in the region are not going to accept it and this is not going to change this line in the negotiations.

– Sylvain Touati, an associate fellow for the French Institute for International Relations

It appears that there has been a rise in the number of African groups eager to implement their interpretation of Sharia:

  • In Somalia, al-Shabab controls southern parts of the country. With links to al-Qaeda, its members describe themselves as fighting what they call the enemies of Islam.
  • In Nigeria, Boko Haram strongly opposes what it describes as man-made law. Based in the north-east of the country, the group wants to abolish the secular system of government.
  • And in Algeria, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wants to overthrow the Algerian government and introduce an Islamic state.

So, just what are the implications of the creation of an Islamic state in northern Mali?

Inside Story, with presenter Dareen Abughaida, discusses with guests: Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre For The Study Of Radicalisation at King’s College, London; Akli Sh’kka, a spokesman for the Imu-hargh Organization for Justice and Equality and a human rights advocate for the Taureg and Beber people in Mali; and Sylvain Touati, an associate fellow at the French Institute for International Relations and a specialist on African politics.

“All the discussion of the relationship between the MNLA and the Ansar Dine and how they are trying to avoid this internal conflict is happening at the leadership level …. But you have to appreciate that the MNLA has been campaigning and fighting for independence for a very long time and at the grassroots that has been a campaign which is not Islamist, [it is] largely secular and so if a leadership deal is made to avoid infighting, which concedes power to the Islamists there is every chance that at the grassroots people will rebel against the leadership of the MNLA. So the prospects for conflict still remain very high.”

Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at King’s College, London      


  • Taureg and Ansar Dine rebels seized control of Mali’s north in March
  • Mali’s government rejects the creation of a new state in the north called Azawad
  • But the groups have disagreed over how to apply Islamic law in the new state
  • Ansar Dine says it wants to apply “pure and strict” Islamic law
  • While the Taureg insist that Azawad state be covered by moderate Islamic law
  • Mali’s transitional government wants to retake the territory
  • The regional group ECOWAS says Mali’s territorial integrity must be maintained
  • ECOWAS has force of 3,000 soldiers ready for a potential deployment in Mali
  • Regional and Western leaders have long feared a breakaway state in Mali