Geography in the News: Al Qaeda and Tuareg in Mali

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Appalachian State University

In March 2012, members of Mali’s military staged a successful coup d’état in the capital, Bamako. As the situation for the ruling government disintegrated, Tuareg rebels immediately rushed to take advantage of the country’s instability and secure towns in Mali’s northern region. The Tuareg and their surrogates, radical Islamists and al Qaeda, using heavy weapons confiscated during Libya’s uprising, quickly came to control most of the north—one of the poorest areas of the world.

When the rebels recently advanced southwest toward Bamako, it became clear to the neighboring countries and the United Nations that they might soon overrun the entire country, thus giving a base to al Qaeda in the heart of Saharan Africa. To halt their advance and to support Mali’s weak army, France just sent in troops and air support  to assist while awaiting the arrival of support from West African countries.

Mali lies in interior West Africa, southwest of Algeria, west of Niger and north of Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso. With an area of 478,840 square miles (1,240,192 sq. km), Mali is almost twice the size of Texas.

Mali’s geography is naturally divided into three zones. The southern zone, where almost 90 percent of the country’s people live, features the Niger and Senegal rivers and is heavily cultivated. The central zone is semi-arid Sahel and the northern zone reaches deep into the very arid Sahara Desert.

Mali remains one of the 25 poorest countries of the world and about half the population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day. Much of the work force is involved in farming and fishing, though the country does possess some natural resources such as gold, uranium and salt.

A full 90 percent of Mali’s population of 14.5 million is Muslim. Many different ethnic groups define Malian culture, with the largest, the Mande, comprising 50 percent of the population. The Tuareg people who are currently controlling northern Mali make up only 10 percent.

The Tuareg, who have never been very numerous, historically inhabited one of the harshest environments in the world, the Sahara region of Africa. They are light-skinned descendants of the Berbers of Algeria and they have been fiercely independent, largely disregarding the European-drawn desert boundaries between Saharan countries.

About half of the Tuareg population traditionally was nomadic, grazing animals, operating caravans and occasionally raiding desert travelers. The other half lived as sedentary farmers and merchants.

The Tuareg of the Sahara today are scattered through five different countries: Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. This means that they are minority populations in each, dominated by majority populations. The Tuareg have staged insurgencies in the past that have largely focused on land and cultural rights.

The most recent coup in Mali has given a group of Tuareg-led rebels the perfect opportunity to assert control in Mali’s northern region. Interestingly, the coup was initially launched over problems with the same rebels. Leaders of Mali’s military initiated the coup, accusing the government of not doing enough to suppress the insurrection in Mali’s northern region.

After Mali’s President Amadou Toumani Toure resigned, the military turned the government over to an interim civilian president, Dioncounda Traore. Mr. Traore has said that he will not tolerate the northern separatists and will call for full-fledged war if necessary.

The Tuareg rebels are calling for independence for the north and they are imposing sharia, or Islamic law, in some towns. The two main groups involved in the rebellion include a radical Islamist group and another that is comprised of Tuaregs who fought in Libya with Muammar Gaddafi last year. After Gaddafi was killed, they returned to Mali.

Sadly, the Tuareg rebels have taken over the famous 1,000-year old desert city, Timbuktu. Designated a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Association (UNESCO) World Heritage Site, Timbuktu has many historical structures that could be damaged as fighting progresses.

One variable that may be on the side of Mali’s government is that the northern region is not completely dominated by Tuaregs. Most of the people living in the main towns in the north, including Gao, Timbuktu and Niafounke are black Africans. They do not share the Tuaregs’ ambitions to establish an independent state and have formed local militias to fight the rebels.

Over the past few decades and up until 2012, Mali was seen as a West African model of democracy, social stability and development. This new conflict and the descendegreation Experts agree that the rebellion in Mali’s north will be difficult to control with no obvious path to peace there.

And that is Geography in the NewsTM. .

Sources: GITN #792, “The Changing Culture of Isolated Peoples: The Case of the Tuareg,” Aug. 5, 2005;;; and

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.

Nearly 900 of the 1200, full-length weekly Geography in the News articles are available in the K-12 online education resource Maps101, including maps and other supporting materials and critical thinking questions.



Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..