Mali has seen cyclical political and intercommunal conflict extending back to the colonial period. Among the notable episodes are two-armed rebellions by northern Tuareg groups seeking independence, from 1963 to 1964 and again from 1990 to 1996. These conflicts were characterised by attacks from both sides that targeted civilians. In both cases, the Malian forces responded with harsh repression of fighters and civilians, cementing resentment among the Tuareg population towards national leaders based in the country’s south.1
A tenuous peace agreement was reached in 1996, which included provisions for decentralised governance but did not resolve endemic underdevelopment in the region. A decade and a half of low-intensity fighting followed, during which time smuggling and banditry networks took hold in the region, with a concomitant proliferation of terrorist groups.2
In January 2012, the Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), an armed group of Tuareg fighters, formed an alliance with Ansar Dine and other designated terrorist groups to launch a third independence movement. The coalition quickly defeated Malian armed forces in the north and took control of large parts of the region, including population centres in Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal and Ménaka. The occupiers established rule in the region, based on extremist interpretations of Sharia law.