Small Wars Journal

The 2012-2013 Mali Conflict: Considerations on the Human Battlespace and Strategic Outcomes

Sun, 08/18/2013 - 1:29pm

The 2012-2013 Mali Conflict: Considerations on the Human Battlespace and Strategic Outcomes

Juan-Camilo Castillo


On June 18, 2013 several media outlets reported that the Government of Mali (GoM) signed a peace agreement with Tuareg separatists after two years of intra-state conflict. This event is significant considering that the Malian state's existence was challenged by a coalition of separatist and Islamist violent non-state actors (VNSAs) that were able to swept and control the northern portion of the country. [i]  Paradoxically, in recent years Mali was deemed as a “beacon of stability” in a tumultuous region, yet both internal and external political pressures managed to confute this rather novel notion.[ii] The country’s recent domestic conflict highlighted the fragile, yet strategically relevant security ecology that exists in this West African state and the Sahel region. The fall of decades-long regimes across the Maghreb created the perfect breeding space from where VNSAs thrived and operated across political and geographic boundaries.[iii] Moreover, dormant conflicts and longstanding grievances were invigorated by regional instability, therefore reinvigorating the presence of a variety of insurgent groups. In 2012, this situation pushed the country to the brink of collapse after Malian forces where unable to cope with these revitalized VNSAs.

The situation only worsened after the military, in light of their desperate situation, launched a coup d’état that attempted to take any measures against the advancing insurgency.[iv]  Yet, the coalition of insurgencies was able to defeat the unprepared and disorganized Malian security forces. In front of this precarious situation, France, with the symbolic assistance of other Western and African states, was able to push back the insurgent coalition through the use of joint military assets. However, northern Mali remained a contested space as France, the GoM, and African armies sought to regain physical and political control in the region. As the conflict raged on it was clear that Mali had transformed itself into a dynamic area of operations in which a variety of violent non-state actors not only interacted with each other, but also were forced to navigate through a complex human geography.  The civilian population’s diversity, through its multitude of ethnic, tribal and social groups, has made Mali an area of operations with its own challenges and advantages for both practitioners of irregular warfare and counterinsurgency (COIN). As with any other asymmetrical conflict, the ability for any opposing force to exercise its “political will” remains in its ability to influence, control and manage the always-strategic civilian population. Nevertheless, Mali presents itself as a heterogeneous human battlespace in which the use of any overarching strategic narrative will likely fail to gain the much-needed political support from the populace.

In this light, the purpose of this piece is to discuss how the complexities of Mali’s human terrain played a role in the recent outcome of this conflict, specially when placed vis-à-vis the strategic narratives used by the various VNSAs involved. Additionally, the article will advance the notion that the VNSAs lacked an effective narrative that would have generated the desired political end-state. In order to accomplish this, the paper will be divided in two sections. The first part will discuss the notion of the human battlespace, and how this paradigm fits within Mali’s human terrain. On the other hand, the second section will explore the existing narratives of the VNSAs that participated in the conflict, and how these interact with the country’s human battlespace. Ultimately, it will be argued that the VNSAs incoherent narratives played a major role in their demise.

The Human Battlespace Paradigm

The notion of the human Battlespace is a significant tenet in the theory and practice of asymmetrical warfare and COIN. For VNSAs, the key to achieve strategic goals and desired end-states depends solely on having the support and/or control of the local civilian population.  From a practical perspective, any VNSA requires the civilian population in order to obtain operational assets such as man-power, combat service support and more importantly the freedom and willingness to act.[v] Furthermore, as Christopher Ford argues, a VNSA can become “tactically operational” in a neutral battlespace where the local population is uncommitted to any of the belligerent parties; however, once the population starts supporting the VNSA, the latter will obtain the operational, logistic and political momentum to achieve its desired goals.[vi] Similarly, Ernesto “El Che” Guevara once noted that without the support of relevant local populations, or in other words with no control of the human battlespace, an insurgency would be eventually left at the mercy of the generally superior security apparatus of the state.[vii] Therefore, it can be argued that although a VNSA’s use of kinetic force is what defines asymmetrical or irregular conflict as warfare, it is the ability to control the human battlespace what will enable a belligerent party’s victory.

Elaborating on Guevara’s concerns, it can argued that the human battlespace is a defined environment that is not only required for achieving the VNSA’s organizational goals, but also to survive as an entity.  Mao Tse Tung famously described the civilian population as the “water” in which the insurgency swims like a “fish.”[viii] He further elaborated that in order for the “fish” to thrive, the “water” must possess certain ideal conditions such as the right temperature, which was an analogy for positive civilian atmospherics within an insurgency’s area of operations.[ix]  David Kilcullen, who linked VNSAs to microorganisms that need to infect a much larger and vulnerable host in order to survive and thrive, explored a similar analogy. Hence, just like a virus, a VNSA seeks to infect targeted segments of the civilian population that will be receptive to its overall political purpose.[x] As time goes by the VNSA will seek to infect more population segments with the ultimate goal of controlling the populace as whole. Simultaneously, the VNSA will seek to replace the state by providing state-like services such as judicial services, law enforcement and the distribution of public goods.[xi] This creation of competing power structures will allow a VNSA to control and shape the human battlespace enabling the accomplishment of its political goals, and thus, achieving the highest level of political survival. Ultimately, the civilian population transforms itself into an existential contested area between the state and recalcitrant VNSAs.

In this context, it is imperative to understand certain characteristics of the Malian human battlespace. Mainly, the country contains several heterogeneous ethnic groups, that although share centuries of history together, they are as divergent from each other as they can be. In the south portion of the country, the Mande are the dominant ethnic group consisting of approximately 50 percent of the country’s population.[xii] Other West African ethnicities spread around the country, but specially the south, include the Peul (17 percent of the pop.), the Voltaic (12 percent of the pop.) the Sonkai  (six percent of the pop.) and other West African minorities (five percent of the pop.).[xiii] These groups are descendants from the inhabitants of several West African empires and kingdoms that existed since the Middle Ages up to the late 19th century.[xiv] These groups are also typologically divided in a variety of tribes and clans. Each of these ethnic group’s subdivisions, such as sub-ethnicity or clan, have developed their own cultural practices, sustenance methodologies and other collective behaviours based on their environment and overall group structures and interests.[xv] These similar conditions influenced the practice of Islam in the region, to which 94.8 percent of the population adheres.[xvi] As the new monotheistic religion slowly spread from North Africa in the 9th century, it adopted several of the features of the traditional animist religious beliefs autochthonous to the region.[xvii] Thus, the Islam being practiced across Mali is heavily influenced by  “pagan spiritualism,” as well as Sufi mystic teachings that were brought by practitioners of this school of Islam in the 11th century.[xviii]

On that note, the Tuareg and Maur of Berber origin represent the remaining 10 percent of Mali’s population. Traditionally, they have inhabited the Sahel, which is a region that includes Northern Mali as well as significant portions of Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria and Libya.[xix] As with many other Berber peoples in Africa, the Tuareg and Maur follow Sufi Islam, are nomadic and reside in an environment in which relations among different autonomous tribes are dynamic.[xx] Some of these sub-units have been influenced by external political conditions through immigration and displacement to North Africa, changing their cultural characteristics and political tendencies.[xxi] Furthermore, existing hierarchical structures and a caste system within Mali’s Berber communities are characteristics that elucidate on how each chiefdom or clan is an autonomous unit with its own contained power structure.[xxii] These subunits are led by tribal chiefs steer the political, economic and social interests of the group.[xxiii]  Nevertheless, the overall Tuareg population has felt that the governments, which preside over their homeland, mainly the GoM and the Government of Niger, have restricted their presence in their region, and thus, limited the distribution of public goods and services. [xxiv] Furthermore, the cultural differences between the West African ethnic groups and the Tuaregs, have led the latter to pursuit the protection of their lifestyle identity as a whole. [xxv]

The relations between the West African and Berber populations within Mali are complex. For centuries, both segments have traded and interacted with each other; however certain cultural schemas have been a source of discord and a major obstacle for national integration. For instance, the Tuaregs practiced slavery until the mid-20th century, with members of the other Malian ethnicities being prime targets for human trafficking.[xxvi] This has led to a perception among some Tuaregs that by being under the jurisdiction of the Malian state, they are being governed by not only by non-Berbers but also descendants of slaves.[xxvii] Similarly, the West African ethnicities have regarded the Tuaregs as a source of instability and rebellion since Mali became an independent state. This notion has only been strengthen by episodes of conflict and resistance initiated by the Tuaregs in the last 50 years.[xxviii] Unfortunately, these cultural schemas have made inter-relations difficult, especially after the start of the 2012 armed conflict. At its worst, the lack of trust among the different groups has facilitated episodes of ethnic violence in heterogeneous communities.[xxix] In the end, the complex relationships among and within ethnic groups make the Malian human terrain a difficult one to navigate for any actors seeking to produce political effects.

Strategic Narratives and VNSAs

These complexities of the Malian human battlespace present a challenge for the VNSAs in the sense that their kinetic action has to be accompanied by a strategic narrative, which will persuade or co-opt the civilian populations into their cause. Subsequently, this has pushed them to identify key target audiences, which according to their strategic estimate can help them achieve their political goals. However, these narratives have failed to target the overall human battlespace within Mali’s borders. In the last 20 years, the most dominant strategic narratives employed by Malian non-state actors can be placed into a dichotomy of Tuareg nationalism and radical Islam. The first seeks to advance the notion that Tuareg and Maur communities should become autonomous or independent from the Malian state in order to protect themselves from abuse, neglect and cultural co-option. Although this narrative has used Islam as a key cultural identifier for its target audience, it has been mainly a secular construction focused on political independence. On the other hand, the radical Islam narrative similar to the ones used across the Middle East, South Asia and Northern Africa, attempts to use religion as a line of persuasion that targets both the Malian Berber and West African communities. Ultimately, this narrative proposes to replace the GoM with a theocracy that would rule over the Malian ummah as well as populations from adjacent states.

The nationalist-secessionist narrative is the most senior of the two and has been used by a variety of non-state actors to target Malian Tuareg and Maur populations.  Since the 1960s, the various Tuareg tribal and sub-tribal units have managed to, in different degrees, organize armed resistance against the Malian state. Nonetheless, it was not until the 1980s when the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Arabic Central Sahara (FPLSAC) emerged as a VNSA advocating for independence under the discrete patronage of Gaddaffi’s Libya.[xxx]  Even though political conditions domestically and internationally changed during this decade, the precedent allowed Tuareg “conflict entrepreneurs” to successfully mobilize elements of target populations into VNSAs that propelled Tuareg secessionism. In 1990 the Mouvement populaire pour la libération de l’Azawad (MPLA) emerged as a the dominant Tuareg VNSA that was able to effectively challenge the GoM and its security forces; however as its success grew, this VNSA fractured into smaller insurgencies that were defined through tribal, and social lines as well as indigenous power structures.[xxxi] Surprisingly, in 1993 the GoM was able to bring the entire mosaic of Tuareg VNSAs into a comprehensive peace accord. 

This peace proved to be delicate and rather difficult to maintain throughout the 1990s since the overall Tuareg population did not feel that the GoM had, with its limited resources, addressed their grievances and needs. Moreover, these precarious conditions provided the VNSAs with target audiences that facilitated their mobilization leading to further episodes of “Tuareg Rebellions.”[xxxii]  This rebellion cycle repeated itself in the first decade of the 21st century as VNSAs once more challenged the GoM fueled by a widespread feeling of neglect among the Tuaregs due to the devastating effects of drought. Through political negotiations and arrangements the GoM was able to appease most of these groups.[xxxiii] Yet, many of the political and economic conditions that facilitated the mobilization of these VNSAs remained unchanged, hence propelling the formation of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) in the summer of 2011. This highly organized VNSA successfully brought under its aegis the various fringe separatist armed groups operating across Northern Mali while taking advantage of an influx of former Tuareg mercenaries that had recently fought in Libya.[xxxiv] Also, by having an experienced and influential political cadre, this VNSA developed information operations that could reach a wider global audience, but more importantly the diverse segments of Mali’s Berber population.[xxxv] Overall, the narrative being employed by the NMLA proposes that by having an independent Tuareg State (Azawad), the Berber population will be protected from Malian abuse and neglect, while defending the local culture and lifestyle. Ultimately, this narrative aggressively targets the well-engrained political tradition of Tuareg autonomy.

The second strategic narrative that has been employed by several VNSAs operating in Mali, is the radical Islam/fundamentalist stream. Even though Islam as a religion and cultural condition has been present in Mali and the Sahel region since the early Middle Ages, the Jihadist and radical elements of it are rather new and somewhat foreign to the country.  According to Princeton Lyman, research conducted in the region back in 2006 indicated that radical clerics from Pakistan had moved to the region and sought to radicalize local followers, challenging the local version of syncretic Islam.[xxxvi] Similarly, David Gutelius noted that during the first decade of the 21st century, several Islamic organizations, NGOs and preachers from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan entered the region in order to take advantage of the GoM’s inability to distribute public goods, especially, during the 2006 droughts.[xxxvii] By taking advantage of existing vulnerabilities, all these political-religious actors sought to radicalize and recruit local civilians into fundamentalist organizations.

Likewise, one of Al-Qaeda’s franchises, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), proactively introduced the Jihadist narrative that is more pervasive in other parts of the Muslim world. While mainly based in the Arab states of North Africa, AQIM has taken advantage of informal transnational networks in order to access potential target audiences across the Sahel.  AQIM itself is the product of Al Qaeda’s successful efforts in targeting vulnerable civilian populations in the African continent by the late 1990s, and thus, is not surprising that the franchise would seek to follow the steps of its parent organization. The presence of external influencers helped in the origination of local Jihadist VNSAs whose strategic end-state is the establishment of a Salafist Emirate in Mali.  By 2011 two endemic organizations emerged: Ansar Dine and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA), both of which found followers among disaffected Tuaregs.[xxxviii] Together with AQIM, these local VNSAs mutually supported each other in accomplishing their common goal, even though this varied as per geographical scope: Ansar Dine wanted to create an Emirate across Northern Mali while MOJWA sought the same for West Africa and AQIM across Northern Africa.[xxxix]

Ultimately, the desire from both the nationalist and Islamist VNSAs to dispose of the GoM facilitated a coalition among these groups. The MNLA joined Ansar Dine, MOJWA and AQIM in a major effort to expel any institutional presence of the GoM.  As mentioned in the introduction, the combination of assets from all groups gave the coalition the momentum to take over the northern portion of the country all while the GoM was collapsing from the inside. However, as soon as the coalition started to operate as a para-state by taking charge of public administration of its new acquired territories, it became evident that its rather incoherent narratives, policies and actions failed to control the human battlespace. For instance, the application of Salafist interpretation of Sharia Law, which included severe punishments for minor crimes, the destruction of Sufi holy sites and the overall resistance towards the local interpretation of Islam was disliked by the majority of the local multi-ethnic population, specially in major demographic centres such as Timbuktu and Gao.[xl]  Similarly, the Tuaregs and Maurs who represented the VNSAs’ core target audience could not help but to feel hostile towards the notion of loosing their autonomy towards a theocratic authority that challenged both traditional power structures as well as religious and cultural practices not in line with Salafism.[xli]

This failure to control the human battlespace made it impossible for the VNSAs to maintain their level of influence once French, Malian and African allied forces pushed through. The Islamist narrative found a major obstacle in persuading the Sufi majority in the country. On the other hand, by having the MNLA allied itself with the Islamists many of its secular followers felt betrayed.[xlii] Instead of being under the jurisdiction of the GoM, the Tuareg tribes would fall under the jurisdiction of a foreign political organization once again jeopardizing their autonomy. Thus, is not surprising that by the time the French and African forces gained ground, the civilian population’s response was rather positive.[xliii] Also, the incoherence between the coalitions strategic narrative became unsustainable due conflicting interests. In no time, the once warring partners found themselves fighting off each other.[xliv] Ultimately, the combined narratives of the VNSAs did not appeal to the civilian population, whom instead found them incompatible with its diverse interests and needs.

Conclusion and Considerations

In sum, the incoherence generated by the incompatible narratives of the VNSAs coalition dramatically failed to exercise the level of persuasion and control over the Malian human battlespace. This failure not only broke the coalition apart but forced the MNLA to enter a into a peace arrangement with the GoM as a move to distance itself from its former jihadist allies. Therefore the Malian experience has demonstrated that complex human terrains can be a major challenge for VNSAs. Normally, non-state actors tend to be more flexible than the state when it comes to adapting to the characteristics and conditions of the local human geography. However, when the non-state actor’s strategic goals and narratives become rigid, it becomes almost impossible for the VNSAs to maintain control in the human battlespace. Also, when the target audience selected by the VNSA is broad and heterogeneous, it becomes imperative for the actor to be flexible and tailor its non-kinetic strategies to a variety of civilian needs, desires and interests.

In the spring of 2013 the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2100 authorizing the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) which replaced the interim African-led force that was supporting the French operations.[xlv] Now that stability operations have started as of July 2013, it will be key for the UN stabilization force as well as the GoM to learn from the VNSAs errors. In order to maintain a positive control on the human battlespace it is necessary that the UN forces and the Malian state are able to tailor and coordinate their activities in relation to the grievances, needs and interest of the various communities inhabiting the Malian Sahel. At first sight this may seem complicated and resource intensive especially when considering the overall limitations that traditionally accompany UN missions. Nevertheless, as with many other stabilization operations, MINUSMA will be a nation and institution building exercise which will require to incorporate segments of the civilian population that have been historically persuaded by the VNSAs’ strategic narratives. Hence, the various demographic units that make up the human battlespace should be made stakeholders of the nation building process. Ultimately, this will deny the VNSAs freedom of action, movement and the overall capacity to influence the populace.


[i] Alvarado, David. “Independent Azawad: Tuaregs, Jihadists and an Uncertain Future for Mali,” Notes Internacionals, No. 54, 2012, p. 7

[ii] “Separate ways - Rebels seize control of northern Mali,” Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 17, 2012.

[iii] Douthat, Ross. “Libya’s Unintended Consequences,” New York Times, July 7, 2012

[iv] Lewis, David and Diallo, Tiemoko. “Renegade Mali soldiers seize power in coup d’etat after government’s failure to quell rebellion,” Reuters, March 22, 2012

[v] United States Air Force, 2007, p. 84

[vi] Ford, Christopher. “Speak No Evil: Targeting a Population’s Neutrality to Defeat an Insurgency,” Parameters, Summer 2005, pp. 53-57

[vii] Guevara, Ernesto. 1998, pp. 7-10

[viii] U.S. Marine Corps, Mao Tse-tung on Guerrilla Warfare, Fleet Marine Force Reference Publication 12-18, 1989, pp. 93,.

[ix] Ibid., p. 8

[x] Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting small wars in the midst of a big one, C. Hurst & Co (Publishers) Ltd. London, 2009, pp. 35-36

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] “Mali,” CIA World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency Publications, Washington, DC, 2013

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Levtzion, Nehemia, Ancient Ghana and Mali, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Boulder, CO, pp.53-60

[xv] Johnson, John William, “Authority in Mande Society and in the Epic Sunjata,” In Search of Sunhata: The Mande Oral Epic as History, Literature and Performance (Ed. Ralph A. Austen), Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN, 2000, p. 12-13

[xvi] CIA World Factbook, 2013

[xvii] “The Spread of Islam in West Africa: Containment, Mixing, and Reform from the Eighth to the Twentieth Century,” SIPRI Digest, Stanford University, March 2009.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] CIA World Factbook, 2013

[xx] Klute, Georg. “ “From Friends to Enemies: Negotiating nationalism, tribal identities, and kinship in the fratricidal war of the Malian Tuareg “ L’Année du Maghreb, VII, 2011, p 163-175.

[xxi] Keita, Kalifa. “Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Sahel: The Tuareg Insurgency in Mali,” Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) Monograph, 1998, p. 7

[xxii] Ibid. p. 13

[xxiii] Nicolaisen, Johannes; and Nicolaisen, Ida. The Pastoral Tuareg: Ecology, Culture, and Society, The Carlsberg Foundation/ Rhodos International Science and Art Publishers, Copenhagen, 1997, p. 41

[xxiv] Emerson, Stephen A.  “Desert insurgency: lessons from the third Tuareg rebellion,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 22:4, 2011, pp 673-674

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Keita, Kalifa, 1998, p. 9

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ib.

[xxix] Whewell, Tim, “Why Mali’s Tuareg are Lying Low.” BBC News, February 2, 2013

[xxx] Klute, Georg. 2011, p 163-175.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Emerson, Stephen A., “Desert insurgency: lessons from the third Tuareg

rebellion,” Small Wars & Insurgencies, 2011, 22:4, pp. 671-672

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] Alvarado, David. 2012, p.3

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Lyman, P.N. “The War on Terrorism in Africa,”  Africa in World Politics ( Harbeson, J.) 4th Edition, Westview Press,  Boulder, Colorado, 2009, p. 289

[xxxvii] Gutelius, David. “Islam in Northern Mali and the War on Terror,” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, Vol.25 No.1, 2007, pp. 63-64

[xxxviii] Alvarado, David. 2012, p.3

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Tharoor, Ishaan. “Timbuktu’s Destruction: Why Islamists Are Wrecking Mali’s Cultural Heritage,” Time Magazine, July 2, 2012

[xli] Morgan, A. “Mali's Tuareg people retain dream of independence amid persecution,” The Guardian, April 3, 2013

[xlii] Morgan, 2013

[xliii] Bastian, Marc. “Timbuktu residents celebrate liberation.” The Sydney Morning Herald, January 30, 2013

[xliv] “Fighting continues in northern Mali desert.” France 24, June 3, 2013

[xlv] Thardy, Thierry. “Mali: The UN Takes Over,” European Union Institute of Security Studies Alert, May 2013, pp. 1-2


About the Author(s)

Juan-Camilo Castillo has a Master of Science degree in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of British Columbia. Currently he works as a senior analyst with the Geopolitical Monitor – Global Solutions, a Toronto-based firm that specializes in political risk analysis, due diligence and investigations. He also works for the Canadian Army Reserve as an Influence Activities (Psychological Operations and Civil Affairs) Analyst with the 32 Canadian Brigade Group. He has previously held teaching and research positions with Financial Intelligence Unit of the Royal Bank of Canada, Kroll Advisory Solutions, University of Aberdeen, the United Kingdom Defence Forum, and the Simons Centre for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation. Juan-Camilo has written several articles in peer reviewed journals including the Canadian Military Journal, The Canadian Army JournalInquiry and Insight and the Review of European and Russian Affairs among others.