Why the Tuaregs Have Not Used Landmines in Mali even Though They Probably have Lots of Them

In northern Mali in the last couple of weeks, a new rebellion under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) armed with cash and weapons from Libya that became available after the fall of Gaddhafi.  The Azawad in MNLA’s name refers to the historic homeland of the Tuareg and consists mostly of three provinces in northern Mali, including Tibuktu, as well as portions of Niger and Algeria. This rebellion appears to the first fueled by the wreckage of the former Libyan regime, a possibility that was foreseen when Gaddhafi’s regime collapsed.  The MNLA is comprised of members of the Kel Tamasheq ethnic group – most commonly referred to as “Tuaregs” – and this is the fourth rebellion against the Malian government initiated by Tuareg separatists; the name is new, the cause and the actors are not, but this time the rebels are better armed and better organized than in previous uprisings. The timing for the uprising was propitious with the Arab Spring still fresh in the public minds, an active diaspora population forming via social media, and the return of Tuareg fighters hardened by their service to Gaddhafi and their active role in trying to preserve his regime against the Libyan rebels from Benghazi and their NATO air support (Think Africa Press). 

When Gaddhafi’s regime fell, all kinds of armaments were available for looting.  The US government’s primary focus was on shoulder-fired, ground to air missiles, usually referred to as MANPADs, but almost every kind of small arm was available.  “Besides bullets of various sizes, the abandoned warehouses [in Libya] are stockpiled with 130-mm antitank rockets, white phosphorous mortar rounds and tens of thousands of land mines” (Time).  The MNLA members who came from Libya to Mali  – possibly as many as a thousand fighters led by a former colonel in the Libyan army – have certainly brought some of that stockpile with them, including anti-tank weapons (such as rockets and landmines), anti-aircraft weapons (MANPADs), machine guns and mortars (New York Times).  Those weapons and their cohesiveness as a fighting force have meant that the MNLA has made rapid progress across northern Mali, brushing away what has been until now a limited resistance.  So far 20,000 refugees have fled northern Mali to Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso and the MNLA has launched assaults on the city of Kidal as the conflict escalates (BBC; Reuters).  The United Nations has called for a ceasefire, but that call has not been heeded (Xinhua) although Algeria has hosted some talks between Tuareg factions – not just the MNLA – and the Malian government (Maghrebia).  Even the star of Mali’s football team has called on the parties to stop fighting, using Mali’s penalty shoot-out victory over co-hosts Gabon as the platform to make his appeal (The Guardian).

Map of Mali, Courtesy WikiCommons

According to the 2011 Landmine Monitor, there is no confirmed anti-personnel landmine contamination in Mali, but there is a recognized and reported anti-tank landmine contamination in the northern areas of Mali, remnants of the previous Tuareg uprisings.  In response to this contamination, Mali has an extensive mine risk awareness program, but does not appear to have a robust demining program (The Monitor).  So far, in the news reports about the MNLA uprising, there have been no reports of landmine usage by the rebels, but I think it is likely that the rebels have access to mines, especially anti-tank mines.  The MNLA has not used landmines because the situation on the ground is not conducive, but that may change if the Malian army can halt the MNLA’s advance.

 There are four patterns of landmine use that have been reported recently.  In Somalia, Al Shabab uses landmines to lay ambushes for police and military vehicles.  The mines are placed along routes that Kenyan, Ethiopian, Somali or African Union forces are expected to use and when such forces pass through, the landmines are detonated, either remotely or by the weight of the vehicle.  In Libya, Gaddhafi’s forces, including the Tuareg soldiers who now make up the MNLA, used landmines to cover their retreat as they were pushed back from the edges of Benghazi to the capitol of Tripoli.  These landmines delayed the advance of the Benghazi-based rebels as they pushed towards the west.  In Sudan and in Mogadishu, rebels have placed landmines randomly to disrupt normal traffic and injure or kill civilian rather than military targets.  The intention is to sow fear and bring to a halt any trade or travel.  In Mali itself, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has planted landmines around the Wagadou Forest which AQIM has established as a base of operations.  The landmines prevent the entry by Malian or Mauritanian security forces who wish to oust AQIM from its base (Maghrebia).  In all of these models, the battle lines are static and the use of landmines is intended to create an existential threat of injury in the intended targets. 

At the moment, the MNLA is on the move.  They are advancing from the bases they have established along the Algeria border and as long as they continue to move forward, they will not be tempted to use landmines.  Any use of landmines now would interdict MNLA’s ability to retreat as they would have to cross their own minefields in the face of resistance.  However, if MNLA were to face solid resistance and their advance become bogged down, the membership of MNLA has already demonstrated its willingness to use landmines as they did in Libya in defense of a regime they were ultimately not willing to die for.  Previous Tuareg uprisings have seen the use of anti-tank mines and I would expect this one to be no different, but the circumstances are at the moment, unlikely to generate such use.  This is a situation to keep an eye on as it develops over the coming weeks.

Michael P. Moore, February 8, 2012

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One Comment on “Why the Tuaregs Have Not Used Landmines in Mali even Though They Probably have Lots of Them”

  1. […] if the rebels sought to establish a particular stronghold, then we would see landmines being used (Landmines in Africa). This past week, those predictions came […]


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