The ‘Tuareg Question’

Dear Mother, since the time I left for Libya with patient steps, I arrived but I have been feeling aimless …”

These lyrics, written by the acclaimed Tuareg desert blues band Tinariwen, encapsulate the story of their kin across the Sahel.

Tinariwen’s story, much like that of all Tuareg, is a transnational one: Nomads with one ethnic identity divided by borders into several nationalities. To a social group whose sense of belonging is largely based on kinship, however, nationality often means little more than legal documentation.

State policy has been the defining factor in shaping the Tuareg’s relationship with national identity. In Mali, suppression resulted in Tuareg secessionism and rebellions against the state. In Algeria, on the other hand, the state adopted a policy of inclusion, resulting in the Tuareg community tolerating, if not welcoming, state-mandated nationalism. As the Tuareg moved between several states, their locally fuelled grievances travelled with them.

Fighters from the Front for the Liberation of Aïr and Azaouak during desert training, circa 2000. Many battle-hardened Tuareg left Qaddafi’s forces to take part in fighting in Niger. Jean-Luc Manuad/Getty

Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, the founder of Tinariwen – meaning ‘deserts’ in Tamasheq – was forced to flee to Algeria from Mali as a child after his father was executed by Malian forces during the Tuareg rebellion of 1963. Two of the original band members followed after drought and conflict forced them from their homes.

This generation of Tuareg came to be known as the Ishumar, from the French word chômeur, meaning ‘unemployed’. They are mostly young men leading an economically motivated migratory lifestyle, drawing on a network of kin living across the Sahel. The term first emerged in the 1960s to describe disenfranchised Tuareg who had fled drought-stricken regions and political marginalisation in search of employment. Although the Ishumar were historically pastoral, necessity and opportunity gave rise to a new interpretation of Tuareg nomadism.

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Tuareg regional presence and Ishumar routes. Source: I. Kohl; 2015, A. Fischer, 2015

Co-opted by Libya

With the opportunities provided by its oil industry, Libya became a migrant destination for the Ishumar. As early as the 1970s, Qaddafi encouraged Tuareg from across the region to move freely within the country. Providing them with special identity cards in the early 2000s, Libya’s then-leader effectively created a Tuareg revolving door at the country’s borders. To many Tuareg, Qaddafi was a saviour, but he exploited the young Ishumar in his quest to establish a satellite state beyond Libya’s borders.

In 1979, Qaddafi created the Islamic Legion paramilitary group, recruiting many migrants, including Ishumar, into its ranks. The group took part in several regional wars, including in Chad, Uganda, and as far afield as Lebanon. Domestically, it served to protect the regime.

With a proven ability to navigate the desert, young Ishumar were an important asset for Qaddafi. In a 1981 speech in Ubari – a Tuareg-majority city in the Fezzan region, near the Libyan-Algerian border – he encouraged them to join his military camps, promising financial incentives and empowerment.

In the following decade, many of these experienced and battle-hardened Ishumar fighters left Qaddafi’s forces to take part in Tuareg uprisings in Mali and Niger.

Revolts in Mali took place in the early 1990s, from 2006 to 2009 and, most recently, in 2012 – the latter led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a political and military organisation based in northern Mali. Many of its members were graduates of Qaddafi’s military training.

Although the Tuareg’s economic and political marginalisation in Mali was at the root of the uprisings, many veteran rebels hold Qaddafi’s militarisation of the Ishumar responsible for creating a new avenue for expressing discontent.

Tuareg members of the Islamic Legion served as Qaddafi’s personal guards, as pictured here in 1990. K M Westermann/Corbis

Tuareg celebrate the arrival of Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Tamanrasset in March 2009. Algeria adopted a policy of inclusion towards the Tuareg. Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Algerian Assimilation

Inspired by the notion of the Grand Sud, Qaddafi’s Libya also attempted to develop a separatist ideology in neighbouring countries, but Algeria’s Tuareg remained untouched by these sentiments and adapted to the reality imposed by the borders. For example, the Kel Ajjer, from the Algerian-Libyan frontier, amicably split into two clans at the point where the border was drawn. Meanwhile, the Kel Ahaggar, native to Algeria’s Hoggar mountains, gradually took on an Algerian identity.

Shortly after gaining independence, Algeria embarked on a campaign of assimilation to address the 'Tuareg problem', in which nomadism was seen as incompatible with nationalism and modern citizenry. In a series of ‘de-culturalisation’ programmes instituted in the 1970s, the Tuareg were subject to Arabisation and Islamisation schemes in an attempt to override their ethnic loyalties and traditional leadership structures.

These programmes were part of a nationwide education agenda aimed at developing an Arabo-Islamic identity, in which Algeria sought to affirm its place in the Arab and Islamic world. Although Algerian politicians saw Arabisation as inspired by post-colonial, pan-Arab sentiment, many believed the programmes disguised an Islamist agenda.

The programmes succeeded to varying degrees, despite being met with resistance from the Tuareg community. Mostly through schooling and the incorporation of the Tuareg into non-pastoral employment, Algeria created a generation of self-identifying Tuareg-Algerians.

This nationalist identity did not, however, prevent a cultural revival in Algeria following the Tuareg revolts in Mali and Niger in the 1960s.1 Algerian Tuareg granted their clansmen refuge during the rebellions, re-affirming kinship and fostering solidarity. In response, Algerian cultural policy developed a new narrative of inclusion in the 1980s, under the slogan “National Unity in Diversity”, to ward off any contagious rifts in identity politics.

When the civil war began in 1992, the Algerian government focused its attention on the north, leaving the south neglected and surrounded by instability on all fronts: Conflict in Algiers to the north, and Malian and Nigerien revolts to the south.2

The rise of Tuareg radicalism is exemplified by Ansar Dine. Its leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, pictured here in the 1990s, has embraced radical Salafism. Raymond Depardon/Magnum

Tuareg Identity Markers

While the cultural and political struggles of the Tuareg vary according to the policies of their host countries, transregional kinship ties were made possible by migration networks. This space of agency created by the Ishumar allowed for militarised and culturally alienated Tuareg to interact with smugglers and migrants. In this space, Qaddafi’s militarisation of the Tuareg and Algeria’s Arabisation and Islamisation policies coalesced to define contemporary Tuareg grievances.

The emergence of trans-Saharan smuggling routes through Algeria provided an attractive economic alternative to otherwise unemployed Tuareg. Known locally as afrod, from the French for ‘fraude’, this form of cross-border trade and migrant transport merges both the licit and illicit. It is utilised by those trading in staple goods and cattle, as well as by drug smugglers.

This economic alternative further widened the gulf between the south, where the oil and gas industries are based, and the north, where the central government is seen to reap the benefits thereof.

As traditional Tuareg power structures weakened on both sides of the Algerian-Libyan border, existing channels to air grievances dissipated. The resulting power vacuum left room for other cartels and jihadists to channel the community’s objections.

The realities of today’s borderlands disrupt the identity markers of ethnic groups across borders. Traditional hierarchies and group solidarities have been upset by the individual pursuit of profit from the smuggling trade. At the political level, the Tuareg found themselves caught up in a maelstrom, in which surging illicit smuggling and a jihadist presence led to military intervention, clouding their longstanding grievances.

Radicalism and Cultural Revivalism

In recent years, radicalised Tuareg groups have emerged; the most prominent example being the northern Mali-based group Ansar Dine, which combines Tuareg militancy with jihadism. Its leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, fought in the Tuareg rebellions, eventually diverging from the rebels’ secular ethnic struggle to foment a religious one. Now considered a radical Salafist, Ag Ghaly rejects many of his kinsmen’s traditions, including the use of the Tamasheq language, claiming them to be remnants of a pre-Islamic pagan past.

Ansar Dine represents a paradox. While latching onto Tuareg cultural revivalism and ethnically motivated separatism to build support, the group has sought to suppress Tuareg identity in favour of radical Salafist ideas. Diverging ideologies, overlaid with existing grievances, illustrate the dynamics that challenge a uniform understanding of the Tuareg experience.

Not long after leaving Libya following Qaddafi’s downfall, many Ishumar returned to join their kin in the fight for control of the south.

In 2014, not long after leaving Libya following Qaddafi’s downfall, many Ishumar returned to join their kin in the fight for control of the south. The Tuareg’s main rivals, the Tebu, are an ethnic group native to southern Libya and Chad. While the Tuareg were celebrated under Qaddafi as “the lions and eagles of the desert”, the Tebu were denied citizenship, education, and healthcare.

A long-standing settlement between the two groups over territory and smuggling routes collapsed with the fall of the Qaddafi regime. Already pitted against each other during the revolution, tensions only escalated in its aftermath, eventually resulting in a Tuareg-Tebu ethnic war. Home to both Tuareg and Tebu populations, and a gateway to the smuggling routes leading towards Algeria and southwards into Chad, the city of Ubari became the main battleground.

Many of the Tuareg forces in Ubari belong to Katiba 315, one of the main Tuareg militias of the south and loyal to the government of Tripoli. The group was founded by Ahmed Al Ansari, a Salafist Tuareg and former Libyan army officer.

Katiba 315’s Islamist affiliations provided an opportunity for rivals to paint the Tuareg as jihadists, both delegitimising their cause and politicising their identity. Once thought of as largely confined to Mali, Tuareg jihadism is now seen as a transnational problem, where militancy and smuggling are intertwined.

The south is rich in both oil and water, and is the gateway to key smuggling routes in the wider Sahara. The fight in the south, therefore, carries more weight than that of an ethnic feud. The revolutionary aftermath placed the Tuareg-Tebu battle in the larger context of the Libyan civil war between the rival governments of Bayda and Tripoli, which backed the Tebu and Tuareg, respectively. The place of the Tuareg, and indeed other ethnic groups in today’s Libya, is being redefined by the fighting.

The case of the Tuareg illustrates the complexities introduced by modern borders, cutting up a desert that once formed a single space into states embroiled in conflict and rivalry. Buffeted by decades of geopolitical waves, they are caught between adjusting to ever-changing realities, and aspiring to cohesion. Adding to entrenched economic displacement, the rising militant problem in Tuareg lands has led to questions about whether the vast borderlands between the Sahara and the Maghreb are, in fact, governed areas or spaces escaping state control.