Since early 2012, a violent conflict has been brewing in Mali, one that has forced the international community to consider whether or not this North African country is another Afghanistan in the making. The conflict, fought primarily between the government of Mali and a host of insurgent groups, has embroiled the entire northern area of the country in a civil war. This northern region, also known as Azawad, has been effectively ruled by rebel forces since April 2012. Since then, however, rebel armies have been competing with one another over conflicting visions of what an independent Azawad should be.

Following the defeat of Gaddafi in Libya, a group of ethnic Tuareg militants- who had fought alongside pro-Gaddafi forces- flooded back into Mali, from where many of them had originated. They brought with them a fresh supply of arms and equipment from the Libyan theatre. This allowed the Tuareg militants, also known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to rekindle a decades-old conflict with the central government. The result was the Tuareg rebellion of 2012.

The MNLA, aided in large part by extremist rebel groups, seized control of the Azawad region and declared independence, though their claim was never recognized on the international stage. Following the MNLA’s victory, however, tensions reached a boiling point between the mostly secular, ethnically-identifying Tuareg militants and the Islamic extremists, who sought to impose strict Sharia law over the region. The temporary stability garnered by the rebel victory was soon displaced by renewed fighting, and by the summer of 2012, the Islamic extremist group, Ansar Dine, had emerged as the dominant force in northern Mali.