GAO, Mali — A complex web of rebel groups has controlled northern Mali since seizing it in the wake of a March 22 coup, but the main enemy facing a proposed regional military force would be Al-Qaeda's north African branch.
After Mali's elected government fell to the coup in the south, an alphabet soup of rebel groups capitalised on the power vacuum to seize control of the vast desert north -- the MNLA (Azawad National Liberation Movement), MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith).
But those who know the region say the dominant force and the common thread loosely binding the groups is AQIM -- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the local franchise of Al-Qaeda.
That means it will be the main threat facing west African troops if the United Nations approves a regional military intervention, a request it is expected to consider this week.
"If the UN gives the green light for an intervention in northern Mali, it needs to know that AQIM will be the main force it faces. The other jihadis report to AQIM, that much is sure," said Tiegoum Boubeye Maiga, a Malian journalist who hails from the north.
The rebels have divided their territory, which is larger than Texas or France, into several separate fiefdoms.
The northwestern region of Timbuktu is led by a top AQIM boss from Algeria.
Gao, to the east, is ostensibly controlled by MUJAO, an AQIM offshoot, but is under the de facto leadership of another Algerian AQIM boss.
Kidal, north of Gao, is run by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a member of the Tuareg ethnic group and the founder of Ansar Dine. But in a sign of the blurry lines between the three groups, some fighters in Ag Ghaly's movement were recently active members of AQIM.
Ag Ghaly, a native of the area, himself rose to prominence as the leader of a 1990-1995 Tuareg separatist rebellion.
But he was long said to have ties to AQIM -- and with Ansar Dine's appearance on the scene in February, he appears to have abandoned the secular Tuareg cause and embraced the mission of imposing sharia, or strict Islamic law.
The MNLA's fight to create a separate Tuareg state was the original rallying cry for the fighting in the north, but the Tuareg rebels have since been pushed out by their one-time Islamist allies.
"In the beginning, AQIM used the MNLA's Tuareg rebels to establish itself in the region," Mamadou Maiga, a former school principal in Gao, told AFP.
"The MNLA, AQIM and the other Islamists were in the same camp. But AQIM intentionally let the MNLA claim the victories so it could suppress it more easily later."
The MNLA's fighters and political leaders have since scattered to Europe or neighbouring countries such as Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania -- or rallied Ansar Dine.
Ag Ghaly has meanwhile remained as the Malian face of what is effectively an international jihad with fighters from Togo, Benin, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Senegal and as far away as Pakistan.
Even MUJAO, which splintered from AQIM in 2011 to bring together jihadis from sub-Saharan Africa, has rallied together with its old allies under the Islamist banner.
Malian national Omar Hamaha, one of the main Islamist commanders in the north, is a case study in the bridges between the three groups.
He is known as the second-in-command to the AQIM boss in charge of Gao. But during the seizure of Timbuktu in April, he referred to himself as the chief-of-staff of Ansar Dine, and now says he holds the same position in MUJAO.
"Remember, we are all mujahedeen. Whether a fighter is from MUJAO, Ansar Dine or AQIM, it's the same thing," he told AFP.
"We have the same ambition, the application of sharia. Whenever there's an attack on one of us, it's an attack on everyone."
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