There are actually 5 separate Islamist groups vying to take control of the country. This includes Ansar Dine, which is a local group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly. Their goal is to impose sharia law throughout the country.
The North African wing of Al-Qaeda also wants to impose Islamic law, though it hopes to impose this beyond the borders of Mali. They have been particularly active in kidnapping Westerners, and they are also said to be active in the drug trade.
Mujao, which is a group formed from Al-Qaeda, has a goal of engaging in jihad throughout West Africa. Like Al-Qaeda, they have kidnapped many Westerners. They are led by Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, who is a Mauritanian national.
There are also two other Islamist groups that were formed out of the others: the Signed-in-Blood Battalion, which is led by a Moroccan nationalist named Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and the Islamic Movement for Azawad.
These 5 groups all follow a strict Salafi interpretation of Islam, which runs counter to the Islam of the majority of Mali’s Muslims, who follow a more lenient Sufi interpretation. These groups have destroyed many Sufi shrines, which they consider idolatry, despite warnings from the UN that this could constitute a war crime. They have also violently imposed their version of Islam on the people.
Another rebel group, called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, is ethnic in nature. They represent the country’s Tuareg minority, and they have joined forces with the Islamist groups against Mali’s military. They also declared the northern part of the country as an independent state, though no other country has recognized it.
The Malian Military
In 2012, the Islamist insurgents were largely succeeding against government forces, especially in the north of the country. This led to a coup that was staged by Captain Amadou Sanogo. Sanogo, who is a man in his thirties with U.S. military training, has since returned control of the government back to civilian authorities, but he still has a significant role in the government. For which he is well paid.
Dioncounda Traore is the interim president of Mali. A foreign-educated mathematician, Traore has been active in Malian politics since the 1990s, and he has held many important government posts. Then, in 2007, he became the speaker of the country’s parliament. He was also an ally of former President Amadou Toumani Toure, who had become very unpopular.
During the coup in 2012, he was physically attacked and had to seek medical treatment in France. Eventually, he returned and became the country’s interim president. After the insurgents broke a cease fire early this year, he declared a state of emergency. He also requested military help from France, which agreed to do so.
Amadou Toumani Toure
Amadou Toumani Toure first became president of the country in 1991, after a previous military coup. The former general then led the country from dictatorship to democracy. Though he was unpopular, and, after the 2012 coup, he escaped to Senegal.
Many foreign powers have tried to solve the conflict in Mali. This includes efforts by Burkina Faso and the Economic Community of West African States. Many of Africa’s leaders have also tried to get the West to intervene militarily, through both the UN and NATO, but these efforts have been stymied, mostly because of American reluctance. France, though, has provided troops to solve the conflict, along with contingents of African soldiers.