Factbox: Mali's mosaic of armed groups

Mon Jan 14, 2013 10:23am EST

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(Reuters) - Al Qaeda-linked Islamist rebels launched a counter-offensive on Monday in central Mali after four days of air strikes by French warplanes on their strongholds in the desert north.

Here is a look at the main armed rebel groups in Mali:

* AQIM - Born out of the Algerian Salafist movement, GSPC, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) arrived on the public stage in January 2007. It rose to prominence partly by attacking Algerian government forces but mainly through its involvement in kidnapping Westerners across the Sahel zone including Mali, Niger and Mauritania. It has also links to trans-Sahara smuggling - a trade that includes drugs, guns and people - topping up the tens of millions of dollars raised from ransom-taking. In July 2012, the head of U.S. Africa Command described AQIM as al-Qaeda's "wealthiest affiliate".

- Its objectives include ridding North Africa of Western influence, overthrowing apostate "unbeliever" governments. Its leaders are Algerian militant Abdelmalek Droukdel and Salah Gasmi. Gasmi, the group's number two, was arrested in northern Algeria last month. It has traditionally operated in Mali through two wings, or katibas. France has advised its 6,000 citizens in Mali to leave as AQIM has in turn promised revenge for the French military intervention in Mali.

* ANSAR AL DINE - Ansar Dine, which experts say has links to local al Qaeda factions, is a Tuareg-led Islamist group. Its name means "Defenders of the Faith" and it follows the puritanical form of Islam known as Salafism. Ansar Dine's leader, renegade Tuareg chieftain Iyad Ag Ghali, is linked to AQIM through a cousin who is a local commander and the group has received financing from AQIM, diplomats said. Ansar Dine and other Islamists gained the upper hand in Mali last year when they hijacked a rebellion launched by the secular MNLA Tuareg rebel group that fought for independence in 2012.

- Ansar Dine's turbaned fighters, who operate under the black Islamist flag, initially gained a reputation in the north for keeping order after outbreaks of looting. However they started enforcing sharia, earning hostility from locals who have a long history of practicing a more liberal, tolerant style of Islam. The group has said that Timbuktu's famed shrines are un-Islamic and idolatrous. Much of the area's religious heritage has now been destroyed.

* MUJWA - The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) is seen an AQIM splinter group that formed in late 2011. The faction retains links to AQIM but has focused on broadening its base from the domination of AQIM's Algerian-dominated leadership. Its stronghold has been in Gao, the biggest town in Mali's north, and it has drawn recruits from a range of ethnic groups in Mali and elsewhere in the region. Last month the United States designated the group and Hamad Al Khairy and Ahmad Al Tilemsi, two of the organization's leaders, as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. MUJWA has also been behind attacks and hostage taking in the region.

Sources: Reuters/Jane's World Insurgency & Terrorism/Council on Foreign Relations/Jamestown Foundation/State Dept.

(Reporting by David Cutler, London Editorial Reference Unit; david.cutler@thomsonreuters.com; +44 20 7542 7968; Reuters; Messaging: david.cutler.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net; daniel.flynn@thomsonreuters.com; +33 1 49 49 5071; Reuters Messaging: daniel.flynn.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)

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