Mali is a republic in Africa notable for the city of Timbuktu, which is often used as an example of somewhere far away and possibly non-existent. It has been democratic since a coup in 1991. Approximately 50% of its population of roughly 14.5 million live on less than $1.25 a day. Before being colonised by the
Frogs French, Mali was itself the seat of a large empire. The only really good thing going on is that there are a lot of goats.
In 2012, separatists and Islamists from the long-marginalized Tuareg ethnic group declared an independent state, Azawad, covering the vast desert in northern Mali. No legitimate country has recognized this breakaway state. The Tuareg began their rebellion because Mali's borders were drawn by the French who had French colonial interests and not the interests of the people of the region in mind. The Tuareg had engaged in several failed rebellions prior to 2012 but that year proved to be their golden opportunity largely due to the instability in Libya. During the Arab Spring and the Libyan Civil War, Tuareg mercenaries came across the Sahara to fight against Muammar Gaddafi. While there, they gained weapons and battlefield experience, and picked up some new allies, including Jihadi groups al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine, which were also fighting to topple Gaddafi. After Gaddafi was toppled foreign fighters were no longer welcome in Libya, and the Tuareg and their new allies slipped back into Mali with their weapons since Mali's northern border is an imaginary line in the Sahara.
In January 2012 the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) launched their latest rebellion against Mali. With their al-Qaeda allies, the Tuareg made significant strides especially since the Malian Army's response was
total shit ineffectual. In March a military coup in Bamako, with the stated intention of preserving Malian unity, displaced the democratically elected government, but failed to stem the advance of the rebels.
The Tuareg, however, discovered too late that they had made a Faustian bargain for their victory. By July the Islamists had gained ascendancy and began imposing a strict and harsh interpretation of Sharia on the Tuareg, for whom such practices were foreign. This was akin to what happened in Afghanistan as the Taliban gained power there. The Islamists destroyed the highly culturally significant and internationally protected burial shrines as contrary to Islam, despite the fact that they were erected by an Islamic civilization present in the region for centuries. This cultural vandalism brings to mind the demolition of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001.
The west was naturally concerned that these developments could turn Mali into a safe haven for terrorists - in short a new late 1990s Afghanistan. In January 2013 France began airstrikes in their former colony in order to prop the government, especially after the jihadists managed to take control of the strategic town of Konna. Along with the French, several other African countries (which also had their borders drawn by Europeans and with ethnic minorities that don't quite like being constrained within those borders) sent reinforcements as well. The MNLA, realizing it would be destroyed if it sided with the jihadists, decided to change sides in the conflict, declaring a truce with the government, for now.