Tinariwen was founded by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who at age four witnessed the execution of his father (a Tuareg rebel) during a 1963 uprising in Mali. As a child he saw a western film in which a cowboy played a guitar. Ag Alhabib built his own guitar out of a tin can, a stick and bicycle brake wire. He started to play old Tuareg and modern Arabic pop tunes. In the late 1970s Ag Alhabib joined with other musicians in the Tuareg rebel community, exploring the radical chaabi protest music of Moroccan groups like Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala; Algerian pop rai; and western rock and pop artists likeElvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, Carlos Santana, Dire Straits, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M, and Bob Marley. Ag Alhabib formed a group with Inteyeden Ag Ablil, his brother Liya, Ag Ablil, and Hassan Ag Touhami in Tamanrasset, Algeria to play at parties and weddings. They acquired their first real acoustic guitar in 1979. While the group had no official name, people began to call them Kel Tinariwen, which in the Tamashek language translates as "The People of the Deserts" or "The Desert Boys."
In 1989, the collective left Libya and moved to Ag Alhabib's home country of Mali, where he returned to his home village of Tessalit for the first time in 26 years. In 1990 the Tuareg people of Mali revolted against the government, with some members of Tinariwen participating as rebel fighters. After a peace agreement known as the Tamanrasset Accords was reached in January 1991, the musicians left the military and devoted themselves to music full time. In 1992 some of the members of Tinariwen went to Abidjan, Ivory Coast to record a cassette at JBZ studios. They played occasional gigs for far-flung Tuareg communities throughout the Sahara region, gaining word-of-mouth popularity among the Tuareg people.
Since 2001 Tinariwen have played over 700 concerts in Europe, North America, Japan and Australia; including festivals such as Glastonbury, Coachella, Roskilde, Paleo, Les Vieilles Charrues,WOMAD, and Printemps de Bourges. Their 2004 CD Amassakoul ("The Traveller" in Tamashek) and its 2007 follow-up Aman Iman ("Water Is Life" in Tamashek) were released worldwide and gained the notice of celebrity fans including Carlos Santana, Robert Plant, Bono and the Edge of U2, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Chris Martin of Coldplay, Henry Rollins, Brian Eno, and TV On The Radio. In 2005 Tinariwen received a BBC Award for World Music, and in 2008 they received Germany’s prestigious Praetorius Music Prize.
Also since 2001, the Tinariwen collective has added several younger Tuareg musicians who did not live through the military conflicts experienced by the older members but have contributed to the collective's multi-generational evolution. New members include bassist Eyadou Ag Leche, percussionist Said Ag Ayad, guitarist Elaga Ag Hamid, guitarist Abdallah Ag Lamid, and vocalists Wonou Walet Sidati and the Walet Oumar sisters. The band's 2009 album Imidiwan (Tamashek for "Companions") was recorded in a mobile studio by Jean-Paul Ramann in the village of Tessalit, Mali.] Three members of the group appeared on the The Colbert Report on November 29, 2011 with TV on the Radio to play Tenere Taggim Tossam and Imidiwan Ma Tenam from their 2011 albumTassili.