The cliff-dwelling Dogon people with their distinctive culture are a few hours’ drive away; Timbuktu, a centuries-old centre of Islamic learning, was receiving a steady stream of visitors. “Now, you can count the tourists on the fingers of one hand”, Ballo complained. “It is only… the really courageous who come here.”
He blames the embassies in Bamako, the capital, for issuing security alerts and declaring “no go zones” for their nationals. He accuses the media of exaggerating the problems in the north, “making out there is a gun pointed at your head everywhere you go.” But his strongest contempt is for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, known as AQMI in French), the radical Muslim group that appears to have a stranglehold over parts of northern Mali and beyond, despite its modest numbers and murky agenda.
“They are bandits, thieves, criminals… murderers”, Ballo says. “Ninety-five percent of people in Mali are Muslims… and we have never read in the Koran that you should take someone’s life to gain money. Al-Qaeda, AQIM, I don’t consider these people to be Muslims - they are just a kind of mafia with very long arms.”
Threat or fake?
AQIM’s military and commercial activities, religious orientation, size, composition and leadership have been the subject of many research papers, newspaper articles and conspiracy theories. Direct media access to AQIM, except for a few interviews with leaders, has been limited, with journalists often dependent on the testimony of released hostages and security sources, occasional amateur footage posted on YouTube by defectors, or leaked police interviews with terror suspects.
Sceptics say the threat has been gravely overplayed by the United States and France for their own strategic reasons, and by countries like Algeria and Mauritania, whose military and political elites are keen to be identified as front-line fighters against international terrorism. One academic observed, AQIM can be seen as a “small shop with a very big sign”, using its Al-Qaeda ‘franchise’ in the Sahara and Sahel to generate headlines and huge cash injections through deftly organized kidnappings, but with limited reach.
Opinions are often sharply divided. The International Crisis Group (ICG) in its March 2005 report, Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction? commented that “Fundamentalist Islam has been present in the Sahel for over 60 years without being linked to anti-Western violence.” The authors warned that “a misconceived and heavy-handed approach could tip the scale the wrong way”.
Others say the presence of an expanding transnational terrorist force could turn parts of the Sahel into a Somalia or even an Afghanistan. They point to a movement that has transcended its Algerian roots, recruiting in the Sahel and further afield, with the possibility of stronger ties in the future with organizations like Boko Haram in Nigeria and the emerging Jamaat Tawhid wa’l-Jihad fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa - MOJWA).
The UN mission sent to the Sahel in late 2011 to assess “the impact of the Libyan crisis on the Sahel region” hinted at AQIM’s ability to find an accommodation with local communities in the poorest parts of the Sahel, noting reports “that in some areas, the humanitarian vacuum is being filled by AQIM and/or criminal elements who are reportedly providing services and humanitarian assistance in remote areas where State presence is reduced or non-existent”.
The mission warned that AQIM could use this situation “to develop recruitment and local support networks for gathering information, supplying arms and ammunition, and other logistics”. It noted that AQIM, like Tuareg combatants leaving Gaddafi’s Islamic Legion in Libya, may also have stocked up weaponry, including Semtex explosives, anti-aircraft artillery, and rocket-propelled grenades.
Out of Algeria
AQMI’s origins are usually traced back to the crisis in Algeria in 1992. As the military authorities annulled elections, depriving the radical Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) of probable victory, a bloody domestic conflict took hold. The future leaders of AQIM first found a niche in the Islamic Armed Group (GIA), but left it to found the Salafist Group for Call/Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The Salafists hold to a conservative traditional view of Islam.
The Algerian conflict in the 1990s saw atrocities committed by all sides. Human rights activists, academics and others repeatedly questioned the role of Algeria’s intelligence service, the Département du Renseignement de la Sécurité (DRS), and accused it of not only infiltrating armed movements, but controlling key terrorist operatives.
In September 2006, the GSPC announced its formal affiliation to Al-Qaeda and in January 2007 changed its name to AQIM. Much of AQIM’s activity still centres on Algeria. In April 2007, AQIM used car bombs against the prime minister’s office and a police precinct in Algiers, the capital, killing 33 people. A subsequent attack in December 2007 on the Algerian Constitutional Council and the United Nations office in Algiers killed 63 people. There have been repeated attacks on military bases in the north and south of the country.
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The ‘Marlboro Man’
In a recent interview with the website Al Wissâl, one of AQIM’s senior brigade commanders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka Khaled Abou Al-Abass, reminded Muslims that “selling or trafficking drugs, even in infidel countries, is outlawed by the laws of Allah, and that is clear and beyond discussion”. AQIM has well-established links with a burgeoning trans-Saharan trade in arms, migrants, narcotics and cigarettes, and Belmokhtar’s interest in the latter earned him the nickname “Marlboro Man”.
Like Droukdel, both Belmokhtar and Abud al-Hamid Abu Zeid have long been identified as the key figures in AQIM south of Algeria and have been given heavy sentences in absentia by Algerian courts. Both reportedly head significant commercial empires, and both have taken Tuareg wives, seen as an obvious way of securing favours from Tuareg communities.
Abud Zeid’s brigade, or katiba, is reportedly operating in Mali and Niger, while Belmokhtar’s is found in the west of the Maghreb. Mauritania appears to be more of a priority target than Mali. Belmokthar reviles Mali for hosting an Israeli embassy, its close ties with US intelligence services and its tough stance on Islamic militants.
Kidnappings and killings
AQIM’s notoriety, particularly in the Western media, is derived mainly from its involvement in kidnappings. The forerunner GSPC abducted 32 tourists from Algeria in 2003, releasing the 31 survivors several months later. AQIM has targeted smaller groups. The most high-profile abductees were Canadian UN diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, taken from Niger in December 2008, moved to Mali and released after four months in captivity in April 2009.
Among other abductees have been seven employees of the French company, AREVA, aid workers and tourists. Those executed or who died in captivity include British citizen Edwin Dwyer, one of a group of tourists kidnapped in 2009, and French humanitarian worker Michel Germaneu.
The governments of abductees have given out few details, particularly on the size of ransoms, or AQIM’s precise demands, but have included the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan and the release of senior Al-Qaeda prisoners.
Ransoms in millions of dollars and payment have been a source of division among the governments whose nationals have been taken (France, Britain and Italy, for example), and the African governments involved in negotiations. Algeria and Mauritania have been highly critical of Mali for releasing known AQIM operatives in return for hostages.
Mali – the weakest link
Recently ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré had repeatedly rejected accusations that Mali’s public commitment to fighting terrorism was not matched by actions. Touré, a keen defender of US-backed anti-terrorism initiatives, noted the vastness of the country’s 1.24 million square kilometres, and constantly appealed for stronger regional military cooperation.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz recently warned: “The north of Mali is a region left open for terrorism,” and said AQIM combatants were stocking up at will on food and fuel in places like Gao and Timbuktu, using easily identifiable vehicles. AQIM has attacked embassies in the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott, targeted garrisons and killed tourists. The Mauritanian army has conducted hot pursuit operations inside Mali, and joint Mauritanian-Malian operations have occasionally been conducted.
A senior French official, quoted in the French weekly, L’Express, in November 2011, confirmed: “We are very angry with the Malians. Whether with regard to AQIM cells… their links with the Tuareg, or the trade in Latin American cocaine on its way to Europe, it’s no longer passiveness, but complicity. We have irrefutable proof.”
Tuaregs and terrorists – allies or adversaries?
Defenders of Mali’s failure to engage AQIM say the security vacuum in the north is the result of successive peace accords between the government and Tuareg rebel movements, which have forced a scaling-down of bases and troop numbers.
Photo: Emilio Labrador/IRIN
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There may be little spiritual affinity between AQIM’s Salafists and nomads in the north, but former hostages like Robert Fowler say AQIM’s fighters are respectful of local needs and customs. They also offer important fringe benefits. A Bamako-based peace activist with extensive research in the Kidal region, explained. “What are the alternatives for young [Tuareg] people? It’s not difficult to put yourself in their place, to see the temptations of getting involved in drugs trafficking or some other kind of adventure.”
Tuareg leaders, not least from the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la liberation de l’Azawad, or National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad), which is fighting to carve out an independent state in the north, have consistently called for the expulsion of AQIM from Malian territory, and accuse the authorities of giving free rein to criminal elements.
Alliances have shifted constantly in the north over the past 20 years, but a recurring figure is veteran Tuareg leader Iyad Ag Ghali, founder of the MPLA (Mouvement Populaire pour la Libération de l'Azawad, or Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) in 1988. He has been used by the government as a mediator and could win over hardliners.
Sent as a diplomat to Saudi Arabia, Iyad famously converted to the Pakistan-based Tablighi Jam’at faith while in Jeddah. He now heads the Ansar dine movement, which has a nominally pacifist orientation. Iyad is thought to have been involved in hostage releases in the past, giving him a wide range of contacts and the opportunity to interact with key individuals in AQMI. In recent statements, MNLA has distanced itself from Iyad, suggesting that Ansar dine is more of an irritant than an ally.
Arguments over Aguelhoc
The government’s contention that there is an MNLA-AQIM link grew stronger after a Commission of Enquiry confirmed reports of a massacre of over 70 government soldiers at Aguelhoc (in Kidal) when it was overrun by rebels in late January, and said this was the work of “Salafist extremists” in cahoots with the MNLA.
The MNLA accused Malian intelligence services of staging an elaborately fake by rearranging the corpses to make it look as if they had been slaughtered using AQIM methods. An MNLA communiqué warned: “There is no relationship between us and any kind of Islamic movement. Our mission is clear and we don’t intend to be distracted.”