With its legendary cities such as Timbuktu conjuring images of ancient trade junctions, its undulating Saharan sands and its distinctive indigo-scarf encased nomads, Mali has all the features of a perfect tourist destination. But a recent slew of developments have combined to produce a perfect storm of crises in this West African nation – one that many fear will be exploited by Islamist militants.
Mali has been in disarray since a March 22 military coup in the capital of Bamako opened a window of instability that was seized by rebels in the north, enabling them to sweep through key northern cities and control a swathe of territory as large as France.
The coup led to crippling economic sanctions on the impoverished landlocked nation. These in turn have threatened the precarious humanitarian situation in a country already reeling from the effects of a drought and months of intense fighting sparked by Tuareg mercenaries returning home after the fall of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.
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A vast country that spans the Sahara desert and the African savannah called the Sahel, Mali is home to the sort of forbidding terrain that traditionally affords shelter to smugglers, traffickers, insurgents and militants.
“There was always a measure of threat because nobody really controls this zone, it’s easy for extremists and militants to operate here,” said Marie Rodet, a West Africa expert at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). “Now it’s getting increasingly threatening and you have even less control, which makes it attractive for any kind of militant and extremist.”
Exaggerating and verifying al Qaeda links
Militants and extremists of various stripes have long roamed these hostile zones, but it’s the Islamists – especially the ones with real or imagined al Qaeda links - that captures international attention in a chronically overlooked corner of the globe.
For over a decade, experts have disagreed about the extent of al Qaeda’s reach in the Sahel region that spans the border regions of Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger. Sceptics maintain that the threat is overplayed by countries such as France and the US for their strategic interests. They also note that some West African governments – including ousted Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré – are prone to exaggerate the al Qaeda threat to hike their international military assistance figures.
But there’s little doubt that the region is home to al Qaeda’s North Africa branch, also known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Days after rebels seized Timbuktu over the weekend, the AFP quoted unnamed security and religious sources as saying three of the four top AQIM leaders were in the historic northern Malian city.
Algerian-born Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar (also known as “Mr. Marlboro” for his smuggling operations) and Yahya Abou Al-Hammam took part in a meeting with the city’s imams, a source told the AFP Tuesday.
The reports could not be confirmed and it is difficult to ascertain exactly who controls the UNESCO World Heritage city that for centuries has been synonymous with Africa’s mysterious inaccessibility.
Unlikely alliances and embarrassing friends
The biggest rebel group in the latest Malian advance has been the MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad), a secular separatist group that is seeking to carve out a Tuareg homeland, which it calls Azawad, across the border regions of Mali, Niger and Algeria.
But in recent weeks, the MNLA has made an unlikely alliance with the Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), an Islamist group that is seeking to establish sharia law across Mali, a Muslim nation where the majority follow a moderate Sufi branch of Islam.
Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghaly
Ansar Dine is led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, a veteran Tuareg militant who, experts say, has converted to Salafism, an extreme, revivalist branch of Islam.
In the course of his long, eclectic career, Ag Ghaly has served as a mediator in peace talks between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels, which were held in Saudi Arabia. One of Ag Ghaly’s previous bosses includes Libya’s Gaddafi, who used Tuareg mercenaries to fortify his security forces.
On Monday, shortly after Timbuktu fell from Malian government control, witnesses said Ag Ghaly drove into town in a convoy of “technicals” - or flatbed vehicles mounted with machine guns - and dislodged MNLA fighters.
Timbuktu residents told reporters the Ansar Dine fighters burned the MNLA flag and hoisted their own flag on a military base.
In an interview with AFP Tuesday, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said there appeared to be, “two opposing tendencies among the Tuaregs. On one hand, the MNLA wants independence for Azawad, which is unacceptable to us because we're very committed to Mali's territorial integrity," he said. "Then, there's another faction, Ansar Dine, which is closely tied to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Its goals are not clear, but it may be to install an Islamic regime across the whole of Mali." Juppe continued.
In an interview with FRANCE 24 on Tuesday night, MNLA spokesman Hama Ag Sid Ahmed denied that his group has any links with AQIM. “Concerning what happened in the city of Timbuktu, Arab militants who were sent there by Bamako a few weeks ago joined forces with Islamist terror groups who were already in the region,” he said before adding, “These are people who have come from outside and who are foreigners. We are currently trying to revise our strategy regarding the confusion.”
The MNLA spokesman’s statement came as no surprise to Greg Mann, a historian of francophone West Africa at the New York-based Columbia University. “The Ansar Dine is sometimes in alliance with the MNLA, but that seems to be a very fraught alliance,” said Mann. “Rumours of AQIM circulation have been around for some time and they’ve become stronger now. The MNLA will continue to deny them because they know it’s very bad publicity for the Malian Tuareg separatist movement to be aligned with Islamist movements much less al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
Marriages of convenience
While the MNLA may vociferously deny any al Qaeda links, the same cannot be said for Ansar Dine. “Ansar Dine obviously has some ties with AQMI,” said Marie Rodet from SOAS, referring to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “The AQMI militants are mainly Mauritanian and Algerian and when they try to take ground in Mali, they need to make contact with the local people. They do so by marriages with local women so there are family connections and this makes the situation more complicated.”
Marriages between militants and daughters of well connected local elders are a common al Qaeda sanctuary-seeking strategy in many regions, including Pakistan’s border tribal areas.
For AQIM, these alliances are particularly important given the hostility of the terrain and the Tuareg’s famed ability to navigate routes through one of the world’s most impassable zones.
While there is little spiritual affinity between the AQIM’s Salafist ideology and the moderate Islam practiced by the Tuareg, the region has mirrored a rise in Islamism that has gripped many parts of the Muslim world - particularly in North Africa following the Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In the old days, Gaddafi provided unemployed disaffected young men a theatre to stage their battle skills. In the new era, when battle-hardened fighters returning to their impoverished countries confront few economic prospects, Islamist militant groups offer a livelihood. In a perfectly picturesque country hit by a perfect storm of economic and political woes, it does not bode well for the future.