Mali: Where al-Qaeda rules the roost
ATTACKS on Western diplomatic posts in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have put the spotlight on Muslim extremists in north Africa. But farther south, in the Sahara desert, is where groups with ties to al-Qaeda have made most headway. Working with rebels fighting for ethnic rights, they took a mere three days in late March to conquer northern Mali, an area the size of France. And in contrast to Pakistan and Yemen, where refuges for extremists are insecure, here they have full control.
The sparsely populated lands stretching out from the fabled city of Timbuktu have become a vast lawless space where violent Islamists are free to train recruits, traffic arms and plan terror attacks. The shots are called by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has affiliates everywhere from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Guinea, including Ansar al-Sharia, the Libyan group thought to be behind the recent attack on America’s consulate in Benghazi.
The northern Malian branch is busy setting up its own power structure. The ethnic Tuareg rebels who initially led the conquest have been sidelined. Two local al-Qaeda fronts have carved out separate fiefs. Ansar al-Dine, which controls Timbuktu, is more moderate and has tried to co-operate with local leaders, though it has failed to create a working civil administration. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which controls the town of Gao, eyes commercial and criminal opportunities, while getting its funds from AQIM. Abdou Abdoulaye Sidibe, a member of parliament for Gao, says, “It is AQIM who have the money and the guns.”
The new rulers are settling in for the long term. Beyond Mopti, the government’s most northerly outpost 450km (280 miles) from Bamako, a harsh version of sharia law reigns. Robbers have had hands and feet cut off. Hassan Ag Diallo, a refugee from the north, says Islamists sliced off the top of his ear for smoking. “For drinking, they cut off your head.”
New businesses are emerging. After the financial system fell apart when they took over, the Islamists let merchants create new links with Bamako, the capital in the south. Tamba Doucouré runs buses to Timbuktu, moving both passengers and cash. He charges $10 to send $2,000 and has set up a partnership with MoneyGram, an American firm. Businessmen think the new status quo will last a while; hopes of soon ejecting the Islamists look slim.
The central government in Bamako, which had been democratically elected, was overthrown in a military coup on March 22nd in the vain hope of preventing a northern takeover. Instead it accelerated one. The coup leader, Amadou Sanogo, seems to have been sidelined but heads an influential body that is supposed to reform the army. His allies control several ministries and a base in Kati, 15km outside Bamako. Armoured personnel-carriers and gun-toting men in mismatched uniforms guard sagging tents.
Civilian institutions are nominally back in charge, under an interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, a former speaker of parliament who is widely disliked. In May a mob broke into his office to rough him up. Cheick Modibo Diarra, the prime minister, is more popular but in the eyes of some still tainted because he is a son-in-law of Moussa Traoré, who ruled Mali from 1968 to 1991. The press in Bamako likes to call him “the Martian”, since he is an astrophysicist who once worked on interplanetary programmes at NASA in America. Sitting in white robes behind two smartphones, two packs of Marlboro cigarettes and a bowl of grapes, he says, “I control the government. The ministers follow my orders.”
Bamako’s messy politics is not the only obstacle to removing al-Qaeda from the north. Foreign military assistance has been mooted. Some Malians want troops under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to come in. But conflicting interests and lack of military muscle are putting the idea on hold. Nigeria, the main power in ECOWAS, has problems with its own security. None of ECOWAS’s members has the logistics and intelligence to retake a large territory.
In any event, the Malians cannot agree among themselves on what type of help they want. A military spokesman says the army would like foreigners to provide equipment but not troops. Diplomats in Bamako doubt that foreign troops will come this year, if ever. ECOWAS is unlikely to intervene unless underwritten by the UN. A well-trained force might be able to chase out Mali’s al-Qaeda fighters, who are thought to number 2,000-4,000. But nobody expects a contingent of American marines to turn up. Even if the al-Qaeda types were put to flight, Mali’s ill-equipped army might well prove unable to hold on to the liberated vastness on its own.
So talk has turned to the possibility of negotiating with the Islamists. Officials in Bamako say they will insist that Mali must be a secular state but they have made several goodwill gestures. They have created a ministry of religious affairs. The prime minister has met an influential imam. Envoys have been sent north. For the time being, al-Qaeda looks set to hold onto its desert refuge.