By Xan Rice
With Mali’s north under rebel control, fears are growing that a breakaway Islamist state could emerge
Near the banks of the Niger, where old men hawk slabs of salt carved from the Sahara and sent by boat from the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, Abdul Moussa explains how his tranquil life has been turned upside down.
First, the rebels looted the office of the local charity he runs, taking vehicles, furniture and air conditioners. Then they told the 56-year-old Muslim that the laws he had grown up with had changed. There was to be no smoking and no alcohol. No watching television, listening to music or playing football. Men were to wear their trousers above the ankle. Women were forbidden from walking alone or uncovered.
Alarmed by the proclamations of the “Barbus” – the bearded ones, as some residents call the militants – Mr Moussa put his wife and children in an old Mercedes and sent them to the distant capital of Bamako. With that, they joined an exodus of about 400,000, more than a quarter of northern Mali’s population, who have fled their homes this year. Mr Moussa stayed on for the sake of his mother, “who was born in Timbuktu in 1923” and had lived there ever since. Last Friday, they gave in and boarded a bus for Mopti, the first big town outside the occupied north.
“The rebels did not shoot anyone,” says Mr Moussa, who asked that his real name not be used. “But they are killing us in another way.”
It is nearly two months since northern Mali fell to militants from the Tuareg ethnic group, a Berber people that has a significant presence in the area and has long complained of neglect and misrule by the central government. But what initially appeared to be a quest for a secular homeland has turned into something much more dangerous, for Mali and far beyond: the possibility of an Islamist-aligned mini-state that could offer a base to the jihadist groups and criminal gangs that roam the Sahara.
A hardline Islamist movement called Ansar Dine, or “supporters of the faith”, appears to have outmuscled the Tuareg secessionists and raised its black flag over the biggest cities of northern Mali.
The group includes foreign militants, and has forged close ties with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which holds 12 western hostages at various locations – an insurance policy against potential American or European strikes – and attacks regional armies. AQIM leaders have been seen in cities under Ansar Dine control, including Timbuktu, according to interviews with people there, other witness reports and Malian analysts and diplomats.
Ansar Dine’s rhetoric is anti-western and its goal is strict sharia law of the sort that exists nowhere in Africa – something unacceptable to most in the predominantly Muslim nation.
“We are a country of religious tolerance,” says Imam Mahamoud Dicko, head of the High Islamic Council in Mali.” Coming to any place with weapons to close bars – that’s not how it’s done. Stopping people playing football? That’s archaic.”
A power struggle in Bamako after a military coup in March means the government has been unable to respond to the Islamist threat, “creating a crisis like we have never known before”, according to Imam Dicko.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a militia boosted by the return of well-armed Tuareg soldiers hired by Libya’s Muammer Gaddafi, led January’s uprising. It was the fourth Tuareg rebellion since Mali gained independence from France in 1960, but the first to seek a separate homeland for the northern “Azawad” region.
Fighting alongside, quietly at first, was Ansar Dine, formed by a disgruntled veteran of previous Tuareg rebellions. Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader, served in Mali’s consulate in Saudi Arabia in 2007, where his ties to a fundamentalist Islamic group offended his hosts. He then became the go-to person for multimillion-dollar negotiations over western hostages kidnapped by AQIM in north and west Africa. Late last year, he made a pitch to lead the newly formed MNLA and to become head of his Tuareg clan but was rejected, according to a diplomat in Bamako who closely follows the north. So he formed his own movement, Ansar Dine.
“Iyad was down and out,” the diplomat says. “But he had very good ties to AQIM from the hostage negotiations, and also had a close relative in the group. So he sold his soul to several devils and was able to get money and fighters.”
The MNLA and Ansar Dine initially agreed to work together. Though the uprising was backed by only a section of the Tuareg community – and had little or no support from ethnic groups such as the Songhai, the biggest in northern Mali – the rebels proved stronger than the country’s weak army. Within 10 days of the March 22 coup, the rebels had taken Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, the capitals of the main northern regions. MNLA proclaimed independence for Azawad. But Ansar Dine, which advocated sharia throughout Mali but not partition, quickly forced the MNLA to the outskirts of Timbuktu and other cities, leaving it to control some smaller towns and checkpoints.
Boulher Cisse, a 22-year-old cook who is one of the thousands who has fled to Mopti in recent weeks, used his phone to record video footage of an Ansar Dine leader entering Timbuktu on April 1. “Our war is a holy war,” the man shouts. “America and France are the cause of the suffering in the world today. They came to dominate us, and leave the path of Allah. There is one God – that is our weapon.”
Having smashed bars and turned a leading tourist hotel into an Islamic court, Ansar Dine’s “police” began enforcing new laws. Those who disobeyed were lashed, initially with branches, then with leather whips, Mr Cisse says. Worshippers who tried to pray at the graves of the city’s Muslim saints, part of a Unesco World Heritage Site, were blocked, and a famous tomb was desecrated.
Timbuktu’s prohibitions were echoed in cities such as Gao, where 24-year-old Bibata Soumana was told to cover her body completely and always to be accompanied by a male when outside. “We want our freedoms,” she says in the room in Mopti she now shares with three other students from Gao. “Why shouldn’t we be able to walk around alone?” Like other displaced people in Mopti, as well as people still in Timbuktu and Gao who were interviewed by phone, the students say Ansar Dine forces include Tuaregs and Arabs from Mali, as well as militants from countries across the Sahel and north Africa.
Several of those interviewed, including a Malian television cameraman who recently visited the north, also reported seeing some fighters from Gulf states, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. The militants were well armed and trained.
Adama Diarra, honorary president of the Malian Red Cross, who led an aid mission to Timbuktu two weeks ago, says he has talked to Ansar Dine fighters from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. “I’m 100 per cent sure that’s where they were from,” he says. . . . Analysts estimate that the number of fighters allied to the MNLA and Ansar Dine are in the high hundreds, rather than many thousands. But with Mali’s politics still in disarray, the army is unlikely to mount a challenge any time soon.
Some fear that other ethnic groups in the north, such as the Songhai, may form their own militias to take on the rebels, leading to civil war. “People here are too proud to be ruled by another group,” says a civil servant in Mopti, who administered a small northern town until it was over-run in late March.
For now, the rebels are trying to consolidate their gains. Witnesses report Ansar Dine digging in heavy weapons around Timbuktu. Last week Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, AQIM leader, for the first time confirmed links with Ansar Dine, and urged the group to collaborate with the MNLA.
The two rebel forces, which have tense relations, then struck a deal to merge and create an independent Islamic state. But the pact appears to have fallen apart after the MNLA backtracked and said it was committed to secular principles.
Ordinary citizens who remain in the north have no say, and are becoming increasingly desperate. “We have no foodstuffs, no drinkable water, no hospitals, no drugs, no money,” a lecturer in Gao wrote in an email. “We ask politicians from Bamako to stop internal quarrels and help us because we are becoming another Afghanistan.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.
See online: Africa: The taking of Timbuktu