Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1131, 17 - 23 January
Wednesday,13 December, 2017
Issue 1131, 17 - 23 January

Ahram Weekly

Talking to Al-Qaeda in Mali

Ayman El-Sisi travelled to northern Mali at considerable personal risk to talk to the Ansar Dine fighters who have taken control of the region

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Mine wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill reporting mission, but instead was an endeavour that bordered on the suicidal. The battalions of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose members I intended to interview, are known for their extreme brutality, as well as for their opinion that most of us are heathens.
For almost a year, AQIM has been in control of the northern parts of Mali, nearly two-thirds of the total area of the country, a fact that has caused great concern to the international community.
Mohamed Oued Ahzana, an adviser to the Mauritanian minister of culture, tried to dissuade me. He said that the government was refusing to let anyone travel from Mauritania to the AQIM-controlled parts of Mali. The trip was dangerous and foreigners were prone to being killed or kidnapped, he said.
The risk was great, but not greater than the impulse to find out what was going on in the land AQIM was describing as “liberated”. To sit face to face with AQIM members and to have a better idea of what was really going on in the territories they control was definitely worth the arduous trip.
Travelling over rugged and tortuous terrain, I made it from Nouakchott in Mauritania to Gao in Mali in five days. Along the way, I could see the faces of the AQIM fighters, the fresh faces of teenagers who are now fighting for Ansar Dine, a hardline Islamist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
When not on military duty, the young Ansar Dine fighters frequent the Ahmed Baba Timbuktu Centre for Studies and Manuscripts to attend school, mostly religious lessons.
The centre’s walls are lined with shelves containing thousands of invaluable historical manuscripts, some of them tackling religious matters and not necessarily from the point of view of Ansar Dine, a group that has destroyed many of Mali’s mausoleums, claiming that they conflict with their puritanical version of Islam, and have suppressed Sufi organisations, calling them atheistic.
The young man who escorted me on my visit to the centre was one of the senior commanders of Ansar Dine in Timbuktu. He reassured me that no harm would come to this centre of learning.
“We will not burn it or destroy it, though we burned the mausoleums of Muslim holy men. The latter were atheistic and idolatrous. We also destroyed the Gate of Resurrection at the Sidi Yehia Mosque, which had become an object of misguided veneration. The ordinary people used to think that if this door was opened, the world would come to an end. So we opened the door, took it away and built a wall in its place.”
“But we are protecting the centre for manuscripts. We have put our men at the centre to protect it, even though we need these men for combat operations.”
More than half the population of the once-thriving cities of Gao and Timbuktu have fled their homes to refugee camps in neighbouring countries since Ansar Dine took over the cities. The streets looked abandoned, government schools were shut down, and I was told that Ansar Dine had banned any form of teaching in French.
Ansar Dine has kept one high school operating, one that used to be run by the Saudis. The school now teaches an exclusively religious curriculum. However, Ansar Dine is also hostile towards the Saudis, whom its members lump together with their other enemies, atheists, Jews and Christians.
Talha, a senior figure in Ansar Dine, voiced the hope that the Syrian revolution would succeed. When this happens, Islamist militants would have the opportunity to join up with their brethren in Jordan, Sinai and Iraq, he said. Saudi Arabia would be next on the list for revolution.
Talha made a distinction between the royal family of Saudi Arabia and the puritan doctrine to which it adheres. His criticism of the Saudi rulers did not extend to the teachings of Wahhabism, the official theological doctrine of Saudi Arabia.
In the schools run by Ansar Dine in Timbuktu, Talha allows the teaching of Wahhabi books, such as Al-Tawhid, a book written by the 19th century figure Mohamed bin Abdel-Wahab.
Azawad, an area of 800,000 km2 now controlled by hardline Islamists in northern Mali, is rich in oil, uranium and gold. The population, a mix of Arabs and Tuareg, is generally poor, and their doctrinal beliefs were relatively puritanical even before the advent of Al-Qaeda in the region.
Iyad Ag Ghali, a leader of Ansar Dine, started out as a left-wing militant, joining the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command and fighting in its ranks during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
The Islamists who now control northern Mali have been able to recruit eager young men wishing to fight for Sharia, or Islamic law, as well as dissident officers from the Mali army. Their ranks swelled when the Gaddafi battalions formed by the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi were disbanded and returned to Azawad, bringing hundreds of vehicles loaded with ammunition and light weaponry with them.
Signs of unrest in Azawad began in late 2010, when Mohamed Lamine Ould Ahmed, deputy secretary-general of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, began to organise actions aiming to assert the rights of northerners in Mali. The northerners, made up mostly of Arabs and Tuareg, had been complaining that the southerners, the rulers of the vast country and black Africans, had been discriminating against them.
A youth conference was held on 30 October 2010 in the city hall in Timbuktu in order to discuss development opportunities and ways to raise living standards. The conference called for the formation of a movement to defend the rights of the Azawad population. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Azawad was formed a week later, and this was later joined by activists from the eastern town of Menaka.
A local commander said that during these early days of the Azawad-based rebellion, “we started collecting donations and information about army camps and company contracts, in the hope of using them to get the government to take better care of the Azawad region.”
When the government ignored their requests, the Azawad protesters became more active. “We started writing slogans on the walls and holding meetings,” he said. Eventually, the militants began calling for independence and the departure of the Malian army. The government’s response was to reinforce its military presence in the region, so the activists decided to take up arms.
“We decided to put together a mechanism to collect arms and create training camps and opened offices for recruitment. Some 450 young men applied within the first month, and they received training at the Zakal Camp. We then contacted Ibrahim Ag, who had a well-trained battalion of 340 men equipped with new weapons, and he agreed to assist us.”
After Ibrahim’s death in an accident during Ramadan of 2011, the Islamist militants of northern Mali began contacting officers in the Malian army, some of whom agreed to join the movement. They were then joined by a large number of fighters who had returned from Libya after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Among those who returned from Libya were experienced commanders, such as Mohamed Najm, who was appointed military leader.
At first, the presence of Al-Qaeda in the movement was not clear, “not even to the militants taking part in the rebellion that led to the control of the Azawad region and Timbuktu,” a senior commander told me.
“We didn’t discover that Al-Qaeda was present until after we had entered major towns. The Arab front under the leadership of Ahmed Ould Sidi Mohamed took part in the liberation of Timbuktu. We only sensed that Ansar Dine was affiliated with Al-Qaeda after Iyad Ag Ghali declared the implementation of Sharia law in the region,” the commander said.
The militants then began negotiating with local dignitaries, including Abbas Entala, Sidi bin Bella, and former parliamentarian Mohamed Ibrahim, on introducing Islamic rule of the Mauritanian type. It was then that the hardliners of Ansar Dine demanded a stricter form of Islam.
Today, negotiations are underway between the various groups in control of northern Mali not just about the social and development issues that sparked off the first rebellion, but also about the cultural identity of the region.

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