June 5, 2012 ·1 Comments
Bamako lays on the banks of the River Niger and is the Capital of Mali
OPINION | JUNE 4, 2012
When Mali’s Tuareg nomads launched a rebellion in January, many in Africa thought it would be just the latest in a long line of desert uprisings to be swiftly placated with offers of cash and jobs.
Some optimists mused that the indigo-turbaned northerners might even take on the local arm of al Qaeda, which was plying a disruptive trade in Western hostages and trafficked goods.
But instead, the Tuaregs’ struggle for an independent homeland has been hijacked by better-armed Islamists from Mali and abroad, creating a safe haven for militants in the Sahara that is already being compared to similar bastions elsewhere.
“We are in an early stage of Afghanistan and Somalia. There is no doubt in my mind,” said Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, a Mauritanian diplomat who has been a United Nations envoy in both west Africa and Somalia.
Mali is still a long way from the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan of the 1990s from which Osama bin Laden’s then little-known al Qaeda readied the Sept. 11 attacks on U.S. targets in 2001.
And the desert trade in hostages, narcotics and other goods has yet to reach the scale of the piracy off the east coast of Somalia, estimated to cost the global economy $7 billion a year.
But Ould-Abdallah and a swelling chorus of security experts point to an influx of foreign fighters, a debilitating rivalry between neighbouring states, and steady flow of illicit funds as making Mali and the wider Saharan zone the next one to watch.
In former colonial power France, the new defence minister warned last week of a “west African Afghanistan” in Mali.
The rebels’ seizure of three major airstrips in the north – near the towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Tessalit – means that, in the absence of a functioning Malian air force, they can ferry in everything from drugs and weapons to yet more foreign fighters.
While some believe the threat can be contained within the area, others think it will stretch further afield. Among the latter is the African Union, whose chairman last week called for the United Nations to back a regional force to intervene.
“All the way across Europe, there is growing concern,” one Western diplomat working in the region told Reuters.
“We have to recognise that it cannot be contained in northern Mali or even west Africa.”
“COOL PLACE FOR JIHADIS”
The Sahara, and the Sahel scrubland which skirts it to the south, had already been inching up the global security agenda in recent years as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a franchise of the militant network, became more active in the zone after a crackdown by authorities in Algeria, where AQIM has its roots.
The overspill of arms and fighters from last year’s Libyan war into an already fragile neighbourhood added a new layer of insecurity even before the rebellion in northern Mali.
When Malian government troops were routed in early April, a variety of groups entered the fray, in many cases appearing openly in the main towns for the first time. They included men declaring loyalty to al Qaeda and to AQIM splinter groups like the little-known MUJWA, as well as some members of Nigeria’s Islamist militant organisation Boko Haram.
“It has become a cool place for jihadis from the region,” said one U.S. official with knowledge of the situation, adding that gunmen were also coming in to northern Mali from Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania.
Early developments in the rebellion focused on the secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), whose slick, European-based PR machine and Tuareg sympathisers hailed a series of small victories notched up against the army as they sought to carve a state they call Azawad out of the desert.
But the complex nature of the uprising emerged after a coup on Mar.22 in the Malian capital Bamako, far to the south, by soldiers angry at the government’s failure to contain the revolt. Their coup, however, merely emboldened the rebels to make a lightning advance.
As rebel forces took major towns such as the ancient city of Timbuktu, it became clear that MNLA fighters were operating alongside a newly formed Islamist movement known as Ansar Dine, whose stated goal is to impose Islamic law, sharia, across Mali.
Ansar Dine is run by Iyad Ag Ghali – described in a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from as “northern Mali’s undisputed power broker”. In two decades navigating northern Mali’s tribal and political circles, Ag Ghali led two previous Tuareg rebellions, had a stint as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia and, once back home, acted as an go-between in hostage bargains with al Qaeda cells.
Diplomats in Mali said Ag Ghali formed Ansar Dine, commonly translated as Defenders of Faith, last year after being rebuffed in separate efforts to head both the MNLA and his Ifoghas Tuareg clan: “He lost the tribal line. He lost the rebellion. What does he have left? Religion,” said a diplomat based in Bamako.
June 5, 2012Follow @somalilandpress
By Hassan Ali