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When the Jihad Came to Mali

Mike King

Eventually the onetime friends clashed bitterly about the Festival in the Desert, produced by Ansar at Essakane, an oasis of sand dunes and acacia groves forty miles west of Timbuktu. “Iyad would tell me, ‘You have to stop this festival, there are people drinking alcohol. Men and women who are not married are together,’” Ansar recounted. “I said, ‘This [cultural exchange] is good for the locals, it’s good for the economy, I’m not listening to you.’” After Ghali accepted a two-year posting as Mali’s consul general in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2007, the two men drifted apart. Ansar last encountered Ghali in February 2011. “I was on the way to another music festival in Segou, and I saw him en route. He was on his way to Kidal. We stopped and said hello, but he was very cold.”

In the fall of 2011, a four-hundred-man Tuareg regiment crossed the Sahara from Libya and set up camp in the desert near Kidal. The Tuareg warriors declared themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular group seeking the independence of the traditional Tuareg territory they call Azawad and that takes up about 60 percent of Mali’s total area. The commander rebuffed Ghali’s demands to take over. “He told Iyad, ‘You are too much of an Islamist, and you are too close to the government of Mali,’” Ansar said to me.

It was at that point that Ghali made a fateful decision: he founded a rival movement, appealing to disaffected Tuaregs seeking an Islamic alternative to the secular group. Algerian intelligence officials—so I learned in Algiers—saw Ghali as a stabilizing force and a counterweight to the Tuareg independence fighters. They cultivated him and provided his followers with food, gasoline, and other supplies. In fact, Ghali was already meeting with a counterpart in al-Qaeda, and planning jihad.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed native of the Algerian Sahara, and now Ghali’s ally, is one of the desert’s most charismatic and dangerous characters. He is a former Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and an ex-fighter for the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria—the most brutal group to battle Algeria’s secular regime during the 1990s civil war. He and Ghali first met in 2003, during negotiations to free the European hikers. They had been captured by Belmokhtar’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which sought to bring down secular Arab regimes and establish a Caliphate in the Sahara.

Over the next decade, Belmokhtar organized further kidnappings in Mali of Westerners for ransom and oversaw a lucrative cigarette-smuggling business—an operation that earned him the nickname “Mr. Marlboro.” In 2003, according to The Washington Post, US military commanders planned air strikes against Belmokhtar and a group of Arab militants in the Malian desert. The US ambassador to Mali at the time, Vicki J. Huddleston, vetoed the plan, warning of a backlash against Americans.

In recent years, Belmokhtar had established himself in northern Mali. He married into an Arab family in a village outside Timbuktu, prayed at a Wahhabi mosque on the city’s outskirts, and constructed wells to win local support. “We would see him coming in his 4 x 4 to pick up gas, food, and other supplies,” I was told by Azima Ag Mohammed Ali, a tour guide in Timbuktu. “It was an open city for him.” In early 2007, Belmokhtar and fellow GSPC leaders, with the approval of the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, changed the name of their group to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

In his book A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda, Robert R. Fowler, a Canadian diplomat kidnapped by Belmokhtar’s men near Niamey, Niger, in 2008, describes a “revered leader” who exuded a sinister magnetism:

He was relatively slight, with a heavily weathered and deeply lined face and curly black hair. He looked older than what we were told were his thirty-seven years…. He had thin lips set in a straight line, and his mouth twisted from time to time into a ghost of a cold, almost wry smile…. His most distinguishing feature was a deep almost vertical scar that began above the middle of his right eyebrow, crossed his right eyelid, and continued across his right cheek, disappearing into his moustache.*

The discussions between Ghali and Belmokhtar, which also involved the secular MNLA, resulted in a bargain: the jihadists would gain legitimacy by attaching themselves to the Tuaregs’ cause, and the Tuaregs would get a hardened fighting force. Government envoys made repeated trips to the Sahara to forestall an attack by making payoffs. “A special delegation met them in Kidal, and gave them $100,000 and forty tons of food, and they saw all the weapons,” I was told by Imam Chérif Ousmane Mandani Haidara. “They hoped they would go away.”

Mary Beth Leonard, the US ambassador to Mali, told me that the US had no way of knowing the strength of the fighting force. “There was a lot of discussion about what kinds of weapons might be coming from Libya but no clarity,” she said. “It is a big and remote place. The degree of military acumen and weapons that the other side had was a surprise even to the Malians.” The US trained and provided supplies to Malian troops between 2005 and 2011—an important part of a $500 million regional program called the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. But according to Leonard, the assistance was given only to a handful of elite tactical units and didn’t include weapons. Nobody could foresee a conventional attack from a heavily armed foe. “Our interactions were not with the larger army” of Mali, she said. “We gave vehicles and communications equipment.”

The Malian journalist Adam Thiam told me that the US was well aware that the Malian military was “in bad shape” and would likely collapse if confronted by a full-scale attack. “The soldiers didn’t receive per diems, they didn’t get ammunition, and if you gave them ammunition they would sell it to al-Qaeda,” he says. “It was terrible.”

On January 24, 2012, militants attacked Aguélock, the army’s main base in the Sahara. The troops fought back with aging Bulgarian weapons and ammunition and soon ran out of bullets. Tuareg fighters overran the base and executed 160 soldiers; many were found with their hands tied behind their backs and their throats cut. Six weeks later, after a two-month siege, militant Tuaregs and Muslim jihadists took control of Tessalit, another base in the far north. Most of the five hundred government soldiers escaped across the border to Algeria, and were flown in a cargo plane back to Bamako. In the capital junior military officers then ousted Mali’s president, accusing him of failing to support the army. In the ensuing chaos, Gao fell on March 31; Tuareg fighters from the MNLA swept into Timbuktu the next morning. Al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine fighters arrived hours later from desert camps, in trucks flying black jihadist flags. They quickly sent the secular Tuaregs to the airport, about four miles outside town.

Hamidou Ag Issa, a Timbuktu resident, told me that in the first days after the militants’ takeover, they created a favorable impression. The gunmen stopped, without violence, a wave of looting that had followed the flight of the Malian army and the Arab militias that had been requested by the Malian government. “They presented themselves as moderate. They won the confidence of the people,” Issa said. But in late June 2012, Ghali’s and Belmokhtar’s men swept aside their secular Tuareg rivals—killing some of them—and declared Sharia law across the north. The La Maison Hotel in Timbuktu, where the rock star and philanthropist Bono and his entourage had stayed in January 2012 while attending the Festival in the Desert, became Timbuktu’s Sharia Court.

Mahamen Bebao, twenty-three, a slim man with a wispy beard, was that court’s first victim. During the looting that followed the Islamist takeover, he told me, holding up an empty sleeve, he had purchased a stolen mattress from a friend for $22. Last September, the Islamic police summoned Bebao to the court and sentenced him to a month in jail and a $750 fine for possession of stolen property. On the day before Bebao’s scheduled liberation, he was given a new sentence: amputation.

The police, Bebao recalled, bound him to a chair with bicycle inner tubes. They dispatched a volunteer to the market to purchase a kitchen knife. Bebao received an injection that put him in a semi-conscious state, he said. He was carried in the chair to a public square, where his hand was sawed off. “People think it’s done with a single stroke, but it’s with a knife, slowly cut, as if you’re an animal,” said Hamidou Ag Issa, who witnessed the amputation of a cousin’s hand two months earlier, near Gao. In a Timbuktu clinic, a local physician nursed Bebao back to health. Then he fled to Bamako, walking and getting rides, one of about 300,000 people from the north who sought refuge in Mauritania and southern Mali.

On December 12, 2012, at Essakane in northern Mali, where Ali Farka Toure and Robert Plant once played guitar beneath the desert stars and Western girls danced in the dunes with their Tuareg guides, six hundred jihadists gathered for a war conference. By selecting the oasis once used for the Festival in the Desert, Iyad Ag Ghali was sending his erstwhile friend Manny Ansar a message. A Malian political figure told me, “He was saying, ‘The place is for jihad now.’” Among those present were Belmokhtar, then based in Gao, and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Belmokhtar’s co-commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Two years earlier, Abou Zeid had ordered the beheading of a sixty-one-year-old British hostage, Edwin Dyer, after the British government refused to pay a ransom. In Essakane, the men slaughtered goats and roasted them on spits. Then, drinking tea and eating traditional kebabs, known as mishwee, they “very joyfully,” an insider told me, set a date of mid-January for the invasion of southern Mali from the north.

According to Adam Thiam, Ghali had decided to attack Konna partly out of pride. “He had been humiliated by Abou Zeid, who said, ‘You are not a jihadist, you are not a Muslim. If you were, you would have declared Sharia law in Kidal, but it is not happening there.’ They even told him, ‘We know that Tuaregs are not real Muslims.’”

But Ghali had little time to savor victory. Mali’s interim president Dioncounda Traoré appealed to French President Fançois Hollande for miliary assistance, warning him that the entire country was in danger of falling to the rebels. On Friday afternoon, January 11, a helicopter swept in low over Konna, and began firing rockets at the militants’ positions. “At first we thought it belonged to the Malian army,” said Ousmane Bah, who was burying the corpses of soldiers in a trench when the chopper arrived. Bah returned to Konna and climbed onto his rooftop, “but all I could see was dust.” Militants fired back at the helicopter, fatally injuring the pilot. A second helicopter arrived early in the evening. By Friday night, says Bah, everyone knew that they were French. Ghali and his militants vanished into the desert, dragging the bodies of their dead comrades.

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    HarperCollins, 2011, p. 51. 

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