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When the Jihad Came to Mali

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Romaric Ollo Hien/AFP/Getty Images
Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of the Islamist group Ansar Dine, at Kidal airport in Mali before a meeting with Burkina Faso’s foreign ­minister, Djibril Bassolé, August 7, 2012

On my second morning in Mopti, the French seized Timbuktu. Fighters from al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine paused before fleeing to commit one last act of desecration: they set fire to hundreds of manuscripts at the city’s Ahmed Baba Center, a library that I had visited in 2006 and 2009. Timbuktu’s citizens had buried thousands of other ancient books in holes in the desert and elsewhere, and prevented a far graver loss. “We are joyful,” I was told by Azima Ag Mohammed Ali, the Tuareg who had been my guide in 2009. In November 2011 Azima’s last client, a German backpacker, had been shot dead outside a Timbuktu hotel after resisting gunmen’s attempts to kidnap him. Azima got there a few minutes later and “saw his body lying in the street.” Three other Europeans had been dragged off and still remain hostages in the desert. After nearly a year’s absence, Azima was preparing to return home to Timbuktu with his wife and children to try to start his life again in the city.

Back at the Hotel Kanaga on the river in Mopti—the only functioning hotel for Westerners in the city—I listened to radio reports about a related hostage drama that was just winding down. Forty al-Qaeda militants had seized dozens of Western employees at the extensive In Amenas gasworks in the Algerian Sahara, and made plans to blow them up. Algerian security forces attacked the terrorists, and thirty-eight hostages and twenty-nine Islamists were killed. The militant behind the attack was identified as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, seeking revenge for the French intervention in Mali.

Today, four thousand French troops occupy Timbuktu, Gao, and other northern towns, supported by 1,800 soldiers from Chad and small contingents from other African countries. The jihadists have taken refuge in the canyons and dunes of the Sahara. Many are believed to be in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, a near-impenetrable range north of the small and very poor town of Kidal, near the Algerian border. The French say that they will begin to withdraw in March and turn their operations over to a 12,000-man African force mandated last year by the UN Security Council. Few have discounted the possibility of a long insurgency. “The speed with which the French have gone through the cities has been surprising to people, we are all waiting to see what’s next,” Ambassador Leonard told me in Bamako. “If you are not doing well in the traditional theater, then you worry about the asymmetric issue. Where does that pop up? The Paris Metro? Or Bamako?”

My American friend living in Bamako shares those concerns. On my last night in Mali she took me out to dinner at a popular café on the Route de Bla Bla, in the capital’s ramshackle entertainment district. The place was filled with French embassy workers, UN diplomats, and Western journalists, but there wasn’t a metal detector or a security guard anywhere. “How easy would it be to plant a bomb here,” she said.

In A Season in Hell, Fowler portrayed his captors as committed jihadists, skilled at surviving and fighting in the Sahara. They camped in well-protected redoubts, drove enormous distances at night to avoid detection, and carefully planted caches of fuel, water, and food at strategic points across the desert. They were also sustained by a fanaticism that impressed Fowler:

They will not, in my opinion, soon be defeated. They seemed to have no trouble recruiting. The youngest among them was seven…and the voices of three of the others had yet to break. Parents, we were proudly informed, brought them their sons as “gifts to God.” I know of no argument that would convince them to abandon their chosen path.

Some militants have already vowed to continue the fight. “The [foreign troops] will lose interest, and we will wait them out,” a Tuareg rebel told one of my colleagues by satellite phone from the desert two weeks ago. On February 8, a suicide bomber from Mujao, another Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, blew himself up near a group of Malian soldiers in Gao, killing one of them. One day later gunmen infiltrated the heart of that city and pinned down French and Malian forces for hours before melting away. The fighters are believed to have entered Gao from nearby villages along the Niger River, which have long been breeding grounds for extremist ideology and now provide sanctuary for the militants. “The jihadists are still in the environs,” a Malian commander told The New York Times. “There are small caches of them, in hiding, forty, eighty miles from here.”

Mokhtar Belmokhtar remains elusive; in mid-February, French fighter jets bombed a suspected hideout deep in the Sahara, only to learn, according to the French military, that Belmokhtar had fooled them by setting up a decoy camp using wrecked cars and empty houses. The other figure most responsible for the brutality and bloodshed in the north has apparently decided that he has had enough violence for the while. Around February 10, there were reports that Iyad Ag Ghali had dispatched twelve Tuareg envoys across the desert in four-wheel drive cars to request political asylum for him in Mauritania. Ghali was still in hiding, but the Malians I know will not be surprised if he does take refuge in Mauritania—then moves back across the border in a four-wheel drive when he decides the time is right.

—February 19, 2013


The Nation Institute supported Joshua Hammer’s reporting in Mali.

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