Wednesday, April 11, 2012

MALI: Christians flee as jihadists seize control of north

What started out as a violent, destructive and bloody Tuareg rebellion in pursuit of an independent Tuareg homeland has ended in Islamic conquest and the spectre of al Qaeda.

On Thursday 5 April, after three months of fighting, the main ethnic Tuareg rebel group -- the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA) -- announced a ceasefire. Having seized the capitals of the three main northern provinces in three days -- Kidal, on 30 March; Gao, on 31 March; and Timbuktu, on 1 April (see map) -- the NMLA declared it had achieved its military goal.
See: Tuareg rebels in Mali declare cease-fire, end of military operations
By Associated Press, Published: April 5

Despite having fought alongside the professedly secular and nationalistic NMLA supposedly in support of Tuareg independence, Ansar Dine -- an Islamist group led by Iyad ag Ghali, a Tuareg who led a major rebellion in the 1990s -- has since supplanted the NMLA, hoisted the black flag of al-Qaeda and declared the imposition of Sharia law.

In a video filmed in Timbuktu and obtained by the AFP news agency and France 2 television, Ansar Dine military chief Omar Hamaha declared: "Our war is a holy war. It’s a legal war in the name of Islam. We are against rebellions. We are against independence. We are against revolutions not in the name of Islam."
See: Tuaregs claim 'independence' from Mali
6 April 2012, Al Jazeera

Film footage on Al Jazeera shows well armed Ansar Dine mujahideen driving a column of machine-gun mounted military vehicles each flying the black flag of al Qaeda. Ansar Dine is also exploiting the chaos of the Tuareg rebellion, of which they were a part, and re-inventing themselves as enforcers of law and order, offering hope to a traumatised people.
See: Tuareg groups disagree on objectives
-- a 2.35minute video news clip by Al Jazeera, 9 Apr 2012
Separatist MNLA declares Azawad independence, while Ansar Dine group wants to impose Islamic law.

According to reports, some 100 Nigerian Boko Haram militants who assisted in the capture of Gao have also established a presence there. Sources report that there are four distinct flags flying in Gao: the NMLA, Boko Haram, Ansar Dine, and Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and while the NMLA are nowhere to be seen, having been pushed to the periphery, there are plenty of armed, bearded Salafis.
See: Mali rebels declare independence in north as fears grow over extremist links
by Afua Hirsch, West Africa correspondent, the Guardian, 6 April 2012


IRIN, a service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reports (3 April), "Malians in the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu are hiding in their homes in fear following the weekend takeover by rebel groups, during which hospitals, health clinics, government buildings, and most NGO and UN offices and warehouses were looted, and in some cases destroyed, leaving the bulk of humanitarian operations suspended."

"Issa Mahamar TourĂ©, president of the youth association in Gao, said total chaos reigned after widespread looting of government offices, NGOs, banks and hospitals in his town. 'People are hiding at their homes unable to leave… no trucks are arriving with further supplies... What will we do when our stocks run out? The hospital is closed and doctors have fled… It is complete desolation, despair… We can only turn to the international community for help.'"

Julia McDade, head of the Malian office of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), which works with partners on agriculture projects and women’s rights in Timbuktu and Gao, told IRIN: "'Everyone [in Gao] is in hiding, everyone's vehicles have been stolen… every single office has been ransacked.'

"All the aid agencies IRIN spoke to have had their equipment stolen and have been forced to suspend operations, in the middle of a food emergency. Offices of the World Food Programme (WFP), which provides the bulk of food aid in the north were looted, and the organization has halted its activities in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, as well as the central town of Mopti, according to its head, Nancy Walters.

"Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Oxfam, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) all repeated the same story. 'Our cars, aid materials, offices and staff residences were all looted [in Gao],' Jurg Eglin, head of ICRC for Niger and Mali told IRIN. 'We are still trying to take stock of what we have lost.'

Caritas Mali reported that its local office in Gao in northern Mali was destroyed along with the local church which served Gao's 200-strong Catholic community.

IRIN also reports that according to sources, rapes are taking place in Timbuktu and Gao. "An NGO trainer in Gao, Adama Konipo, told IRIN he had seen rebels taking women away from the health centre, 'to who knows where', in recent days. After seeing one young woman in tears in the street, family members told him she had been raped by five MNLA soldiers. Others reported two rebels raping a young woman in the market place, firing their guns when anyone dared to approach them. 'It is impossible for any young women to leave their houses for fear,' Konipo told IRIN."
See also: Islamist Rebel Faction Imposes Sharia In The North Of Mali
by Soumaila T. Diarra (Bamako), April 06, 2012, Inter Press Service


Reporting from Bamako, Mali, for Associated Press (AP), Martin Vogl and Rukmini Callimachi spoke to Dramane Maiga, an employee of a transport company. He told them that the Islamists have been handing out a hotline number and encouraging residents to call if they are in trouble, apparently in an effort to instil confidence in the local population.

Maiga told AP that on Sunday 8 April he was on a bus loaded with residents attempting to flee Gao when it was ambushed by Tuareg fighters from the NMLA intending to rob the passengers. The passengers, however, got busy calling the Ansar Dine hotline and in less than 30 minutes, Ansar Dine mujahideen had arrived. The bus passengers then watched on in horror as the jihadists slit the throat of one Tuareg gunman, to cries of "Allahu Akbar".
See: Witness: Islamist fighters execute Tuareg in Mali
By Martin Vogl and Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali,
Associated Press, 9 April 2012

But according to IRIN -- and contrary to the footage on Al Jazeera -- the Islamists do not have widespread support amongst the population. “'We are against this takeover', said Amouhani TourĂ©, a teacher who had just fled the town [of Timbuktu]. 'These Islamists want to impose their rules on us… We’re in the 21st century, you can’t impose Sharia on peaceful citizens. The authorities, if we have any still, must fight these Islamists with all their might… Timbuktu is a holy site, a tourist town; UNESCO-protected, we will say no to all forms of separatism.'”

The representative for Timbuktu in Mali’s Parliament, El Hadji Baba Haidara, also lamented the takeover. “Why do they want to Islamize us?” he said, observing that the city has been Muslim since the 12th century. “And now these Islamists want to teach us to pray! In fact, Timbuktu is a victim of its name and celebrity: for the rebels, it’s a symbol that must be taken in order to be seen. I am not O.K. with Sharia in Timbuktu. For us, it’s extremism."


Driven out by the devastating violence, but especially by the Islamic threat, virtually the entire Christian population of northern Mali has been forced to flee for their lives.

The Guardian reports: "A source who fled the rebel-held town of Gao said that extremists were heavily involved in the advance and were now targeting the Christian minority in northern towns.

"'The rebels have sacked the church in Gao, burning the contents whilst crying Allah Akhbar,' the source told the Guardian. 'At a rebel barricade outside Gao, the bodies of people who have been slaughtered were laid out on the ground.'

"In a further report, which could not be verified, the Guardian learned that the Christian prefect of the town of Bourem had also been killed along with his relatives. 'The prefect was slaughtered at a checkpoint along with his family,' a source said. 'Christians here are now living in real fear.'"
See: Mali rebels declare independence in north as fears grow over extremist links
by Afua Hirsch, West Africa correspondent, the Guardian, 6 April 2012

Reporting from Bamako, Mali, Rukmini Callimachi reports for Associated Press that more than 90 per cent of Timbuktu's roughly 300 Christians have fled. Baptist Pastor Nock Ag Info Yattara, who has fled to Bourem, reports that not one of the 205 people in his congregation, which has worshipped in Timbuktu since the 1950s, remains. While Ansar Dine, which has established itself in the city's principle military camp, is controlling downtown Timbuktu, , the NMLA is being forced to camp out at the airport.

"'What I deplore,' laments Ousmane Halle, the mayor of Timbuktu, 'is the departure of the Christian community. Many said to me that they are obliged to leave. And they are right. I cannot guarantee their safety. And these are people that have lived side by side with us for centuries.'
See: Islamists impose sharia in Mali's Timbuktu
By Rukmini Callimachi, Associated Press, 4 April 2012


This is a situation for which there will be no easy fix.
(For prayer points see: RLPB 154. Mali: Christians flee imposition of Sharia, 11 April 2012)


The nomadic Tuareg controlled the caravan trade routes through the Sahara for thousands of years until recent trends reversed their fortunes.

Firstly, when Mali and Niger declared independence in 1960 they claimed territory that until that time had been the Tuareg's domain. At that point, the Tuareg began rebelling against the governments of Mali and Niger.

Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, drought accelerated the process of desertification, forcing many Tuareg to migrate north into Libya and Algeria. At the same time, the trends of rapid population growth and urbanisation changed the landscape considerably with the Tuareg powerless to stop their traditional lands being acquired by non-Tuareg farmers and developers. Further to this, as maritime trade increased in prominence the Tuareg were robbed of their traditional livelihood, forcing the nomadic Tuareg to diversify -- mostly into arms, drugs and hostage trafficking, activities that have brought them into contact with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Meanwhile, many Tuareg in Libya received military training and were incorporated into Gaddafi's Islamic Legion. (These were purely business arrangements and had nothing to do with ideology.)

In the late 1980s, the governments of Mali and Niger seduced many Tuareg back home with promises of assistance. Those who returned were now well armed, well trained militarily and linked through "business" (not ideology) to AQIM. When the promised assistance did not materialise and the northern regions remained as poor, under-serviced and marginalised as ever, the Tuareg rebelled again -- in Mali in 1992; and in Niger in 1995. French and US-mediated talks promised decentralised government and real assistance, including the incorporation of Tuareg fighters into the military. But once again, the assistance never materialised and resources remained concentrated in the south. Tensions rose.

From around the turn of the century, in order to prevent the impoverished northern regions becoming an al Qaeda sanctuary, France and the US launched anti-terrorism initiatives, offering advanced military training to Tuaregs so they could combat Islamic jihadists, including al Qaeda. Consequently, when the Tuareg rebelled again in 2007, they were more sophisticated than ever. Peace was brokered in 2009, but it was fragile. The rebellion's leader, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, fled to Libya.

In August 2011, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga re-emerged in northern Mali. He vowed over satellite phone to renew the Tuareg rebellion. Without hours he was dead -- most probably assassinated by a US-trained Malian counterterrorism unit. Ibrahim Ag Bahanga had been among some 800 Tuaregs who fought as pro-Gaddafi mercenaries in the Libyan conflict. As Gaddafi's fortunes reversed, the Tuareg, aware their salaries would soon end, simply packed up and returned to Mali bringing with them large quantities of weapons, ammunitions and military vehicles stolen from Gaddafi's arsenals.

It was this influx of a large number of cashed-up, well-armed and well-trained fighters, led by a former Libyan army colonel, Ag Mohamed Najem, that re-energised the long-simmering Tuareg insurgency against the Malian government. These are the Tuareg who formed the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and met with the government of Mali in November to let them know they were rejecting the authority of the parliamentarians and intending to have their own state.

And as Stratfor Security Weekly reports (2 Feb), Najem is not the only NMLA leader with significant military experience. "Experienced defectors from the Malian army including Lt. Col. Ag Mbarek Aky and Col. Ag Bamoussa reportedly have bolstered the organization. The presence of experienced military leaders gives the MNLA an increased ability to organize and mobilize its units across a broad swath of territory in northern Mali."
See: Mali Besieged by Fighters Fleeing Libya
By Scott Stewart, February 2, 2012
Stratfor, Security Weekly

For more background, see also:
The Tuaregs: From African Nomads to Smugglers and Mercenaries
Stratfor 2 Feb 2012

Other helpful and interesting articles:

Who are the Tuareg rebels conquering northern Mali?
3 April 2012 France 24

Tribulation in Timbuktu
The Tuareg people are profiting from the post-Gaddafi power shifts across the Saharan sands, contends Gamal Nkrumah
Al-Ahram, 5 - 11 April 2012, Issue No. 1092

Tuaregs 'all about securing power' in Mali's north
Deutsche Welle spoke with Dr. Julia Leininger, the Africa coordinator in the "Governance, Statehood, Security" department at the German Development Institute (DIE) about the Tuaregs and their aims. 6 April 2012

The Tuareg Denominator
By Jay Radzinski, Middle East Online 16 Feb 2012

New north Mali Arab force seeks to "defend" Timbuktu
Bate Felix and Adama Diarra, Reuters April 10, 2012
BAMAKO | Mon Apr 9, 2012

Foreign Policy: The Mess In Mali
by Gregory Mann, NPR 10 April 2012