Tuesday, June 5, 2012

MALI: Islamist's weapons seizure will greatly boost AQIM's striking power

The trend across Mali's rebel-held north is towards forced Islamisation, Arabisation, escalating hardship and persecution.

Writing for New Straits Times, 5 June 2012, Adam Nossiter, describes the situation in the historic city of Timbuktu:

"Women are now forced to wear full, face-covering veils. Music is banned from the radio. Cigarettes are snatched from the mouths of pedestrians. And the look of the ancient mud-brick town is changing.

"An ancient monument, the shrine of a 15th-century saint, has been defaced, bars have been demolished and black flags have been hung around town to honour Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, the radical Islamist movement that emerged from the desert and turned life upside down.

"'There is no liberty,' said Abdoulaye Ahmed, a tailor who fled Timbuktu and came to Mali's capital, Bamako, last week. He added that the Islamist rebels 'are constantly circulating with their guns. This is scaring people. The town is sinister'."

"The situation is said to be especially troubling for women in Timbuktu.'Women are living in terrible fear,' said Baba Aicha Kalil, a well-known civic activist who still lives in the town. . . 'They want to put a veil on everything,' Kalil said. 'They are everywhere with their guns'."

On 5 June around 50 women and children courageously demonstrated against the Islamist presence in Kidal. Marching from the stadium to the main Kidal market, they chanted in their local language, "We don't want strangers here", and "We don't want Islamists here", until men in three pick-ups bearing the Ansar Dine flag intervened and beat the demonstrators, violently dispersing their protest.

On 22 May, Christian Today published an Appeal for Christians in Mali (22 May) in which the Christian charity Worldshare claims that the Islamic jihadists who have seized control of northern Mali have conducted house to house searches hunting for Christians, and that people have been tortured into revealing their Christian relatives. Confirming earlier reports, Worldshare, which has been working with a ministry in Timbuktu since 2001 and with the Gao Evangelical Church since 2004, also said that church and Christian property in Timbuktu and Gao has either been looted or destroyed.

All across northern Mali, the humanitarian situation is dire (ICRC 25 May 2012).  Many Christians have fled south to Bamako, the capital, where they are living as refugees. Food stocks are low.

An agreement, A Split and The Reality

An Agreement

On 26 May, the avowedly secular Tuareg nationalist group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), signed a protocol agreement with Islamic jihadists Ansar Dine, to join forces for the implementation of an independent Islamic state.

CNN reports: "The agreement between the secular Tuareg and the Islamists comes after weeks of sometimes heated discussions between two movements, separated both in their objectives and ideologies. While the MNLA is fighting for an independent Azawad, Ansar Dine's main objective is to impose Sharia law in all of Mali.

"In the besieged towns, drinking, smoking, listening to music, watching soccer on TV and playing video games have been banned in what now seems to be a preparation for the creation of an Islamic state."

See: Mali rebel groups join forces, vowing an Islamic state
From Katarina Höije, For CNN, 27 May 2012

A Split

Only 48 hours after the protocol was signed, the deal collapsed, allegedly because the parties could not agree on how strictly to impose Sharia (Islamic) Law.

"We have refused to approve the final statement because it is different from the protocol agreement which we have signed," said Ibrahim Assaley, representing the MNLA. "It is as if they want us to dissolve into Ansar Dine," he complained. "That is unacceptable." (Al Jazeera 31 May)

Moussa Ag Asherif, a fighter close to the leadership of the Ansar Dine, told reporters that Iyad Ag Ghaly -- the shadowy leader of Ansar Dine who is known to have ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- would travel to Gao on Tuesday morning 29 May "to solve the problem".

The confusion has exposed a split in the MNLA, allegedly between the MNLA's French and Arabic speaking factions.

A statement issued by Hama Ag Mahmoud, a senior MNLA political figure read: "The political wing, the executive wing of the MNLA, faced with the intransigence of Ansar Dine on applying sharia in Azawad and in line with its resolutely secular stance, denounce the accord with this organisation and declare all its dispositions null and void."

Reuters reports: "In an open letter posted on Berber website Tamazgha.fr, the MNLA's communication director Mossa Ag Attaher acknowledged 'a growing malaise' in the ranks of the group linked to a feud between its French-speaking and Arab-speaking factions.

"While Attaher did not elaborate, the linguistic split could partly reflect divisions between those rebels who have remained in the former French colony and those who were based in Libya until the fall of Muammar Gaddafi.

"'The application of sharia and the Arabisation of our people is a grave violation of our culture and identity,' he said of a region in which nomadic Tuaregs have co-existed with other ethnic groups and where moderate Islam is widely practised.

"But a senior military official for Ansar Dine contacted in the northern city of Gao said the well-armed group continued to apply the agreement.

"The pact signed by the MNLA and Ansar Dine is irrevocable", Oumar Ould Hamama told Reuters by telephone from the northern city of Gao."The views of a few individuals within the MNLA cannot put this fusion in doubt. In any case, [the reality is] we are the majority in control of all three of Mali's northern regions."

See: Mali Tuareg leaders call off Islamist pact
Reuters, Friday 1 June 2012.

According to the most recent news, the rebels are working towards establishing a ruling council and a government of national unity.

The MNLA issued a statement in the northern city of Gao that said: 'The NMLA will put in place a provisional council that will lead the country in the coming period and will work to put in place a government of national unity'."

The statement said that the agreement signed between the two groups on May 26 "is being studied by the two parties and a commission is going to be appointed in order to treat the points of divergence." (Associated Press, 4 June)

The Reality

The reality on the ground is that al-Qaeda-linked Ansar Dine is stronger and in control; Sharia is being forcefully applied; and Northern Mali threatens to become a safe-haven for terrorist and a launch-pad for jihad.

In late May, the rebels seized a key underground weapons and ammunition depot of the Malian Army in Gao. A regional security source confirmed the seizure, saying the vast cache of weapons will greatly boost al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM's) striking power, adding that the group "is today more armed than the combined armies of Mali and Burkina Faso".

See: Al-Qaeda branch seizes key Mali arms depot as crisis deepens
By Serge Daniel (AFP) 27 May 2012 

Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, a Mauritanian diplomat who has been a United Nations envoy in both West Africa and Somalia comments on the situation in Northern Mali: "We are in an early stage of Afghanistan and Somalia. There is no doubt in my mind."

Reporting for Reuters from Dakar, Senegal, David Lewis writes: "Ould-Abdallah and a swelling chorus of security experts point to an influx of foreign fighters, a debilitating rivalry between neighboring 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 defense 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. . .

"Witnesses say the Islamists are better-resourced and more heavily armed than the Tuareg separatists . . . [a reality that is] allowing them to shunt the MNLA aside and take effective control on their own of towns across northern Mali."

See: Analysis: Mali: the world's next jihadi launchpad?
By David Lewis
DAKAR | Mon Jun 4, 2012

One wonders, what  Al Qaeda's strategic priorities might be now that it has a solid foothold in Northern Mali through the extremely well armed Ansar Dine.  Of one thing we may be certain: that jihad in Africa is about to go up a notch to become far more threatening and far more destructive.