Al-Qaeda draws Maghreb militants to Mali
Algerian and Libyan extremists who followed their AQIM leaders to Mali are presenting themselves as “Maghreb neighbours”. To Timbuktu and Kidal residents, they are foreign terrorists.By Jemal Oumar for Magharebia in Nouakchott – 11/05/12Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has a new strategy to bolster its ranks in northern Mali: bringing in recruits from the Maghreb.
Maghreb militants are flocking to Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao to join al-Qaeda brigades, local officials report.
“Hundreds of fighters from Tunisia, Libya and the Maghreb have arrived in northern Mali to join al-Qaeda, Malian dailyL’Express quoted a defence ministry official as saying on Sunday (May 6th).
The Timbuktu spokesperson for Islamist group and al-Qaeda ally Ansar al-Din told Magharebia: “We can’t confirm or deny the arrival of new recruits to al-Qaeda in the region.”
Sanad Ould Bouamama added, however, “It’s not in our interests to expel them as long as their goal is to fight apostates and apply the Islamic Sharia we all seek.”
“We’re different from them because we are a local group,” Ould Bouamama stressed. “Al-Qaeda’s presence extends from Mauritania to Niger and Libya, and they can take any of their elements to areas that are under their control.”
The international community is raising alarms about the wider threat al-Qaeda poses after its expansion into Mali.
“We are very worried by what is happening in Mali and its impact on the region,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said this week.
“We need to create the right conditions to avoid this crisis becoming a threat to global security,” he added, appealing to the international community to get involved.
It is more than a mere regional crisis, he said. It is a “risk to peace and security all over the world”.
Timbuktu mayor Hallé Ousman noted that AQIM members from all over now move freely in the region.
“Al-Qaeda’s elements can enter and exit anytime. This has become a usual thing for us. They can pass in front of me without being observed,” he said.
Ibrahim Ag Asa, a resident of Timbuktu, told Magharebia, “I saw with my own eyes non-Malian al-Qaeda armed elements. They are likely from Tunisia, Algeria and Libya.”
“I didn’t see Moroccans, or at least I didn’t hear anyone among them speaking Moroccan dialect,” he added.
In an attempt to win the hearts of the local population, foreign militants from the Maghreb have been seen distributing food to displaced people in the suburbs of Timbuktu.
Mohamad Ag Ali, a livestock trader, overheard them saying: “We’re your neighbours and our goal is to raise the word of Allah alongside our brothers.”
“Some people were extremely afraid, while others were hungry and wanted to get food, so they didn’t object to what they were saying,” he added.
|[AFP/Al-Andalus] Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emir Abou Zeid (left) was recently seen in the northern Malian region of Kidal.|
The mayor of Timbuktu also voiced concerns about how the terrorists are behaving with the local citizenry.
“They stormed food stores and distributed food to residents, but this is not approved by any religion, because they are taking food by force and distributing it according to their own rules,” Hallé Ousman said.
“The question now is: how will they continue to give food to people after the looted stores run out of food?” he wondered.
He noted the rising rage against the interlopers, particularly after the destruction of the tomb of Timbuktu saint Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar on May 3rd.
“They started by preventing us from practicing our habits in visiting graves on Fridays,” the mayor said. “They even destroyed our holy places, making us extremely angry.”
For his part, Dawood Ag Mohamad, imam of the Belferandi Mosque, said he had not personally met “the new groups that are said to have entered Timbuktu” but “heard from more than one person that they came to the city to enhance the presence of al-Qaeda here”.
“This is not reassuring. It doesn’t give the impression that al-Qaeda is going to leave Timbuktu anytime soon,'” the imam told Magharebia.
The appearance of armed militants from the Maghreb is not restricted to Timbuktu, AFP reported on May 7th, citing a Malian security source.
Other cities such as Kidal, in the northeastern tip of the country, are also facing the influx of foreign AQIM fighters.
And this can only serve to further isolate an already remote and struggling region.
Just last week-end, Kidal residents spotted top al-Qaeda leaders in their town.
Khaled Abou El Abass (aka Mokhtar Belmokhtar, or “Laaouar“), head of the AQIM katibat that spans Algeria, Chad, Niger, Mauritania and Mali, toured the city on Friday and Saturday, Mali’s Le Republican daily reported May 7th.
Abdelhamid Abou Zeid (real name Mohamed Ghadir) was also spotted in Kidal. The “Tariq ibn Ziyad” brigade boss now runs AQIM operations from Adrar province up to the Niger border.
Yahya Abou Al-Hammam (aka Jemal Oukacha), the second-in-command to AQIM chief Abelmalek Droukdel, was seen with his AQIM colleagues as well. Last month,Ansar al-Din installed the Algerian national and al-Qaeda emir as the governor of Timbuktu.
The Timbuktu governor appointment was part of the power-sharing deal between the Islamist group and al-Qaeda.
Conditions in Kidal have forced families to flee for neighbouring Algeria or Niger. Only people that can’t leave, together with livestock breeders unable to find shelter for their animals, are staying behind.
Kidal citizens are facing other hardships in the name of Islamic Sharia, one of the few residents who remained in town told Magharebia.
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“The people here are under strict surveillance to make them change their social habits in clothing, and the way they greet each other and talk,” Sheta Ag Haman said.
“Men are forced to go to mosque regularly, and their children must now attend segregated religious schools,” he said. Violators of Sharia face whippings and other punishments, he added.
The dire situation in Kidal led local leaders to meet with militants from the other player in the struggle for northern Mali – the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – to discuss ways to force al-Qaeda to leave their town, Touareg activist Adoum Ag al-Wali told Magharebia.
Many fearful residents, however, have already done the same.