There’s been no peace in northern Mali since Tuareg rebels took control of the area and declared independence earlier this year. Radical Arab fighters came in their wake and introduced Islamic law. Meanwhile, terrorists from all over the world are reportedly coming to Mali. Yet no one really has a hold on the region.
Boubacar Traore lights a cigarette. The other exiles crouching under a baobab tree in Mopti laugh at him. “This is no longer allowed in northern Mali,” Traore explains. “Drinking beer is also haram, forbidden by the Arab radicals, who have taken over my town, Hombori. And the women have to wear veils.”
In March Hombori fell into the hands of Tuareg rebels. They belong to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who began a revolt in the north at the year’s start. The Ansar Dine rebels quickly followed. They took measures to stop the plundering of MNLA fighters and – much to the local population’s alarm – introduced sharia law.
“Our only weapon is Islam”
Along the bank of the Niger River, Mopti used to be the crossroads between Mali’s north and south. Now it is on the frontline of a country divided into two. Fearing the Ansar Dine rebels, banks have closed, aid organizations have removed their computers and frightened residents have fled.
Unlike the Tauregs, the Ansar Dine do not want an independent republic in the north, a so-called Azawad state. They want the whole of Mali to become an Arab Islamic state. And they want to expand into West Africa.
Ansar Dine Muslim extremists make no secret of their ideals. Traore shows a video on his mobile phone, which he took in Hombori before fleeing last month. An Ansar Dine leader known as Oumar speaks to the people. A rifle and an ammunition belt are slung over his shoulders.
“Our only weapon is Islam,” the bearded leader proclaims. “There are no limits, we are united by Allah. Fighters from Algeria and other countries have joined us and we want to introduce sharia law in the whole of Mali. Introducing Islamic law will solve all our problems.”
Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb
At the rebellion’s onset, the Ansar Dine and the Tuaregs had joined forces. But reports from the north now indicate the Ansar Dine has taken control together with the Algerian group known as the al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
“The Tuaregs cause panic, they rape women and steal from everyone,” shouts the Ansar Dine leader in Traore’s video. “We have arrested them and executed them when necessary. The MNLA has betrayed us. We don’t want the independent state of Azawad. We are fighting in the name of Allah.”
The AQIM has become rich in recent years by kidnapping Western tourists and taking over drug and weapon smuggling routes across the Sahara. The money is used to buy the support of tribal and clan leaders. Gaddafi’s fall in neighbouring Libya meant that weapons flooded into northern Mali. They were either bought or seized in battle, thus profiting the region’s numerous rebel groups, Muslim radicals and Tuaregs.
The Malian government army was too weak to retaliate when the rebels went on the offensive. After March’s coup d’état against President Touré, government soldiers deserted en masse as rebels attacked them in the north.
Muslim radicals now control an extensive area. Their rigid form of Islam is being imposed on northern Mali. In the history-rich city of Timbuktu, they have destroyed images of Islamic icons. Ritual masks and ancestral statues in the Dogon region have been smashed to pieces.
“Mali has a long history and the various populations have always shared cultures and traditions,” says Samuel Sidibe, managing director of the Musée National du Mali. “The Malians follow a tolerant form of Islam. The radical form does not fit in with our culture.”
A divided Mali
Nobody knows how things will go in a divided Mali. In the capital, Bamako, military coup leader Amadou Sanogo refuses to relinquish power for a civilian interim government. Regional union ECOWAS threatens more military intervention and sanctions.
“Every day of instability and uncertainty in Bamako is to the advantage of the extremists in the north,” says a diplomat there. “More and more reports arrive of terrorists being flown into the north from all over the world. Europe has failed to acknowledge the danger of terrorism flourishing in Mali.”