Islamists seize on Azawad turmoil
By Raby Ould Idoumou and Jemal Oumar for Magharebia in Nouakchott –13/04/12
Al-Qaeda terrorists from Mauritania and Algeria, Boko Haram fighters from Niger and local Islamists had separate agendas before the March 22nd Mali coup. But with the military junta busy in Bamako, they overran the country's north.
Northern Mali, called "Azawad" by its Touareg population, is now beyond the control of the central government for the first time in the country's contemporary history.
As soon as the strange alliance took over, it started implementing sharia law: raiding wine bars, closing night clubs, and punishing men who shave their beards.
And while it is common for Touareg women to appear unveiled, it is now a rare sight in areas under the Islamists' control.
Iyad Ag Ghaly's Ansar al-Din (Supporters of the Faith) is determined to create a Salafist emirate in Mali. Upon arrival in Gao, the Ansar al-Din chief called a meeting with the most prominent religious figures in the town to confirm his determination to implement sharia law.
"People coming from areas ruled by Ansar al-Din, such as Tessalit and Aguelhok, say it is like life in Afghanistan at the time of Taliban," terrorism analyst Mohamed Mahmoud Aboulmaaly tells Magharebia.
The new leaders went so far as to impose their own administrative terms: "emirate" instead of province or state, "emir" instead of governor and the "promotion of virtue and prevention of vice" replaces constitutional law.
Mauritanian terrorist Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou, whose al-Qaeda splinter group Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO) was behind the conquest of Gao, has vowed to impose the MUJAO interpretation of Islamic law on the region.
Si Ahmed Ould Tfeil has written extensively about the psychology of Mauritanian terrorists. To his view, the MUJAO "aims to first establish control over the largest possible area of northern Mali before expanding across the entire Sahel".
"All these 'jihadist' moves will be in co-ordination with their comrades in arms and creed, such as Ansar al-Din," he tells Magharebia.
In the first days of their presence in northern Mali, particularly in Timbuktu, the MUJAO started looking more like the Taliban than African militants, observers noted. Ould Mohamed Kheirou readily posed for TV cameramen in Gao setting fire to bottles of wine.
In an interview with Al Jazeera television on Sunday (April 8th), he said that the group aimed to expel the "infidels" from the town.
Moulay Abdallah, a young political activist in Adel Bagrou, a Mauritanian town located along the Mali border, tells Magharebia: "Al-Qaeda's weapons were a decisive element the conquest of Azawad."
"Al-Qaeda has a strong presence now in northern Mali and seeks to enforce Sharia following the Taliban model," Abdallah adds. Indeed, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka "Laaouar") has been spotted in Gao.
Even though these terror groups now enjoy unprecedented freedom in northern Mali, deep differences between them may hurt their plans to build a Salafist emirate, notes Mohamed Mahmoud Aboulmaaly, an analyst who specialises in armed groups.
"The National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA) opposes a Salafist emirate, as do Touareg, Arab and Songhai residents," Aboulmaaly says. "All these groups reject any rule by outsider terrorist groups, and therefore, there will be violent clashes."
It seems clear that the region – long plagued by separatist aspirations of the local Touareg population – now faces restrictions on personal liberty under sharia, Aboulmaaly says.
Aboulmaaly also warned in an analysis on Swissinfo.com that armed confrontations would feature a variety of potential adversaries.
"Will they be between MNLA and Ansar al-Din? MNLA and al-Qaeda? A regional joint military force against al-Qaeda? And to what extent will tribal, ethnic and doctrinal dimension play a decisive role in local fighting?"
Touareg analyst Abu Bakr al-Sedik Ag, however, is unconvinced that the "emirate" vision will ever be realised.
"Regardless of the media attention that Ansar al-Din and its terrorist allies have attracted, they will not be able to establish a political or religious foothold. This is because Ansar al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, who hails from the Ifoghas tribe, will not be welcomed by Arab tribes, especially in Timbuktu. Even the Touareg in town are categorically rejecting him because of historical enmity towards his tribe," the analyst said.
"But if Touaregs are to continue to control the north", terrorism analyst Aslam Ould Mustafa told Magharebia, they must be partners in the war on terror.
"Negotiations must be held with them," he said. "This would be better than waging a war in northern Mali under the current chaos."
"Such a war could have bad repercussions for the Sahel," he added.
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