Sahel terror alliances start to fray
By Jemal Oumar for Magharebia in Nouakchott – 16/11/12
Time is running out for the terror groups holding northern Mali hostage. African troops are ready to move in and Ansar al-Din is reportedly willing to sever ties.
Now that the countdown for war is on, al-Qaeda offshoot Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) also faces a population that finally feels empowered to stand up to its captors.
The terrorists no longer have allies in Islamist group Ansar al-Din. Where the Touareg fighters once accepted the terrorists in their towns, they decided on November 6th to officially repudiate their former friends.
[AFP/Romaric Ollo Hien] Islamists rebels from Ansar Al-Dine patrol Timbuktu.
[AFP/Romaric Ollo Hien] Ansar al-Din fighters on November 6th said the group would reject "all forms of terrorism and extremism".
[AFP/Ahmed Ouaba] Burkina Faso President Blaire Compaore, the top mediator in Mali's crisis, shakes hands with unidentified rebel leaders from Ansar al-Din.
"There is no doubt that Ansar al-Din's new position will weaken al-Qaeda," Journal Tahalil director and political analyst Iselmou Ould Moustafa told Magharebia, "AQIM loses a local supporter that it has always depended upon to consolidate its influence on the ground."
After engaging in peace talks with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) mediator for the Mali crisis, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré, Ansar al-Din promised to reject extremism and terrorism, fight trans-border organised crime and engage in a dialogue with all parties to the Mali crisis.
The group said, however, that it would not fight against its "Muslim brothers".
"From this, we can understand Ansar al-Din's real position towards al-Qaeda, namely, that while it abandoned its alliance with jihadist groups, it won't force them from the region," Ould Moustafa added. "This is because Ansar al-Din wants to disavow itself from these groups in order to protect itself against any international military attack."
The new position of their erstwhile local allies has affected al-Qaeda's interests and weakened its cohesion.
But the alliance was already tenuous, analysts say.
"These groups are brought together only by joint economic interests and unity in crime, and ideological extremism," Touareg journalist and blogger Mohamed Ag Ahmedu said.
"It is natural then that the alliance between these groups would crack when they feel that there is an imminent danger that they can't rebuff or when the interests of one element are affected at the expense of others in leadership or division of spoil," Ag Ahmedu added.
The terror groups are also facing internal fissures. Hicham Bilal, the Gao commander of MUJAO, recently abandoned the group with some of his elements and returned to Niger.
"These madmen are nothing like the children of God; they're smuggling drugs, they do everything that Islam rejects," Bilal told AFP on November 8th.
Abu Bakr al-Ansari, an analyst of Azawad affairs, says that Touareg activists deserve the credit for thwarting the terrorists' plan for northern Mali.
"We shouldn't forget one of the most important reasons for the collapse of terrorist groups in our region was the resistance of Touareg traditional leaders, intellectuals, and expatriates to jihadist Salafist ideology," al-Ansari tells Magharebia.
"They actually reaped the fruit of that effort eight months ago when they managed to convince many of the young people to come back to reason," he says.
AQIM and MUJAO suddenly found themselves all alone, far from home, after losing local support.
"It required much effort to rid Touareg young people of these destructive ideas. This is similar to what happened in Anbar province in Iraq," al-Ansari adds.
The Ansar al-Din position reversal did not come out of a vacuum, he adds. "They saw that the feelings of the Azawad people had begun to turn against them, so they were forced to engage in dialogue," Ansari says.
Poet and educator Adel Mahmoud says his fellow Malians would like Ansar al-Din to return to its roots, which have no connection to terrorists.
"That was our goal when we announced the independence of the territory of Azawad. We wanted to use Ansar al-Din's religious verve and make it the spiritual wing of the Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)," he explains.
"Most Azawad people are not comfortable seeing their children join terror groups," Mahmoud adds.
Fractures within terror groups
"It is natural that the alliance between these groups melts away when they sense the presence of a danger to which they cannot respond," Touareg journalist and blogger Mohamed Ag Ahmadou tells Magharebia.
The appointment of Abou El Hammam as emir for the Sahara region has also impacted relations between al-Qaeda bosses.
According to Algerian newspaper Ennahar, infighting escalated over the past month between Abdel Hamid Abou Zeid, the leader of AQIM's "Tarek ibn Ziyad" brigade and Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka Laaouar).
Abou Zeid called Belmokhtar an infidel and described his battalion as "ignorant outlaws".
"If it proves anything," political observer Sayed Ahmed Ould Outfeil says, "it's that internal disintegration and discontent within the various armed Islamic organisations in northern Mali are closing in."
"I think that internal strife existed before, but the group was always capable of controlling the situation," Ould Outfeil adds.
Things are different today, he says. Rivalries and dissention have arisen over distribution of ransom revenues, while security crackdowns and defections have cut the number of respected elders able to mediate disputes between terrorists.
There are also more than 3,000 West African troops prepared to oust them from northern Mali.
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