Tribes, Smugglers, Jihadis Roil Northern Mali Conflict

Article Summary
An anarchic mixture of well-armed groups is vying for control of northern Mali, reports Samira Mouaki, who found a smuggler's paradise there, with mutually hostile forces seemingly willing to ally with al-Qaeda, should the West intervene.  

The terrorist cells that are active in the Sahel desert region used the ongoing infighting in northern Mali to infiltrate the area and establish a base there. The infighting has also enabled the cells to break the siege that has been imposed on them in the past months.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar [an Algerian founding member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)] and Abu Zeid [a prominent AQIM field commander in the Sahara] from the northern Mali region had carried out several terrorist attacks, which allowed them to put pressure on the international community by imposing a ransom in exchange for the release of hostages.

However, the ongoing conflict over power in northern Mali has destroyed the people’s dreams and led them to engage in infighting. The latter situation has helped al-Qaeda transform northern Mali into a stronghold.

Four armed organizations: Forces seeking to control northern Mali

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The fact that we had previously entered and left the al-Khalil area [a Malian city and transshipment center near the Algierian border] made us more adamant to return to the area once again. Al-Khalil has been experiencing tribal conflicts that led to infighting, which resulted in crushing northern Mali’s goal to attain secession.

These circumstances helped armed groups — which are active in the Sahel desert — by allowing them to infiltrate the area and expand their influence. Tribal conflicts have divided northern Mali and have led to fights over power among the four forces present in the area. The aforementioned developments made us prepare a second report on these events.

We did not believe that interviewing members of the National Front for the Liberation of Azwad [the movement that unilaterally declared the independence of the Azwad region] to be enough. For this reason we decided to locate sources — other than our previous contacts Ibrahim and al-Tahir — to lead us to other groups. It was a difficult mission, but it was not impossible.

The presence of Malian refugees in the Borj Badji Mokhtar [a desert town in southwest Algeria near the Malian border] area facilitated our mission. We discovered that the Algerian al-Barabish tribe had opened its doors to the Malian refugees belonging to the same tribe, thus we decided to head directly to their location.

There we met with the former mayor of Timbuktu, who discussed the situation in Mali and the widespread destruction and devastation caused by the war. He noted to El-Khabar that the events taking place in Mali are extremely dangerous, and stated that the language of weapons prevails in northern Mali.

We finished our conversation and then headed to the transport station in Borj Badji Mokhtar. There we found 4x4 vehicles that were preparing to head to the Malian city of al-Khalil. I approached one of the drivers and asked him if it is a good idea for us to head to the border area; he answered yes, and offered to take us there and help us on our journey.

We left Borj Badji Mokhtar aboard a vehicle that was carrying four other persons who were also heading to al-Kahlil. On our way to al-Khalil, we were terrified when our driver was stopped at a border control checkpoint. One of the border control officers approached our car and looked at the passengers, and then told the driver to go ahead and proceed.

Before reaching al-Khalil, which is witnessing constant clashes, the driver asked us about our final destination. We had to reveal our identities. I said: “I am a journalist and I want to meet members of al-Barabish tribe.”

This answer scared the Algerian driver, and he asked us not to include him in any way, shape or form in our mission. He also asked that we refrain from mentioning his name to the Algerian authorities. As a result, he dropped us off in front of a large brick warehouse in al-Khalil, after receiving 250 Algerian dinars [$3] in exchange for his services.

At first glance, the warehouse appeared to be abandoned. However, I then saw a young man leaving the warehouse. I headed towards him and asked him to take me to the location of the tribal leaders. He did not fulfill my request immediately. I revealed my identity and the reason behind my visit, and he then went back into the warehouse. He quickly returned and told me that we were going to another location so that he could arrange a meeting with the tribal leaders.

One hour later we went to another warehouse not far from the first one, and we found a group of armed men standing in front of the gate. We spoke to them and they informed us that they were carrying weapons in order to protect their property and their lands. We then left this location and headed back to the first warehouse. There were several armed men inside, and as soon as we entered the warehouse we started hearing the sound of machine guns and heavy weaponry.

The Arab Azwadi Movement: Ready to support terrorists against the West

The area that we visited belongs to the Arab Azwadi Movement (AAM), another force in the area whose members participated in “liberating northern Mali from the control of the [Malian] army.” But the recent developments that took place have forced it to change its course of action and forced its leaders to adopt a different approach.

As a result of these developments, the movement’s leaders were forced to temporarily postpone their dream of achieving secession, and instead decided to exert their efforts on attaining equality with the residents of southern Mali. It was necessary to adopt such a stance amid the ongoing infighting.

After watching the military parade at the camp, Zudi Bin-Salem, a political activist in the movement, said that it rejected all forms of foreign intervention in Mali. He added that the movement was completely ready to engage in a war against any Western or African front that steps foot on the northern Malian territory.

Bin-Salem said that the movement had confronted the Malian government, “exterminated the white race and — alongside other factions — defeated the government’s army.” He added that “now is the time to confront the foreign threat. The movement has recruited 10,000 fighters and has 2000 others scattered throughout four military bases situated in the area that extends across the Mauritanian-Sahara border.”

According to Bin-Salem, this is the only African group that has the right to intervene for the protection of Malians and to achieve a ceasefire. He attributed the change in the course of action — evidenced by the movement’s decision to abandon its call for independence and instead take part in negotiations — to the international community’s rejection of factional division.

According to him, the stance of the international community prompted the AAM to renounce their demand for secession of the north and instead decided to focus on attaining equality between the north and the south. Regarding the forces that are controlling the area, Bin-Salem said that the Ansar al-Din Movement and some jihadist factions that are supported by AQIM were the ones who are currently controlling the situation. The factions succeeded in controlling all of the cities of northern Mali, which led to clashes between these factions over who will control the area.

The AAM decided to back down from their demands in order to spare the area from a civil war. On another note, the movement still considers the followers of Mokhtar Belmokhtar as an active jihadist force that has been present for 14 years. Bin-Salem says that followers of Belmokhtar respect the people present in the region and are not barbaric as portrayed by the West.

The fear of foreign intervention has forced the movement “to even consider allying with the devil in order to protect the territory.” Bin-Salem added: “We are working closely with all movements, whether Azwadis or jihadists, to confront the West.”

Training camps, weapon warehouses and strongholds of smugglers

The ongoing war has attracted smuggling groups, along with arms and drug mafias. These groups found a golden opportunity to further ignite the conflicts in the area and revive the infighting.

We left the training camps and the arms warehouses and headed to the stronghold of the smugglers. These smugglers come from a variety of different countries — namely Algeria, Mauritania, Libya and others. It was 4:00 pm local time when they asked us whether we wanted to go back to Algerian territory or spend the night in al-Khalil. I decided to continue on with the adventure, especially after I was reassured by the presence of a member of the AAM.

We returned to the place that we had visited in the morning and awaited the approval of the movement’s leaders to meet us. Time was passing slowly as I was sitting with seven men from different nationalities, each carrying machine guns.

We spent four hours talking about how trade has stopped after war erupted in the area. As time passed, I became even more bored, and it was apparent on my face. This led to one of the men insisting on taking me on a tour through the streets of al-Khalil. We got in the vehicle and we entered narrow and dark alleys. We saw people sitting on the ground, as the area was dead. All you could hear was the sound of gunshots from neighboring areas.

The sound of gunshots became more intense as time passed. I thought there were clashes taking place in the area, but my escort told me that the gunmen were shooting into the air to scare the gangs that were preparing to hijack supply trucks coming from neighboring countries. According to Bin-Salem, al-Khalil is an important area for supplying the factions coming from Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu regions with arms and food.

After we returned from our tour of the city, I fell asleep under the moonlight. There were armed men present at the gate and behind the brick wall to guard the warehouse. I checked the time and it was midnight, the sound of gunfire did not allow me to sleep even though I was so tired.

This made me get up and stand on a sand dune to observe what was going on in the surrounding areas. I saw dozens of trucks passing by that were loaded with food supplies and other products. Fuel is one of the products being transferred into the city, and we saw dozens of trucks loaded with fuel heading from the road that links Borj Badji Mokhtar to this Malian city.

At dawn, we left the warehouse and headed to the headquarters of the AAM to meet with the leading figures. We were hoping to go with them to Timbuktu. However, the trip was postponed due to clashes that were taking place in the desert between highway robbers and members of the movement who had entered the area using a tank that they had looted from the Malian army during the war.

Tribalism threatens neighboring countries and signals the escalation of tensions

Ibn-Khaldun’s theory relating to tribalism applies in the Sahel region of Mali and its neighboring countries. Mali’s government failed to confront the acts of smuggling, which were heavily supported by a number of Tuareg and Arab tribes.

Our journey from Algeria towards northern Mali made us realize that the success of the efforts exerted by Algeria and Mali to confront this phenomenon is not feasible, especially at this particular time. The extent of closeness between families in Algeria and Mali has made stopping smuggling impossible. There are over 2000 Malian families that have escaped war and decided to remain in Algeria. They prefer to live with their relatives in Borj Badji Mokhtar and Tamanrasset, instead of staying at refugee camps in Timyawin. The families spend the day in al-Khalil and then return to Borj Badji Mukhtar at night, something that has caused a dilemma for border guards.

A journey through the streets of al-Khalil with a driver not even 10 years old

We met an Algerian child called Hamam in al-Khalil.  He loves this city as much as he loves Borj Dabji Mukhtar, where he was born and raised. He came to meet us in the early morning accompanied by his father and offered us tea. He then sat with us momentarily, before starting his car and driving like a professional. I asked him to stop and to take me on a trip to explore al-Khalil.

News reports of the killing of the Algerian diplomat remain unconfirmed

The information pertaining to the execution of Algerian diplomat Taher Touati, which was announced by the Islamist Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), remains unconfirmed. Members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad said that these reports might be used as a way to pressure the Algerian government to pay the ransom and liberate the rest of the hostages.

The AAM condemned the execution, which is yet to be confirmed, and considered it a criminal act. Bin Salim, a political activist within the movement, said that while indeed the reports have not yet been confirmed, they could be true since MUJAO is capable of committing such acts.

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Found in: terrorism, islamists, algerian diplomat abduction, algeria, al-qaeda, africa
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