Al-Qaeda Plots Attacks From Haven North of Mali's Timbuktu

  • Militants use north as base to plan attacks in West Africa
  • Government sets up semi-autonomous regions to woo residents

Just before midnight the commander of a police patrol in the northern Malian city of Timbuktu tapped his watch and told his men to keep moving to avoid an ambush.

QuickTake Al-Qaeda's Heirs

“You never know who is who in this city,” Chief Warrant Officer Marcel Bagayoko said. “The terrorists have accomplices in town.”

A French soldier patrols near Timbuktu.

Photographer: Pascal Guyot/AFP via Getty Images

Since French and Malian forces drove al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups out of Timbuktu more than three years ago following a nine-month occupation, the fighters established a safe haven in the vast arid region north of the city toward the salt mines of Taoudeni and the borders of Mauritania and Algeria. AQIM is the group that claimed responsibility for attacks since November on hotels popular with foreigners in Burkina Faso, Mali and Ivory Coast that killed more than 70 people.
 
Timbuktu, a centuries-old center of Islamic learning on the southern edge of the Sahara desert about 706 kilometers (438 miles) north of the capital, Bamako, is protected by Malian troops and a United Nations peacekeeping contingent, known as Minusma, aided by French forces. Yet they don’t have the manpower to control the countryside, which the UN describes as a no man’s land where Islamist militants and international drug traffickers operate.

“It’s difficult terrain with a lot of ungoverned spaces where these groups can operate without too much interference,” Bjorn Dahlin van Wees, Africa analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said by phone from London.

The French military success against the militants in West Africa has brought unwelcome results. France’s presence in former colonies from Mali to Burkina Faso to Ivory Coast is now being used by al-Qaeda as a rallying cry to justify its high-profile attacks on West African cities.

“The French have been instrumental in retaking the north and seizing back control of transport routes and so on, but the unintended consequence of that is their presence has allowed these groups to portray France as a foreign intruder,” Van Wees said.

‘Armed Gangsters’

As his patrol moved through the Abaradjou neighborhood in Timbuktu, Bagayoko pointed to a padlocked sheet-metal door. “This is Beatrice’s house,” he said in reference to Beatrice Stockly, a Swiss national who was kidnapped in January by an offshoot of AQIM.

Local residents were shocked by the abduction of Stockly, a missionary who’d also been kidnapped in 2012 before the militants were driven out of Timbuktu, said Oumar Hama Harbi, a 24-year-old English student.

“When something like that happens, everyone locks himself inside,” he said. “Those people are armed gangsters. They are everywhere, they walk among us. It’s frightening.”

The most active militants are part of a local unit of AQIM that cooperates with another group known as Ansar Dine, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Serge Zoungrana, Minusma’s head of intelligence. Besides Stockly, they’re believed to be holding two other foreign hostages, a Swede and a South African, he said.

French Intervention

Three years after the French intervention, northern Mali remains an “extremely difficult” environment to operate in, the UN said in a report. Militants are using rockets, mortars and roadside explosives to target soldiers, resulting in the deaths of seven UN and 17 Malian troops since the start of the year.

Three French soldiers were killed Tuesday when their armored vehicle hit a land mine in northern Mali, President Francois Hollande’s office said in a statement. The blast occurred near the village of Tessalit, close to the Algerian border, the French Ministry of Defense said.

“The situation is quite critical,” UN police captain Abidi Lofti said while on patrol in an armored car. “There are at least two or three incidents every week, either here in Timbuktu or around the city.”

The government in Bamako is trying to sway local residents by creating two new regions, Taoudeni in the west and Menaka in the east, to foster economic development and provide decentralized local administrations. The project has received the backing of ethnic Tuareg militias and armed separatist groups in the area that signed peace accords with the authorities last year because it gives them more influence.

Government Action

“The only ones who would give them medicine, who would fix their water pumps, were these so-called terrorists,” Moulaye Ahmed Ould Moulaye Rigani, the head of a group of armed movements known as Platform that negotiated with the government, said in an interview. “If we can make these people feel the government is dealing with things, backed by the international community, it will dissuade them from getting indoctrinated and creating problems here and in the whole world.”

Whether the plan will work won’t be known for years, said Van Wees of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“To push out home-grown groups you really need to improve basic services like health care and education,” he said. “Creating economic opportunities for young people is a long-term issue, even with a lot of help from donors.”

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