At least six dead in Mali after attack on regional anti-terror force base

Suicide bomber tried to enter HQ of five-state force fighting jihad in the Sahel, source says

Agence France-Presse in Bamako
Fri 29 Jun 2018

Islamist militants have attacked the Malian headquarters of a regional anti-terror taskforce, killing six people and leaving many injured, according to a provisional toll.

A suicide bomber tried to penetrate the base at Sévaré in central Mali, according to a security source. A local orange seller, Haoussa Haidara, said “there was a huge blast” followed by exchanges of gunfire. Gunshots could still be heard an hour later.

It is the first attack on the headquarters of the joint G5 force, set up in 2017 to combat jihadist insurgents and criminal groups in the vast, unstable Sahel region of Africa. It came three days before a meeting in Nouakchott, Mauritania, between the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the heads of the G5 Sahel states to discuss progress made by the force.

Six people were killed in the attack, according to a hospital and a military source, giving an interim toll.

“We transported the bodies and the injured to the hospital, but we don’t know whether some of the injured have died in hospital. There are six dead on the ground,” the military source told the news agency Agence France-Presse.

Residents of Sévaré hid inside their homes, according to Bouba Bathily, a trader who sheltered from the gunfire in his house.

Launched with French backing in 2017, the G5 Sahel aims to pool 5,000 troops from five countries – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. It was projected to be fully up and running in March, but its deployment has been subject to delays and equipment worries.

France intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to help government forces drive al-Qaida-linked jihadists out of the north. But large tracts of the country remain lawless, despite a peace accord signed with ethnic Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists. The violence has spilled over into Burkina Faso and Niger.

Earlier on Friday, the French military headquarters said troops from its so-called Barkhane mission in Mali had killed or captured 15 jihadists on 22 June in a joint operation with local forces.

The clash took place in a woodland area of the Inabelbel region, south-east of Timbuktu, it said in a statement. A group of about 20 jihadists were attacked via helicopters and jet-fighter support after they were spotted by Malian commandos.

20 killed in suspected jihadist attack in Mali


At least 20 people, including civilians, were killed in a suspected jihadist attack in northeastern Mali near the border with Niger, sources said.

The deaths came after more than 100 people including many civilians, particularly from the Fulani and Tuareg communities, died in recent months as a result of attacks by rival armed groups in the region.

A local official in the town of Talataye - where Saturday's attack took place - said late on Sunday that the assailants arrived in three vehicles and on a motorcycle.

Khalil Toure, a teacher, added: "They opened fire on a group of people resting under a tree, killing five people on the spot and wounding two."

Jihadists have also ramped up their activities in central Mali in recent months, targeting domestic and foreign forces in violence once confined to the country's north.

France intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to help government forces drive al-Qaeda-linked jihadists out of the north.

But large tracts of the country remain lawless despite a peace accord signed with ethnic Tuareg leaders in mid-2015 aimed at isolating the jihadists.

The violence has also spilled over into both Burkina Faso and Niger.

The French military has said the jihadist group Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) is using the border region as a haven.

Mali Church leader voices alarm as Islamists attack parishes

by Jonathan Luxmoore
posted Friday, 6 Oct 2017
Catholic Herald

Militants told Christians they would be killed if they were seen in church

Catholic leaders in Mali have warned that parishes face a growing assault by Islamic militants despite attempts to enforce a peace deal in the north African country.

“Our churches and chapels are now being targeted by extremists, who’ve told Christians not to gather to pray,” said Mgr Edmond Dembele, secretary-general of the Malian bishops’ conference.

“The authorities are trying to reimpose control, and we may learn more about what kind of strategy is being followed,” he told Catholic News Service. “But we’re also alarmed the attacks are being mounted by isolated Islamist groups, acting in their own name.”

Tensions were running high in September and early October in Mali’s central Mopti region after several Catholic churches were ransacked and torched, forcing parishioners to flee.

Mgr Dembele said it was unclear which groups were involved and what their motives were.

“We have no security programme of our own and we rely on the authorities to provide protection and find solutions,” Mgr Dembele said.

“On previous occasions, the government has deployed military units in our parishes. But this still hasn’t been done against these new attacks.”

The attacks occurred as the Malian government is attempting to implement the 2015 peace deal with rebel fighters. The agreement called for the rebels to be integrated into the national arm.

Under a 2015 peace deal with the government of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, rebel fighters are to be integrated into the national army.

However, attacks by Touareg separatists and Islamist insurgents have continued, delaying the return of displaced Malians from neighbouring Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso. Rights groups have reported summary executions and the destruction of schools and forced recruitment of child soldiers.

Mgr Dembele said armed men had smashed their way into a church at Dobara, 500 miles north of the capital Bamako, in late September, throwing out crosses, altar furnishings and a statue of Mary, which they burned outside. Assailants also drove Catholics out of a church at Bodwal, warning they would be killed if “seen praying in the church,” he said.

Local parishioners were currently “very afraid but not panicking,” the priest said, as they “urgently awaited” help from government and UN forces seeking to restore order.

“Christians aren’t the only ones threatened and attacked. Mali’s whole population is being victimised, Muslims included,” Mgr Dembele said.

The Church official also said he and others remained confident the peace deal would succeed.

“We know there’s been some prevarication,” he said, “and while this isn’t necessarily the fault of the state or any particular group, it’s made the situation more difficult.”

Mali attack: Gunmen kill five at tourist resort

19 June 2017
BBC News

Five people were killed when gunmen stormed a tourist resort in Mali on Sunday, officials say.

The EU said a Portuguese soldier and a Malian woman who worked for the bloc's mission in Mali were among the dead.

A Malian soldier and two other civilians, one Chinese and the other Gabonese, were also killed.

An al-Qaeda-linked group said it carried out the attack near the capital Bamako. Mali has been fighting a jihadist insurgency for years.

Islamist fighters are roaming the West African country's north and centre.

"It is a jihadist attack. Malian special forces intervened and hostages have been released," Mali Security Minister Salif Traore told AFP news agency after Sunday's attack.

Four assailants were killed by security forces and four others were arrested, he said.

"We have recovered the bodies of two attackers who were killed," he said, adding that they were searching for the bodies of two others.

One of them left behind a machine gun and bottles filled with "explosive substances", he said.

The ministry said another two people had been injured.

A security ministry spokesman told Reuters news agency that 32 guests had been rescued from the Le Campement Kangaba resort, east of Bamako.

Malian special forces intervened, backed by UN soldiers and troops from a French counter-terrorism force.

Witness Boubacar Sangare was just outside the compound as the attack unfolded.

"Westerners were fleeing the encampment while two plainclothes police exchanged fire with the assailants," he said.

"There were four national police vehicles and French soldiers in armoured vehicles on the scene."

He added that a helicopter was circling overhead.

The European Union training mission in Mali, EUTM Mali, tweeted that it was aware of the attack and was supporting Malian security forces and assessing the situation.

Earlier this month, the US embassy had warned of "possible future attacks on Western diplomatic missions, other locations in Bamako that Westerners frequent".

BBC correspondent Alex Duval Smith says many expats and wealthy Malians go to Kangaba at weekends, to enjoy the pools, cocktail bar, canoeing facilities and activities for children.

A spokesman for the Portuguese armed forces, Helder Antonio da Silva Perdigao, said that the location is used by soldiers in the EUTM Mali as a place to relax between operations.

He added that soldiers from several countries were there at the time of the attack.

The Portuguese soldier who died was part of the EUTM Mali, he said.

In November 2015, at least 20 people were killed when gunmen took guests and staff hostage at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako.

Al-Qaeda's North African arm, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), said it was behind that siege.

Mali has been in a state of emergency since the Radisson Blu attack. It was extended for a further six months in April.

The country's security has gradually worsened since 2013, when French forces repelled allied Islamist and Tuareg rebel fighters who had seized control of much of the north.

French troops and a 10,000-strong force of UN peacekeepers have been battling to stabilise the former French colony.

Dozens killed in suicide attack on Gao military camp in northern Mali

At least 47 people including five suicide bombers were killed when a vehicle packed with explosives detonated inside a military camp in the northern Mali city of Gao on Wednesday, the government said.

January 18, 2017

A Reuters reporter who arrived at the camp soon after the blast, which occurred at about 9am (0900 GMT), said he saw dozens of bodies lying on the ground alongside the wounded.

Ambulances rushed to the scene as helicopters circled overhead.

“It’s terrible,” Gao resident Kader Touré said. “The attack happened while they were having an assembly. I’ve just left the hospital where there were bodies ripped to pieces and bodies piled up.”

The camp was home to government soldiers and members of various rival armed groups which jointly patrol Mali’s restive desert north in line with a UN-brokered peace accord.

The attack marks a significant setback for efforts to achieve peace in the long-tumultuous region. The UN Security Council was expected to discuss Mali on Wednesday.

A French-led military intervention in 2013 drove back Islamist militants, including al Qaeda-linked groups, which had seized northern Mali a year earlier.

However, Islamist militants still operate in the region and insecurity is aggravated by tensions between local rebel groups and pro-government militias.

French Interior Minister Bruno Le Roux described the blast as a “major and highly symbolic attack” in an area visited only days ago by French President François Hollande.

Extremist Pleads Guilty in Hague Court to Destroying Cultural Sites in Timbuktu


AUG. 22, 2016
The New York Times

PARIS — An Islamic extremist pleaded guilty on Monday at the International Criminal Court to destroying shrines and damaging a mosque in the ancient city of Timbuktu, Mali, in the court’s first prosecution of the destruction of cultural heritage as a war crime.

Prosecutors said that Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a member of a jihadist group linked to Al Qaeda, took part in the smashing of a number of venerable centuries-old mud and stone buildings holding the tombs of holy men and scholars.

Mr. Mahdi, a teacher who was born in or around 1975 near Timbuktu and who studied Islamic law in a Saudi-sponsored school in Libya, was also accused of leading a “morality brigade” that meted out punishments like public floggings for minor infractions.

“It is with deep regret and great pain that I had to enter a guilty plea on all the charges brought against me,” Mr. Mahdi told the court on Monday. Begging for forgiveness, including from the people of Timbuktu, he said, “I would like them to look at me like a son that has lost his way, and to accept my regrets.”

Mr. Mahdi added that he was “influenced by a group of deviant people from Al Qaeda and Ansar Dine,” a Qaeda offshoot in Mali, and said that he hoped his punishment would “serve as a purging of the evil spirits I got involved with.”

He faces a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison, but prosecutors will request a sentence of nine to 11 years as part of a plea agreement.

Fatou Bensouda, the court’s chief prosecutor, said that it was Mr. Mahdi “who identified the sites to be destroyed and who provided the means” to do so, including pickaxes and crowbars.

Mr. Mahdi is suspected of committing other crimes, but legal experts said the case was narrowly focused to highlight how cultural and religious buildings are deliberately singled out for destruction to obliterate an enemy’s history and identity.

“The courts have been slow to recognize this, but there is a clear link between crimes committed against people and attacks on their cultural heritage,” said Andras Riedlmayer, a scholar of Islamic art and architecture at Harvard.

“The ethnic cleansers in the Balkans, like the jihadis in Iraq, Syria and Timbuktu and other places, are keenly aware of the significance of this, which is why they devote so much personnel and resources to the destruction of religious and cultural landmarks,” Mr. Riedlmayer said.

If Mr. Mahdi had not pleaded guilty, his trial would probably have been a lengthy one, with witnesses brought to The Hague from Timbuktu and other West African desert cities. Instead, the court can now turn directly to sentencing, with a few days of hearings to help the judges assess the case.

The case comes at a time of heightened international concern about the fate of many cultural and religious monuments in the Middle East and North Africa. Places of worship, artworks and archaeological remnants, libraries, museums and other treasured sites have been destroyed by extreme Islamist groups who call them pagan or heretical, including the giant Buddha statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in 2001, and more recently Nimrud, Palmyra and other pre-Islamic sites in Iraq and Syria.

No international court currently has jurisdiction over crimes in those countries, or over the continuing cultural devastation reported in Yemen.

The Mali case has its roots in 2012, when armed rebels and homegrown Islamic jihadists allied with Al Qaeda established a breakaway ministate in the northern half of the country. The jihadists imposed a harsh form of Islamic law on the population and recruited local people, including Mr. Mahdi, to help them enforce it.

After a French-led military force recaptured Timbuktu the next year, some of the jihadists disappeared and others appeared to receive amnesty under a peace deal. Mr. Mahdi, who was later arrested in Niger when French troops intercepted an arms-smuggling convoy, was the only one to end up in court in The Hague.

Most of the destroyed tombs in Timbuktu have been rebuilt using traditional masonry methods, financed by foreign donors. But tensions still run high in the city, and many residents who fled from the jihadists have yet to return — notably women. Human rights activists have said that women and girls were particular targets of the extremists’ abuse in Timbuktu, including rape, forced marriage and sexual slavery, and that Mr. Mahdi’s brigade was complicit in that abuse; they have requested that the court expand the charges against him accordingly.

Though the case against Mr. Mahdi was a first for the International Criminal Court, another court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has handed down war crimes convictions for cultural destruction, specifically the shelling of architectural monuments in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Mostar, Bosnia.

“The Mali case is useful because it could help persuade other nations to pursue similar charges relating to Syria and Iraq, where no international court has yet jurisdiction,” said Stephen J. Rapp, a former prosecutor and former United States ambassador at large to tribunals handling cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. “This is not about a foot soldier killing or smashing things, but about an ideologue, someone who was given authority and who gave legal advice to the local Islamic court.”

At the end of his prepared statement to the court on Monday, Mr. Mahdi said, “I would like to give a piece of advice to all Muslims in the world not to get involved in the same acts I got involved with, because they will not lead to any good for humanity.”

Islamist militants kill 17 soldiers in attack on Mali army base


July 19, 2016

Islamist militants killed 17 Malian soldiers and wounded 35 when they attacked an army base in the center of the country, firing on troop positions, burning buildings and pillaging shops, the government said.

The attack is the biggest for months on the army in Mali, a country that faces a growing threat from Islamist groups based in the desert north.

"We lost 17 men and unfortunately 35 were also wounded and these have all been transported for medical care in the region of Segou," Defence Minister Tièman Hubert Coulibaly said on state television.

"We will make sure that this coordinated terrorist attack ... is met with an appropriate response," he said, adding that the army controls the town and is hunting the militants.

Army spokesman Souleymane Maiga told Reuters the raiders briefly took control of the base in Nampala, which is set in semi-desert scrubland close to the Mauritanian border. He said Malian troops retreated to nearby Diabaly to regroup.

Mali Hotel Attack: US Citizen Among 21 Dead, American Govt. Looking for Others


Nov 21, 2015
ABC News

At least 21 people died Friday -- including a U.S. citizen, the State Department said -- after 170 people were taken hostage at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali in West Africa, according to the Mali Ministry of Interior.

The attack, conducted by at least two people, began in Mali's capital city of Bamako, with gunmen storming the building. The United Nations reported Friday at least 27 were killed, including the two attackers, though Mali's government reduced that number Saturday.

U.S. officials were still trying to account for other Americans "who may have been at the hotel," President Obama said.

The president called the attack "appalling" and extended his condolences to the family of the American killed, Anita Datar, 41, vowing to be "relentless" in pursuing those responsible.

"On behalf of the American people I want to extend our deepest condolences to the people of Mali and the victims and families, including at least one American," he said. "These were innocent people who had everything to live for, and they’ll be remembered for the joy and love that they brought to the world."

A family member said Datar was in Mali "doing what she loved -- strengthening public health."
"She dedicated her life to her work," the family member said.

Datar was a founding board member of the non-profit Tulalens, which aims to "connect under-served communities to quality health services to improve lives," the group's website says.

According to her biography on the site, she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal the late 1990s, went to school for public health and had a decade of experience in HIV policy.

Mali has declared a 10-day state of emergency in the wake of the attack. The U.S. Embassy in Bamako has lifted its "shelter in place," but still urges Americans to limit their movement around the city and be vigilant.

Two attackers died in the incident, said Olivier Salgado of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Mali, though the total number of attackers was not immediately clear.

"They came to kill, not to take hostages.”

A Belgian member of Parliament, Geoffrey Dieudonné, was among those killed, Belgium’s regional Parliament said. Dieudonné was training officials from Mali’s Parliament. The Parliament said the precise circumstances of his death are not yet known.

Three Americans made several trips into the hotel to help save others who were trapped, according to a U.S. government official.

A State Department Diplomatic Security Special Agent was near the hotel when he learned of the attack and rushed to the scene, according to a U.S. Government official, where he met up with two Department of Defense personnel who were part of the State Department Chief of Mission Staff.

A first-floor room was on fire when the trio arrived and the halls were filling with smoke. After getting in touch with the U.S. Embassy, the three learned that several U.S. State Department personnel were trapped inside the building and one was believed to be near the burning room, said the U.S. official.

The Americans went into the hotel, according to the U.S. official, but could not see through the smoke. They called out to a trapped person on the first floor, and in the darkness, they pulled him to safety, said the U.S. official.

The three Americans went back into the building several times to remove trapped Americans who were part of the Chief of Mission staff, the official said, adding that all Chief of Mission personnel are safe and accounted for. They were armed but never fired, according to the official.

There were 22 military and civilian U.S. Defense Department personnel in Bamako, including five at the hotel at the time of the attack, according to a defense official. Everyone was accounted for and there were no reports of injuries, the official said.

Some of the five U.S. military personnel in the hotel, including civilians and service-members, hid and avoided being seized by the gunmen, a defense official said.

One U.S. servicemember outside the hotel stepped in to help first responders move civilians from the hotel to secure locations, as Malian forces worked to clear the hotel of hostile gunmen, the defense official said, adding that U.S. forces did not directly participate in the operation.

Another U.S. servicemember helped at the Joint Operations Center, which was set up to respond to the attack.

Six U.S. citizens were rescued from the hotel, according to the U.S. Africa Command.

National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. is continuing to coordinate with U.S officials to verify the location of all American citizens in Mali.

Price said the U.S. stands with Mali "and others in the region fighting the terrorist groups that seek to undermine Mali’s efforts to build a durable peace following the crisis in 2012 and 2013." Price said the U.S. is prepared to help Mali investigate "this tragic terrorist attack."

The hotel said in a statement, "Our highest concern is the safety of all our guests and employees in the hotel. We are in constant contact with the authorities there and will share further information with you when we have it."

Radisson Blu receptionist Tambacouye Diarra told ABC News that he was at the reception desk surrounded by special forces. He said the gunmen were also surrounded by special forces in the hotel.

A gunman shot in his direction approximately 10 times, Diarra said. He said a gunman ran after him, but he was able to escape. Diarra said he saw people getting shot and some injured people being evacuated out of the hotel.

Among those in the hotel were three U.N. personnel, who are now safe, according to Salgado, and Air France and Turkish Airlines crew members, who are also safe, according to the airlines.

France, the former colonial power in Mali, launched airstrikes in Mali two years ago to prevent the establishment of a terrorist state after armed groups linked to al Qaeda took over vast stretches of Mali. French involvement in Mali eventually morphed into a larger operation that involved ground troops and French special forces. At its height, 4,000 French soldiers were largely successful in helping Mali push the al Qaeda-linked rebels out of the country.

10 soldiers killed in attack on Mali camp: military

Troops killed in terrorist ambush on National Guard unit based in Gourma-Rharous
August 03rd 2015
I24 News

At least 10 soldiers were killed Monday in a "terrorist" attack on their camp in the Timbuktu region of northern Mali, the military.

"The provisional death toll is 10 dead on the army side," said Souleymane Maiga, head of the army's information office, without giving further details.

"This morning at Gourma-Rharous we pushed back a terrorist attack which caused 10 deaths in our ranks," a military source added.

Another military source confirmed the ambush, saying it had targeted a unit of the National Guard based in Gourma-Rharous.

The second source said the attackers were believed to be "jihadi elements" linked to Islamist group Ansar Dine.

The attack comes two days after two Malian soldiers were killed and four others injured in an ambush in the center of the west African country.

Jihadist attacks have long been concentrated in Mali's north but began spreading at the beginning of the year to the center of the country and, in June, to the south, near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

The north came under the control of Ansar Dine - which is Arabic for Defenders of Faith - and two other jihadi groups, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, in April 2012.

A move south towards the capital by the extremists, who imposed a brutal version of sharia on inhabitants, prompted Mali's former colonial master France to intervene in January 2013, pounding their positions in the north.

Police in Mali Nab 20 Suspected Islamist Militants on Bus Bound for Capital

By Pierre Longeray
July 15, 2015
Vice News

Police in Mali arrested 20 suspected Islamist militants on Monday in the southern town of Zegoua, near the border with Ivory Coast, after the men crossed the border on a bus bound for Mali's capital Bamako and the northwestern town of Gogui. Malian security sources said the 20 men were taken to Bamako for questioning.

According to a security source cited by Reuters, most of the suspects are Mauritanian, with some also hailing from Mali and France. Authorities are currently trying to determine the authenticity of two French passports seized during the arrest. The same source said that the men were "all Islamists, all bearded."

When contacted by VICE News, the French embassy in Mali and the French Foreign Affairs Ministry could not confirm the nationality of the two individuals found carrying French passports.

A local source said that the group's leader, a Mauritanian man identified as Samir Enrique, was also arrested. The Malian Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment from VICE News.

The arrests come just one day after Malian police detained a man identified as Saouty Kouma in the central town of Melo. Kouma is the suspected mastermind of a March attack on a restaurant in Bamako that killed a Frenchman, a Belgian, and three Malians. The Islamist militant group al-Mourabitoun later claimed responsibility for the attack.

Police in Mali have redoubled their counter-terrorism efforts in the south of the country following a recent wave of attacks across the south and west, including the capital Bamako, which was formerly considered safe.

Last week, police arrested two men, including an envoy of Iyad Ag Ghali — the leader of militant Islamist group Ansar Dine — as they were headed into Bamako. During the arrest, police seized several recent propaganda videos in which Ghali urges his followers to mobilize in Mali's north and south.

Police also seized a message from Ghali to one of his accomplices in the south that reportedly included details of future attacks. According to Reuters, six other people — including two women — were detained for questioning in connection with the arrest.

According to intelligence gathered during questioning of Ghali's presumed messenger, Ansar Dine is currently looking to the south as a potential target for attacks. The group has claimed responsibility for several recent attacks against Malian troops and UN peacekeepers stationed in the center and south of the country, including in Bamako.

"The aim of the attacks is for jihadist groups to flaunt their presence and get people talking about them," Pierre Boilley, director of the Institute of the African Worlds (IMAF), told VICE News. "[Insurgents] want to show that they can strike anywhere, north or south."

French radio channel RFI and news outlet Jeune Afrique have both alluded to a new coalition of four Islamist militant groups in the south of Mali, along the border with Ivory Coast. Ansar Dine is rumored to be heading up the coalition as a means to expand its operations in the south. According to local media, including news site Mali Actu, the new southern jihadist front plans to settle in the border forest of Sama.

In January 2013, France launched operation Serval, a military operation to rid northern Mali of militants. In July 2014, Serval was replaced by Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism campaign across Africa's Sahel, a region that includes Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Burkina Faso.

According to French military sources, the fighting in the north between weakened militant groups and Operation Barkhane forces has been a game of "hide and seek." Speaking to the Associated Press on Tuesday from the former Islamist stronghold of Gao, French Colonel Luc Laine said that the security situation in the north was "different," with operations that are "highly reliant on intel gathering, research, with lots of waiting around and isolated actions."

Mali's Islamist groups united by war threat

By David Lewis
DAKAR | Tue Jan 15, 2013

DAKAR (Reuters) - A powerful southern offensive by Islamists in Mali last week, halted only by French air strikes, showed that a loose alliance of rebels from al Qaeda's North African wing and local groups has been united by the threat of foreign intervention.

When the coalition of Islamists swept across northern Mali last year, massacring army troops and carving up the vast desert zone, ties between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and local groups Ansar Dine and MUJWA had looked opportunistic, and regional mediators believed they could prize them apart.

Some fighters imposed strict Islamic law and recruited foreigners and locals hungry for jihad, others framed the conflict around local Malian tribal politics and religion, while criminal networks smuggling drugs and contraband joined the fray, earning them the title "gangster jihadists".

With Mali's army crippled by political divisions and a series of defeats to rebels that led to a March coup, West African mediators tried to divide the rebels by offering talks to local Islamists while excluding foreigners, extremists and criminals.

U.N. backing in December for an African-led intervention due later this year changed the picture.

"People in the north don't have any choice now but to stand together," said Algabass Ag Intallah, a senior member of Ansar Dine, a group that only last month had committed to peace talks with Mali's government. "This is an aggression. We all have to defend ourselves."

"Al Qaeda helped us, but we are the ones who are leading," he added.
Residents in the north-eastern Malian town of Gao, MUJWA's stronghold, confirmed pick-up trucks carrying its turbaned fighters had also joined the rebel offensive.

The seizure by Islamists of the northern two-thirds of Mali, for decades one of West Africa's most stable democracies, sowed fears that its desert dunes and craggy mountain ranges could become a base for terrorist attacks on Europe.

Yet as Islamists severed limbs, silenced music and smashed traditional Sufi shrines in the ancient caravan town of Timbuktu - acts reminiscent of Afghanistan under the Taliban - Malians and foreign powers wavered throughout 2012.

Much of the delay was due to confusion over the nature of the Islamist alliance, experts say.

Some governments advocated dialogue to tackle the long-standing political grievances of those living in Mali's under-developed north. Others, led by France, called for swift military action to stamp out a security threat, finally winning U.N. backing for an African-led operation.


These divisions evaporated lat week with the united rebel advance on the central town of Konna, a gateway toward the southern capital Bamako, deemed so dangerous that Paris reversed pledges not to intervene directly. The African force, which had not been expected until September, is being hastily rolled out.

Even Algeria, which had previously hoped to unravel the coalition by enticing Ansar Dine into peace talks, dropped its opposition to military intervention, allowing French Rafale jets to fly via its airspace to pound the rebels.

"Ansar Dine, MUJWA and AQIM worked together and coordinated their push on Konna," said France's military chief Admiral Edouard Guillaud, whose jets and helicopter gunships have strafed rebel columns, training camps and fuel depots.

Behind Mali's reputation for stability, Al Qaeda's presence there has worried regional powers and Western nations for over a decade. The United States has led efforts to train national armies and improve security coordination within the region.

Until last year, AQIM had struggled to break from its Algerian roots and activities focused on the multi-million dollar business of taking hostages for ransom, including eight French citizens it still holds captive. Its numbers were limited to a few hundred mobile fighters in the remote desert.

However, last year's rebellion - launched by Tuareg separatists but quickly hijacked by Islamists - changed all that.

In Iyad Ag Ghali, a veteran of previous Malian Tuareg rebellions who had acted as a negotiator in hostage releases, AQIM found an ally to expand their local presence in return for arms and funding, diplomats said.

Ag Ghali, described in U.S. diplomatic cables as an expert at "playing all sides", had sought to lead the Tuareg separatists. When he failed, he split from them to found Ansar Dine, with AQIM's backing. Previously known for his love of the high life, Ag Ghali has over the last decade became a convert to fundamental Islam.

After routing Mali's army and sidelining MNLA Tuareg separatists, Ansar Dine occupied Ag Ghali's fiefdom around Kidal in the far north.

MUJWA emerged in late 2011 as a splinter from AQIM, establishing itself by recruiting among Arab and black African communities in Mali and elsewhere in the region. Tapping into fears of dominance by the minority Tuaregs, the group was able to wrest control of Gao - northern Mali's largest town - from the separatists in June.

Al Qaeda fighters have since drifted between these groups but been more present in Timbuktu, experts say.

Washington estimates the core of the combined Islamist force to be 800 to 1,200-strong. A military plan drawn up by West Africa's ECOWAS bloc estimated the rebel fighting ranks just over twice that size.

With Mali's army in tatters and neighbouring African states needing time to pull together an intervention force, hopes for regional mediation had focused on Ag Ghali's Ansar Dine.

"Ansar Dine had all the opportunities to talk. We wanted to bring Ansar Dine to the table. I don't know why they made the other choice," said a senior West African official involved in the negotiation process. "In this war, they are all together."

A former senior Malian intelligence officer said Ag Ghali's commitment to fundamentalist Islam - cultivated during years spent in the Gulf and through connections in the proselytising Muslim movement Tabligh - had been underestimated.


Mali and other countries in the region say scores of fanatical foreign fighters have flocked to the north. Independent reports on their numbers and their origin vary wildly.

"The numbers I have heard range from 100s to 1,000s, so it is clear that no one has much of a clue," a senior Western security official told Reuters.

A Reuters correspondent travelling in Gao in the weeks before the French intervention reported at least three white Westerners in the Islamist ranks there.

French officials have said about 10 of its citizens have been arrested trying to reach Mali to join the rebels. Late last year, the FBI arrested two U.S. citizens they said were planning to travel to West Africa to carry out jihad.

But the most serious threat could stem from closer to home.

Officials and residents say MUJWA, based in the eastern town of Gao, has succeeded in recruiting black Africans from Mali and elsewhere in the West African region in a way AQIM never did.

The West African official involved in the mediation process called it a "gangrene" that had been underestimated.

Marc Trevidic, France's top anti-terrorism judge, warned that Mali was the first case of jihad in sub-Saharan Africa.

"For the first time there is a 'black jihad': a jihad done for blacks by blacks," he told Reuters, saying its militants were both West Africans and dual nationals able to move freely in and out of France.

Paris is concerned at the ability of African Muslims, some of whom have dual nationality, to move between France and the region.

"That is the number one potential threat. It is the number one enemy to France," he said.

Violence in Mali leads Tuareg refugees to flee the country, coming Islamic law

Published 29 May, 2012

Tuaregs in Mali united with Islamic militants against the Mali government and successfully drove the government out. But they didn't realize they'd be getting a new home under Islamic law. Now, Tuareg civilians are fleeing the violence of the revolution and the newly instituted Islamic law.

Mali is in the grip of an unprecedented political crisis.

It’s one of the most serious crises since the landlocked West African country gained independence from France in 1960. Soldiers staged a coup in March but cannot agree on a way forward for the country.

Meanwhile, Mali’s Tuareg rebels have taken control of the north of the country, in alliance with Islamic militants.

Many Tuaregs have taken shelter from the violence in neighboring Burkina Faso. The Sahel reserve stretches from Mali into the Northern tip of Burkina Faso, a land of dry bush, bare trees and patches of sunburnt grass giving way to sand. Shacks made of sticks and a patchwork of drapes and carpets dot the yellow horizon.

Tuaregs fleeing fighting between Tuareg rebels and government forces in north Mali have flocked here by the tens of thousands. They’re among the 300,000 people who have been displaced by the conflict since January, according to the U.S. State Department and the United Nations refugee agency.

Many Tuaregs who fleed to this stretch of Burkina Faso have been here before, and they’ve settled back into what has become a forced second home — once again.

A 69-year old Tuareg says he moved back under the same tree where he spent almost three years in the mid-1990s.

Another Tuareg, Yaya Ag Mohamed, was a kid the last time his family fled violence in north Mali.

“I started elementary school here in Burkina Faso” he said. “Today, I’m a father of two, and here I am again, a refugee once more. We’re pulled back into the same situation, at every stage of life.”

Four Tuareg rebellions have broken out since Mali gained independence 52 years ago. Each time, scores fled the military crackdown against Tuareg fighters and civilians. But in April, Tuareg rebels drove Mali’s authorities out and proclaimed independence for the Azawad, the Tuareg name for Mali’s Northern region.

Tuareg fighters didn’t manage this on their own. They joined forces with a loose coalition of Islamist groups. They shared a common enemy, but not the same long-term goals. Tuaregs fought for a state, Islamists for the imposition of Sharia law.

Idoual Ag Bala, a veterinarian at the refugee camp, calls the Islamists’ attempt to impose a radical form of Islam ‘colonial.’

“What Islam are they going to teach me? I’m already a Muslim, and that’s enough, thanks God!” he said. “We don’t want Sharia law. Our culture is steeped in a moderate and tolerant Islam. Their Islam is an import from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and we don’t want it.”

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has thrived in the region in the past few years. Now, the Al Qaeda franchise operates unopposed amidst North Mali’s chaos. New Islamist groups have emerged there as well.

In Gao, North Mali’s most populous city, young people demonstrated against a new ban on watching TV, listening to music or playing video games. Locals say armed groups opened fire on the protesters.

Tuareg refugees say there’s a lot of confusion over where the extremists come from and how many they are. But Idoual, the veterinarian, says what they do know about them is alarming enough to keep refugees from returning home.

“Americans are scared about Islamists. The French are scared about Islamists. Everybody is scared about these groups!” he said. “So why would we, poor African citizens, be any less scared? I’m scared!”

Refugees who’ve just arrived at the camp bring stories that stoke the fears. Mohamed ag In’Tahma crossed over the border last week with 20 relatives and two other families. He says they left their village because of the new rules imposed by Islamists. They brought clothing with them, he says. A burka-like covering for the women, long clothes that cover elbows for the men.

“Men can’t greet women on the street,” he said. “No one dares go out any more. If you’re caught doing something wrong, or wearing something inappropriate, they threaten to beat you if they catch you again.”

Mohamed says Tuareg rebels, who support a secular republic, are starting to speak out against Sharia, but they aren’t strong enough to
fight back. He says most locals believe a clash between Islamists and seculars is coming — yet another reason for civilians to flee.

Fatoumata Oylet Aybala, a women’s leader at the refugee camp, says the best way for the international community to help defeat the Islamic militants is to recognize a Tuareg independent state.

“Once our leaders are in charge, once we have a country, a government and allies, then we’ll be able to fight for the traditions and values of the Tuareg people.”

But so far not a single country has recognized the breakaway state, and Mali could soon request help from West African countries to regain control of the lost territory.

Refugees in Burkina Faso know they might be here for a long time. Sitting on a bench in the afternoon heat, a group of young men listen to Tuareg music on a cell phone.

They say at least here they’re safe ...  and they can still indulge in some cherished tribal tunes.

13 killed in violence between Kountas and Arabs in eastern MALI


BAMAKO, 16 September (IRIN) - A fresh outbreak of fighting between the Arab and Kounta tribes in the semi-desert of eastern Mali has left 13 people dead, according to residents in the nearby town of Gao.

They told IRIN that the clash took place on 11 September at a well near Bamba, a small town on the river Niger, 220 km west of Gao.The incident followed a jailbreak in Gao five days earlier by 16 Arabs and Kountas who had been imprisoned in connection with a previous outbreak of fighting between the two communities, they noted.

Banditry and violence have been on the rise in eastern Mali for several months and have begun to affect the work of humanitarian agencies operating in the area. Last June, two four-wheel-drive vehicles of the Malian Red Cross were hijacked near Bourem, another town on the River Niger in the same area. And on 12 September, the day after the latest fighting between Arabs and Kountas, another vehicle belonging to the Canadian non-governmental organisation SUCO (Solidarity, Union Cooperation), was stolen by two armed men wearing turbans in Gao itself.

The vehicle was attached to a micro-credit scheme that helps poor people to establish their own small businesses, SUCO officials said. 

The Kounta are fair-skinned people of Arabic descent who are known for their religious learning. Many are marabouts - Islamic religious leaders who also practice magic and traditional medicine.

The people known as Arabs in eastern Mali are similar in appearance, but are mainly traders and nomadic herdsmen.

Both communities inhabit the desert wastes between Timbuktoo and Gao on the river Niger and the town of Kidal in the Adrar des Iforahs mountain range further north, near the Algerian border.

There has been sporadic fighting between the Arabs and Kountas in this area for the past five years. This has often resulted in heavy casualties. President Amadou Toumani Toure intervened personally in 2003 to try to stop the feud, whose origins are much older. 

Government officials in Gao refused to comment on the latest incident, but the Malian state news agency reported that a group of heavily armed Arab fighters travelling aboard four four-wheel drive vehicles attacked the Kounta marabout Kounta Ould Haital and a group of his followers at a desert well.

Eastern Mali has long been a lawless area plagued by bandits and smugglers. The Islamic fundamentalist group which kidnapped a group of European tourists in southern Algeria last year, took refuge in the Idrar des Iforahs mountains of eastern Mali before releasing its 14 remaining hostages there in August 2003.

One retired soldier who formerly served in the troubled area blamed the Malian government for withdrawing its security forces from too many remote outposts following a 1992 peace agreement which marked the first step towards ending a rebellion by Touareg nomads in the region.

Mohamed Baye, the parliamentary deputy for Bourem, where the latest clash took place, echoed this sentiment. "Given the situation, only the return of garrisons and security posts can contribute to the return of stability and put an end to the carnage between the communities," he told IRIN.

The US government, worried about the possible infiltration of Muslim fundamentalist terrorists into northern Mali, sent military instructors to train the Malian army in anti-terrorist warfare techniques in Gao earlier this year. Washington also provided the Malian army with all-terrain vehicles and other equipment specially designed for desert warfare.