When is al-Qaeda really al-Qaeda? That’s a question often asked by security pundits when it comes to the group’s central African franchise, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Rather like the shifting sands of its Saharan stomping ground, AQIM has often been seen as rather hard to pin down: for every hardcore jihadi, there are also smugglers, bandits, and Tuareg separatist guerrillas operating under the AQIM banner, which acts as a useful flag of convenience for any outfit wanting to scare its rivals. It’s often also argued that the AQIM threat has been exaggerated by states like Mauritania and Algeria to help get Western military funding, and respected think tanks like the International Crisis Group have even produced papers asking whether the whole phenomena is “fact or fiction”.
Similar discussions have gone on about the current situation in northern Mali, where, as my colleague David Blair has been reporting this week, al-Qaeda are now feared to be establishing a foothold in the wake of the seizure of vast swathes of territory by the Tuareg-dominated Azawad National Liberation Movement, or MNLA. The MNLA is more of a separatist movement than a religious one, but has been in loose alliance with a hardline Islamist group called Ansar Dine, who have recently caused alarm by destroying the ancient Islamic shrines around the city of Timbuktu on the grounds that they are idolatrous. Ansar Dine is run by a Tuareg separatist called Iyad Ag Ghaly, a former boozer and smoker who underwent a religious re-birth in Saudi Arabia and now apparently wants to turn northern Mali into a theocracy.
Until recently, though, the exact picture in northern Mali was cloaked in a certain Harmattan-like haze. For one thing, it was not that clear how much Ag Ghaly’s group shared al-Qaeda’s trans-national jihadi agenda; some reports claimed the two groups were even opposed. And for another, Ansar Dine has been seen very much as junior partners in the coalition with the MNLA, doing very little fighting, according to Jeremy Keenan of the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. “What seems to happen is that when they move into a town, the MNLA take out the military base – not that there’s much resistance – and Iyad Ag Ghaly goes into town and puts up his flag and starts bossing everyone around about Sharia law.”
Now, however, it seems that northern Mali is drawing in various thoroughbred al-Qaeda types from the likes of Algeria, Nigeria, and Pakistan: the same kind of international jihadi fifth columnists who are also thought to be working with al Shabaab in Somalia. This, admittedly, is normally where these sort of stories get a bit hard to prove, not least because such individuals tend to keep themselves out of the limelight. But in the last few days, I’ve received what I would take to be reasonably conclusive proof that at least one such operator is out there, courtesy of my fellow ex-hostage Robert Fowler, a former UN diplomat to Niger who was kidnapped by AQIM in late 2008 and held in the Sahara for 130 days. That, by the way, makes him fairly lucky, another of AQIM’s hostages at that time, the Briton Edwin Dyer, was executed)
In his excellent book “A Season in Hell” , Robert writes about how he was lectured at great length on the AQIM cause by one of his captors, whom he nicknamed Omar One (as opposed to another captor named Omar Two). That same man has now pitched up in northern Mali as an Ansar Dine commander, according to this YouTube video that Robert came across recently, in which Omar One’s relentless, droning oratory was as instantly recognisable as his face. “I doubt that Omar is a ‘commander’ of anything bigger than a small unit,” Robert tells me, “but this tells me that there is no effective difference between Ansar Dine … and AQIM.”
True, Robert does not claim to be a world authority on AQIM – I don’t think anybody is yet, really – but as one of the few people who has spent time with them face-to-face, he does have some insights. On the question of whether they are “genuine” al-Qaeda or not, for example, he is in no doubt. Omar and the rest his gang were no part-time bandits using the AQIM banner to frighten people: they were, Robert says, about as fanatical as it was possible to be. In the four months he spent with them, he saw no sign of them showing interest in anything but God. They dressed in rags, cared nothing for material possessions or creature comforts, and spoke of little but the glory of dying for fundamentalist Islam, which they saw as the only legitimate religion in the world (Omar’s idea of the perfect assignment, apparently, was to gatecrash a meeting on women’s rights at the godless UN and blow himself up).
Their belief that their faith would protect them, he remembers, was totally absolute. Driving over the Sahara’s towering sand dunes, they would pointedly refuse to stop at the top of any summit to check whether the way down the other side was safe: instead, they would just speed straight over, trusting that God would provide a gentle slope rather than a precipitous drop, as was often the case, which is rather like constantly running red lights in a city and hoping noone is coming the other way. Such was their zealotry that they even insinuated that their UN captive, who was 64 at the time, had somehow mis-spent his life by choosing to live until a ripe old age rather than dying early for the glory of God. For Robert, the academic debates over whether such outfits are genuine al-Qaeda or not is irrelevant: “If these people think like al-Qaeda and act like al-Qaeda, then they are al-Qaeda,” he says.
While AQIM may be at most a few hundred or a thousand volunteers at present, Robert points out that this is not much smaller than the IRA was at peak strength, and that they were still able to wreak havoc despite the combined efforts of the British Army, police and intelligence services. Mali, by comparison, has just the Malian army, an outfit of about 14,000 which revolted earlier this year against the government precisely because it was not getting enough backing to defeat the MNLA.
As such, Mali’s immediate future does not look promising, although sadly, much damage has already been done because of the way AQIM’s past kidnappings have undermined the country’s fledgling tourism industry, one of the few things it had going for it. I visited Mali myself as a backpacker in 2000, before the likes of the fabulous Amadou and Miriam had put it on the world music map, and had a great time touring the Dogon Valley, a spectacular region of cliffs and caves that was just beginning to cash in on its tremendous potential as a hiking spot. Foreign NGOs were teaching young locals how to operate as tour guides, giving them a chance to have a life outside of subsistence farming for the first time. But while my own guide, Mousa, was a charming young chap, much of the fun of that kind of trip comes from simply from being out in the desert, far from civilisation. As long as Omar One and his pals are lurking out there, that is not a pleasure many people will feel safe to indulge in.