Mali extremists 'a threat to Europe'
These could pose a threat to Europe within two years, government and security sources believe.
The al-Qaeda-linked rebels have pushed out secular Tuareg separatists, leaving them in exclusive control of the north.
“If Islamists continue to control vast areas of Mali where they can do what they like, then this will pose a direct threat to Europe,” a senior Western diplomat in the capital, Bamako, said.
“You cannot forget how close this region is to Europe. They are currently recruiting people in northern Mali, offering them money, training and weapons. If this continues, it is a matter of time before it affects Europe directly,” she said.
Northern Mali has been under insurgent control since the government was toppled in a military coup in March.
Tuareg rebels, who are demanding an independent state of “Azawad” in the Sahara, initially joined forces with groups backed by the militia group al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (Aqim), including Ansar Dine, Mujao and the Nigerian terrorist organisation Boko Haram.
But the alliance faltered recently and fighting broke out between different factions. Islamists consolidated their control of the region last week, driving Tuareg rebels from their last stronghold in the town of Ansogo and leaving the entire northern section of Mali, including Gao, the main base of the Malian army, in Islamist hands.
Islamists have surrounded Gao with landmines, making it almost impossible to enter. But film footage has been obtained depicting foreign Islamists patrolling Gao, dragging the dead bodies of senior Tuareg insurgents through the town behind pick-up trucks and conducting public whippings of three young people for “offences” under sharia law, including smoking and having sex outside marriage.
“Islamists supported by al-Qaeda in the Maghreb are now gaining complete control of the region and huge access to weapons and arms coming from Libya,” said Valentina Soria, a counterterrorism and security analyst at the think-tank Royal United Services Institute.
“This can well develop into a more direct security threat for Europe, either by enabling the Aqim to plan and carry out attacks directly in Europe or the United States, or to provide a safe haven for people connected to terrorist organisations to get training and access to weapons,” Soria said.
“The Sahel is closer to Europe than Afghanistan or Pakistan and easier to get in and out of from Europe, so it provides all sorts of advantages from a logistics point of view for people who want to link up with the Aqim and like-minded groups.”
Further details have emerged of myriad Islamist groups operating in Mali. ‘Mujao’, a West African offshoot of al-Qaeda, is increasingly controlling territory in the country, having ousted the Tuareg and eclipsing another group, Ansar Dine.
The footage also shows Malian natives of Gao co-operating with Mujao. “Yes, there are Afghans, there are Algerians, but 70% of the Islamists are Malians,” said Soria. “This is a much more complicated situation than we in Mali like to admit.”
Although some Malians are joining the Islamic insurgency, others are arming themselves to return the country to secular civilian rule. In Bamako, several hundred young people aged 18 and over have joined the military wing of Action des Jeunes pour Sauver le Nord, a voluntary army that claims it has weapons and will imminently deploy itself to the north. “We are warriors – it is in our history – and it is simply a question of patriotism that we are prepared to sacrifice ourselves personally to reclaim the north,” said Mohamadou Diouara (26), the organisation’s founder. Diouara, a native of Gao and a former youth leader, claims to have 1500 members being trained by soldiers who have volunteered to help the recruits, as well as access to weapons and the backing of the Malian army.
Many Malians are being increasingly radicalised against the insurgents by the destruction of ancient monuments in Timbuktu – where Islamists have attacked mausoleums and the city’s famous 14th-century mosque – and the growing humanitarian crisis in the region.
Northern Mali was already facing a food crisis before the coup and the capture of towns by rebel fighters. Now, aid agencies warn that the situation is deteriorating further with critical shortages of essential goods and services, and numerous human-rights violations.
The willingness of young Malians to fight also represents a growing hostility towards the deployment of foreign troops on Malian soil.
“Mali needs logistical support and equipment from outside, but not outsiders coming into the country to fight,” said Diouara. “The younger generation would have an inferiority complex that, even when it was ready to put its lives on the line, foreigners had to defend it.”
Regional bloc Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) insists that the deployment of an intervention force of between 3 000 and 5 000 West African troops in Mali is “imminent”. But a senior government source in Mali stated that the government was also opposed to foreign troops on Malian soil.
“Our position remains that, rather than sending in troops, we need equipment and logistical support for the Malian army,” said the source in the ministry of internal security and civil protection. “If we had that, our army could face the situation in the north. We are continuing to negotiate with Ecowas to this end.”
Questions also remain about how an international mission would be funded and the authorities admit that even in the case of a successful military deployment, they would not be able to drive al-Qaeda completely out of the largely unpoliced, borderless and sparsely populated Sahara, where it controls a lucrative trade in trafficking drugs, people and weapons to Europe.
“The Aqim has been in that area since 2002; it will continue to operate in the area,” said Abdel-Fatau Musah, Ecowas’ director for external relations.“Realistically, the most important thing we can do is to make sure that it doesn’t continue to control territory. Driving it out altogether is not feasible.”
The increasing complexity of the security crisis in Mali comes as the country continues to operate without an effective government.
The president, Dioncounda Traore, has been in Paris seeking medical treatment since he was attacked by a group of youths who broke into the presidential palace in May.
Other key government figures, including Prime Minister Cheikh Modibo Diarra and Foreign Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, are abroad seeking consensus about how to make the transition back to civilian rule after Ecowas gave them a deadline of July 31. – © Guardian News & Media 2012