Under the noses of the West, militant Islamists have seized a vast swath of the Sahara, complete with airports, military bases, arms dumps and training camps.
A few days after desert gunmen swept out of the Sahara and captured Timbuktu, the city’s conquerors broadcast a message over its radio station.
"We are going to welcome some foreigners," the inhabitants of this ancient trading centre in northern Mali were told. "Do not be afraid when you see them: we must all welcome them."
A convoy of LandCruisers duly arrived, laden with bearded fighters clad in sand-coloured turbans and robes. These were not rebels from the local Tuareg tribe, who had claimed credit for the fall of Timbuktu, but international jihadists from across the Muslim world including Algerians, Nigerians, Somalis and Pakistanis. This multinational parade drove home a harsh message: a new state had been born under the effective rule of al-Qaeda. Bewildered townspeople, who had only seen Tuareg insurgents up to that point, realised its true significance.
"We first saw the foreigners when they were in our city," said Mousa Maigar, who witnessed the arrival of the column. "How they entered our country, we don’t know."
Almost unnoticed by the outside world, a branch of al-Qaeda has seized a swath of Africa covering more than 500,000 square kilometres.
"Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM) and its allies have taken over an area of the Sahara more than three times the size of Britain, complete with airports, military bases, arms dumps and training camps.
Ever since the September 11 attacks, Western counter-terrorism policy has been designed to prevent al-Qaeda from controlling territory. Yet that is exactly what AQIM has now achieved.
Its new domain covers the regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in northern Mali. This area is already serving as a base for training and recruitment. But AQIM’s new domain also lies across a trans-Saharan smuggling route employed to run cocaine to Europe. The movement will have every opportunity to profit from drug trafficking.
Already, equipment that was supplied to combat al-Qaeda has fallen into the hands of its fighters. Before the capture of northern Mali by Islamists in April, America had given military vehicles and satellite communications technology to the country’s army. In particular, the US supplied six counter-terrorism units with 87 Land Cruisers, along with satellite phones and navigation aids. AQIM fighters are now using these American donations, according to a serving soldier in the Malian army with decades of experience in the north.
Five of the six specialist military units abandoned their equipment and fled when AQIM and its allies advanced, he said. "The Islamists are the masters today," he added. "They have all the equipment that we left in the field."
In addition to these assets, AQIM has also inherited the stores abandoned by Mali’s army, including artillery, rocket launchers and large reserves of small arms and ammunition. AQIM controls the civilian airports of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, along with one of the region’s biggest military airbases at Tessalit, near the northern border with Algeria.
"It pains my heart that I have relatives in the north who are suffering day by day and it is not in my military capacity to help them," said the soldier. "I am helpless."
Mali’s army had little chance of preventing the loss of two thirds of the country. After Col Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall last year, Libya’s military stockpiles were thrown open to all-comers, turning the country into the world’s biggest source of illegal weapons.
Both AQIM and the Tuareg rebels from northern Mali seized their chance: they soon outgunned the national army. Gaddafi had also recruited thousands of soldiers from Mali; one brigade of the old Libyan army consisted almost entirely of Tuaregs. These battle-hardened troops returned to their homeland after he was overthrown, taking their weapons with them. They duly became the backbone of AQIM and the Tuareg rebellion.
When Britain and France went to war to topple Gaddafi, they were inadvertently clearing the way for al-Qaeda to take control of a swath of the Sahara. At first, AQIM allowed Tuareg rebels to take the lead, helping them to capture Mali’s three northern regions in April. Since then, AQIM has thrust the insurgents aside and become the dominant force in the area, acting through an offshoot known as "Ansar Dine", or "defenders of faith".
They have no viable opponents: Mali’s official government has simply collapsed. A military coup toppled President Amadou Toumani Toure in March. An interim leader, appointed to supervise new elections, was then left for dead by a mob that raided his office. He now lies in a hospital bed in France, leaving no one in charge in the capital, Bamako.
Even if Mali had a functioning government, the army lacks the military capability to retake the north. So far, AQIM’s leaders can take comfort from the fact that no outside force threatens their control. "If you have a vast unpoliced, ungoverned area, you can do what you like in it," said a Western diplomat in Bamako. "The fact is that two thirds of the territory of a sovereign country is not under the control of the government."
The original inhabitants of AQIM’s new domain have been trickling away. More than 181,000 people have entered refugee camps in neighbouring countries, with another 160,000 fleeing to southern Mali. Mr Maigar fled Timbuktu last Thursday after Ansar Dine razed eight of the city’s 16 mausoleums and broke down the entrance to the Sidi Yahya mosque dating from 1400.
"When they destroyed the mausoleums, that affected me personally. We cannot live with the terrorists in the city," he said.
Al-Qaeda’s allies have imposed the rigours of Sharia, banning alcohol and music, blocking the local television signal and preventing radio stations from broadcasting anything but official announcements and Koranic verse.
Earlier, Mr Maigar witnessed the flogging of a man and a woman in Sankore Square in Timbuktu, allegedly for having sexual intercourse outside marriage. Djenebou Traore, 48, left the city in May after two men came to her door and demanded to know whether any of the women inside were unmarried. They would be handed to the new overlords for 'compulsory marriage'.
AQIM’s priority appears to be consolidating its control, rather than striking targets beyond the country’s borders. Officials warn this could change. "This could ultimately be the base to attack Europe," said the diplomat.
----------I'm amazed I've only seen one story on this. This soundds like big shit.