A handout picture released by Azawad National Liberation Movement (MLNA) on April 2, 2012 and taken in February 2012 reportedly shows MNLA fighters gathering in an undisclosed location in Mali. AFP / GETTY IMAGES
Caked in dust and bristling with weaponry, the Tuareg rebels smiled at Neil Whitehead and Diane English. “It’s okay, we’re here for your protection,” one of the veiled warriors grinned at the nervous couple. Caught up in the middle of a war after Tuareg separatists advanced hundreds of miles in a matter of hours, the hotel-owners had tried twice already to leave their adopted home of Timbuktu. At first, retreating army columns had blocked their way. Then, when the road eventually cleared, English and Whitehead ran straight into a firefight. “There were guns going off all around us and tracer going past the cab windows, and we thought, ‘This isn’t good’,” English says, with a flash of understatement.
Yet the real threat came not from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym, MLNA)—the 1,000 or so secular Tuareg separatists who Friday declared independence—but Islamist militants and al-Qaeda emirs busy hijacking their campaign. As Timbuktu fell, French diplomats brokered a deal to spirit English, Whitehead, their “leggy, Saharan desert dog” Lily, and a French citizen also trapped in the fabled city to safety. Wearing turbans to disguise themselves and taking only those belongings they could carry, the fugitives piled into Tuareg pickups—and then camped and drove, camped and drove, “belting through the desert hell for leather,” English says. The rebels “really were fantastic… From the time we put ourselves in their hands… although I knew we weren’t yet safe, I wasn’t really concerned.”
(READ: Gaddafi’s Gift to Mali: The Tuareg Seize Timbuktu.)
Two days and 850 miles of hard driving later, they arrived in Mauritania’s seaside capital of Nouakchott—dusty, tired, rattled—and relieved. “Having a shower and a change of clothes was an absolute luxury,” says English. Yet happy ending aside, the flight through the desert underscores one of the most unsettling aspects of Mali’s Tuareg revolt: how al-Qaeda’s regional franchise has been able to exploit the instability in northern Mali much more, and much faster, than almost anyone anticipated. The first worrying signs emerged Monday with reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Algerian-born leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, had been spotted in Timbuktu, alongside two other prominent AQIM commanders, Abou Zeid and Yahya Abou al-Hammam. “It’s extremely difficult to evaluate the claims and reports coming out of Timbuktu,” says to Andrew Lebovich, an analyst with the Navanti Group who focuses on Sahelian issues. But “multiple sources cite eyewitnesses who say they saw one or several AQIM leaders.” As civilians fleeing Timbuktu impart fresh accounts of what is happening in the desert city, the number of claims is growing steadily. Continue reading