The charismatic military leader of Salafist rebels in Mali may just be helping to found an Islamic caliphate but he is also taking apart an ancient city’s heritage.
Oumar Ould Hamaha is a one-man whirlwind of piety and fury. For more than a decade he has — by his own account and others — raided government outposts in Mauritania, Algeria and Niger; held Western hostages for extravagant ransoms; and proselytized a ferocious asceticism over the barrel of a gun. Riding with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, he has crisscrossed the shadowless Sahara in the service of a god he envisions as unforgiving as the desert itself. He has invoked Koranic verses to protect himself from the “evil work of devils” and “the biting of snakes and scorpions,” learned to navigate by the sun, moon and stars, and believes that meteor showers are battles between djinns and angels. It has been a ferocious transformation for a former student of accounting. Read the rest of this entry »
Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda unite to create a fierce new state in the north
GUNFIRE pierced the night quiet. For weeks, inhabitants of the ancient desert towns of Gao and Timbuktu had feared that rival Tuareg rebels would clash. Between January and March they had together waged a devastatingly effective campaign against Mali’s army, sending its last troops packing in early April and proclaiming an independent state called Azawad. But the rivalry then flared, and lawlessness and factionalism have been rife since. Read the rest of this entry »
Ali Cissé, 30, a shopkeeper, couldn’t contain his curiosity when a new wave of gunmen rolled into town. Outside the governor’s compound in downtown Gao — a dusty administrative center of adobe architecture and open skies — he saw a fleet of armored vehicles with foreign fighters standing guard. “I saw [militants] from Niger, Pakistan, Algeria, Mauritania [and] Tunisia,” Cissé tells TIME by phone from northern Mali. “I identified them by their accents because they like approaching people… to try to win their [sympathy].” Whatever their provenance, the fighters had one thing in common: they rode with Ansar Eddine, a group at times almost indistinguishable from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the regional terror franchise. Read the rest of this entry »
It took Ibrahim Touré three weeks to escape from Timbuktu after rebels seized the desert town, but, in his heart, he hasn’t really left. The 26-year-old shopkeeper studies the floor as he talks, cradling a welter of scabs and fresh scar tissue on his right elbow. Sometimes he stops to rub his head with an uncertain hand — the unforgiving sun, maybe, or a reaction to the horrors he has seen and suffered. If what he says is true, then the fog of war in northern Mali — where Tuareg separatists, Islamic militants, Arab militias and a hodgepodge of terrorist groups are vying for control following a spectacularly successful military campaign — is concealing a grisly spate of human-rights abuses, humanitarian suffering and war crimes. Read the rest of this entry »
EVERY morning a bus caked in dust pulls into Bamako bringing the latest rumours of war. Looking dazed and dehydrated after 24 hours on the road, Mohammad Maiga explains how Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants have turned his native Gao, northern Mali’s most populous town, into a ghost town. “Everyone is leaving,” says Mr Maiga. “There’s no food, no supplies.” Blackouts last all day. Banks and offices have been pillaged by rampant rebels. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »