Update early in December 2011, after Timbuktu kidnapping and killing.
While Al Qaeda is showing signs of waning in Afghanistan and Pakistan, following the killing or arrest of much of its leadership, Al Qaeda-related groups (Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM) continue to make their presence felt across the African Sahel region, There are rumors that there was a pact made between AQIM and the Mali government: Mali police and army will leave AQIM personnel alone and tolerate their presence in the country as long as they will not commit any terrorist acts within the country. AQIM-linked fighters have in the past brought hostages into northern Mali from neighboring countries, such as Algeria, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania and then negotiated ransoms. Since 2003 terrorists kidnapped some 50 tourists and foreign workers in the West Africa, netting them over $130 million in ransoms. The frequency of the kidnappings increased since 2006, when Al Qaeda teamed up with the West African terrorists. AQIM does not do all of these kidnappings. Bandits, or criminal gangs, or drug smugglers do some and occasionally credit AQIM for the deeds. AQIM also has local subcontractors, who will kidnap the targets, bring them to AQIM lairs and get paid for the job
On 24th of November 2011 there were two Frenchmen – a geologist and an engineer – kidnapped in Hombori – 950 km NE from capital Bamako. It was the first kidnapping of Westerners in Mali south of the River Niger. The next day, in broad daylight, gunmen raided Amanar restaurant (or Hotel Alafia; formerly known as Camping de la Paix) in Timbuktu (450 km NW from Hombori). Three white tourists were marched to a waiting vehicle and a German tourist walking by was ordered to get in, but he refused and was shot dead. This was the first time that foreigners were abducted in the city. (AQIM did assassinate an army officer in Timbuktu in June 2007, but most people think that was something to do with money and internal score-settling. And in November 2009 there was kidnapping in Menaka – 800 km to the east and 90 km from Niger border).
There are some amazing facts surfacing on some websites and it is not certain if AQIM was involved in both incidents. Philippe Verdon, the “geologist”, has in the past been implicated in some very shady business, notably on the islands of Comoros (arrested in 2003 following a coup attempt there) and Madagascar. In the past Verdon has boasted of his connections to the mercenary-chief Bob Denard. And then he turned up in the heart of an unstable region of Mali teeming with drugs and arms traffickers, nomadic pastoralists, and AQIM katibas (‘terrorist units’).
The second man kidnapped in Hombori, supposedly an engineer, was Serge Lazarevic. But a man of this name owns a security company in France, is wanted for questioning in Kosovo for his involvement with Balkan networks and the paramilitary organisation Pauk (‘spider’) accused of plotting an assassination attempt against ex Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, and also of helping to recruit Serbian mercenaries to support former President of what used to be Zaire.
A religious leader in the north of Mali has affirmed that there has been unleashed a secret militia put together by the secret services, without doubt from several countries, over the course of the last few weeks. This group is composed of Tuareg ex-combatants returning from Libya during the death throes of the Gadhaffi regime. They are split into small armed units capable of waging war on AQIM in the region.’ According to the same source, the two mysterious Frenchmen were in fact arms dealers and/or overseeing the training of this militia. AQIM must have been made aware of their presence – and came to capture them. But there was a slight setback – they were on the south side of Niger River and no way to get over without being challenged somewhere by police or army, so it may be that the hostages were taken to Burkina Faso – 60 km south.
The Timbuktu incident seems to be a completely different kettle of fish. Polisario is a “liberation army” fighting for the independence of Sahrawi people of Western Sahara. To finance their campaigns, they got involved in the drug trade and also worked as mercenaries for Gadhaffi. Cocaine is delivered either by sea or air from Colombia and Venezuela to the very porous coast and borders of West Africa. From the west coast most of it is moved by air to Europe, but some of it is trucked across Sahara to the Mediterranean. It is estimated that the street value of all the cocaine moved through Western Africa to Europe is worth some $75 billion. The Touaregs of NE Mali, apprehended one such truck with three Sahrawis on the way to Libya. Gadhaffi was blaming Al Qaida for organizing the uprising in Libya. Thus AQIM had good excuse to assist the Touaregs in seizure of the shipment, the truck and the Sahrawis. The tourists kidnapped in Timbuktu were meant to be swapped for the three Sahrawis and the ransom is a recompense for the projected earnings from the drugs transportation. The AFP said authorities were looking for “two Sahrawis, an Algerian, and two Malians”. According to Algerian Intelligence Service, AQIM is planning a wave of kidnappings of Westerners in South Sahara region. One of my contacts told me that the owner of the hotel confessed to a co-operation with the kidnappers.
Whatever the truth is, one fact is undisputable: any business in Timbuktu depending on tourist dollars for survival should close their doors as soon as possible – the tourists will not come there for many years. “If you own or work for a restaurant, hotel, travel agency or tour operator in northern Mali, your livelihood likely ended last week (25 Nov 2011)”. The country’s economy has a GDP of $9.2 billion and is rated as one of the world’s 10 poorest countries. With the tourist dollars cut off, it will be very tempting for some desperate locals to resort to banditry and kidnapping to feed their families.
At the same time there is a ray of hope for the region. The Tuareg people inhabit a large area, covering almost all the middle and Western Sahara and the north-central Sahel. Tuareg people are well known for their pastoral nomadic lifestyle. Traditionally Tuareg practiced Animism while they were in the Atlas Mountains as Berbers, then with the onset of Arabs into North Africa, Islam came in and the Tuareg travelled south and mixed their animistic beliefs with Islam. The development of Timbuktu into the centre of Islamic studies in early 1200’s – only a few centuries after the birth of Islam and being a stronghold of the religion until the French occupied the town in 1894 makes them feel to be the torchbearers of the religion. They resent Al Qaeda bringing the extremism of the Afgan Talibans, Sharia law and Osama bin Laden’s tactics to their lands but they fear AQIM because of their terrorist and bloody tactics. The Touaregs in Timbuktu were making a reasonable living out of tourism until Al Qaeda caused enough trouble in the reagion to kill their economy.
Before the kidnapping and killing, there were almost 100 licenced tourist guides in Timbuktu. They are now all out of work. Add to it all the people that used to be employed in hotels, restaurants, transport, souveneer production and retail shops, entertainment, etc, not only in Timbuktu, but also in Essakane, Toudeni, Gao, Douentza, Kidal and many more. Over 70% of Mali is now in the red zone, meaning out of bounds for tourists.
If the rumours about the reasons for the kidnapping of the two Frenchmen in Hombori are factual, then it won’t be long before the Touaregs will drive Al Qaeda and AQIM out of their midst and the area will be safe again for the tourists. In its 900 years history, the town suffered many serious setbacks. It will recover from the current troubles and will reclaim its rightfull position among the top ten most exotic tourist destinations in the world.
Update after the army coup on 22/03 and Azawad secession 06/04/2012.
Following the army coup on 22/March/2012, one commentator summed up the situation in the following words: The foreign mercenaries who fought a nasty fight with Gaddafi against the rebels in Libya packed up and left when their paymaster took a bullet to the head. The Touaregs were a key component of Gaddafi’s army. After they lost the Libyan war to the U.S. Navy, they returned to Mali heavily trained, heavily armed, and looking for a fight… The Touaregs swiftly took over several villages in the Mali desert. Mali forces were out-gunned and out-matched. Disgruntled Mali army officers were tired of fighting the Touaregs with little food and fewer weapons, and so they seized the palace in Bamako. The coup created political space for the Touaregs’ National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to declare independence in the north merely two weeks later, on the 6th of April. Some commentators claim the Azawad secession appears permanent, especially after so many radical Islamist groups are now making their moves across Mali, such as Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine. Who will fight them? Timbuctu, Kidal and Gao regions will form the new state, possibly Mopti region will be claimed as well. For the latest news from Mali see http://www.topix.com/world/mali/. The project with the training of the blind in Timbuktu is on hold for the time being. For the founder and for any non-African, to travel to Timbuktu in the foreseeable future would be a suicide. The Centre had to terminate the lease of the building at the end of the term, but the masseurs will be still available for massages in hotels or residences. When tourists will start visiting Mali again, we intend to continue with the program in Bamako and other parts of Mali and 3rd world countries. We expect that the postcard marketing will be successful – there is Victor in Bamako and a very good base of friendly Touaregs in Timbuktu, who can perform all the tasks required without attracting the attention of terrorists. Until now any postcards mailed out of Timbuktu would have been a rarity. But now, with the threats from Al-Qaeda of further kidnappings, and Ansar Dine declaring the rule of Sharia, there will be no tourists to mail postcards out of Timbuktu for some time to come.