The Jihadi from the Block

In the war for the heart of northern Mali, the real fear isn’t al Qaeda, it’s the criminals and fundamentalists lurking just around the corner.

GAO, Mali — It was Saturday, Jan. 26, when the people of Gao, a trans-Saharan trading hub nestled on the banks of the Niger river, took their first act of revenge against the rebels who had terrorized them for close to a year.

A mob had surrounded a jihadi fighter whose vehicle had been destroyed by a French airstrike. The rebel had retreated to the center of town via a stolen donkey cart. He had no idea that his comrades had abandoned the city earlier that morning.

The jihadi was a member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujao, a group that had spent the better part of a year implementing a destructive form of sharia law that included public amputations, floggings, and sexual slavery. He begged for his life, invoking Allah and the virtues of compassion. Then Dani Sidi Touré, a 29 year-old handyman and painter, took a screwdriver out of his pocket and stabbed the jihadi in the neck.

Touré tried to remove the screwdriver, but the handle broke off and the metal shaft remained lodged inside the jihadi's neck. A man with a large knife came over and struck the Mujao fighter on the head. He fell to the ground and others quickly joined the fray, descending upon him with wood planks, stones, and chunks of concrete. 

In a display of communal catharsis, the residents of northern Mali's largest city continued to beat the body long after it was dead. When they were done, they tossed it into the Islamic police station, a building that had come to symbolize the brutal interpretation of shariah law that Mujao had imposed on their city.

The official liberation of Gao came only hours later, when French and Malian troops toured the city in front of cheering crowds. Women ripped off their veils. Gao's mayor -- a slick-talking, fedora-wearing businessman who campaigned in 2009 on the slogan "Yes We Can" -- stood atop a French military vehicle and doled out cigarettes. Men and women danced in public, undulating together to Takamba -- a trance-inducing local music played at celebrations -- for the first time in months.

It took less than two weeks for the euphoria of that January evening to give way to uncertainty, and a string of suicide bombings and gun battles between Mujao and Malian forces have shattered any pretense that Gao is now safe. The municipal buildings at the center of the desert city were once merely pockmarked with bullet holes from skirmishes between rebel groups over the last year. But now, these same buildings have been laid to waste by heavy artillery, French airpower, and suicide bombers -- and the charred concrete that remains serves as the first monument of a war that has come after liberation. 

For Gao residents, Mujao's resilience comes as no surprise. In fact, the most telling component of the incident between the angry mob and the jihadi  is not the actions of the crowd or the jihadi's gruesome demise -- it is the fact the Mujao fighter was black and spoke a local dialect of Songhai, Gao's language of commerce. Both details indicate that he didn't come from abroad to impose a foreign culture onto northern Mali , but hailed from the region himself.

Though much of the media attention to date has focused on the French and Chadian battles against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- the al Qaeda franchise whose core membership is thought to be made up of Algerians and nationals from other Arab countries -- it is Mujao that may prove to be the most durable and destructive group going forward. Amply funded and guided by a subversive mix of ideology and illicit economic interests, Mujao has come to embody one of the most disquieting truths about militant Islam here: while the occupation of Gao was spearheaded by those from outside the community, it was aided, abetted, and sustained by those who call it home.

Since it first emerged as an offshoot of AQIM in 2011, Mujao's composition, stated goals, and activities have often seemed incoherent from afar. But on the ground in Gao, its lack of ideological clarity is anything but a weakness. In fact, its opaque aims enable it to thrive as both a criminal enterprise and jihadist organization, appealing to drug traffickers and religious zealots in a symbiotic and self-sustaining manner.

Mujao first made substantial inroads with Gao citizens when it succeeded in driving a separatist group led by ethnic Tuaregs called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) out of the city. For much of Gao's population -- the majority of whom are not Tuareg -- the MNLA's brief reign over their city had come to be associated with anarchy. Though few in the city were enthusiastic about shariah law, Gao residents welcomed the ascendancy of Mujao at the expense of the MNLA.

"The people here hated life under the MNLA ... they looted hospitals and banks, they raped women, and they used their guns to steal whatever they wanted," explains Gao resident Abdul Cissé. "So when the Islamists fought them, many youth joined them just to fight the MNLA." 

Locals say that Mujao quickly launched an aggressive hearts and minds campaign, restoring a sense of safety and security to a city bruised from weeks of abuse. They created hotlines that people could call to report instances of theft. They paid out of pocket for public works projects. They subsidized food prices and even offered free water and electricity for a time. When local youths organized mass protests in response to a ban on soccer and watching television, Mujao responded in kind by relaxing the restrictions.

Mujao's "foreign" leadership maintained a low-profile in the city itself, outsourcing everyday governance to a cadre of local collaborators lured to the group by money and power. The leaders -- predominantly Mauritanians, Arabs from northern Mali, and various nationals from northern Africa -- largely stayed in villages and camps outside of Gao, and few people in the city interacted with them.

As part of a broader campaign to brand itself as a "black" or "sub-Saharan" movement, Mujao appointed a local Songhai named Aliou Mahamane Touré as head of the city's Islamic Police. All manner of crass opportunists quickly emerged, Gao residents say, offering their services to the city's new masters and helping to establish a legal regime nominally based on shariah law.

Those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the receiving end of Mujao's harsh interpretation of sharia law maintain that the high-profile punishments were little more than a public brandishing of Islamist credentials. In actuality, they say, the application of sharia was haphazard, arbitrary, and often personal.

* * * 

Algalas Yattara, who had his right hand cut off by Mujao, was officially punished for stealing a mattress. But the real story, he says, has little to do with any conception of justice, and actually stems from the fact that he would not allow a local member of Mujao -- a man called Sididi -- to marry his younger sister.

According to Yattara, he told Sididi that he did not want to see him again and to stop coming by the house, to which his antagonist replied, "I'm going to cause problems for you." The next day, Sididi, along with three Arab men showed up at Yattara's home just after he arrived from work. The four men, all armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing black turbans, began beating Yattara with an animal whip as his sister looked on. They tied his hands with a cord and dragged him to the Islamic police station.

Yattara was later taken to the former mayor's office which had been converted to the Islamic court. He appeared with 15 other men in front of a tribunal, staffed by four Arab men. None of the men was given the opportunity to speak or plead his innocence. Rather, each defendant went before the judges individually, who issued each sentence after speaking in Arabic for several minutes. All 15 men were found guilty.

"I didn't say anything.... I was powerless," explains Yattara, who says he was so depressed he did not eat or drink anything for the two days that he waited for his punishment.

Unlike other amputations, his was not carried out in public at the notorious "place de Sharia" -- formally a public square celebrating Mali's independence from France.

Yattara says they tied his legs to a chair and placed his right hand on a stone. A man yelled, "Allahu Akhbar" -- Arabic for God is great -- and proceeded to saw off his hand, without administering an injection.

"It was very painful," Yattara describes. "I screamed, I cried, and I eventually passed out."

Yattara used to make only a few dollars a day as a manual laborer, but no one will hire him now. The fingers on his remaining left hand are mangled from the beating he received during his arrest. He now provides for his family -- inadequately -- by begging his neighbors for money and food.

"This is not sharia law," says Yattara, "they [Mujao] are not Muslims, they are just criminals."

For others, it was the day-to-day pettiness of Mujao and the thugs that comprised its rank and file that made life in the city excruciating.

"We could not smoke, we could not drink, and we could not talk to our girlfriends in the street without them harassing us," said Dani Sidi Touré, who described the months of pent-up frustration that led to him stabbing the Mujao fighter in the neck. "You were not allowed to listen to music. They would stop you in the street, take your phone out of your pocket, check the memory card and delete it."

Touré talks freely about the incident, and his disdain for the man he killed is palpable. "I don't even think about it," he said, "these people, they are not Muslim, they just use the name of Islam to do their drug trafficking and arms trafficking."

Many hoped that Mujao's reliance on the local population would weaken it in the long-term, making it more susceptible to local pressures. The belief that Mujao could be softened and eventually marginalized by local culture stemmed from the widely held theory that the group and its collaborators were above all criminals and drug traffickers, and that its interest in sharia only extended to its utility for maintaining law and order.

There is no shortage of evidence supporting this view. One detainee, whose name cannot be made public due to an ongoing investigation, confirmed that he was a member of Mujao, but maintained that he was forced to join them initially. He stayed on, he says, because they paid well and he needed to provide for his family. Others who admit to joining or collaborating with the group, if only briefly, tell a similar story in which personal gain or desperation, rather than religious zeal, prompted them to turn against their own people.

"These children working for them, they are our children. They will listen to us. We are already Muslim, so their message means nothing to us. Our traditions, our views, our religious leaders ... we will gradually convince them [Mujao] to adopt our practices," one official told me last summer, when Mujao began recruiting local youths. . "They will not be able to change our culture," he said, with a confidence that was either sincere optimism or practiced denial.

The tidy narrative of drug traffickers posing as jihadis, however, is self-serving and incomplete. It masks a tragic reality, one with which the people of Gao are only just beginning to come to terms.

* * *

Less than two weeks after the liberation of Gao, a suicide bomber accompanied by about a dozen gunmen attacked a checkpoint at the edge of the town. The next day, French and Malian forces found themselves in a protracted gunfight against Mujao rebels in the heart of the city. Fresh battles and even more suicide bombers have followed, and today the specter of a nasty guerilla war looms over the region.

Mujao's stubborn resistance suggests that it cannot be written off as a front for opportunists and drug traffickers. There are ideologues among them, and the pool of potential recruits is vast.

Even before the attacks, Gao residents warned that the city was not secure, insisting that Mujao fighters -- often referred to locally as mujahideen, or holy warriors -- had taken refuge in villages that are sympathetic to their cause.

In villages such as Kadji and Gouzoureye, for example, many residents describe themselves as "Wahabbi" -- the fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam often associated with extremist groups operating in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. For decades, locals say, these areas have been trending away from more moderate interpretations of Islam commonly practiced in West Africa.

Some of these villages are ruled as fiefdoms by religious leaders, who wield absolute power over their communities. In the village of Kadji, a now deceased imam named Seydou Drissa once issued an edict stipulating that new brides were obligated to live and sleep with him for a week before joining their husbands in marriage.

Mujao focused their recruitment efforts on these types of communities, knowing they could find supportive imams and a populace conditioned to follow religious authority. They would visit Quranic schools and persuade young students to join them. In some cases, desperately poor families would offer their sons to Mujao in exchange for money and the comfort of knowing that he would go directly to paradise upon death.

Meanwhile, the small team of Malian military police that have set up shop at a defunct health clinic at the edge of town are clearly overwhelmed. According to Cpt. Banfa Ballo, the officer tasked with leading investigations of suspected rebels, hundreds of people have been probed -- but only 18 have been transferred to the Malian capital of Bamako for further proceedings. The rest have been released due to lack of evidence, prompting concerns that many of those let go are Mujao fighters who will blend back into the population for now, only to come back to fight another day.

"This is the horrible truth about Mujao," said Kata Data Alhousseini Maiga, a teacher and community organizer who stayed in Gao throughout the conflict. "We say they are foreigners and opportunists, but their ideology is here and it has been here. They are traffickers. They are Islamists. They are us."

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Democracy Lab

Mali's Bad Trip

Field notes from the West African drug trade.

BAMAKO, Mali  "If he returns to Gao, people will make kebabs out of him," a friend told me with a laugh over lunch in his home. He was referring to a prominent businessman publicly suspected of links to drug smugglers and support for jihadist groups who left the northern Malian city of Gao late last year for unknown reasons. My lunch partner's comment was indicative. Many Malians in the north and south are deeply angry at notables or other local figures believed to be involved in the reportedly lucrative local drug trade whom they suspect of working with jihadi groups -- the very same groups that tried to turn the north of the country into a haven for their hardline ideas before the French-led intervention in Mali in January.

The comment came just days after a crowd of angry youth in Gao reportedly nearly lynched two other suspected traffickers accused of involvement in the drug trade along with jihadi groups. Both of the men, Mohamed Ould Awainatt and Baba Ould Cheikh, are alleged to have been part of what has become known as the "Air Cocaine" incident back in 2009, when the burnt-out carcass (shown above) of a Boeing 727 believed to have been transporting up to 10 tons of cocaine was found in the desert north of Gao. Just days after the purported attack on the two men, the Malian government announced international arrest warrants against a number of rebel leaders and suspected traffickers, including both of the men attacked by the crowd. The public anger against purported drug traffickers has much to do with the widespread perception that their activities and corruption in general contributed to the gradual breakdown of Malian state structures in the last two decades, but in particular in the latter years of the presidency of Amadou Toumani Touré. It's a perception that's likely justified.

Cross-border commerce is hardly a new thing for the Sahara, a part of the world that has always served as a transit point for a variety of goods as well as a market for goods from both sides of the desert. When the countries of the region established formal borders after decolonization, smuggling became a vital part of local economies. Trade in subsidized powdered milk and other foodstuffs from Algeria in the 1970s eventually morphed into a booming business in counterfeit and black-market cigarettes, subsidized fuel, weapons, and narcotics, including cannabis resin and hashish. Somewhere around the turn of this century the first Latin American cocaine began to arrive in West Africa -- mostly in the region's seaports, where it was then transshipped to Europe by boat. But as sea controls between Africa and Europe were tightened, more and more of the contraband shifted to overland routes. Cocaine shipments began moving to Europe from airports in the Sahel, mostly using small propeller-driven aircraft, while other paths went through northern Mali to Morocco, Algeria, and Niger into Europe or the Middle East.

What outsiders have often failed to appreciate is the devastating effect that this flow of drugs, coupled with other forms of corruption, has had on governance in the countries of the region. And few countries demonstrate this quite as well as Mali.

Given the recent efforts by militant Islamists to create their own enclave in the north, and the subsequent French military intervention in response, it's understandable that much of the recent coverage on Mali has focused on the threat to the country's territorial integrity posed by separatists and Al-Qaeda-branded insurgents. Less well-documented, however, has been the continued presence of an even more pernicious problem, one that will be much harder to uproot by well-intentioned outsiders or internal political reforms: namely, the drug trade.

For most of the past twenty years, Mali occupied a place as a kind of poster child for democracy in West Africa. Foreign supporters praised it for its supposedly robust parliamentary institutions, wide-ranging press freedoms, and decentralized government. Much of the positive press came from an impressive series of peaceful power handovers. In 1991 Amadou Toumani Touré, then a senior army officer, overthrew the existing authoritarian regime of Moussa Traoré before handing over power to an elected president a year later. Ten years after that, Touré won a presidential election of his own, a position he retained until he was toppled in a military coup in March of last year.

That coup was launched by army officers disgruntled by the inept official response to a separatist threat in the north from the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and jihadi groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). An alliance of those groups had, managed to rout government forces, expelling them from much of the country's north in astonishingly short order. But the weakness of the Malian army came as little surprise to anyone who had been watching the steady erosion of state institutions, largely as a result of widespread corruption. For several years, Malians and Western diplomats alike have voiced accusations that Bamako politicians and relatives are believed to have benefited directly from the illicit economy (among other forms of corruption), while the government and elements of the military are said to have either tolerated or actively participated in various smuggling schemes. According to a journalist with close contacts within the Algerian security services, for instance, Malian soldiers and officers were directly involved or complicit in at least two flights carrying cocaine that landed in Mali during 2009 and 2010.

Many Malians and outside observers believe that the rise of the drug business offered members of government -- including, according to some accounts, people close to Touré -- opportunities for personal enrichment as well as a means of managing instability in northern Mali. The scale of the trade's impact can be seen in the now infamous Gao neighborhood known as "Cocainebougou", a part of the city flush with new villas and sudden wealth; an official from the Timbuktu region told me a similar neighborhood sprung up there some time after 2009. He added that the large traffickers even built their own mosque in the neighborhood. While corruption accusations also sometimes dogged the government of Touré's predecessor, Alpha Oumar Konaré, the widespread perception of major corruption under Touré was one of the reasons why many Malians supported the coup that overthrew Touré in March 2012.

It's incredibly hard, of course, to come by reliable numbers on the drug trade. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated in a recent report that 18 tons of cocaine worth approximately $1.25 billion in Europe transited West Africa in 2010. Some might see this as good news, since that figure is down from an estimated 47 tons in 2007. However, the United Nation's information is based in part on extrapolations from drug seizures, an uncertain metric given the flexibility of trafficking networks and the ability to change routes, tactics, and sometimes simply buy off local officials to avoid arrest. Still, the UNODC office in Dakar, Senegal, estimates that more than $500 million gained from the trade either remained in West Africa or was laundered through the region, in 2012. By comparison, Mali's defense expenditures in 2011 were estimated at around $180 million, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Among the policies that have had a particularly corrosive effect on governance in Mali was Touré's informal ceding of some state control and governance responsibilities to northern intermediaries. His government helped to establish and empower ethnic Arab and Tuareg militias to deal with violence linked to a 2006 Tuareg rebellion centered largely around the region of Kidal. Among other things, the government used various northern leaders as intermediaries in hostage negotiations. In an interview with The Telegraph, Robert Fowler, a former U.N. diplomat who was kidnapped in 2008 by AQIM and held for 130 days, recalls that Touré referred to Baba Ould Cheikh, the suspected trafficker who also helped negotiate Fowler's release, as mon bandite ("my bandit").

As one former minister in Touré's government described it to me over glasses of tea in his house, these intermediaries allowed Touré to exert some degree of political influence in the north, but at the same time it allowed these northern leaders to exploit state power for their own needs. A good example is the career of longtime Tuareg powerbroker and Ansar al-Din founder Iyad Ag Ghali. In 2003 Ag Ghali earned considerable political capital in Bamako by helping to free European hostages seized in southern Algeria in 2003. In 2006 he then played a major part in separatist rebellions in the north -- and then lent his support to efforts by Bamako to end them. He ultimately leveraged both episodes to gain a diplomatic post in Saudi Arabia. Ag Ghali continued to play a key role in shaping events in northern Mali while he was in Saudi Arabia, a country from which he was expelled in 2010 due to suspected contacts with extremists. The maneuverings of Ag Ghali and others weakened the state while helping deepen corruption, with disastrous results.

Illicit and semi-licit commerce existed in northern Mali and the broader Sahel before the rule of Touré, of course. But the drug trade became ingrained in the very fabric of the Malian state at a time when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the forerunner to AQIM, was implanting itself in the north. The organization and its commanders (including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom Chadian President Idriss Déby claims his troops killed in fighting this month), developed deep social ties to local populations as well as links to various illicit businesses, ranging from hostage-taking to cigarette smuggling and taxing the smuggling of hashish and cocaine.

While reliable details are predictably elusive, my interviewees in Mali -- including Western diplomats as well as Malian notables, including former security officials from the north -- assert that the trade in illicit goods (drugs, cigarettes, gasoline, weapons) continued, and may even have intensified, during the brief reign of the separatists in the north, a supposition supported by some anecdotal reports. (Not everyone agrees, though.) Sitting on the floor of an upstairs room of a house on the outskirts of Bamako, three former security officials, men who had spent their careers in the north, told me that the trade had even become more organized under separatist rule -- even as competing militant groups, cartels, clans, and families continued sometimes long-running struggles for supremacy. They said that the French intervention and the Western military presence in the north, however, not to mention significantly tighter monitoring of borders with Mali's neighbors (notably Algeria), appear to have disrupted the trade significantly -- at least for the moment. But other analysts suggest that the conflict in Mali has simply compelled the trade to find new routes through Africa and into Europe.

Still, it would be a mistake to claim that drug smuggling has only been a problem in the north. One Western expert who closely studies illicit trade flows told me that the instability in the north actually stimulated the narcotics trade passing through parts of the country that remained under government control, especially in the Kayes region near the border with Mauritania. This shows the flexibility inherent in drug smuggling routes, which adjust and shift rapidly in reaction to changing security and political environments, spreading or moving not just to different regions but also to different countries as necessary. And just as the trade allegedly flourished with the complicity of some linked to the Malian state, it is difficult to imagine that illicit trade could continue in government-controlled areas without some level of official support or acquiescence. After all, as noted in the recent UNODC report, "smuggling is often accomplished not by stealth, but by corruption."

Some sources allege that members of the Malian military, as well as officials close to the current military junta, are linked to the trade, either as active participants or via relatives whose activities they tolerate. Last August, journalists revealed that several European men believed to have helped organize the "Air Cocaine" incident had been quietly freed from prison.

One night in Bamako, as my conversation with a Timbuktu Arab notable drew to a close, I asked him if the drug trade would come back to Mali once the situation stabilizes and French forces pull away from the north. His response was matter-of-fact: "Of course it will!" The only way to make a dent in the trade and the problems it causes, he said, was to "clean up all of this administration" -- the security services, the government in Bamako, and the system of rule that characterized northern Mali under Touré. And that is a problem that goes far beyond al-Qaeda. 

Photo by SERGE DANIEL/AFP/Getty Images