Julius Cavendish reports on Omar Hamaha, whose fighters have been demolishing the historic tombs of Timbuktu: Hamaha occupies an unusual position in Africa’s jihadist firmament. He first fell under the spell of Islamist teachers in the mid-1980s in Algeria — a connection that years later would help propel him to a privileged position in AQIM, the local franchise of the terrorist movement. By 2008 he was one of the few Malians trusted by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a powerful Algerian emir known for his Scarlet Pimpernel–like ability to avoid capture, and who for the most part surrounded himself with fellow nationals. Yet as northern Mali fell apart this spring, and Ansar Eddine muscled aside the secular Tuareg rebels of the Mouvement National pour la Liberation de l’Azawad (MNLA), Hamaha suddenly emerged as a key player among the jihadists of Ansar Eddine. He isn’t the only one. “Omar Hamaha and [Ansar Eddine spokesman] Sanda Ould Bouamama were certainly long-standing AQIM figures before the rebellion,” explains Andrew Lebovich, an analyst with the Navanti Group who focuses on Sahelian issues. “And I’m sure that there are others who fit that mold as well.”
Hamaha’s sudden shift in professional identity speaks to the complex tapestry of interests and tensions prevailing in northern Mali, and helps explain how al-Qaeda has exploited the chaos to such effect. To the extent that anyone can control a swath of desert bigger than France, Ansar Eddine, led by a veteran Tuareg troublemaker called Iyad Ag Ghali, is nominally in charge. But the specter of ethnic war weighs heavily over the region, where a previous Tuareg uprising between 1990 and ’96 led to interethnic atrocities. In Timbuktu, where Tuaregs are a minority, putting a local boy — like Hamaha, who hails from the city’s prominent Arab community — in charge makes better sense. Such expedients have allowed AQIM to inject operatives into competing jihadi outfits.
The intermingling makes it hard to tell how extensive al-Qaeda’s gains have been, but in all likelihood there’s more to them than meets the eye. “We have no good sense of how many militants there are, and even in the case of Ansar Eddine, it’s hard to tell how many of them are true Ansar personnel, vs. AQIM fighters or other militants who recently joined the organization,” says Lebovich. “The standard belief is that [Iyad Ag Ghali] has ultimate control over Ansar Eddine, and much of the writing on northern Mali has treated Iyad as the ‘master’ of the region. Personally, I think the situation is more complicated than that.”
Indeed, concern that northern Mali is rapidly becoming al-Qaeda’s most successful effort at establishing a caliphate to date has regional players scrambling for a response. Nigeria, Niger and Senegal have pledged to provide the core of a 3,270-member peacekeeping force to stabilize Mali’s politically fraught south and then tackle the militants. The announcement was promptly met with threats of retaliatory terrorist attacks. Even if such a campaign isn’t the jihadists’ priority, a suicide bombing deep inside Algeria by an AQIM ally called the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa on June 29 showed that it is certainly within their means.
And the fact is any military intervention would be hard-pressed to defeat the jihadists, who are highly motivated, flush with weaponry looted from the arsenal of the fallen regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and have an intimate knowledge of the terrain. Hamaha claims that the jihadists also have a powerful card up their sleeves — surface-to-air missiles seized in Tripoli last year. “We have Russia-made SAM 7A and SAM 7B [missiles] and U.S.-made stingers,” he boasts. “We made more than 20 trips … between Libya, Niger and Mali [last year] with at least 17 vehicles carrying weapons coming from Libya … Western countries are not going to take military action against us in northern Mali, because they know we have the missiles to shoot down airplanes, and it is complicated to deploy troops in the desert. It’s why they say the Malian crisis should be resolved though dialogue.” Although thousands of shoulder-launched missiles disappeared from Gaddafi’s armories, there have been no confirmed sightings of them in northern Mali to date, and Hamaha refused to furnish TIME with pictures of the missiles or their serial numbers. His point about the impregnability of the jihadists’ position, however, rings, for the immediate term at any rate, eerily true.