Mali: The ‘gentle’ face of al-Qaeda

May Ying Welsh reports: We make a flashing signal with our headlights to let them know our car is in trouble.

They drive a wide berth around us at high speed. Unsure who we are, they fear an ambush on their caravan. It is late at night and there are many forces in this Sahara.

After some hesitation, a group of men get out and in a staggered V-shape military formation, guns at the ready, start walking toward us in the dark.

“Al Sallam alaykum.” “Wa alaykum sallam.”

“Are you from Ansar Dine?” we ask referring to the local Malian Islamist armed group.

They do not say yes.

“We are mujahideen in the cause of Allah.”

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The hair on our necks stands on end.

The fighters look like desert military preachers – members of some stoical sect that took a vow of poverty and jihad. They wear double bandolier ammo belts over austere beige cotton smocks and matching high cropped pants – like inhabitants of Tatooine, the desert planet in Star Wars. These are not outfits one buys at the market, or inherits from a brother or friend. They are uniforms tailor-made to send a message of simplicity.

The men, mostly Mauritanians, are escorting a caravan of trucks loaded with food and medical aid for the people of Timbuktu – a gift from the Higher Islamic Council of Mali.

One picks up a walkie talkie and relays: “They’re just civilians. Their car is stuck in the sand.” A voice in Arabic comes over the line: “My brother, why didn’t you tell us this before?”

The mujahideen set about helping us extricate our car – its wheels churning deeper and more hopelessly into the sand. One enters the driver’s seat to manoeuvre while the others help us push from behind. The effort drags on for an hour.

They banter easily with our team in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language – evidence that they have spent years living in northern Mali where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had a mountain base and a tacit agreement with the Malian state.

They do not have to spend all night stuck in the sand with us. Their generosity is impressive, their faces luminous, their voices soft, their manners exquisite. And they have given us the satisfying feeling that we are more important to them than time, or anything else.

Omar, a local Arab travelling with us in his old pick-up truck, is impressed.

“Look my brother,” the mujahideen tell him, “your car is very old, it can’t work. You need to buy a new car.” It is an ingeniously subtle flag – and it elicits the intended response. “I wish you would buy me a new car because I have no money,” Omar says.

The fighters barely need to signal what everyone in this impoverished Sahara long ago came to know: al-Qaeda has money and they can help you with it.

“We can bring you to a path that is even better than money,” they tell Omar, “the path to paradise.”

“I love the idea of jihad,” says Omar, “but I have children and elderly people relying on me. I have to support them and I can’t leave them behind.”

At this moment two of the fighters say almost simultaneously: “If you tasted jihad you would leave all of this and come with us.”

Omar decides to stay the night with the mujahideen who are bedding down in the sand. It will not be possible to reach Timbuktu tonight. [Continue reading…]

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