Meanwhile, China quietly takes over Zimbabwe

a13-iconTyler Durden writes: While the developed world is focusing on the rapidly deteriorating developments in the Crimean, China, which has kept a very low profile on the Ukraine situation aside from the token diplomatic statement, is taking advantage of this latest distraction to do what it does best: quietly take over the global periphery while nobody is looking.

Over two years ago we reported that none other than Zimbabwe – best known in recent history for banknotes with many zeros in them – was bashing the US currency, and had alligned itself with the Chinese Yuan. This culminated last month with the announcement by Zimbabwe’s central bank that it would accept the Chinese yuan and three other Asian currencies as legal tender as economic relations have improved in recent years. “Trade and investment ties between Zimbabwe, China, India, Japan and Australia have grown appreciably,” said Charity Dhliwayo, acting governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

Business Live reported then:

Exporters and the public can now open accounts in yuans, Australian dollars, Indian rupees and Japanese yen, Dhliwayo said. Zimbabwe abandoned its worthless currency in 2009.

It accepts the US dollar and the South African rand as the main legal tender. Their use has helped to stabilise the economy after world-record inflation threw it into a tailspin.

Independent economist Chris Mugaga said the introduction of the Asian currencies would not make a huge difference to Zimbabwe’s struggling economy.

“It is Zimbabwe’s Look East Policy, which has forced this, and nothing else,” he said.

And now, as a result of the “Look East Policy”, we learn that China has just achieved what every ascendent superpower in preparation for “gunboat diplomacy” mode needs: a key strategic airforce base. [Continue reading...]


The threat to rhinos also endangers their habitat


Rachel Nuwer reports: Some large animals influence their surroundings more than others. Elephants are known as ecosystem engineers for their tendency to push over trees and stomp shrubby areas in the savannah into submission. This keeps forests at bay, which otherwise would overtake open grasslands. Wolves, on the other hand, are apex predators. They keep other species like deer in check, preventing herbivore populations from getting out of hand and eating all the plants into oblivion. Both elephants and wolves are keystone species, or ones that have a relatively large impact on their environment in relation to their actual population numbers.

African rhinos, it turns out, also seem to be a keystone species. According to a recent study published by Scandinavian and South African researchers in the Journal of Ecology, rhinos maintain the diverse African grasslands on which countless other species depend.

Surprisingly, prior to this study no one had looked closely rhinos’ roles in shaping the ecosystem. Most researchers focused on elephants instead. Suspecting that these large animals influence their environment, the authors took a close look at rhinos in Kruger National Park in South Africa. [Continue reading...]


Greg Grandin: The reparations of history, paid and unpaid

When Americans think about slavery, we think about the Civil War, cotton plantations in Georgia, and the legacy that those centuries of bondage left in the United States. But we forget that, 200 years ago, the institution in various forms extended throughout the world: hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indian peasants were in debt bondage to landowners, indigenous slavery was widespread in Africa, and most people in Russia were serfs.

No slaves suffered more, however, than those who were force-marched to the African coast and, if they survived, transported in the packed, suffocating holds of sailing vessels across the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, too, we forget that it was not just to the United States that these ships brought their human cargo.  Far greater numbers of captive Africans in chains were shipped to the West Indies and to Latin America, especially Brazil. There, and in the Caribbean, the tropical climate and its diseases made field labor particularly harsh and the death rate especially high. At one time or another, however, slaves could be found almost everywhere in the Americas where Europeans had settled, from Quebec to Chile.

Slavery was the cornerstone of the modern world in more ways than we can imagine today. The structure of banking, insurance, and credit that underlies international commerce, for instance, has its origins, at least in part, in the “triangle trade”: slaves being transported from Africa to the Americas; slave-cultivated products like cotton and sugar traveling from the Americas to Europe; and trading goods meant to buy yet more slaves moving from Europe to Africa. Because a voyage on any leg of that triangle might last months and risked shipwreck, bankers, merchants, and ship owners wanted systems that both guaranteed payment for losses and protected their investments.   

Historian Greg Grandin is the author of remarkable — and highly readable — books like National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist Fordlandia and his most recent work, The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World. Today, he vividly suggests just how the bodies of slaves became something on which our world was built, zeroing in on one connection that we seldom think about — the development of modern medicine. Adam Hochschild

The bleached bones of the dead
What the modern world owes slavery (it’s more than back wages)
By Greg Grandin

Many in the United States were outraged by the remarks of conservative evangelical preacher Pat Robertson, who blamed Haiti’s catastrophic 2010 earthquake on Haitians for selling their souls to Satan. Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble — as many as 300,000 died — when Robertson went on TV and gave his viewing audience a little history lesson: the Haitians had been “under the heel of the French” but they “got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’”

A supremely callous example of right-wing idiocy? Absolutely. Yet in his own kooky way, Robertson was also onto something. Haitians did, in fact, swear a pact with the devil for their freedom. Only Beelzebub arrived smelling not of sulfur, but of Parisian cologne. 

Haitian slaves began to throw off the “heel of the French” in 1791, when they rose up and, after bitter years of fighting, eventually declared themselves free. Their French masters, however, refused to accept Haitian independence. The island, after all, had been an extremely profitable sugar producer, and so Paris offered Haiti a choice: compensate slave owners for lost property — their slaves (that is, themselves) — or face its imperial wrath. The fledgling nation was forced to finance this payout with usurious loans from French banks. As late as 1940, 80% of the government budget was still going to service this debt.

In the on-again, off-again debate that has taken place in the United States over the years about paying reparations for slavery, opponents of the idea insist that there is no precedent for such a proposal. But there is. It’s just that what was being paid was reparations-in-reverse, which has a venerable pedigree. After the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the U.S., London reimbursed southern planters more than a million dollars for having encouraging their slaves to run away in wartime. Within the United Kingdom, the British government also paid a small fortune to British slave owners, including the ancestors of Britain’s current Prime Minister, David Cameron, to compensate for abolition (which Adam Hochschild calculated in his 2005 book Bury the Chains to be “an amount equal to roughly 40% of the national budget then, and to about $2.2 billion today”).

[Read more...]


China pillages Africa like old colonialists says Jane Goodall

n13-iconAFP reports: China is exploiting Africa’s resources just like European colonisers did, with disastrous effects for the environment, acclaimed primatologist Jane Goodall has told AFP.

On the eve of her 80th birthday, the fiery British wildlife crusader is whizzing across the world giving a series of lectures on the threats to our planet.

And the rising world power’s involvement on the continent especially raises alarms when it comes to her beloved chimpanzees and wildlife habitats.

During the last decade China has been investing heavily in African natural resources, developing mines, oil wells and running related construction companies.

Activists accuse Chinese firms of paying little attention to the environmental impact of their race for resources.

“In Africa, China is merely doing what the colonialist did. They want raw materials for their economic growth, just as the colonialists were going into Africa and taking the natural resources, leaving people poorer,” she told AFP in an interview in Johannesburg.

The stakes for the environment may even be larger this time round, she warns.

“China is bigger, and the technology has improved… It is a disaster.”

Other than massive investment in Africa’s mines, China is also a big market for elephant tusks and rhino horn, which has driven poaching of these animals to alarming heights.

But Goodall, who rose to fame through her ground-breaking research on chimpanzees in Tanzania, is optimistic.

“I do believe China is changing,” she said, citing as one example Beijing’s recent destruction of illegal ivory stockpiles.

“I think 10 years ago, even with international pressure, we would never have had an ivory crush. But they have,” she added.

“I think 10 years ago the government would never have banned shark fin soup on official occasions. But they have.” [Continue reading...]


Lessons for America: Think you can’t live without plastic bags? Rwanda did it

o13-iconÉmilie Clavel writes: On a recent trip to Rwanda, my luggage was searched at the border, and the authorities confiscated some of my belongings. No, I wasn’t trying to smuggle drugs or weapons. The offenders? Three plastic bags I’d use to carry my shampoo and dirty laundry.

You see, non-biodegradable polythene bags are illegal in Rwanda. In 2008, while the rest of the world was barely starting to consider a tax on single-use plastic bags, the small East African nation decided to ban them completely.

At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated. Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) cut the plastic wrapping off negligent travellers’ suitcases. Throughout the country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones.

The ban was a bold move. It paid off. As soon as I set foot in Rwanda from neighboring Uganda, it struck me. It’s clean. Looking out the window of the bus that was taking me to Kigali, the capital, I could see none of the mountains of rubbish I’d grown accustomed to in other African countries. No plastic carrier bags floating in the wind or stranded on a tree branch.

Upon arrival in Kigali the contrast is even more evident. With its lovely green squares and wide boulevards, the Rwandan capital is one of the most beautiful cities in Africa. And it’s immaculate. Enough to teach a lesson to scruffy – albeit beloved – Western metropolises like New York or London. And the ban on plastic bags is just the start for Rwanda. It’s all part of the Vision 2020 plan to transform the country into a sustainable middle-income nation. [Continue reading...]


How can so many African leaders ignore Mandela’s legacy?

Patience Akumu writes: The world has stopped for a moment to focus its attention on Africa. This is not something that happens often. No, they are not talking about senseless civil wars, crippling poverty, appalling HIV/Aids statistics or blatant dictators. They are talking about a black man who freed his country from an inhumane regime; who dared to dream of a tolerant, united and poverty-free Africa and dedicated his life to the attainment of this dream. In turn, God rewarded him with 95 years of a robust, purposeful life. If Nelson Mandela was from the Luo ethnicity like me, his death would herald two weeks of drinking, merry-making and dancing to the sounds of ffumbo drums in celebration of the resting of an honourable elder.

Seeing the glowing eulogies fills me with the same unsettling pride that gripped my younger soul as I listened to my high school African nationalism teacher talk about the struggle of great leaders to liberate the continent. She spoke of Mandela in the same breath as Kwame Nkurumah, Julius Nyerere, Daniel Arap Moi, Muammar Gaddafi, Yoweri Museveni and Robert Mugabe.

These are the men who stood up to oppressive regimes and dedicated their lives to fighting injustice and transforming the continent, she told us. The fiery way in which she spoke, and reading about the anti-colonial struggle from authors such as Chinua Achebe and Ousmane Sembène, made me want to leap out of my seat.

I was in awe of these great men and wanted to save a continent that, she informed us, was on the brink of sinking under the weight of endless social, economic and political problems.

Today, 10 years later, listing some of these names alongside Mandela seems quite odd. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that Mandela, Mugabe and Museveni all once sung the same song of liberty, equality and tolerance.

Mandela is one of the few African leaders who sang the song to the very end. [Continue reading...]


The U.S. Army discovers Africa

Andrew Bacevich writes: On the list of U.S. military priorities, Africa has always ranked right smack at the bottom. Now that appears to be changing. As Eric Schmitt recently reported in the New York Times, “thousands of soldiers once bound for Iraq or Afghanistan are now gearing up for missions in Africa.” Before the gearing up proceeds much further, Americans might want to ask a few questions. Chief among them are these: Why the sudden shift in priorities? What’s the aim? Who stands to benefit? What risks does the militarization of U.S. policy in Africa entail?

Among the various services, the U.S. Army in particular finds the prospect of an expanded Africa presence appealing. As Schmitt observed, with U.S. forces out of Iraq and soon scheduled to leave Afghanistan, “the Army is looking for new missions around the world.” For Army leaders, Africa spells opportunity, a chance to demonstrate continuing relevance at a time when the nation’s appetite for sending U.S. troops to invade and occupy countries has pretty much evaporated.

Thus, we have U.S. Army Africa, or USARAF, the latest in the Pentagon’s ever-growing roster of military headquarters. The mission of this command, which describes itself as “America’s premier Army team dedicated to positive change in Africa,” manages to be at once reassuringly bland and ominously ambitious. On the one hand, USARAF “strengthens the land force capabilities of African states and regional organizations.” On the other, it “conducts decisive action in order to establish a secure environment and protect the national security interests of the United States.”

One might hope that successfully accomplishing the first half of that mission — U.S. troops training and equipping African counterparts — will preclude the second. More likely, however, such efforts will pave the way for “decisive action,” a euphemism for war.

Let’s discard the euphemisms. Here is a classic example of bureaucratic interests displacing strategic calculation, not to mention common sense, as a basis for policy. For the Navy and Air Force, the Obama administration’s much-ballyhooed “pivot” toward East Asia has come as something of a godsend. Addressing the putative threat posed by a rising China promises to keep those services busy (and flush with cash) for decades to come. Yet apart from a possible resumption of the long-dormant Korean War, Asian scenarios involving a large-scale commitment of Army forces are difficult to conjure up. So expanding the “global war on terrorism” into the heart of Africa allows the Army to make its own pivot. [Continue reading...]


CIA secret prisons: a decade later, justice in Africa?

John Sifton writes: I have just arrived here in the Gambia, in westernmost Africa, to testify before the African Commission of Human Rights about a CIA rendition case involving Djibouti, 4,000 miles east at the mouth of the Red Sea.

The case against Djibouti was brought by Mohammed Abdullah Saleh al-Asad, a Yemeni citizen who was arrested in 2003 in Tanzania and taken on a private flight to Djibouti. There the CIA — with help from Djibouti authorities — detained him short term and then flew him to another CIA facility in Afghanistan. His petition provides evidence that he was subjected to beatings and torture in both locations. The CIA appears to have realized later that al-Asad was not involved in terrorism or al-Qaeda, and returned him to Yemen in 2005.

The al-Asad case is one of several brought to hold the US government and its co-perpetrators accountable for unlawful arrests, detentions, and interrogations carried out by the CIA during the Bush administration — serious abuses that my colleagues and I documented for Human Rights Watch in numerous reports in 2004 to present. Known CIA interrogation techniques included severe sleep deprivation, forced standing, exposure to cold, slapping and hitting, confining detainees in small boxes, and throwing detainees against the wall. Some were waterboarded. [Continue reading...]


Video: Israel’s new racism — persecution of African migrants in the Holy Land


The true size of Africa

Click on the map above for more information.


Islam is not the real issue we are facing in Africa

Eliza Griswold writes: Stretching from west to east across Africa – from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea – the Sahel today is a militant’s dream. Despite the French military’s recent routing of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies in northern Mali, the threat of safe haven for the west’s enemies is not going to end there any time soon.

Although, for the moment, the militia have melted from sight, the latest battles in Algeria and Mali are harbingers of a larger catastrophe: the Sahel, the vast grassland north of the equator, has become the latest battleground in the west’s war against Islamist militants.

France’s plans to withdraw its 4,000 troops from Mali in late March are premature. From the air, US surveillance drones and French fighter planes will not be enough to keep peace in the Sahel – which includes Mauritania, southern Algeria, northern Mali, Chad and Sudan, as well as Somalia, where a 2006 Ethiopian invasion, tacitly backed by the US, looked at first like an utter defeat for the Islamists. Six months later, the militants returned to wage exactly the kind of war Ethiopia and the US had feared.

So how does the west avoid repeating the pattern? By understanding the root causes of the troubles that plague the Sahel. [Continue reading...]


How cigarette smuggling fuels Africa’s Islamist violence

The Observer reports: For many years Mokhtar Belmokhtar was little more than a footnote in the intelligence reports analysing the increasingly muscular presence of Islamist groups in Saharan Africa.

The man whose al-Qaida-inspired Signed in Blood Battalion led the attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria, in which at least 38 people were killed, was considered a relatively unimportant figure in the political ecosystem of the vast region. But Belmokhtar, who fought for the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the Islamist GIA in the Algerian civil war before becoming a commander in the Mali-based al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was ambitious.

In 2003 he masterminded the kidnapping of 32 European tourists whom he successfully ransomed. The money gave him the seed capital he needed to develop a sophisticated trading business throughout Saharan Africa, along the ancient 2,000-mile salt route used by the Tuareg tribesmen to transport goods from the continent’s west coast through to Timbuktu in Mali, then on to Niger before arriving in the Algerian south, gateway to the Mediterranean.

But while the Tuareg made their money in trading salt, gold and silk, Belmokhtar, who secured close links with the tribesmen through marriages to the daughters of several of their most prominent families, made a fortune through a different commodity: smuggled cigarettes. Such was the volume of his trade that he earned himself the sobriquet “Mr Marlboro”.

“He was not an important figure in AQIM, he was quite different from al-Qaida and Bin Laden,” said Morten Bøås, a senior research fellow at Oslo University and editor of African Guerrillas: Raging Against the Machine. “He is generally known as one of the more pragmatic figures, more interested in filling his own pockets than fighting jihad.”

The key role cigarettes play in facilitating terrorism has been inexplicably ignored. But it has become of urgent interest to western intelligence agencies as they seek to check al-Qaida’s diverse factions operating across the Saharan region. [Continue reading...]


Music is vital to political struggle across Africa — not just in Mali

Ian Birrell writes: At dinner last month after a concert by the Congolese rapper Baloji, I found myself sitting next to his drummer, Saidou Ilboudo. As we chatted over the chicken, he told me the remarkable story of how as a teenager growing up in Burkina Faso he had been recruited one day by Thomas Sankara, the country’s president, to play in a state band.

Sankara is an almost-forgotten figure these days in the west, but in the mid-80s he was one of the most charismatic leaders of his age, a revolutionary known as “Africa’s Che Guevara” who pushed public health, promoted feminism and faced down the global financial institutions causing such damage to the continent.

This was an amazing break for a boy just out of school. For a few years, he enjoyed the privileges and security that went with being part of the president’s circle, while playing in a band that had a dual purpose: to entertain young people while proselytising political messages. Then, in 1987, Sankara was murdered in a French-backed coup and life became trickier.

The idea of publicly funded pop groups might sound strange, but many leading figures of African music served time in such institutions. Given the continent’s oral tradition, there is a proud history of praise singers, and musicians were for centuries vital voices, used and abused by politicians and tribal leaders who understood their power. Think only of Franco, whose liquid guitar-playing made Congolese rumba the heartbeat of Africa while promoting the messages of Mobutu Sese Seko, his thieving president.

After the end of colonialism, musicians were used to fuse countries carved out of often disparate communities. Nowhere was this truer than Mali, a nation on the faultline between the African and Arab worlds in which music is more threaded into the fabric of cultural, social and political life than perhaps any other place on Earth. [Continue reading...]


Why the Pentagon should pay less attention to Africa

Gordon Adams writes: [A]fter decades of leaving Africa pretty much alone or engaging through health and economic assistance, the United States is now seriously involved, but driven by the mantra American “security.” Mixing these messages (development, health, and security) is proving difficult for the African countries. They have begun to wonder why the United States has suddenly developed an interest in their continent. Uneasy African governments resisted the notion that Africom should actually be based on the continent as the United States wanted, so the headquarters remains in Stuttgart, Germany.

Well, they might have reason to be concerned. A growing “security” focus for U.S. engagement in Africa changes things. So does the growing lead the Pentagon and the Special Operations forces are taking in that engagement. When security takes the lead, too often, governance and development step aside. And, while the security focus is ostensibly intended to strengthen African capacities to provide national and regional stability, they have the consequence, intended or not, of dragging the United States into Africa’s internal politics, at a potential cost to our long-term interests.

In Mali, for example, the appearance of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has led some in the U.S. military to warn that the Maghreb (that is, the Northwestern rim of the continent) is becoming a terrorist haven and to suggest that the U.S. cannot prevent this reality with a light, indirect military footprint. Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo, who overthrew the elected Malian government in 2012, was trained under IMET. In Algeria, the United States has partnered with an authoritarian regime in the pursuit of counterterrorism operations.

This increasing focus on security coincides with a broader trend over the past decade towards giving the Pentagon greater direct authority for security assistance programs overall. Where the State Department was once in the lead, DOD is now directly responsible, funded through its own budget, for a growing share of U.S. security assistance, accentuating the pronounced bias in those programs toward DOD’s needs, requirements, and missions.

The largest DOD programs have trained and equipped the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, at a cost well over $50 billion. They provide considerable budgetary support to the militaries of Jordan and Pakistan. By the time the United States left Iraq, the Pentagon was directly responsible for more than half of total U.S. funding for security assistance worldwide.

African programs are now part of this pattern. Especially in Africa, DOD has put the label of “Building Partner Capacity” on its activities. That the programs surely do. But especially in Africa, these activities support a particular kind of capacity — counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. These competencies are unhinged, in large part, from broader U.S. foreign policy objectives in Africa, and provide a sneaky way of pulling the United States into security relationships that may not serve our long-run goals for African state building or development.

The major problem is context. Focusing on our security interests in Africa risks ignoring the need for stronger, more capable, more responsive civilian governance and economic development. While DOD likes to argue that security comes first, before governance and development, the risk of militarizing our engagement in Africa is that it will end the development of fledgling accountable governance in Africa (and elsewhere) and increase hostility toward the United States.

Much as Iraq and Afghanistan reproduced the sad lessons of Vietnam, our slide into Africa risks becoming a sequel to a film we have already seen. Two decades of repression and “disappearances” in Latin America followed from a U.S. security and covert assistance program in the 1960s that focused on our fascination with and fear of insurgents and communists — at the cost of democracy and warm and fuzzy feelings about America. Cloaked in the mantra of “Building Partner Capacity,” here we go again, this time in Africa. [Continue reading...]


Hillary Clinton’s thin gloss on U.S. aid in Africa

Chris McGreal writes: American aid to the country once called Zaire appeared to have an amazing effect.

The more the US gave its ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, the shorter Zaire’s roads seemed to get. By the time Mobutu was overthrown in 1997, after two decades of American and other western largesse, his country had just about one tenth of the paved roads it had had at independence in the early Sixties. Once US aid shrank, the roads started getting longer again.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, began a tour of Africa this month with a thinly veiled warning that China is out to plunder the continent and its governments would do well to huddle under the protective wing of America’s commitment to freedom. Clinton told an audience in Senegal that, unlike other countries:

“America will stand up for democracy and universal human rights even when it might be easier to look the other way and keep the resources flowing.”

She didn’t mention China by name, but everyone got the message. The US secretary of state is getting at a point made by other critics of Beijing’s role in Africa: that China is so hungry for resources it does deals with authoritarian regimes and doles out aid without consideration of issues such as good governance.

That sounds an awful lot like what the US and its allies got up to for decades – with the difference that Chinese aid does sometimes deliver something tangible, such as thousands of kilometres of new roads in the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Whereas US aid mostly disappeared into Mobutu’s buoyant bank accounts, or was used to buy off the army to keep him in power, China’s deal with the DRC government – trading thousands of kilometres of new roads and rehabilitated railway track for copper and other minerals – is transforming lives by linking up parts of the country cut off from each other for decades except by air.

None of this happened with US and western money. US aid to Mobutu was tied up with the cold war, his support of US-backed rebels fighting Angola’s Marxist government and his general hostility to communism. Barely a word was said – by successive US administrations – about Mobutu’s dire human rights record. Few questions were asked about how, despite the billions of dollars thrown at Kinshasa, Mobutu went on getting richer while the people he ruled got poorer and his country’s infrastructure fell apart. [Continue reading...]


Mali: The jihadist behind the destruction of Timbuktu’s tombs

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.