‘I am sorry’: Islamist apologises for destroying Timbuktu mausoleums

The Guardian reports: The first defendant to plead guilty at the international criminal court has apologised to Mali and to mankind for destroying religious monuments in the ancient city of Timbuktu.

Ahmad al-Mahdi admitted directing the destruction of nine mausoleums and a mosque door in 2012, when Timbuktu was controlled by rebels and members of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

At the opening of his trial for war crimes in The Hague, he expressed his “deep regret” to the people of Timbuktu, to whom the monuments had been of great religious and cultural importance.

“I seek their forgiveness and I ask them to look at me as a son who has lost his way,” he said. “Those who forgive me will be rewarded by the almighty. I would like to make them a solemn promise that this was the first and the last wrongful act I will ever commit.”

Wearing a grey suit, blue shirt and tie and glasses, his long curly hair slicked back, Mahdi said he drew on Islamic teachings to enter his guilty plea. “We need to speak justice even to ourselves. We have to be truthful, even if it burns our own hands,” he said.

“All the charges brought against me are accurate and correct. I am really sorry, and I regret all the damage that my actions have caused.” [Continue reading…]

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U.S. strikes in Somalia kill 150 Shabab fighters

The New York Times reports: The fighters had just completed “training for a large-scale attack” against American and African Union forces, said Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

Pentagon officials would not say how they knew that the Shabab fighters killed on Saturday were training for an attack on United States and African Union forces, but the militant group is believed to be under heavy American surveillance.

The Shabab fighters were standing in formation at a facility the Pentagon called Camp Raso, 120 miles north of Mogadishu, when the American warplanes struck on Saturday, officials said, acting on information gleaned from intelligence sources in the area and from American spy planes. One intelligence agency assessed that the toll might have been higher had the strike happened earlier in the ceremony. Apparently, some fighters were filtering away from the event when the bombing began.

The strike was another escalation in what has become the latest battleground in the Obama administration’s war against terror: Africa. The United States and its allies are focused on combating the spread of the Islamic State in Libya, and American officials estimate that with an influx of men from Iraq, Syria and Tunisia, the Islamic State’s forces in Libya have swelled to as many as 6,500 fighters, allowing the group to capture a 150-mile stretch of coastline over the past year.

The arrival of the Islamic State in Libya has sparked fears that the group’s reach could spread to other North African countries, and the United States is increasingly trying to prevent that. American forces are now helping to combat Al Qaeda in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso; Boko Haram in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad; and the Shabab in Somalia and Kenya, in what has become a multifront war against militant Islam in Africa. [Continue reading…]

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Mali’s irrepressible musical spirit resounds after jihadi-imposed silence

The Guardian reports: n the courtyard of a colonial villa in Bamako, four young men crouch around a tiny camping stove. The Malian tradition of simmering tea for hours is as old as the ancient trade routes crossing the Sahara desert. There is even a saying behind the practice, says Aliou Touré, a singer in the Mali band Songhoy Blues.

“Here in Mali we say that the first cup is bitter like life, the second is sweet like love and the third is soft like the breath of a dying man,” he says.

Songhoy Blues are one of the latest musical acts to emerge from the west African country that has produced artists such as Salif Keita and Toumani Diabaté – both multiple Grammy winners – Tinariwen, Ali Farka Touré, Bassekou Kouyaté, and Rokia Traoré.

The band is one of a dozen acts at this week’s Bamako acoustic festival, the first major music festival in the capital since 2012, when Islamist extremists seized northern Mali and imposed their hardline interpretation of sharia law that, among other things, banned music. [Continue reading…]

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Burkina Faso attack demonstrates al Qaeda revival in Africa

CNN reports: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, often seen as a fractured and undisciplined group, apparently has carried out its second major terror attack in two months — claiming more than 20 lives in the assault on a luxury hotel and two other targets in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

The gun attack on the Splendid Hotel bears many similarities to that on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, on November 20 in which 22 people were killed.

Both targets were popular with Westerners and international (especially U.N). officials; they were “soft,” rather than military installations or police stations. The attackers (two in Bamako, possibly four in Ouagadougou) were armed with automatic weapons, their aim to kill and then take as many hostages as possible.

And both operations apparently were carried out by an AQIM group called Al Mourabitoun.

The group’s statement after the latest attack claimed the Splendid Hotel was “frequented by staff of the nations of global disbelief;” the attack was “to punish the cross-worshippers for their crimes against our people in Central Africa, Mali, and other lands of the Muslims.” [Continue reading…]

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Paris attacks and other assaults seen as evidence of a strategic shift by ISIS

The New York Times reports: The recent attacks in Paris and Beirut and the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt were the first results of a centrally planned terrorism campaign by a wing of the Islamic State leadership that oversees “external” targets, according to American and European intelligence officials.

The Islamic State’s overseas operations planning cell offers strategic guidance, training and funding for actions aimed at inflicting the maximum possible civilian casualties, but leaves the task of picking the time, place and manner of the attacks largely to trusted operatives on the ground, the officials said.

Carrying out attacks far from the Islamic State’s base in Iraq and Syria represents an evolution of the group’s previous model of exhorting followers to take up arms wherever they live — but without significant help from the group. And it upends the view held by the United States and its allies of the Islamic State as a regional threat, with a new assessment that the group poses a whole new set of risks.

Debris from a Russian airliner downed in Egypt in October, killing all 224 people on board. The downing and the recent attacks in Paris and Beirut were the first results of a terrorism campaign by a wing of the Islamic State, according to American and European intelligence officials. Credit Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
“Once the Islamic State possessed territory that provided them sanctuary and allowed them to act with impunity, they like other jihadist groups inevitably turned to external attacks,” said William Wechsler, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and until last January a top counterterrorism official at the Pentagon.

One possible motivation of the change in strategy by the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, is to seize leadership of the global jihad from Al Qaeda — from which the Islamic State broke away in 2013. The attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali on Friday was probably carried out by two Qaeda-linked groups, suggesting, as one senior European counterterrorism official put it, “The race is on between ISIS and Al Qaeda to see who can attack the West the best.” [Continue reading…]

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ISIS vs Al Qaeda

The attack in Mali’s capital Bamako has been claimed by Al Mourabitou, a North African militant group linked to Al Qaeda. It was another Al Qaeda affiliate which said it was behind the attacks in Paris in January this year. But Islamic State seems to be eclipsing Al Qaeda. Fawaz Gerges has written about Islamic State and began by discussing Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader behind the Bamako attack.

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Explainer: What is going on in Mali?

By Paul Jackson, University of Birmingham

After a week in which Europe was rocked by terrorism on the streets of Paris, gunmen entered the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali. A hostage situation unfolded and French and Malian security forces battled for control of the building. It is a hotel that is known to be frequented by foreigners and represents an escalation of violence that has been building in Mali during 2015.

Islamist attacks have been concentrated in Mali’s north, but spread during 2015 to the centre of the country – and then to the south and the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. On March 6, there was a terrorist attack on the restaurant La Terrasse in Bamako, in the south-west of the country. Five people were killed and nine were injured.

On June 10, there was an attack by armed men on Malian security forces in the town of Misseni, near the border with Ivory Coast. And on August 7, armed men attacked the town of Sévare in the Mopti region, north-east of Bamako. The attack lasted several hours, including a siege at a local hotel. Twelve people died, including two foreign nationals.

[Read more…]

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Jihadists destroy proposed world heritage site in Mali

The Associated Press reports: Jihadists have destroyed a mausoleum in central Mali that had been submitted as a U.N. World Heritage site, leaving behind a warning that they will come after all those who don’t follow their strict version of Islam, a witness said Monday.

The dynamite attack on the mausoleum of Cheick Amadou Barry mirrors similar ones that were carried out in northern Mali in 2012 when jihadists seized control of the major towns there. The destruction also comes as concerns grow about the emergence of a new extremist group active much further south and closer to the capital.

Barry was a marabout, or important Islamic religious leader, in the 19th century who helped to spread Islam among the animists of central Mali. One of his descendants, Bologo Amadou Barry, confirmed to The Associated Press that the site had been partially destroyed in Hamdallahi village on Sunday night.

The jihadists left behind a note on Sunday warning they would attack all those who did not follow the teachings of Islam’s prophet.

“They also threatened France and the U.N. peacekeepers and all those who work with them,” Bologo Amadou Barry said. [Continue reading…]

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Loser in Mali presidential race vows to create opposition

Reuters reports: Soumaila Cisse, loser in Mali’s presidential elections, vowed on Tuesday that he would build the country’s first proper opposition in years, as Malians applauded his concession to Ibrahim Boubacar Keita which dispelled fears of fresh conflict.

Cisse conceded defeat late on Monday as it became clear that former prime minister Keita had swept Sunday’s second round vote. Keita has promised to restore the pride of a nation riven by a military coup and an Islamist revolt last year.

On the streets of the riverside capital Bamako, residents heaped praise on Cisse’s gesture, which avoided a potentially lengthy and acrimonious battle in a country already weary of turmoil.

Television showed Cisse going in person with his wife and children to congratulate Keita and his family at their home.

“Soumaila’s conduct was truly impeccable,” said Aissata Camara, a pharmacy lab technician. “It was very impressive and very democratic as well. It was a relief for all of us.”

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Libya faces growing Islamist threat

The Guardian reports: Diplomats are warning of growing Islamist violence against western targets in Libya as blowback from the war in Mali, following last week’s attack on the French embassy in Tripoli.

The bomb blast that wrecked much of the embassy is seen as a reprisal by Libyan militants for the decision by Paris the day before to extend its military mission against fellow jihadists in Mali.

The Guardian has learned that jihadist groups ejected from their Timbuktu stronghold have moved north, crossing the Sahara through Algeria and Niger to Libya, fuelling a growing Islamist insurgency.

“There are established links between groups in both Mali and Libya – we know there are established routes,” said a western diplomat in Tripoli. “There is an anxiety among the political class here that Mali is blowing back on them.”

That anxiety escalated last week after militants detonated a car bomb outside the French embassy, wounding two French guards and a Libyan student, the first such attack on a western target in the Libyan capital since the end of the 2011 Arab spring revolution.

“The armed groups we are fighting are fleeing to Libya,” said Colonel Keba Sangare, commander of Mali’s army garrison in Timbuktu. “We have captured Libyans in this region, as well as Algerians, Nigerians, French and other European dual-nationals.”

France sent troops to Mali in January after an uprising in the north started by the ethnic Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA), named for the independent state it hopes to create.

The impetus for this uprising came from ethnic Tuareg soldiers who had fought alongside Muammar Gaddafi and fled south when his regime fell. They were later augmented by jihadists from Libya and across north Africa, who triggered international condemnation for their destruction of ancient Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu. The fear across the Maghreb is that the French operation that has pushed them out of the northern cities has inadvertently compounded problems elsewhere in north Africa as jihadist units disperse.

“If you squeeze a balloon in one part, it bulges out in another,” said Bill Lawrence, of International Crisis Group, a political consultancy. “There’s no question that the French actions in Mali had the effect of squeezing that balloon towards Algeria and Libya.” [Continue reading…]

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France wants to keep 1,000 soldiers in Mali permanently

Reuters reports: France has proposed keeping a permanent force of 1,000 French troops in Mali to fight armed Islamist militants, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Friday.

Fabius, on a visit to Bamako, said France was pushing ahead with plans to reduce its 4,000-strong military presence from the end of this month but planned to keep a combat force in Mali to support a future U.N. peacekeeping mission.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called last week for the deployment of a U.N. mission of 11,200 troops and 1,440 police in Mali once major combat ends.

This would include thousands of African troops already in Mali in support of France’s three-month military campaign, which has swept Islamist rebels out of the towns of northern Mali and into remote desert and mountain hideaways.

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Mali insurgency endangers French pull-out plan

Reuters reports: France wants to cut its forces in Mali sharply by the year-end and is urging its ex-colony to hold elections in July, but an Islamist insurgency is threatening that timetable.

Many people in northern Mali who lived under the rebels’ brutal form of Islamic law last year are apprehensive about French plans to leave just 1,000 of the current 4,000 troops in the country by December, with U.N. peacekeepers filling the gap.

“The Islamists are waiting for the French to leave to open the gates to hell. Let’s hope the U.N. will take over quickly because the Malian army alone cannot face the terrorism threat,” said Alhassane Maîga, a teacher in the ancient trading post of Timbuktu.

Last weekend Islamist militants launched their second attack on Timbuktu in a fortnight, shortly after French President Francois Hollande insisted the elections must take place as scheduled and unveiled the plan to slash troop numbers.

Launched in January, the French-led offensive quickly succeeded in pushing a mix of Islamists out of their northern strongholds and remote mountain bases, hitting the local leadership of the al Qaeda-linked groups.

But new clashes have followed a handful of suicide attacks and raids on towns won back from the rebels, underscoring the task of securing the country as France prepares to hand over to the Malian army and a 7,000-strong regional African force.

The nightmare scenario is that of a repeat of the Afghan war, where Taliban insurgents have prevented a full pull-out of NATO-led troops after a 13-year conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives.

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