Sud­denly Tim­buktu does not seem so far away any­more

The Kurdish Globe - - COMMENT & ANALYSIS - By Joshua Levkowitz

Ta­har Djaout wrote in “The Last Sum­mer of Rea­son”:

Birds are the very per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of lib­erty. As soon as some sky ceases to live up to the im­age of their de­sires, they gather to­gether, con­fer, and take flight on a very long mi­gra­tion on which some of them lose their life. That is the price for liv­ing as one with your de­sires, in land­scape and hori­zons at­tuned to your­self.

Af­ter the fall of Muam­mar Gaddafi last spring, Tuareg rebels, for­merly in the Libyan army, em­barked on this mi­gra­tion in or­der to carve out an in­de­pen­dent home­land in north-east­ern Mali. Their de­sire for au­ton­omy can be traced back to the French col­o­niza­tion of large parts of West Africa in the nine­teenth cen­tury. How­ever, it was not un­til Gaddafi’s death that the re­sis­tance be­came wellarmed due to the stock­piles of Libyan weapons left un­guarded. As a mil­i­tary coup en­sued in Mali’s cap­i­tal Ba­mako, the Touraeg staged an of­fen­sive against the ane­mic cen­tral government.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion The Na­tional Move­ment for the Lib­er­a­tion of Aza­wad (MNLA) con­ducted the bulk of the fight­ing to now con­trol 300,000 square miles of north­ern Mali. How­ever, two Is­lamic groups, An­sar Dine and the Move­ment for One­ness and Ji­had in West Africa be­gan to wres­tle power from the ini­tial move­ment in or­der to im­pose a strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Sharia law. Th­ese ten­sions cul­mi­nated in the two Is­lamic groups, along with sup­port from Al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Ma­grheb, push­ing MNLA out of the north­ern city of Gao on June 27th. Since then, north­ern Mali has be­come the largest and most prof­itable strong­hold con­trolled by Al Qaeda af­fil­i­ates.

Th­ese hard­ened Is­lamists have banned al­co­hol, cigarettes, and even mu­sic. Cer­tain el­e­ments of the rich legacy of Malian mu­sic could be stamped out. It is re­ported that peo­ple face pun­ish­ments for even hav­ing a mu­si­cal ring tone on their mo­bile phones. Res­i­dents have been forced to play ex­cerpts from the Qu­ran to avoid in­tim­i­da­tion.

Crim­i­nal tri­als have been re­placed by groups of el­ders who dis­cuss and pro­scribe the ap­pro­pri­ate pun­ish­ment for crimes. Cases of women be­ing en­forced into mar­riage have in­creased and oth­ers are sold for less than $1,000. Ivan Si­monovic, a Se­nior Hu­man Rights Ad­vi­sor at the United Na­tions, said in Oc­to­ber: “"We have three cases of pub­lic ex­ecu- tions. We have eight cases of am­pu­ta­tions, a num­ber of cases of flog­ging.” De­rived from the Qu­ranic verse 5:38, el­ders ad­here to the rule that a thief who steals more than a quar­ter of a di­nar (cur­rent mar­ket rates come to ap­prox­i­mately $ 50) will have their hand cut off. Hu­man Rights Watch says that around 14 peo­ple sus­pected of thiev­ery had their limbs chopped off. Aliou Toure, a po­lice chief who cut off his own brother’s hand af­ter be­ing ac­cused of steal­ing said, “We had no choice but to prac­tice the jus­tice of God.”

Along­side th­ese bru­tal pun­ish­ments, Is­lamist groups are keep­ing con­trol through lu­cra­tive in­dus­tries in­clud­ing kid­nap­ping and drug smug­gling. Tar­gets in­clude mainly West­ern tourists and NGO work­ers. Al Qaeda in the Is­lamic Ma­grheb has amassed over $90 mil­lion dol­lars over the past decade from kid­nap­ping alone be­cause gov­ern­ments such as Switzer­land and France are paying huge ran­som pay­ments for the re­lease of their ci­ti­zens. The New York Times quoted Ou­mar Ould Hamaha, one Is­lamist com­man­der based in north­ern Mali: “The source of our fi­nanc­ing is the West­ern coun­tries. They are paying for Ji­had.”

Apart from kid­nap­pings, Is­lamic groups have taken con­trol of im­por­tant smug­gling net­works in West Africa. Many ex­trem­ists trans­port drugs, mainly Afghan hero­ine, to the mar­kets in West­ern Europe. Car­tels from Latin Amer­ica have taken ad­van­tage of this power vac­uum in or­der to trans­port huge quan­ti­ties of co­caine through the coun­try. In one case dat­ing back to 2008, Malian forces in­ter­cepted 750kg of co­caine. Mali is quickly be­com­ing a cross­roads for vi­o­lence, drugs, and kid­nap­pings.

Un­for­tu­nately, the peo­ple liv­ing un­der th­ese harsh con­di­tions can­not sim­ply fly away like the birds Ta­har Djaout writes about. They must en­dure un­der th­ese strict con­di­tions. Some have se­cretly wished for a for­eign in­ter­ven­tion to drive the Is­lamists out. Although the United Na­tions called for an African force to be de­ployed in Mali, West­ern pow­ers were hes­i­tant to pro­vide any­thing more than lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port. That was un­til ap­prox­i­mately 900 Is­lamists stormed the town of Konna, push­ing back the pre­car­i­ous line of government con­trolled area. On Fri­day, with the ex­trem­ists 300 miles from the Malian cap­i­tal, France in­ter­vened in the coun­try by pro­vid­ing the Malian army es­sen­tial air sup­port. France’s Presi- dent Fran­cois Hol­lande promised that French forces would re­main “as long as nec­es­sary.”

Had th­ese or­ga­ni­za­tions held their ground in North Mali, they would not have faced a for­eign in­ter­ven­tion for months. How­ever, due to their of­fen­sive last week into cen­tral Mali, many coun­tries, in­clud­ing France and the United States, feared that the cen­tral government would fall. With France’s involvement, in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion has shifted to­ward the cri­sis in Mali. West African forces are mo­bi­liz­ing to be sent into the coun­try and the United States has pledged lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port. There is also spec­u­la­tion that Al­ge­ria might get in­volved mil­i­tar­ily. It seems that the Al Qaeda af­fil­i­ates most re­cent ag­gres­sion has trig­gered an in­ter­na­tional re­sponse and it is un­clear yet how many coun­tries will get in­volved.

A Malian mil­i­tary ve­hi­cle crosses a strate­gic bridge over a dam on the Niger River se­cured by French forces in Markala, Mali Jan­uary 18, 2013.

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