Since April last, a new brand of jihadists called Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith) has been spreading jihadist mayhem in northern Mali, reminding one of the brutalities and vandalism perpetrated by the Taliban in Afghanistan under Mulla Mohammad Omar from 1994 and before it was overthrown by the US in October 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist strikes by Al Qaeda in the US. Mali, a land-locked country in Western Africa, borders Algeria on the north, Niger on the east, Burkina Faso and the Côte d'Ivoire on the south, Guinea on the south-west, and Senegal and Mauritania on the west.
The Taliban, which carried out indescribable cruelties in the name of Islam against fellow-Muslims—particularly the Hazara Shias— and destroyed the historical Buddhist shrine of Bamiyan, initially consisted of Pashtun tribals radicalised, trained and armed by the intelligence agencies of the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for use against the Soviet troops and pro-Soviet Afghan security forces in Afghanistan.
After the post-1988 withdrawal of the Soviet troops, these anti-communist jihadists turned into anti-West, anti-Israel and anti-democracy radicals and spread mayhem in the name of Al Qaeda in the Af-Pak region, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Tunisia, Algeria and Indonesia.
Even before their activities could be brought under control by the international community, a new brand of jihadists— more radical, more brutal and bigger vandalisers than even Al Qaeda and the Taliban of anti-Soviet vintage— has made its appearance in northern Mali and joined hands with the remnants of Al Qaeda in Algeria and Mauritania in the name of Al Qaeda of Islamic Maghreb.
They have been carrying out acts of brutality and vandalism against fellow-Muslims and the widely-practised Sufism in Northern Mali. The Ansar Dine has been destroying the Islamic heritage sites in Timbuktu, including the burial sites of many Sufi saints in the name of establishing a pure Islamic state. Their attack on Sufism and their destruction of Sufi sites indicate a strong Wahabi influence on them
The brutalisation of Islam in the name of Sharia, which first made its appearance in the Af-Pak region after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, is now threatening to infect Northern Mali after the overthrow and elimination of Qaddafi and his Army in Libya by a Western trained and armed army of mercenaries, many of them Wahabi jihadists of Af-Pak vintage .
Just as many of the weapons so generously given by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to the Afghan Mujahideen ultimately fell into the hands of Al Qaeda and the Taliban and were used by them to spread death and destruction in the civilised world, the weapons from Libya—some accumulated by Qaddafi’s Army and others given to his opponents by the intelligence agencies of the US and other NATO countries— are now finding their way into the hands of the new post-Libya crop of jihadists in Northern Mali, Niger, Algeria and Mauritania.
The West under the leadership of the US meddled in Afghanistan in the 1980s in the name of containing communism and preventing its spread in the Islamic world. The result: over two decades of international jihadi terrorism from which the world has not yet fully recovered despite successes in eliminating Osama bin Laden and other important leaders of Al Qaeda. The Afghan and Pakistani Talibans, and the plethora of jihadi organisations of Pakistan, with the Lashkar-e-Toiba in the forefront, are yet to be brought under control due to the complicity of the Pakistani State with them.
Now, new waves of anger, radicalisation and chaos caused by the Western meddling in Iraq, Libya and Syria in the name of promoting democracy are not only threatening to give a new lease of life to the remnants of Al Qaeda of the Afghan vintage, but are also creating a new crop of jihadists determined to keep the blood flowing in the name of Islam till an Islamic Caliphate ruled according to the Sharia comes into being in Northern and Western Africa.
The brutal elimination by the US-led forces with the complicity of Iran of Saddam Hussein, who strongly countered the activities of Al Qaeda, facilitated the ingress of Al Qaeda into Iraq, where it has been spreading death and destruction. Similarly, the equally brutal elimination of Qaddafi, who strongly countered Al Qaeda in North Africa and the Saharan region, has led to the rise of Neo Al Qaeda in Northern Mali.
The process of destabilisation in Northern Mali has got aggravated following the May 26 decision of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), an organisation of secular Tuareg tribes, to merge with the Ansar Dine and declare the formation of a separate state in northern Mali to be called the Islamic Republic of Azawad.
After the signing of the accord on May 26, "Colonel" Bouna Ag Attayoub, an MNLA commander in Timbuktu, told the BBC that "the Islamic Republic of Azawad is now an independent sovereign state." The Ansar Dine did not in the past support the creation of an independent State in Northern Mali, which is the goal of the MNLA. It wanted to establish an Islamic State in the whole of Mali. Now, to strengthen its position, it seems to have tactically decided to support the MNLA’s demand for the secession of Northern Mali. It remains to be seen how far the hitherto secular MNLA and the increasingly Wahabi Ansar Dine will remain united.
Both the organisations draw their followers from the Tuaregs, who are a nomadic tribe found in the Sahara Desert, in Niger, Mali, Algeria and Libya. The Qaddafi regime allegedly supported for many years the secular elements in the tribe and armed them to counter the pro-Al Qaeda elements in the tribe. His regime supported a movement for an independent Tuareg state consisting of the Tuareg-inhabited areas of Niger and Northern Mali. His overthrow and brutal murder by the pro-Western armed mercenaries have weakened the secular elements in the tribe and strengthened the hands of the Wahabi elements.
Many Tuaregs, who were fighting in Libya either with Qaddafi’s Army or with the anti-Qaddafi mercenary forces trained and armed by the Western intelligence agencies, returned to Mali in March with the weapons acquired by them in Libya. Since then, Mali, which had a tradition of democratic rule, has been going through increasing instability following a short-lived military coup in March, which overthrew the elected government of President Amadou Toumani Touré .A month later, Dioncounda Traoré, 70, the leader of the country’s National Assembly, was sworn in as interim President. He has not been able to impose his authority
In a statement disseminated from Mauritania on July 7, Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) warned against anyone in Mali collaborating with a foreign military force that might intervene in north Mali. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a leader of AQIM, warned that no one should be tempted to “profit from the situation” in north Mali “by collaborating with the foreign forces who are eyeing the region.”
The previous day, another jihadist group calling itself the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), threatened countries who joined a military intervention force.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate, Chennai Centre For China Studies