10 Sep 2012

Massacre of Mali preachers that could trigger a war

How do wars start? Usually by accident. There’s tension, and then skirmishes, and then an incident or a provocation, deliberate or accidental. Take the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which triggered the First World War, or the Gulf of Tonkin incident which precipitated US involvement in Vietnam.

Picture courtesy of Mike Goldwater

A trigger event may have occurred yesterday, just near Segou in Mali. It’s hard to establish the facts, but it seems that a party of Islamic preachers, some Malian and some Mauritanian, were stopped at an army checkpoint en route to Bamako, the capital. The security officials allegedly shot at the preachers, 16 of whom were killed.

The preachers are said to have been from the Dawa movement, which, while conservative, is not associated with the jihadis who control the north of Mali. Yet Omar Ould Hamaha, one of the Islamist leaders, has said they regard the killings as “a declaration of war”.

Last month, when I was in Mali, I obtained footage of Ould Hamaha threatening a campaign of terror in Europe and the USA. Given that the Islamists – who are exacting harsh sharia punishments including stoning to death and amputations in the areas they control – had already started moving south, taking the town of Dountza ten days ago, this cannot be dismissed as an empty threat.

What really happened? The government of Mali says a single rogue soldier was responsible, which seems unlikely, given that 16 people were killed.

Maybe the soldiers opened fire because they saw men with beards and long robes, so thought the preachers were jihadis. The Malian army is weak, ill-trained and jittery and the government exerts almost no control over the soldiers.

The Mauritanian government is furious. Their struggle to contain the jihadis who operate in the vast desert which makes up most of their country has just got much harder.

The Islamists who are already terrorising the populations of Tibuktu, Gao, Kidal and other towns in northern Mali may now try to extend their reach across the border or south towards the Malian capital, Bamako.

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