8 Feb 2013

Sandstorm update – the links between Mali and Libya

My book on Libya, Sandstorm, is now out in paperback.

I’ve updated it with an epilogue, taking into account the killing of the US Ambassador and other events in Libya. I also added a section on Mali, which shows the links between events in the two countries.

Here’s an extract:

“Across the Sahara, the revolution in Libya was having unintended consequences. When Gaddafi was killed hundreds of Tuareg, whom he had armed, fled through the desert, crossing the border into Niger and then onto Mali. The Tuareg had been on the losing side in the war in Libya, but they decided to take advantage of the weapons they had salvaged. Ignoring a peace accord they had signed with the Malian government after a previous uprising, they announced they would create an independent Tuareg state called Azawad in northern Mali.

“Mali was celebrated as one of the more democratic countries in West Africa – it had held several elections, and was a great favourite with western donors. Yet the north of the country had been unstable for a decade. In 2002, jihadis who had been fighting the Algerian government were defeated and moved south to take up residence in the ungoverned spaces of Mali’s northern deserts, calling themselves Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM). They made money from drug smuggling and ransoms from kidnapping tourists – European governments were ready to pay high prices for citizens adventurous (or foolish) enough to stray beyond the picturesque mud-walled mosques of Timbuktu. When the Tuareg started fighting for independence in early 2012, the jihadis joined in.

“Malian soldiers, many of whom had not been paid or given rations, fled. Tuareg commanders switched sides and joined the rebels. Furious that they had not been provided with the means to resist the rebellion, junior officers staged a coup in the capital, Bamako, and the president fled. Overnight Mali went from model democracy to failed state.  On April 1st, a convoy of Tuareg and Islamist fighters drove into Timbuktu in six dozen commandeered vehicles which the US government had given to the Malian army as part of an anti-terrorism programme. The black Al Qaeda flag and red, green, black and yellow of Azawad fluttered together over the fabled city.

“The Tuareg proved to be disorganised and at times brutal rulers. They careered around in four-wheel-drive vehicles looting and pillaging and on occasion abducting women and girls to rape. Many non-Tuareg fled the region, heading south to the relative safety of Bamako. Tuareg living in the south fled over the border to Burkina Faso, because other Malians were persecuting them for bringing the country to ruin. Mali was disintegrating, and half a million of its citizens were on the run. The marriage of convenience between the Islamists and the Tuareg broke down and in the fight that followed, the Islamists prevailed. It was a chain reaction: the defeat of Gaddafi had forced the Tuareg to flee, which had sparked the rebellion in northern Mali, which had led to group linked to Al Qaeda taking control of an area the size of France, including the cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu and three international airports.

“‘NATO has a moral responsibity for what’s happened in this country because we are paying the consequences of their actions in Libya,’ said Tiebile Drame, a former Malian Foreign Minister. “It’s not fair to wash their hands of what’s happened here.’

“Yet NATO governments seemed content to let Mali drift. The UN did not pass a resolution authorising intervention until September, and then farmed the problem out to West African states.

“In a refugee camp in Mauritania, I talked to Tuareg who had fled Timbuktu.

“‘We’re  frightened because there’s no government we can trust to protect us from the armed groups,’ said one. The Islamists put a couple accused of adultery into a hole and stoned them to death. They took jack-hammers to Timbuktu’s ancient Sufi shrines, decrying them as idolatrous. They held summary trials and amputated the hands of alleged thieves. ‘We’re scared of everyone. You can’t even go out to buy food, because your life is at risk,’ said a woman tending a malnourished baby.

“In Bamako, a Malian journalist showed me mobile phone footage of a teenage boy in Timbuktu being whipped for smoking. ‘See the man with the whip?’ he said. ‘He’s from Pakistan.’ Northern Mali was attracting jihadis from around the world, who threatened to use northern Mali as base for terror attacks. “When we’ve conquered France, we’ll come to the USA, we’ll come to London and conquer the whole world. The banner of Mohammed (peace be upon his head) will be raised from where the sun rises to where it sets,” snarled one of their military commanders.

“History was moving in unforseen ways. Gaddafi’s recruitment of the Tuareg and NATO’s support for the revolution had left an unpredictable legacy.”

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