A militant Islamist leader whose forces have just conquered two-thirds of the West African state of Mali vows to launch holy war against the west.
Omar Ould Hamaha, the military commander of Ansar Dine, or “Defenders of the Faith”, which has scored a stunning victory in Mali against the failed state’s armed forces, now controls a region larger than France which includes three paved runways that could be used to fly in weapons or drugs.
He said: “Even if they (western forces) don’t come here, when we have finished conquering France, we will come to the USA, we will 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 in the east to where it sets in the west.”
His threats will be taken seriously because Ansar Dine is closely linked to Al-Qaeda in the Mahgreb, which has kidnapped about 20 western hostages since 2008, including the British tourist Edwin Dyer, who was murdered in 2009 after the government refused to pay a ransom.
The Islamists now control the cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, Tessalit and Gao where Hamaha was interviewed by a local cameraman on July 12.
Local journalists and residents say the Nigerian jihadi group Boko Haram is operating in the area. Foreign fighters from Somalia, Pakistan and neighbouring African countries are making northern Mali their base.
“The rest of the world should not just watch – we should be helped, unless they would like to see another Somalia or Afghanistan,” said Tiebile Drame, an advisor to the interim Malian president, Diaoucunda Traore.
“The situation in northern Mali is a threat to regional peace and to international security.”
In January, after a decade of instability in northern Mali, hundreds of heavily armed Tuareg fighters – known as the “blue men” because of their sky-blue robes – arrived from Libya, where they had been recruited by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi to fight his doomed campaign for survival.
They rekindled the long-standing struggle for an independent Tuareg state. Sections of the Malian army abandoned their weapons and fled while Tuareg officers switched sides. Soldiers in southern Mali mutinied, complaining that the corrupt government in Bamako, the capital, had failed to provide salaries, food and ammunition.
The mutiny triggered a junior officers’ coup, and the president fled into exile.
The resulting power vacuum was the opportunity the Islamists had been waiting for. Two Malian jihadi groups, and the predominantly-Algerian
al-Qaeda in the Mahgreb, seized the north, driving out Tuareg fighters, destroying Timbuktu’s ancient shrines and imposing harsh Sharia (Islamic) rule.
Hundreds of thousands have fled across the desert into neighbouring countries. “They’re leaving for fear of having a hand cut off, or being whipped or stoned to death,” said Deyda Mohamed, the police chief in Fassala on the Mauritanian side of the border, where he registers some 400 new arrivals a day.
They trek across the desert by donkey cart, pots, pans and blankets piled high on top. Many refugees fear that foreign forces may soon start to attack the Islamists. “What I fear most is aeroplanes bombing from overhead,” said Intinwilou Ag Hamadallamce, 75, as he waited for his family of 11 to be registered.
Every few days a bus takes the refugees to Mbera camp, where 100,000 Malians, mostly Tuaregs, are surviving the rainy season in “baches”, makeshift dwellings of pliable sticks, covered in cloth and tarpaulins displaying the blue logo of the UN High Comissioner for Refugees.
Aid workers say one-fifth of their children are malnourished and malaria is rife.
Photo gallery: Channel 4 News in Mali
In the last two weeks, militants from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, which controls the area around Gao, stoned a couple to death for adultery in the town of Aguelhok and amputated the hand of an alleged thief in Ansongo.
Women are forced to stay inside unless fully covered and accompanied by a male relative and anyone who smokes risks a whipping. “We’re a democratic, sovereign, secular state,” said Hauroye Toure, a political science graduate from Gao, who fled to the Malian capital in April.
She and her family are now reliant on food donations. “We are in our own country and we should be free to behave as we wish. We are Muslims but they insist on spreading Sharia, and that’s what’s so serious.”
In the town of Segou, a few hours drive from Bamako, a few units of the Malian army are trying to regroup. Several years of training under the US anti-terrorism programme appear to have had little effect on their skills.
We need every support – air support, ground support, logistics support, personnel support, experienced support. Dagaba Traore
“We need every support – air support, ground support, logistics support, personnel support, experienced support. We are in need today,” said Lieutenant Cheickne Konate, a company commander who had been based in Timbuktu.
The West African states have readied 3,000 troops, but neither they nor the United Nations Security Council can move without an invitation from an internationally recognised Malian government. But the military which, despite a facade of civilian rule, is in charge in Bamako is resisting demands that foreign troops should first stabilise the capital.
“We’ve never said we’re against the intervention of international soldiers in Mali,” said Yamoussa Camara, the defence minister, “but their mission should be to help us liberate the north of the country, not to secure the institutions in Bamako.”
Across southern Mali, militia are forming to chase away the jihadis.
On a rough earth football pitch in a Bamako shanty town, 125 young men and three women practised fireman’s lifts, leapfrog and marching. They call themselves “Death Before Shame” and aim to restore national pride and succeed where the Malian army failed.
Other groups include the Hunters, who combine Islam with traditional animist beliefs and tout shotguns and Boer war-era flintlock rifles.
“We feel we can play either a physical role by participating in the struggle, or use our secrets and magic to destroy the enemy at a distance,” said Dagaba Traore, a local Hunter leader.
All the while the Islamists are consolidating their hold on the north, using weaponry seized from the Malian army and an increasing number of foreign fighters. In the absence of government or rule of law, some fear Al-Qaeda and its allies may now move south towards the capital.
“With our collapsed state, collapsed army and security forces unfortunately everything is possible,” said Tiebile Drame.
A version of this article also appears in the Sunday Times.