(Reuters) – A military helicopter arced through the dusty yellow haze and dropped onto the sand a few kilometers from Timbuktu on April 24, settling inside a ring of Islamists armed with AK47s and anti-aircraft guns.
A general from neighboring Burkina Faso and a Swiss government aid worker emerged and joined an Islamist leader sheltering in a tent; they exchanged pleasantries over roast goat and cans of fruit juice. About an hour later, after the Swiss official and Islamist leader had spent five minutes alone in the helicopter, a pick-up truck arrived carrying Beatrice Stockly, a Swiss missionary who had been kidnapped nine days earlier.
“I don’t know what they talked about, but soon after the Islamist left the helicopter, the hostage arrived,” said a witness who was on the helicopter that whisked Stockly, who arrived wearing a veil, to freedom.
“The first thing that she did was remove the veil and eat a bar of Swiss chocolate.”
Such exchanges – usually secret – lie at the heart of a multi-million dollar kidnap and ransom industry in West Africa’s dry north. Governments, including the Swiss, deny paying ransoms, but deals are done, according to U.S. officials and Swiss government reports. Alongside networks smuggling everything from cigarettes to guns, people and drugs, they form a lucrative criminal economy that has helped drive this year’s implosion in Mali, a state that has lost control of an area in its north bigger thanFrance.
Flush with cash, Al Qaeda-linked gunmen – dubbed “gangster-jihadists” by French parliamentarians – are now key players in a web of Islamists and criminal networks recruiting hundreds of locals, including children, and a trickle of foreign fighters. Among the shifting alliances, Al Qaeda’s North Africa wing, known as AQIM, has forged links with Malian Tuareg Islamists, and MUJWA, a group that splintered off from AQIM but still operates loosely with it.
The Islamists, who advocate a political ideology based on Islam, are trying to impose a strict form of sharia law. At least three suspected criminals have been stoned to death or executed by firing squad in Mali while several others have had hands and feet amputated.
Almahamoud, a man from Ansongo who was accused – wrongly, he says – of stealing cattle, suffered an amputation in August. “They cut off my hand to make an example of me,” he said. “They will continue mutilating people to impose their authority. I don’t know how I will live with just one hand.”
Traditional, moderate Islamic customs have been crushed. Music is banned, women cover themselves with veils and residents are flogged for smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. Ancient religious shrines central to the Sufi Islam practiced by many Malians have been smashed because they are deemed illegal by the hardliners.
The Islamists say they have been helped by the criminal economy – including payments from the West.
“It is the Western countries that are financing terrorism and jihad through their ransom payments,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, who said he spoke on behalf of MUJWA. Referring to the various Islamist groups, he added: “We are separate but we all have the same aim, to fight for Islam.”
For the region and the West, the challenge is to wrest back control of a vast desert area that, for now, is a safe haven for extremists and criminals. The stakes are high. With large airplane runways in Gao, Timbuktu, Kidal and Tessalit under Islamist control, Mali’s north threatens to become a free-for-all for traffickers and terrorists.
“Their common interest is the lack of a state,” said a former senior Malian intelligence official when asked to explain the relationships between AQIM, which has moved from peripheral to powerful force in the region, and other Islamist groups and criminal networks. “Fundamentally that is what links these people.”
Reuters has the full article