Radical Islam meets a buffer in West Africa

Map locates Timbuktu and Bamako in Mali
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 21, 2009

TIMBUKTU, MALI -- The Saharan sands stretching north from this fabled outpost have long been a trade route and cultural crossroads, and this past year has brought worrying signs that the desert might also help bring a violent brand of Islam to moderate parts of West Africa.

An increase in attacks has included the killing of an American teacher and a suicide bombing in Mauritania, the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats in Niger, and the executions of a British tourist and a Malian colonel in Mali. All were attributed to an al-Qaeda branch made up mostly of Algerians that has ranged southward to hit in urban Mauritania and establish a rear base in the Malian desert.

Mali remains proudly moderate, and most people here dismiss extremist ideology as too foreign and brutal to be accepted. But Mali in some sense has become a test case as its government has accepted tens of millions of dollars in American aid intended to stave off what U.S. officials say could be a growing threat of radicalism in parts of Africa where Muslims make up the majority.

"It does not find a lot of purchase among local people," a State Department official said of the extremist group, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. But, the official said, "the problem has gotten a lot worse in the past three, last one year. . . . It's one that requires attention."

So far, the desert belt spanning black and Arab Africa has proved less a gateway for the southward spread of militant Islam than a bulwark against it, and some analysts call the threat overblown. In this secular nation, alcohol is served and gambling is common. Images of President Obama are ubiquitous, and anti-American sentiment is rare. Few women wear veils.

"We don't want an Islamic republic," said Mahmoud Dicko, head of the High Islamic Council, an umbrella group of religious organizations in Bamako, the capital. "We don't want sharia, or to cut people's hands off."

A socially conservative but tolerant Sufi strain of Islam dominates, but the ranks of foreign imams are rising, and the government has little handle on what is being preached in mosques, Western diplomats said. A weak army has done little to challenge the extremists, who easily cross invisible desert borders, while frequent U.S. military-led training sessions meant to build up the Malian forces -- part of a five-year, $500 million counterterrorism program in 10 countries of the region -- have been "not very effective," one diplomat in Bamako said.

The region's al-Qaeda-linked group, which grew out of an Algerian nationalist movement, spread into the area under Algerian military pressure and rebranded itself as an al-Qaeda wing in 2007. Security analysts and Western officials say that AQIM's ties to al-Qaeda are mostly rhetorical and that it has little ability to strike outside the region or undermine governments here, though a recent coup in neighboring Mauritania and a sham election in Niger have deepened regional instability.

Much of the desert insurgency's funding has come from kidnapping Westerners for ransom -- prompting some analysts to deem it more of a profit-seeking gang than an ideological battalion of the jihadist command still based in Algeria.

But by some measures, the group is growing bolder and more ideological. AQIM executed the British tourist in May, for example, after its demand for the release of a Jordanian cleric imprisoned in Britain went unmet.

And after long staying clear of Malian cities -- in what Western officials said was a tacit non-aggression agreement with the government -- AQIM assassinated a military officer in Timbuktu and then killed more than two dozen Malian soldiers and paramilitary forces sent to avenge his death. Last month, the group kidnapped a Frenchman in the northern town of Menaka.

U.S. officials said AQIM is increasingly enlisting fighters in more repressive, Arab-majority Mauritania. There is little evidence that the rebels are actively recruiting in Mali or most neighboring countries, officials said.

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