Algerian forces cross into Mali as the possibility of another Tuareg rebellion looms over the region.
London – There is a new crisis in the Sahel: On December 20, Algerian army forces crossed into Mali. The sequence of events leading up to this extraordinary development began with a new spate of hostage-taking in the Sahel. On November 23, two Frenchmen were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, a small town in eastern Mali on the road from Mopti to Gao. The next day, four European tourists were seized from a restaurant in Timbuktu. One of them, a German who resisted, was shot dead.
Most western intelligence agencies and the media immediately attributed the attacks to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Indeed, on December 8, the Nouakchott News Agency (ANI) in Mauritania and the AFP office in Rabat received communiquÃ©s in which AQIM claimed responsibility for the kidnappings.
But these communiquÃ©s were probably false: The evidence pointed in other directions. Tamashek, the Tuareg language, had been heard spoken by the Hombori abductors, and the initial local rumours suggested that the abductors were Tuareg back from Libya, motivated by their desire for revenge against France and NATO for toppling Gaddafi.
Even before the AQIM claim, Malian security sources had been quoted (on December 7) as saying that “the men of Abdelkrim”, a cousin of Iyad Ag Ghali, the former Tuareg rebel leader and a prominent dignitary in Mali’s northeastern Kidal region, had conducted the abduction. French intelligence services clearly thought on the same lines. As early as November 27, the French newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, citing unnamed security experts in Niamey, pointed the finger very firmly at “the terrorist group being led by former diplomat and President[ial] negotiator Iyad Ag Ghali”.
On December 8, the Mali authorities arrested four suspects accused of kidnapping the two Frenchmen. Their arrest was not announced until December 12; their identities were not revealed until December 13. Three of them were local Tuareg, well-known in Kidal, while the fourth was a Mauritanian from Timbuktu. They were known to be close to Iyad Ag Ghali.
Two days later, on December 15, the news website Tawassoul.net, citing “knowledgeable sources”, reported that Iyad had announced the establishment of a new popular jihadist group called Ansar Al-Din, (“The Supporters of the Faith”). Five days later, Algerian forces entered Mali.