Tuareg and AQIM: The unlikely jihadist bedmates

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Last September, the abduction five Europeans sparked a hue and cry. Tuareg in the Sahel region were accused of operating in concert with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to carry out the latter’s jihadist agenda. But the weight of suspicion has led the young nomads of Niger and Mali to shed light light on the dynamics of a region that is sinking into the bowels of abysmal misery.

“It is impossible,” says a young Tuareg from Niger. “We are here to demand our rights, not to kidnap people. It is not how we operate.” Acting in concert, the men of the desert insist that they “refuse to be falsely incriminated.”

Since the kidnapping of five French and two Africans by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Niger in September, 2010, the Tuareg have been at the epicenter of a controversy. At the fore is their alleged links with the terrorist group.

The confusion was started by the government of Niger when they announced that the kidnappers spoke “mostly” Arabic and Tamashek, the language spoken by the region’s Tuareg tribes. The information was picked up by the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner who said they could indeed “be dealing with” AQIM.

But the statements have provoked the ire of the Tuareg who want the officials “to stop confusing AQIM with the Tuareg.” Musa Bilalan Ag-Ganta, member of Desert Rebel and president of the collective associations of northern Niger says that “every time something happens, we are held responsible”. Musa believes that it is an effort to “demean” them, while using their previous rebellions as a yardstick. “They are political tactics,” he adds.

Blaming the government

The Tuareg had expressed their intention to fight against AQIM when the rebellions of early 2000 were brought to an end. The establishment of “special units” was planned during peace agreements between Mali and the rebels in Algiers, Algeria, in July 2006. The agreements provided for the integration of former rebels into the Malian army.

And according to the monitoring committee for the agreements, the former rebels were an “effective remedy” against AQIM in the desert, because “they know the area”. Yet until now, not a single “special unit” has seen the light of day, as the authorities seem reluctant to cooperate with the men from the north. “The Tuareg have always been excluded from power. They are left out because of ethnic considerations,” says Abdoulahi Attayoub, president of a Tuareg website, Temoust.org.

Perceived as “warriors,” the desert men are of ill-repute. “There is this culture of distrust that has been cultivated by Bamako (Capital of Mali and the seat of government, ed) since independence vis-à-vis the northern communities of Mali. This rejection… is the source of all conflicts, both armed and political, between the Tuareg and the powers that be,” argues Hama Ag Sid’ahmed, spokesman and Foreign Relations officer of Mali-Tuareg, a political group.

Fertile ground?

According to observers, their condition is pushing the Tuareg communities into the arms of AQIM. Northern areas in both Niger and Mali do not receive enough aid for local development. As a result, the rate of unemployment has soared to unprecedented levels. “Young people are running in circles and do not know what to do. We cannot exclude the fact that some of them go to AQIM to make money,” notes Mr. Attayoub. As ironically put by the spokesman of the Tuareg movement, AQIM is “the only company in the north that… makes market gains without any investments.”

In the Sahara region, many Tuareg communities live in precarious conditions. And the recent suspension of flights by Point Afrique, an airline which served the northern cities, has exacerbated the problem. “Eighty percent of the population lived on tourism and handicrafts in Agadez (a town in northern Niger, ed.) Now they are unemployed!” Says Moussa Ag-Bilalan Ganta. With the exception of mining, tourism was the mainstay of these regions. Stripped of their financial windfall, the Tuareg have sunk into lawlessness.

According to some sources, camel drivers and gardeners, among others, may have moved into banditry to ensure the survival of their families. But the economy is not solely responsible for this situation. Some of the leaders of the last rebellion in Niger are believed to have absconded with a financial compensation from Libya to end the conflict in 2009. That sum is said to be anything between one and five million euros. Till date, neither the former rebels nor the populations have received a single dime. “This act has encouraged the community to engage in banditry,” says Abdoulahi Attayoub.

No common cause

However, for the Tuareg one thing is certain: those who sell their services to help with kidnapping or trafficking remain marginal and they are by no means involved in AQIM’s jihadist cause.

“In the Timbuktu region (a town in northern Mali, ed), there are very few practicing Muslims. For example, only a small proportion observe religious holidays,” observes Ibrahim, a young Malian Tuareg.

In this affair, the suspicious links between AQIM and the Tuareg are still opaque. Deserted by journalists and tourists, and cut off from the outside world, these regions of the Sahara continue to sink into abysmal mystery and misery.

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