January 25, 2013 4:39 pm

Day a one-eyed jihadist came to Timbuktu

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Segou Niger River©AFP

People unload wood from a boat on the Niger river in Segou, 240 kms north of Bamako

War was coming to Timbuktu, and Abderhamane Alpha Maiga knew he had to move fast. He dug a hole in the sandy courtyard of his hotel and buried its stock of beer, whiskey and gin. Then he moved from room to room, where a Bible and a Koran sat on each bedside table for his guests. He grabbed the Bibles and hid them in his house.

The next morning, the first Sunday in April last year, government soldiers fled and Tuareg rebels swept through northern Mali into the desert city of fabled history, a treasure trove of ancient manuscripts. Islamist fighters who had assisted the Tuaregs followed the next day in pickups mounted with machine guns and flying the black flag of al-Qaeda. Five vehicles pulled up at the Hendrina Khan hotel, where Mr Maiga, 58, was waiting nervously.

An Islamist militant told him that his boss – a bearded man with a missing left eye – wanted to inspect the premises. “We went to eight rooms,” Mr Maiga recalled. “In each room the chief took the holy Koran, opened it and kissed the pages before putting it down.”

When they went outside, an elderly man who lived nearby and feared for Mr Maiga’s safety told the jihadi boss the hotelier cooked food for the poor every Friday, and was a “Muslim before you were a Muslim”.

The jihadi boss chose not to stay in his hotel. But after giving Mr Maiga a mobile number to call if anyone threatened his hotel, he put his hand on his shoulder and said: “Continue to do good things. Don’t leave Timbuktu. Stay here with us.”

A bodyguard told Mr Maiga “the man’s name was Belaouer – ‘the one-eyed’”.

Mr Maiga said: “My heart was pounding and I was so afraid. I had heard a lot about him.”

Now the world has too.

“Belaouer” is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a notorious jihadist who organised the raid on the gas plant in Algeria last week that left 38 foreign hostages and 29 militants dead. A leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, he is also dubbed “the uncatchable”.

After fighting with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the early 1990s, he returned to Algeria, where he joined a succession of violent Islamist groups. He became renowned in northern Mali for kidnapping western hostages for ransom, and smuggling drugs, weapons and cigarettes, earning him a third nickname: Mr Marlboro.

His presence in Timbuktu last year heralded not just the end of a relaxed way of life in the city where Mr Maiga had grown up, but also the start of an Islamist uprising in a country hitherto known for its tolerance, music and culture, a rebellion that has had consequences beyond Mali’s borders.

Among Mr Belmokhtar’s justifications for the Algerian attack was France’s decision on January 11 to send jets and troops into Mali to oust the Islamists.

AudioIslamist uprising in Mali

Listen to hotel owner Abderhamane Alpha Maiga describe the arrival of Islamists in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu

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“Operation Serval”, now in its third week, has grown rapidly to include more than 2,300 French troops who are assisting the Malian army. Britain, the US and Germany have sent transport planes to Mali to help with logistics, while more than 1,000 soldiers from African countries have also been deployed.

Mr Maiga has watched the troops and military hardware pass by his temporary home in Ségou, a government-controlled town that links the capital Bamako with the north. He likes what he is seeing.

What France is doing is not a fight against Islam. It’s about getting back our dignity, our freedom

- Abderhamane Alpha Maiga, Malian hotel owner

The French and Malians have pushed the Islamists back from the frontline, out of towns such as Diabaly and Konna, and possibly already caused divisions in the rebel camp. One group, Ansar Dine, reportedly split this week, with a dissident faction calling for peace talks with the government.

On Friday, there were reports that troops were heading towards the Islamist stronghold of Gao. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French prime minister, said the “terrorist troops have been stopped and are retreating”.

“If it were not for the French, Mali would not exist today,” said Mr Maiga. “We would be like Somalia. What France is doing is not a fight against Islam. It’s about getting back our dignity, our freedom.”

Mr Maiga shut his hotel three days after meeting Mr Belmokhtar and travelled to Ségou with his wife and 10 children, joining hundreds of thousands of other northerners who had fled their homes.

He first returned in September. Warned about the Islamist prohibitions, Mr Maiga hid his three silver rings in the car’s ashtray, along with his prayer beads, which were also forbidden. He rolled his trousers to just below the knee, as the rebels insisted.

The Timbuktu he found was not the city he knew. There was no music, no television, no football, and no smoking. Women’s freedom of movement had been curtailed. Suspected thieves had had their hands chopped off. Shrines had been destroyed.

A city with a proud traditional of tolerance had become distinctly un-Malian. The secular Tuaregs who started the rebellion were nowhere to be seen.

“The streets were like a cemetery,” Mr Maiga said. “At night there was a lot of firing in the air. I thought: if this is the only way to find God, then I am not a Muslim.”

FT Explainer: The conflict in Mali

Mali explainer

A background to the situation in Mali and what prompted France to intervene

Islamist leaders roamed openly in the city. Though Mr Belmokhtar was gone, busy setting a new terror group, the Masked Brigade, that would carry out the Algerian attack, his red-bearded father-in-law, Omar Ould Hamaha, a leader of the radical Movement for Oneness and Jihad in west Africa, was there.

So too was AQIM emir in northern Mali, Abou Zeid, who led the Islamist attack on Diabaly this month. Mr Maiga said he also saw Iyad ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, who was reported to have been among those who attacked Konna.

For Mr Maiga, Mr Ag Ghali’s embrace of strict sharia law illustrated the hypocrisy of the jihadists. “I remember a time when Iyad was smoking, drinking, and trying to be friends with all the girls,” he said. “That’s why when he tried to push sharia law in Kidal [a northern city]; the women rejected him saying ‘No, we know you’.”

Mr Maiga’s last visit to Timbuktu was in early December, when he went to harvest rice from his fields alongside the river Niger. His trip coincided with a large gathering of Islamists near Essakane, about 40 miles west of Timbuktu, the old site of the Festival in the Desert, a music event popular with foreign tourists, many of whom stayed at Mr Maiga’s hotel.

At the end of the meeting, more than 300 pickups raced towards Timbuktu, with militants inside shouting “Allahu akbar”, Mr Maiga said. Though the purpose of the gathering was unclear, the UN Security Council was about to approve the deployment of an African force to Mali, and Mr Maiga believes that the rebels were preparing for the January offensive. He noticed boys as young as 13 had been given guns and placed at checkpoints.

In the past week, French jets have struck numerous targets in Timbuktu that were used by the Islamists, including a hotel, a madrasa, and the radio and television office, people in the city told Mr Maiga before mobile communication was cut a few days ago. Large guns placed on the outskirts of Timbuktu were destroyed, along with several vehicles at a fuel depot, he said.

Many of the rebels in the city are reported to have left in the direction of the mountains around Kidal. Mr Maiga said they must be pursued – and killed – if peace is ever to return to northern Mali. “The Islamists have destroyed this country,” he said, “while people like me have become like birds with no destination.”

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