By Jemal Oumar
Less than one month after Touareg rebels declared the independence of Azawad, major challenges are already threatening the nascent state, from a lack of recognition to Islamic extremists.
Multiple terrorist organisations are now present in the region, from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to Boko Haram and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which currently holds seven Algerian diplomats hostage.
The situation is made worse by criminal trafficking gangs and extremist groups such as Ansar al-Din, one of the most powerful Touareg factions.
Rampant lawlessness has prevailed in Azawad and Ansar al-Din has declared their intention to enforce Islamic Sharia in region they control together with AQIM elements.
Meanwhile, kidnappings are on the rise. The most recent attack was the abduction of a Swiss woman known for her social work in Timbuktu. She was taken by extremist gunmen on Sunday (April 15th), bringing the total number of hostages held by terrorists to 21.
Moreover, the symbols of Christianity in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu were raided, and the human and cultural heritage in those cities was damaged, looted and smuggled by the militant gangs.
Given these facts, the big question that poses itself now is: How will the nascent Azawad state deal with these challenges, especially al-Qaeda and the enforcement of the Islamic Sharia?
Mubarak Ag Mohammed, a member of the media office of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), said that his group considered independence to be the solution to the problems of terrorist groups in Azawad. He added that the extremist groups were also operating in the area when it was under Malian control.
“When the world acknowledges us, we will be prepared for an international partnership to put an end to these terrorist groups because we have the ability to do that given our will, experience with the desert and ability to endure its heat,” Ag Mohamed added. “All these factors enable us to play the role that the field countries have been unable to play. However, in the absence of moral and financial support for us, I don’t think that these groups will be removed from Azawad.”
The MNLA official went on to say that the presence of extremist groups was not evidence that the Azawad separatists were colluding with them. He pointed to the example of AQIM kingpin Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka Laaouar) reportedly travelling to Libya to purchase weapons.
“Laaouar himself appeared in Libya’s Sirte March 23rd and Libya was not accused of colluding with terrorism,” Ag Mohamed said.
As to the spate of kidnappings, the MNLA media officer said his group was working to hand over Western nationals to their embassies, and that the abduction of the Swiss woman in Timbuktu was in an area “that may be under the control of Ansar al-Din”.
“With these steps, we want to prove to the world that we’re prepared to co-operate in putting an end to terrorism,” Ag Mohamed said.
As for Ansar al-Din, Ag Mohamed said the MNLA was in dialogue with the group’s leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, through tribal chiefs in an effort to convince him to relinquish his radical Islamist approach. “I have information that some young people have already defected from him in rejection of his radical approach,” he added.
In his turn, MNLA Assistant Secretary-General Mohamed Lamine Ould Ahmed told Magharebia that they were pressuring Ansar al-Din to join their group. “If they refuse, we will fight them if things stabilise for us and our state gets stronger,” he said.
Regarding the al-Qaeda presence in Azawad, Ould Ahmed said it was “an inheritance”.
“However, we’re depending on the assistance of field countries in combating al-Qaeda as a common enemy harmful to us and to those countries alike,” he added.
“As to the statements by some leaders of those countries about our collusion with al-Qaeda, these are exaggerated statements. Our strategy for controlling security is represented in working to build an army and civil institutions. Our stability will be enhanced with the recognition of our state, which I believe is a moral responsibility for all world countries,” Ould Ahmed said.