By Jemal Oumar
Dioncounda Traore was sworn in as Mali’s interim president Thursday (April 12th), threatening tough action against Touareg secessionists and Islamist rebels linked to al-Qaeda.
“We will not hesitate to wage a total and relentless war,” Traore said after urging rebels to withdraw from cities they have captured since the March 22nd coup. The interim president called on rebels to engage in dialogue and added that he would seek to expel al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), drug traffickers and kidnappers from the country’s north.
Traore’s inauguration marked the end of military rule in Mali, a path agreed upon by coup leaders and international mediators led by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The interim president will now pick a prime minister and organise elections within 40 days, according to AFP.
The power transfer deal also marked the end to the ECOWAS economic embargo. Malian journalist Kan Sidi Bé told Magharebia the sanctions were a key factor in forcing the junta to step down.
“Pressures imposed on them were a bitter experience and a lesson to anyone who would consider staging a coup in the future,” he added.
However, relief over the restoration of constitutional legitimacy was tempered by fears of al-Qaeda splinter groups, including the presence of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), as well as Ansar al-Din. Both have sought to impose their own interpretations of Sharia law on local residents.
The UN Security Council and ECOWAS have voiced their deep concern over the growing terrorist threats in northern Mali, as represented by the remarkable presence of AQIM elements and extremist elements in Touareg groups.
In addition, Malian authorities have alleged that some 100 members of Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram are now in the country’s north.
Gao resident Oudoumo Ag El Ouli told Magharebia that he had spotted two members of Boko Haram, a group local residents now call the “carriers of black flags”. “However, as far as I know, Boko Haram elements didn’t speak to the people, and I knew today from some residents that they left town,” he added.
Ag El Ouli also said there were al-Qaeda elements in Gao, the largest city in the self-proclaimed state of Azawad.
“Yesterday, I attended a meeting held by them with some residents,” he said of the al-Qaeda figures. “Some of the people applauded when those elements uttered strong, enthusiastic words. One of them, an Arab speaking in Arabic, told those who applauded: ‘Never applaud; rather, say God is great in place of applaud, as this is what Muslims do when they hear something to their liking’.”
Radical Islamists are also imposing their agenda elsewhere in northern Mali. In Ansar al-Din controlled Timbuktu, the extremists have expressed their rejection of democracy and secularism, two ideas advocated by the group’s former allies in the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
“However, our confrontation of a common enemy forces us to have some sort of contacts and relations,” said Sanad Bin Bouamama al-Tunbikti, an Ansar al-Din leader.
As to Ansar al-Din’s relations with al-Qaeda, al-Tunbikti told Sahara Media that “anyone living in this area must have some sort of relations and dealings with al-Qaeda. Many men and people of this area belong to this group; this is a reality that can’t be ignored.”
For his part, Mubarak Ag Mohammed, a member of the MNLA’s media office, said that the group was “prepared to defend Azawad by waging a war against the Malian army and the African Union whatever the cost may be”.
Commenting on al-Tunbikti’s statement, he said that the MNLA did not deal with al-Qaeda.
“For the time being, we’re launching a major initiative through dignitaries and tribal chiefs in Azawad to convince Iyad Ag Ghali, leader of Ansar al-Din, to retract from the Islamic approach. There are signs that he will soon respond,” the MNLA official added.
Terror analyst Sid Ahmed Ould Tfeil told Magharebia that the Mali coup and subsequent instability was benefiting terror groups.
“After the recent painful blows, internal divisions and defections of some important arms of al-Qaeda, fate has delivered the Malian crisis like a gift from heaven for the leaders of small jihadist groups that don’t have media presence on the internet,” the analyst said.
“These groups appeared, flexing their muscles and revealing the weakness of Azawad liberation movements,” Ould Tfeil added. “The successive appearances of terrorist groups via the media in northern Mali are messages in the language of terrorism sent to international groups looking for safe havens for their members.”