FRANCE 24 has obtained exclusive video images of al Qaeda-linked fighters in northern Africa. The footage offers a rare glimpse of the daily, often mundane, lives of the Islamist insurgency.
A video cassette obtained by FRANCE 24 contains rare images of Islamist militants in the remote Sahel desert. The exclusive footage shows a gathering of allied insurgent groups, training sessions for young recruits and, perhaps most interestingly, scenes of daily life and leisure of fugitive fighters.
The cassette was found on a defector of one of the insurgent groups active in northern Africa under the banner of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. The defector was stopped by security personnel for a control of personal documents.
The footage was originally shot somewhere in the Sahel, a large geographic region that divides the Sahara desert in the north and the Sudanian savannas in the south.
The images are not dated, nor do they offer clues about what country they were taken in. What they do offer is a rare, unscripted glimpse of the lives of Islamist militants; in their daily chores, during moments of playfulness and boredom.
The images do not appear to have been shot for any specific purpose. Rarely do the subjects of this “home video” carry guns or ammunition. They do not display their war-making machinery or make threats to the West under face-concealing scarves.
A man lazily reads the Koran while another listens to the radio. Many are teenagers, between 16 and 20 years of age. Their accents suggest that they come from varied origins – they are Algerian, Moroccan, Mauritanian, among other nationalities.
Later, a group takes part in a photo session, presumably creating ID photos for fake documents. In another scene shot at night, men gather, greet each other and ask about other fighters.
There is also time for light-hearted wrestling and drills. But the exercises evoke summer camp games rather than boot camp. Among the troupe is a man in a black turban. He is Algerian-born Mokhtar Benmokhtar, a prominent AQIM leader. He is nicknamed Laâouar, or “the blind” in Arabic.
Hostages for headlines
AQIM emerged in 2007 from the Salafist GSPC movement which battled Algerian security forces during the 1990s.
After years waging a campaign of suicide bombings and ambushes in Algeria, the group shifted a large part of its activities south to the Sahara desert using the politically volatile and sparsely populated area as a safe haven.
The release of the Frenchman in Mali, after four months of captivity, was apparently the result of a prisoner swap that angered Algeria and Mauritania.
Algeria, which has been fighting Islamist insurgents for years, is fiercely opposed to any deals being struck with AQIM to secure the release of foreign hostages, saying they strengthen the rebels.
Mokhtar Benmokhtar, the leader identified in the video, is still holding two members of a Spanish NGO hostage.
Date created : 2010-06-10