Al Qaeda ‘terror blueprint’ for North Mali revealed
An al Qaeda document meant to serve as a blueprint for building an Islamic state in northern Mali shows leader Abdelmalek Droukdel argued that Sharia law should only be implemented slowly, in order to win the trust of locals.
A jihadi state in every way, except by name: this was the vision of the leader of al Qaeda’s North African branch for northern Mali, according to a document revealed by French media on Monday. The text, a blueprint for establishing a radical Islamist state, is a unique look into the mind of one of al Qaeda’s most feared leaders, but also appears to demonstrate his relative powerlessness to control militants on the ground.
Abdelmalek Droukdel, head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM), wrote the document in July 2012, four months after Islamists and allied Tuareg rebels began overrunning Mali’s desert north.
He warned, “It is very important to consider our Islamic project in the Azawad region [name given to northern Mali by local separatists] like a newborn who must pass through different stages before reaching maturity… if we want the baby to grow in a world full of powerful enemies that are ready to kill it, we must treat it with gentleness and help it grow.”
Droukdel, who goes by the alias Abu Mossab Abdelwadoud, ordered his troops to delay their ambition of imposing strict Islamic Sharia law in their recently won territories and closely involve local figures in the new hierarchy of power. According to Nicolas Champeaux, one of the two French journalists who discovered the document in northern Mali earlier this year, the decision to “win hearts and minds” marked a significant U-turn for al Qaeda’s branch in the Sahara.
“This document was written after the Arab Spring uprisings,” Champeaux told FRANCE 24. “[Droukdel] saw that the people who took to the streets of Tunisia were able to remove Tunisia’s president. So he says maybe the people are important. Instead of slaughtering them, or terrorising them, maybe we can seduce them first and let them join our efforts.”
However, the journalist underscored that the new approach was a mere façade for the unchanged objective to turn the Saharan region into an Islamic theocracy. “It’s very obvious he is treating this just as a strategic matter; that, at the end of the day, he’s still calling the shots and it’s still a Jihadist government he wants to put into place.”
Champeaux, who works for FRANCE 24’s sister radio channel RFI, uncovered the document along with Jean-Louis Le Touzet, French daily Libération’s special correspondent in Mali, on February 16, 2013, just over one month after the French military launched a counterattack on advancing AQIM militants and other allied rebel groups.
The French intervention, backed by a pan-African force, succeeded in quickly routing Islamists from cities in northern Mali and tracking them to hideout caves in the remote Ifoghas Mountains, where important fuel, arms and munitions stacks were abandoned by fleeing fighters.
A ‘failed’ strategy
The document signed by Droukdel also reveals that, to a large degree, the AQIM figurehead was out of touch with the situation on the ground and powerless to enforce his strategy. His plan for winning the sympathy of Tuareg communities was all but ignored in northern Mali, where jihadists chopped off hands to punish alleged thieves, whipped women for not properly wearing Muslim headscarves and destroyed ancient mausoleums that were treasured by the locals.
“He is isolated [in the Kabylie mountains of Algeria] and it seems he has no idea whatsoever as to what extent his elements, his own men on the ground, are radical. So they did not follow his orders and went on cutting people’s hands and destroying shrines,” Champeaux said.
The RFI journalist also said al Qaeda’s leader in the Sahara opposed plans to march south toward the Malian capital of Bamako, correctly predicting that such a move would precipitate an international military intervention that would drive them back into the northern reaches of Mali.
Droukdel favoured a long-term and low-profile approach that would allow the fighters to “plant a seed” of jihadism in northern Mali and watch it grow into a “high and fruitful” tree, the document showed.
While the French-led military campaign succeeded in reclaiming all of Mali’s territory from extremists and led to presidential elections in July and August, AQIM remains in the region and has returned to old tactics. More than a dozen people were killed in a suicide car-bomb attack in a Malian army camp in the city of Timbuktu on September 28.