Timbuktu, where fantasy gives way to terror

By Simon Allison 28 November 2011

Timbuktu is neither mythical nor exotic. It exists - a harsh, cruel and ugly reality, as the South African citizen kidnapped there on Friday found out. Timbuktu’s romance has long gone, its exoticism extinguished by problems all too modern and all too familiar. By SIMON ALLISON.

It’s instructive to study a map of Mali, contender for the world’s strangest-shaped country – two pyramids of land placed end to end, one bigger than the other, stuck at a strange angle slap bang in the middle of Africa’s bulge. Bamako, the capital, is in the far south and as you head north you can see the country is relatively densely populated, the map littered with the strange and exotic names of cities, towns and villages. It’s in this area that the authority of Mali’s government holds sway – a poor, struggling government, but one that’s been democratic for nearly 20 years, and under the leadership of President Amadou Toumani Toure is one of Africa’s rare success stories.

But when you reach the strangest and most exotic name of them all, this democracy, governance, development and population density suddenly stops, along with the rule of law. North of Timbuktu – on the map, at least – is nothing but white space. Timbuktu, ancient seat of the Malian Empire and a modern byword for the back side of beyond, is Mali’s final frontier between it and the vast wilderness of the Sahel.

It was in Timbuktu on Friday that a South African man and three foreigners, tourists apparently – from Holland, Sweden and Germany – sat down at a local restaurant, perhaps to sample a few of the local delicacies. But they never finished their meal. Details remain sketchy, but according to a witness report, armed men burst into the restaurant and ordered the foreigners to come with them. The German refused, and was instantly shot and killed. The others were bundled into the back of a truck, and spirited out of the city, presumably north into the desert where there are an almost infinite number of places to hide and where government authority holds no sway.

The South African, who also holds a British passport, and his fellow travellers aren’t the only kidnap victims in the Sahara; they aren’t even the only kidnap victims of last week. Nearly 30 foreigners have been kidnapped since 2007 in the greater Sahel region, which spans the borders of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Most have been released, in exchange for a ransom or in a prisoner swap agreement. Some have been killed. Some remain in captivity – this number is up around nine people now, after two Frenchmen were kidnapped from their hotel in the Malian town of Hombori earlier last week.

The most recent two kidnappings signal a shift in kidnap tactics towards bolder attacks, indicating both their power, their defiance of any semblance of authority and the ineffectiveness of the government response. The Timbuktu kidnapping was the first of its kind within Timbuktu’s city limits. The Hombori kidnapping was the first of its kind south of the Niger river.

But who are the kidnappers? The weight of history suggests al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a shadowy Islamist militant group not to be confused with al Qaeda in Afhganistan and Osama bin Laden. AQIM started as a small organisation wanting to impose Sharia law in Algeria. It has since expanded its aims to include most of the Sahel region, and adopted the al Qaeda branding (to the delight of al Qaeda proper) to increase its stature. AQIM has been behind the vast majority of previous kidnappings in the Sahel. And targeting foreigners is consistent with its political values, including a rejection of western influence in the area.

But AQIM has not as yet claimed responsibility for either of last week’s kidnappings, and there are other contenders. AQIM is not the only dangerous mob wandering the desert. Mali has historically had a huge problem with the Tuaregs, an ancient nomadic tribe that doesn’t really recognise borders and certainly doesn’t recognise the authority of the government in Bamako – or any government for that matter. If the Tuaregs sound vaguely familiar, that’s because they were heavily involved with Muammar Gaddafi and the old Libya, and the huge convoys of trucks and guns speeding out of Libya in the last days of the revolution were said to be composed mainly of Tuareg fighters getting out while they still could. Plenty of them have ended up in Mali, and their presence has sparked something of a resurgence in the decades old Tuareg rebellion against the Mali government. A new rebel front has been announced, and there have been a few skirmishes between Tuaregs and government forces. It’s well within the realms of possibility that the disgruntled Tuaregs have seen how well kidnapping has worked for AQIM and decided to copy its tactics.

Whoever was behind the kidnappings, be it AQIM, the Tuaregs or just some opportunists looking to make a fortune from ransom demands, it’s clear that northern Mali is a very dangerous place to be at the moment if you’re a foreigner, and especially if you’re white. Even Mali’s government agrees; it organised an emergency plane to ferry the remaining tourists out of Timbuktu. So, if you’re thinking of going from here to Timbuktu, you might want to think again. DM

Read more:

  • Witness tells of tourist kidnap in Mali on News24;
  • Five possible solutions for kidnappings in Africa’s Sahel region in the Christian Science Monitor;
  • Two French nationals kidnapped in Mali on AFP.



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