Following the recent kidnapping of three tourists – one of which is a Dutchman – and the killing of a German in the town of Timbuktu in North Mali, the all-important question is: How safe is Mali?
In their logbook they sounded self-assured. This is what Til Rijke wrote shortly before her husband Sjaak was kidnapped: “Al-Qaeda is supposed to be here. We have no idea whether it’s true, or just a way of getting a bit of money off the tourists for guarding them.”
Hotel Alafia is a nice place. You can relax with a drink on the terrace while your food is prepared downstairs. The service is good. You could almost believe you are on holiday. But Timbuktu is not just a tourist destination, it’s also a hub for bandits. The logbook goes on: “We are really not naive.”
Anyone who has followed events in North Mali knows there has been something brewing for the past three years in the huge desert regions which include Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu.
There have been a number of kidnappings: Frenchmen working in the uranium mines of neighbouring Niger were brought here in September 2010. And in September 2009, an old Boeing 727 made an emergency landing near Gao. The plane burnt out. The mystery cleared somewhat when it became known that there was probably cocaine on board.
Then there are the growing tensions between the central government in the capital Bamako and the masters of the desert, the Tamasheq, dubbed by the French as the Tuaregs. They aren’t out “to get a bit of money off the tourists”, as Til Rijke say. You pay them for the privilege of a safe passage through the desert.
In1996, the Tamasheq ended an uprising against the government. After they burnt their weapons in the famous ‘Flame of Peace’ (in Timbuktu) they joined the army, went into business or returned to smuggling.
Petrol, weapons, people, drugs and cigarettes pass through the desert. The United Nations estimates that the cigarette business from West African ports to North African markets alone is worth 750 million dollars.
It’s a trade everyone has to steer clear of, including the Malian authorities. The rebellion that once began in the 1990s under the leadership of the charismatic Iyad-ag-Ghali for political reasons, now appears to be saying to the authorities: stay away. The latest news on ag-Ghali is that he has personally joined the new rebellion. If it’s true, this means things have escalated, but no one knows for sure.
There are also rumours about links between the Tamasheq and a group calling itself the Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, AQIM. But this seems improbable.
The group consists of former Islamic fighters in the Algerian civil war and new fighters from Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Chad, who have linked the poor conditions in their own countries to the radical Islamic message from a yet another desert, that of Saudi Arabia.
Until recently there was little support for the group’s ideas in Africa. But thanks to a steady flow of Arab money, the radical message is getting more prominent in Qu’ran schools, on radio and television and in the streets.
Smuggler or rebel?
Smugglers, rebels, a few Jihadists and roaming bandits or kidnappers. They all know the area a lot better than the two Dutch tourists who casually payed a visit to the region. They just happened to be unlucky.
Around a quarter of a million tourists visit Mali every year, despite warnings of the French, British, US and Dutch government. Only a few of them share the unlucky fate of Sjaak Rijke. According to the Malian press, Timbuktu’s greatest fear is that the tourist industry will collapse.
No one knows exactly who kidnapped the tourists: a rebel may turn out to be a Jihadist and a smuggler could actually be a rebel. Whatever is most convenient, because one thing the inhabitants of the Sahara have in common is a persistent pragmatism. They have no choice. So be sure to expect negotiations about ransom in the near future.