Sunday 18 March 2018

Al-Qa'ida had terrorist academy in Timbuktu despite crackdown

French soldiers secure the evacuation of foreigners during exchanges of fire with jihadists in Gao, northern Mali
French soldiers secure the evacuation of foreigners during exchanges of fire with jihadists in Gao, northern Mali

David Blair in Timbuktu

AL-QA'IDA'S North Africa branch created an academy for terrorists during its occupation of Timbuktu.

Al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) used a two-storey building on the edge of the ancient city as a sophisticated training centre which continued operating until it was destroyed by a French air strike three weeks ago.

America and its allies have tried to make it impossible for al-Qa'ida to run permanent, dedicated training camps. After years of effort, they had come close to eradicating any centres of this kind. But in Timbuktu, AQIM managed to run this training centre uninterrupted for about nine months.

Moreover, it consciously followed the example of Osama bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Just as he gathered volunteers from across the Muslim world, so AQIM amassed a multinational array of recruits at its camp in Timbuktu.

Along with Malians, there were Pakistanis, Algerians and Mauritanians. But the biggest contingent of foreign trainees were Nigerians, all of them members of Boko Haram, a particularly violent group. Their presence vindicates a claim by Nigeria's government that AQIM has forged a strategic alliance with Boko Haram.

When AQIM captured Timbuktu last March, the movement took over the facilities abandoned by Mali's security forces. The local headquarters of the Gendarmerie Nationale, a paramilitary unit, was soon turned into a training camp.

Faraj Mohammed Arbi, a 30-year-old from Timbuktu, worked as a cook and cleaner at the facility. He watched as the building and its grounds, ringed by a perimeter fence topped with barbed wire, became the hub for AQIM's new recruits.

They ate, slept and trained in the old gendarmerie, turning some of its rooms into dormitories. "Every day, new recruits would come: perhaps one or two, or more," said Mr Arbi.

An Algerian commander in his 30s called Abu Harith was in charge. His deputy was another Algerian, Abu Hamza, who was responsible for weapons training, perhaps because he was a former soldier.

According to Mr Arbi, the camp would wake soon after 4am and start the day with prayers at 5am. Afterwards, the recruits and commanders would gather for physical exercise in military uniforms of desert print camouflage. Carrying AK-47s, they would run five circuits of the camp's perimeter fence and perform press-ups.

After this session, and more prayers at 7am, the trainees would go for target practice in sand dunes behind the gendarmerie, using AK-47s and heavy machine-guns. The volunteers would then have a break until prayers at 12.30. After that, they would eat a lunch of spaghetti or rice, prepared by Mr Arbi. The afternoons were reserved for formal lessons.

After more prayers at 4pm and 7pm, the working day would be over.

Today, the gendarmerie is a shattered wreck, pulverised by two French bombs.

Government troops yesterday fought gun battles with Islamist insurgents in the streets of the northern town of Gao, highlighting fragile security in zones recently recaptured by a French-led military offensive. Gunfire resounded through the sandy streets and mud-coloured houses of the ancient town on the Niger River, just hours after French and Malian forces reinforced a checkpoint that was attacked for the second time in two days by a suicide bomber.

"Islamists who have infiltrated the town are trying to attack our positions. But we're fighting back," a Malian army officer said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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