An Al Qaeda affiliate urged fighters in northern Mali to use their “historic opportunity” to make the would-be state of Azawad an Islamic nation, in another sign of how Islamists have tried to capitalize on tumult in the West African nation.
The Tuareg rebels who declared their own state of Azawad in northern Mali this year are not strict adherents to fundamentalist Islam, but Islamists have piggybacked on their advances to take over northern towns, imposing severe punishments for theft and drinking and forcing women to cover themselves.
In a 12-minute speech posted online Wednesday, Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, head of the regional affiliate Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, advised the Islamist group Ansar Dine to gradually introduce Islamic law and not hasten to punish people, according to an extremism monitoring service.
Wadud said it would be best if the group kept its “field activities” under the cover of Ansar Dine “and keep the cover of Al Qaeda … limited to our activities in the global jihad” to avoid increased pressure.
The growing power of Islamists is just one of the forces racking Mali, now facing its worst crisis in half a century, according to a recent report from Amnesty International.
Tuareg forces took advantage of a Mali military coup, which ousted the president and plunged the country into political chaos, to take control of the north. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the country as the rebels advanced, putting more pressure on a region already strained by food shortages.
Coup leaders recently agreed to regional demands to allow an interim president stay on for a year, but the elderly statesman was beaten by protesters who broke into his office, suffering wounds so dire that he was sent to France for medical tests. It is suspected that soldiers let the protesters in.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: A televised image shows the flag left by the Islamist group Ansar Dine over the sign of the entrance to the Sidi Bekaye military camp on April 3, 2012 in Timbuktu. Credit: Agence France-Presse / Getty Images / France 2