From late April to late May, Algerian journalist Yassine Ben Rabie has been in the Azawad, in northern Mali. During his stay there, he has written several articles in Arabic for the newspaper Echorouk. He also filmed video documents, which were the subject of two Echorouk TV documentary episodes. The first episode focused on his stay in the region of Timbuktu. He showed that if the surroundings were in the hands of the MNLA, the city itself was in the hands of Islamist groups Ansar Al Deen and AQIM. This first part has previously been summarized on this blog. And as mentioned in another article (in french, Arrêt sur image: Scoop, mensonges et vidéo TF1 d’Abou Zeid à Tombouctou, Mali), this is where Ben Rabie presumably filmed AQIM’s commander Abdelhamid Abu Zeid. A video that has been broadcast on French channel TF1 as a scoop with an accompanying narrative quite distorted.
Here is the summary of the second episode, titled "Azawad: the Taliban of Africa. Gao". Accompanied by MNLA (in french, Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad) fighters, Ben Rabie travels from Timbuktu to Gao. They crossed the Niger river by boat, and on their way, they stopped in a village where other MNLA fighters showed them a human skull. It was found under the desk of the presiding judge – which has fled the place – with a Justice’s seal dated from 1996. The people said that it illustrates the violence of the Malian military forces, without more evidence.
They arrived to Gao, the Algerian journalist attends a meeting of tribal leaders and theologians of the city. The purpose of the meeting seemed to focus on finding a consensus on the application of Sharia among leaders close to the MNLA and other Islamist groups. While it is always presented by some media as a secular nationalist movement, Salafist theologians – presented as such by the documentary – are personalities close to the MNLA. Although they emphasized Islam as a religion of the middle path, MNLA’s position on strict sharia should be reviewed as a tacit or somewhat active support. Middle path for MNLA could mean neither jihadist nor secular, but still islamist.
Visit of the Gao airport, where the MNLA has important military assets mainly recovered from the Malian army: truck BM-21 Grad, armoured personnel carrier… and other assets as better reported in this article from France 24. A Commander of the MNLA, Abdallah Taous, was questioned about the kidnapping of the Algerian consulate officials in Gao. He puts the case on behalf of the state of anarchy after the fall of the city, and implicitly accuses Islamist-smugglers to be responsible for this act.
The cameraman filmed from a car the Consulate of Algeria. The house is now occupied by Islamist group MUJAO (in french Mouvement de l’Unicité et de la Justice en Afrique de l’Ouest: the Movement of Oneness and Justice in West Africa), who claimed the kidnapping. A recent article in Al Jazeera shows a photo of the same entrance to the Consulate, and states that negotiations are done through the Islamic group of Iyad Ag Ghaly, Ansar Al Deen.
Interview with driver of a pickup, Abu Abd Al Rahman Farouk El Maghrebi (the Moroccan), presented as a military commander of MUJAO in Gao. Asked about the various Islamist groups, MUJAO, Al Ansar Dine and AQIM, he gave this clear answer
"(this diversity of islamist groups) This is only a means to achieve the implementation of sharia. As for those names that you mentioned, these are just means (to reach the goal)."
A theologian close to MUJAO approved corporal punishment of alcohol and drugs consumers and said "the inhabitants of Gao welcomed Islamist groups".
Another sounding here:
"Have you ever seen an Islam that needs Toyota pickups ?"
said a witness who presents himself as a former fighter of an Islamist group. He continues
"this is not jihad, it is human trafficking. (It is not moral) to buy fighters (of Islam) with money. And (Ironically) It is not to drug smugglers to apply Sharia law",
shedding a light on the hidden faces of Azawadi Islamism.
MUJAO fighters say they are securing the hospital, to defend it against thieves of MNLA. The medical staff refuses this military presence.
A citizen, Ali Toure, the man sitting on the right with a blue turban, testifies in Arabic on the presence of foreign fighters. According to him, some speak French, Pakistani, Italian … Credible?
The journalist shows a group of people (photo on the right). He addressed them in Arabic, French, Berber… No answer. Is it out of modesty or else ?
Return to Gao airport, military stocks of the base were robbed.
In Gao town, the banks were also robbed by armed groups in the first hours following the fall of the city.
Many civilians have already fled the city. It was an exodus to the south and neighboring countries.
Market of the city, people very angry against the occupation of the city by armed groups. The citizen said that
"because (the rebels) had facilities to access weapons, they terrorize us in our territory."
Residents say they are Azawadis in Mali, and refuse secession from the rest of the country.
The situation of women is discussed. The "Sharia’s clothes" became mandatory for them. The journalist says that death threats were made against women who do not veil. Several witnesses say that since the people of Gao are Muslims, Islamists do not have to teach them their religion and that Islam had no need of violence as a way to convince.
Testimony of journalist Yassine Ben Rabie on the end of his stay in Gao. He says he was kidnapped by the MUJAO for a few hours, have been blindfolded and have been investigated. According to him, there were Mauritanians and Nigerians, with people speaking in Hassaniya langage. "If it is established that you are a journalist, we will relaxe you" and he was finally released.
Asked what he could not shoot on his film, he cites a discussion with a wholesaler in the city. From the amount of food purchased daily, he estimated the number of fighters at 3000 (all groups accounted) in the region of Gao.
Ben Rabie said also that a MNLA commander told him about Muammar Gaddafi’s project to blackmail France. He ordered his son Seif to send convoys of Tuareg in order to bring the French hostages held by AQIM, and provided them with weapons and money for this purpose.