The document, left behind by al Qaeda militants fleeing the French intervention in Mali, offers a unique insight into strategy and ambitions of
the infamous terrorist network. To may its contents will come as a surprise – al Qaeda’s top man in Africa is urging his commanders to present a softer face to win the hearts and minds of the people.
Al Qaeda’s Manifesto for Mali
The manifesto, signed by Abu Musab Abdul Wadud – the nom de guerre of Abdelmalek Droukdel and the man appointed by Osama bin Laden to run al-Qaida’s operations in Africa – urges the network’s fighters to be more gentle in their application of Sharia law, and criticizes the whipping of women and the destruction of Timbuktu‘s ancient monuments.
Comparing the relationship between al Qaeda and Mali to the relationship between a parent and a child it says:
“The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands.”
Droukdel then goes on emphasise the importance of restraint in the application of Sharia law, in order to avoid turning the public against them:
“One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme
speed with which you applied Shariah, not taking into consideration the
gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is
ignorant of religion,” he writes. “Our previous experience proved
that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into
consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender
hatred toward the mujahedeen, and will consequently lead to the failure
of our experiment.”
When Islamists first took control of northern Mali around 10 months ago they enjoyed a certain amount of support from the public for returning law and order during an anarchic period in the country’s history. They lost the goodwill of most of the public, however, when they began whipping women for not covering themselves completely, amputating the limbs of suspected thieves, and vandalising Timbuktu’s historic monuments.
The document was found on the floor of the Regional Audit Department of the Ministry of Finance in Timbuktu. The full letter ran to six chapters, three of which were found by AP. Local residents have confirmed that the building was occupied by Islamic extremist for almost a year prior to the French invasion.
University of Toulouse Islamic scholar and al Qaeda expert Mathieu Guidere confirmed the authenticity of the documents.
“This is a document between the Islamists that has never been put before the public eye,” said Guidere. “It confirms something very important, which is the divisions about the strategic conception of the organization. There was a debate on how to establish an Islamic state in North Mali and how to apply Shariah.”
A reference within the documents to a conflict which took place plast June demonstrates that the ‘manifesto’ was written within the last eight months.
The New Face of Al Qaeda
The Mali documents indicate that the leaders of al Qaeda may be trying to present a more acceptable face to the world and win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people in the country’s in which they operate. I would also suggest that this reflects changes in the organisations ambitions and operations – which seem to be shifting away from grand attacks on The West and towards taking and governing territory.
Of course al Qaeda would find it difficult to rule a territory directly themselves, but instead they seek to develop close relationships with local Islamist groups who share their ideology. This group, which explicitly and publicly controls the territory in question, presents itself as a purely local movement with no international ambitions (which therefore supposedly poses no international threat) . But the space is opened up for al Qaeda to establish training camps, recruit fighters and raise funds. Al Qaeda then becomes the international arm of these regional organisations, taking responsibility for the international application of the same ideologies which the regional organisation applies only at home. This is the same way that al Qaeda operated in their original stronghold – Afghanistan, where the Taliban ruled the country and al Qaeda focused on fighting the perceived enemies of Afghanistan – Soviet Russia and then The West. The difference today is that rather than fighting these superpowers the organisation seems more focused on taking new territories in other regions of the world.
Al Qaeda’s leaders, in short, are preparing the necessary reforms to move from opposition to government – taking a unifying role to join together a network of Islamist states around the world.
Today’s world offers a much wider range of opportunities for taking new territories. Most notably in Syria, where the Nusra Front – an organisation created by the commanders of al Qaeda in Iraq which some describe as being ‘al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria’ have played a leading role in the armed uprising against the government of Bashar al Assad. Recent operations have seen the Nusra Front take control of the town of Shaddadeh and its valuable oil fields, a military air base near Aleppo, and other key infrastructure.
Nusra Front’s stated aims are to create an Islamic state in Syria, and they are well positioned to play a (or even the) leading role in the establishment of a new state if Assad’s government falls. It seems to me that this would present the same opportunities for al Qaeda in Syria, where the West have backed rebel forces, that the French are fighting to take away from them in Mali.