The tourism minister of Mali, N'Diaye Bah, visibly bristled when asked about the possibility that Al-Qaeda's North African offshoot might kidnap foreigners in fabled Timbuktu or anywhere across Mali's northern desert.
France spread such rumours, he insisted. “They want to create this security issue that does not exist,” he said, wagging his finger. “When you come to Mali, there is no aggression against tourists. How can you say there is insecurity in this country?”
Yet the United States and French Embassies, among other foreign missions, explicitly warn against travelling to Timbuktu and indeed the entire desert that sweeps across roughly two-thirds of this landlocked West African nation. A French Embassy map colours the entire north red, a no-go area.
This uneasy, public standoff has existed for some time, reflective of Mali's insistence that it is not a font of violence like some of its neighbours, notably Algeria. But in a sign that Mali both acknowledges the issue and seeks to address it, the country is rolling out a new development plan, hoping to tackle the problem at its roots.
The dearth of jobs and prospects in the north helps drive the region's twin ills — narcotics trafficking and Islamic radicalism. By setting up military barracks, infirmaries, schools, shopping areas and animal markets in 11 northern towns, the Malian government hopes to establish a more visible government presence, foster economic activity and form a bulwark against lawlessness.
“The ultimate goal of the project is to eradicate” Al-Qaeda's affiliates in Mali, said Adam Tchiam, a leading Malian columnist.
Mali does not deny that an estimated 200 to 300 fighters from Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (Maghreb being the Arabic term for west) have found a perch in their desert, although most are believed to be Mauritanians and Algerians. But Mali often depicts the terrorists as a problem generated elsewhere.
“We are hostages to a situation that does not concern us,” news reports quoted President Amadou Toumani Touré as saying.
Behind the scenes, however, the President has been more forthcoming. In a meeting with the American Ambassador, Gillian A. Milovanovic, and senior American military officers last year, he said the extremists “have had difficulty getting their message across to a generally reluctant population,” according to an embassy cable obtained by WikiLeaks and made available to several news organisations. Still, Mr. Touré acknowledged, “they have had some success in enlisting disaffected youth to their ranks.”
Trail of violence
In recent years, the Qaeda affiliate has left a trail of violence across Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Mali, taking aim at tourists, expatriate workers, local residents and security forces. Hostages taken in the porous border regions have been executed or ransomed. Five French and two African workers kidnapped in Niger last September are believed to be held in northern Mali.
The Algerians and some Western diplomats accuse the Malians of being too soft on terrorism, an opinion reflected in the cables obtained by WikiLeaks. But Mali's defenders argue that the regional problem is far larger than any one poor country can address.
To that end, Mauritania recently moved uninvited troops permanently across the border in Mali to eradicate a Qaeda encampment, diplomats said, and Mali did not object.
For his part, President Touré has been trying to forge a regional consensus on the issue, but the leaked cables and diplomats suggest that Algeria has been reluctant to take part. Algerian officials regularly criticise the presence of French and American training forces, saying they constitute another threat.
Mali's own plan faces two main problems, one domestic and one foreign. Tuareg rebels fought the government in the desert for decades, with the 1992 peace treaty specifying that the government forces completely withdraw from the north. Deploying them there risks reigniting a conflict that still simmers.
Even so, some northerners endorse almost any government action in the harsh environment, where battling sand alone constitutes a daily struggle.
“There are villages that have never seen an administrator, never seen a nurse, never seen a teacher,” said Amboudi Side Ahmed, a businessman in the capital, Bamako, who was raised in the north. “You could stay in a village up there for 10 years and never see a government official.”
Then there is the question of whether these northern hubs are even feasible, given the reluctance of foreign aid workers to venture north and finance projects there. “The President says the poor protect Al-Qaeda because they do not have any means,” said Mr. Tchiam, the columnist. “Where are the means?”
While foreign governments recognise that the north needs development, the lack of security hampers it. American Embassy personnel, for example, can travel north only with express permission of the ambassador, which she said she rarely granted.
‘Development is criticial'
“Development is critical in dealing with the north,” Ambassador Milovanovic said, but “so long as security is unstable, it is hard to get those projects going.”
“We cannot just throw money up there.”
After her own visits, she has tried to meet local requests by offering training for midwives or supplying four-wheel-drive ambulances. As part of its broader efforts to counter extremism in northern Mali, the United States also underwrote a series of radio soap operas whose plot twists emphasised the dangers of extremism.
Beyond that, Washington provides basic military training, sometimes even more basic than envisioned. An exercise on what to do when the driver of a vehicle is shot dead revealed a startling truth — most Malian soldiers did not know how to drive. Lessons were instituted. But Malian officials want more.
“How many people in the north listen to the radio? That is never going to be strong enough to change their views on A.Q.M.I. or religious fundamentalism,” said Mohamed Baby, a presidential adviser working on fixing the northern problem, using the initials of the French name for Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “We need to deal with development, with the lack of resources.”
Qaeda fighters have sometimes ingratiated themselves by paying inflated prices for food, fuel and other goods. Diplomats believe that the extremists have also informed local smugglers that they will pay a premium for kidnapped Westerners.
Aside from collecting ransoms for hostages, Al-Qaeda is believed to be financing its operations by exacting tolls from drug smugglers and traffickers in arms, humans and illicit goods. Since at least the 10th century, Timbuktu has been a crossroads for trade routes across the Sahara, and the modern age is no different.
A series of drug-laden planes make the loop from South America to the Sahel, but numbers are elusive, said Alexandre Schmidt of the United Nations drug office. In one notorious 2009 episode, a Boeing 727 believed to have ferried cocaine from Latin America was set on fire after it got stuck in the sand.
Both the drug smugglers and Al-Qaeda offer young men a quick route to money and symbols of prestige like a pickup truck. The government plan has no easy, short-term ways to compete, officials concede.
“They can recruit young people and undermine both the economy and the religion,” Mr. Baby said of the militants. “We have to build up some kind of resistance.”