Tag Archives: AQIM in Mali

Kidnapping and Smuggling in the Sahara; two books reviewed


In late 2008 Canadian UN special envoy Robert Fowler was kidnapped near Niamey with his assistant Louis Guay and their local Malian driver, Soumana Moukaila (left). All were held captive in northern Mali by Moktar Belmoktar’s (MBM) AQIM katiba or group.
Following the lull after the mass kidnappings of 2003 in Algeria, it was a pattern that came to be repeated frequently from 2008. Excluding what’s currently going on in Nigeria, in north Mali today there ought to be nine non-African captives of six nationalities (mostly French) as well as five Africans taken from five separate abductions across the Sahara. Full list of dates, locations and outcomes at the bottom of this page.

But just a year before Fowler was grabbed, Oxford-based anthropologist, Judith Scheele was travelling up and down the Tanezrouft, principally between Gao and the Touat region around Adrar in western Algeria, researching the origins and nature of the ‘connectivity’ that has long linked the two regions.

Her book, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century is an anthropological treatise on south Algeria and north Mali. Fowler’s book is A Season in Hell, my 130 days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda – a self-explanatory title.

judsteelSmugglers and Saints of the Sahara; Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century
Judith Scheele
Cambridge University Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781107022126; 286pp
£60 – $99
From CUP catalogue:
Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara describes life on and around the contemporary border between Algeria and Mali, exploring current developments in a broad historical and socioeconomic context. Basing her findings on long-term fieldwork with trading families, truckers, smugglers and scholars, Judith Scheele investigates the history of contemporary patterns of mobility from the late nineteenth century to the present. Through a careful analysis of family ties and local economic records, this book shows how long-standing mobility and interdependence have shaped not only local economies, but also notions of social hierarchy, morality and political legitimacy, creating patterns that endure today and that need to be taken into account in any empirically-grounded study of the region.

Smugglers and Saints caught my eye as it mentioned al Khalil, a frontier trading settlement that slipped out of the state control around the turn of the century to become a rough smugglers’ entrepôt right on the Algerian-Mali border and just 18km from the Algerian outpost and military base of Bordj Moktar (BBM) on which al Khalil depends. Steele writes in the introduction:

… On closer inspection, the various institutions that might turn al-Khalil into a town turn out to be optical illusions… The gendarmerie post is … empty, and here everybody knows what happened: “the government built this post, a nice building, you can see, and then they sent soldiers with guns, suwadin (‘blacks,’ that is to say people from southern Mali) who were already shaking with fear when they arrived. They lasted two days: on the second night, we stole there guns, and we never saw them again.”

Sounds like an interesting place. I visited the outpost twice in 2006, a short while after I was told the Malian douaniers (Customs) like the gendarmes above, had been kicked out, leaving the place to its own devices. One of my visits was while passing through with a car to offload in Mali (it was actually getting reprofiled to return to Algeria as my guide’s car). I took the chance to get in with the chummy crew who were my guide’s contacts in Al Khalil; what the exact connection was I did not ask. They occupied l’Ambassade (possibly an in-joke with those that frequented it), a compound or garaj like many others in town, composed of a head-high mud-brick wall where ancient MAN or Mercedes trucks were being overloaded or refuelled. Beaten up oil drums, axles and other junk lay all around and a couple of shacks or shaded reed zeribas perched against the perimeter wall. There was no running water or electricity other than truck batteries. The toilet was like a deleted scene from a slasher movie.


Al Khalil was by that time a stateless entity in No Man’s Land, some 100km north of the first Malian town at Tessalit where in 2006 at least the Malian army had a presence and stamped us in. The crew at the l’Ambassade weren’t like the braggarts that Judith Scheele describes, and  seemed a rather amiable  bunch of possibly Berabich Arabs, a consequence one likes to think, of their avowed trade in ‘soft’ commodities between Algeria or Zouerat and their distant home town of Timbuktu. I sold some sat phones or GPSs and promised to return with solar panels and other requests – something I occasionally do to help establish a connection with guides or other local contacts. In this case my motivation was to help ease my imminent traverse of northern Mali should I get in trouble.
In a way I was participating in the mutually beneficial connectivity about which Judith Scheele writes, while not going quite as far as marrying one of the ‘Ambassadors” daughters to seal a trading communion. Sure enough, two months later I was in trouble before I even got out of eastern Mauritania and was able to call in a truck via the Ambassade to recover me back to In Khalil. Last I heard my Hilux still rests under an oily tarp in the corner of the Ambassade  (right).

Al Khalil 2016 – a bombed-out war zone

Back to the book. It is of course a little unfair for a ‘civilian’ like myself to judge a painstakingly researched academic work like Saints. I suspect such works follow a certain well-defined format and other rigid conventions that pass over my head. But as I’ve had dealings in Al Khalil and know south Algeria as a tourist, I gave it a go, curious to learn a little more on how the outpost survives right under the nose of BBM and where the author speculates: “… by all accounts state officials are deeply involved in all aspects of transborder business.”

Steele describes the drivers and dealers in Al Khalil as a recognisable mix of bravado and exaggeration, boasting about their contrabanders’ adventures running goods along the hidden pistes while dodging patrols and ambushes from competitors. These traders claimed a distinct moral separation between ‘soft’ goods like sugar, fuel and staples, and harder items, the hardest of all being cocaine. It’s fair to speculate that as much as AQIM’s occupation of northern Mali, it is the similarly recent advent of a new cocaine route to Europe, from Colombia via Guinea Bissau or Mauritania right across to the Red Sea that has upset the trading traditions she documents. No longer can a plucky young guy knock out a couple of trans-border runs for a patron to earn himself the HJZ79 he was provided. As you’d expect with hard drugs, now much more organised mafias – in some places not far removed from state institutions – are running the show and paying flat rates for young guns in search of nothing more than adventure.

“Although al-Khalil might for all intents and purposes look like a town, it lacks in morality and is therefore locally understood to be part of the badiya…  As such it remains beyond the bounds of civilisation and is described as potentially dangerous to “proper” family life and sociabilities. This is perhaps why, in their interminable boasts, Khalilis endlessly endorse “traditional” morality, as though they were trying to integrate al-Khalil within known frameworks of excellence and moral propriety: al-Khalil is decried as a place where men can be men, although everybody knows that the moral autonomy and social responsibility this implies are often illusory.


The series of  traders’ compounds or garajs  shown in the sat image on the left isn’t a place where a European stranger idly noses around for too long, and you get the feeling that even with her protectors, the author didn’t spend much time there, as she did in the regular settlements in Mali and Algeria. That she achieved what she did over months in this area is a testament in her ability in getting to know the right people and gaining their trust. A short while after both I and Judith Scheele visited, Al Khalil became quite a dangerous place indeed and now, a few months following the French led Operation Serval, you imagine things may have turned full circle.


It has to be said that once beyond the lively and engaging  introduction, the book gets down to business and at times becomes a bit of an effort to read. The chapters are listed on the right give you an idea of what to expect. Credit is due to the author’s tenacity, bravery and fluency in local languages, although part her success may have been in being perceived by the men as just a ‘harmless woman’. It gave her the best of both worlds: sisterly access to local women no male counterpart could have achieved, while at other times able to move around as a protected ‘honorary male’, as lone women travellers often find, particularly in Muslim lands.


At one point her convoy is held up in southern Algeria en route to Mali until the driver explains to the brigands that he’s travelling en famille – as in ‘steady on chum, there are women present’. Travelling sans famille, on the way to meet us in 2006, the Ambassade’s truck (left) had a similar encounter and was less fortunate.

It’s a touching example of the sort of code of honour we like to imagine exists among Saharan smugglers. They are after all merely engaged in tax-exempt trading that was disrupted or penalised when the French began their century-long project of colonising Algeria in the early 19th century. Since then, following the post-colonial era of the early 1960s, new governments settled age-old racial scores. I have long assumed that the neglect of the desert Tuareg in Mali’s Ifoghas and the Aïr in Niger was a form of payback for the bad old slave trading days. It forced places like the Ifoghas to rely heavily on subsidised goods coming down from Algeria and until very recently the Malian government still professed that the ‘Tuareg problem’ in the north was a greater threat than AQIM and associated terrorist groups.

In Saints we learn much about the demography, racial make up and historical links across the region. The Tilemsi Arabs who originated from Mauritania and include the shady mayor or Tarkint (more of him below). Or the Kunta Arabs, a sect that led by a ‘saint’, settled from an oasis in the Touat Algeria a century or two ago. Indeed it was Arab traders from there who founded Kidal, the current ‘capital’ of the Kel Ifoghas Tuareg.

“Most [pre-colonial] settlements in the Sahara are said to have been found by saints, following divine guidance… [it] is always an achievement and relates to larger projects of civilisation, generally bound up in Islamic standards of justice and order. As such it can as easily be swallowed up by moral shortcoming and internal strife as by the shifting sands and greedy raiders”

These early traders and other notables have metamorphosed into ‘saints’ possessed of baraka (blessing) or even got upgraded to ‘sharif’, noble descendants of the Prophet. It’s a form of religious aristocracy mentioned in an earlier post about Judith Scheele’s visit to Arawan around the same time. Staying with PCVs in Mauritania in the late ’80s, I recall coming across a term ‘hassan’, with the same meaning or ‘legitimacy’ as sharif.

At one point the author profiles the ‘Alkacem’ clan of Tamanrasset, a successful trading family of business-minded Chaambi Arabs who moved there from northern Algeria around Ouargla and Ghardaia. From the earliest days of the French colonisation the Chaambi worked with the administration rather than fighting it, like the Ahaggar Tuareg  right up to their decisive defeat near Tam in 1911.
We learn that similarly, the modern Alkacem have shrewdly developed ties with the government to their great advantage. It chimes with a meeting I had with what I took to be a patriarch of that family a couple of years ago while organising a tour. I could tell this guy was a busy homme d’affairs who these days, more than ever, surely couldn’t be making a living from his tour agency. With his shiny fleet of Hiluxes, I assumed he must have more profitable interests like property or transport, his agency being a hang over from the good years and which had been palm-off to his somewhat feckless son. The patriarch told me his family had moved down a century ago from their home oasis of Metlili Chaamba just south of Ghardaia.

These passing connections made Saints a little more digestible for me but while there must be a certain received form to academic writing that is indubitably objective and correct, the jargon (satirised rather amusingly here) doesn’t exactly leap from the page with arms outstretched. It is after all a meticulous report on the author’s fieldwork to be pored over by her peers, not an adventure travelogue.

Nevertheless, as a tourist in the region you frequently feel that you’re skimming over what’s really going on around you, especially when pre-occupied with keeping your own all-terrain show on the piste. Saints helps fill in the blanks about a Sahara where people actually live, a place beyond the string of waypoints linking fuel stations, junctions and wells. We learn a lot about the complex interconnectivity of race, skin colour and Arab assumptions of moral, intellectual and religious superiority, despite the envied lure of the licentious suwadeen. About appearances, status, how to get ahead in business as an Arabic woman of standing while scrupulously maintaining a respectful pubic image (in short: travel for business but lock up your daughters).

Along the way Judith Scheele has amassed a bibliography on associated  topics that could keep you reading for years. There are many other anthropologists out there working to unravel the secrets of the Sahara. She concludes by politely scoffing at what you suspect she views is a rather male-oriented view of today’s Sahara as a lawless “swamp of terror” to quote an American general. A wilderness of wily bandits and fanatical mudjihadeen  that must be brought under control before it all gets out of hand. It’s an image that’s carried by the mainstream media too and the author admits that much of her research was completed before current AQIM activities hit their stride, let along the recent fall of Gaddafi’s Libya which has further stoked the fire. Al Khalil may get pushed off the map she concludes, but it will simply pop up somewhere else because in the Sahara, like elsewhere else, life goes on.

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Ametetai – Abou Zeid’s stronghold in the Adrar des Ifoghas

See also: Kidnappings

In March 2013, following weeks of ostensibly effortless liberations of north Malian towns while jihadists repeatedly slipped away into the desert to fight another day, the French-led Operation Serval concluded a decisive but protracted battle in the far north. At the time the Chadian army announced the death of the notorious Abou Zeid (‘ABZ’, left) in the valley of Ametetai (or Amettetaï) somewhere in the Adrar des Ifoghas hills. It was confirmed by DNA tests a few weeks later.


The strategic significance of this obscure valley became clear when the assault began in mid-February. A huge effort was made to defend it during which time scores of militants as well as many Chadian soldiers were killed and huge caches of arms were found. A few days after Ametetai had been ostensibly cleared there was perhaps hasty talk by the French of drawing down their troops in April, while the French defence minister deemed it safe enough to make a surprise visit to the battle site a few days later.

Video from Chad TV
Report from France24 after the battle
Report from Le Monde

Just a day after ABZ’s death, Moktar Belmoktar (‘MBM’), supposedly ABZ’s rival and with him one of the three key jihadist ’emirs’ in north Mali at the time, was also (but incorrectly) reported killed by the Chadians. In fact the Pimpernel-like MBM had been ‘killed’ many times in the last decade or two (mostly recently in 2015 and 2016). In 2013 shot to Bin Laden-like prominence as the instigator of the suicidal attack on the Algerian gas plant at In Amenas.
It’s more likely that at the time MBM (right) may have been directing AQIM operations further south, possibly in the region of Tin Keraten. Old maps label this as a well and a oued, some 100km northeast of Gao and 220km south of Kidal (see map above left). It doesn’t seem to match the terrain profile of Ametetai, but a battle was reported here a day or two later and where a fourth French soldier was killed. It’s also just as likely that before it’s all over MBM may yet again slip away into the neighbouring countries or that he was never there at all. The latest news is that following an ineffective US air strike in 2015, in November 2016 a French drone strike in southwest Libya injured MBM gravely. He has been removed from the American RFJ programme and has since lost his position in the Al-Mourabitoun group he led.

Abou Zeid
Real name Mohamed Ghadir, a small-time smuggler from Deb Deb in eastern Algeria close to the Libyan border (a book including his background reviewed here), Abou Zeid named his katiba or brigade ‘Tarek Ibn Ziyad’ after the 8th-century Moorish general who conquered Spain (‘Gibraltar’ is an anglicised version of Jebel Tarik). Following spells in prison, Abou Zeid rose up the ranks of the GSPC and became noted as a hardliner – ruling his group with ‘an iron fist’ as one former French hostage explained (her husband remains in captivity in north Mali). ABZ was said to be responsible for the execution of British-born hostage Edwin Dyer in 2009 (see link below) as well as more recent mutilations in Timbuktu in the name of Sharia laws. More on ABZ here.

Many news reports parroted the ‘Ametetai valley’ as the location of this decisive battle which led to ABZ’s death, though none mapped it any more precisely than this BBC image.   Seeing as it’s rare to get a specific location of what you presume might have been a key jihadist stronghold where some of the ten or so hostages may be kept and where ABZ’s brigade made their last stand, I tracked Ametetai down. (Some reports also mentioned air raids on ‘Etagho’ or ‘Oued? Entouwike’, as the ‘key to unlocking the bases in Adrar Tighaghar’ massif, but again, no accurate location was given and I couldn’t track them  down on the usual maps.)


A well with the name ‘Ametetai’ was easily found on the IGN ‘Kidal’ NE-31 map (right), located on the northern edge of the Adrar Tighaghar hills and about 60km northeast of Aguelhok. Aguelhok is a village on the trans-Saharan Tanezrouft track which runs from Reggane, Algeria down to the Niger river and Gao (Route B1 in Sahara Overland).


Bing vs Google imagery of Ametetai
Zoom out and around this Google maps link centred close to the site of the well as shown on the IGN map and you’ll see this ~17km2 sat image tile or quadrant (dated Jan 2006 at time of writing) is higher res than the surrounding ones. The next nearest in high res are Aguelhok and Tessalit (which we visited in 2006 laying plans for our big crossing of north Mali) so a random hi-res tile in the middle of nowhere always makes you wonder. But the Ametetai tile is also oddly spotted with unseasonal clouds for January, few of which have corresponding ground shadows which seems even more odd. Is this obstruction of ground detail significant?


For the first time comparing Google with the same area on Bing ‘aerial’ maps, it comes up as much brighter and cloud free – clearly from another occasion and time of day. On Bing there’s much more cultivation evident (see above right) as well as better developed and unusual concentrations of tracks criss-crossing the hills as below right. This suggests Bing imagery is more recent except that there are more trees which implies it’s older. In my experience trees get cut down all over the Sahara quicker than they can grow back, even by a oued.


Continuing the comparison, some walled enclosures on Google are not present on Bing (above left), while a few more on Bing have been enlarged as above right and on the left (location upstream). Perhaps the ready-made stone in old walls was taken down to expand compounds elsewhere? Finally, are the shadowless Google clouds covering up something ‘tactical’ that’s exposed on Bing Aerial? Not as far as I can tell.


You can play this ‘spot the difference’ game for a while to try and fit what is now well known to all: the ‘narco-traffiquants‘ as Chad reports derisively describe AQIM/MUHAO/Ansar Dine, had a major stronghold in the Ifoghas as has been speculated on for years. And the Ametetai valley was probably it. Here they dug caches and laid traps while successfully camouflaging their actual presence from overhead drones and presumably preparing for the assault which finally came in the form of Operation Serval. The seeming expansion of cultivation and some enclosures in a place so far from other know villages with little evidence of actual dwellings might be seen as odd.
A couple of weeks later it was reported that fighting was continuing in the ‘Hades valley… 60km from Tessalit’. This could be the next, even narrower valley to the south of Ametetai in the Tighaghar massif called ‘In Tegant’ on some maps. An unusually dense mass of tracks joins the two valleys across the stony hilltops, including the image above right.

Note: Aerial images in the region may have been updated since this article was written

What is the ‘Adrar des Ifoghas’?
‘Adrar’ usually means a region of low hills, escarpments or plateaux, but it can mean a single peak or jebel, like the Adrar Asref in the IGN map above. The Ifoghas (pronounced ‘Iforas’) is a region of low and dispersed, rubble hills spread across northeastern Mali and is also called the ‘Adagh’ by some. Separated by broad sandy plains and dissected by slender oueds, the actual ‘massifs’ barely rise a hundred metres above the surrounding 500m plain and can never be said to resemble ‘mountains’ far less a ‘near-impenetrable range’ as some reports describe. There are no distinctive peaks to speak of, nor a contiguous massif like the Hoggar in Algeria or the Tibesti in Chad, although you could say the Adrar Tighaghar is a small massif or eroded plateau within the Ifoghas.


As with most low-lying Sahara hills, the composition is mostly sandstone or granite (as left), broken down by eons of weathering. In places this makes travel with anything with wheels very difficult or impossible, be it the sandy oueds which at least make natural byways, or more so on the crumbled plateaux to either side, as the Le Monde image left shows.
In my experience in the Sahara, it only takes a few inches variation in the ground’s surface to reduce car speeds to jogging pace, be it sand ripples or rubble and rock ledges. Bikes manage a little better, but even on foot the effort on the sort of terrain shown above is hugely amplified. Nevertheless, for in the hills either side of the Oued Ametetai the only way in was on foot with helicopter support. (As the reports above explained, the French and Chadians did so from three sides on the final assault.) This sort of terrain is so gnarly it’s also frequently but incorrectly ascribed as ‘volcanic’ in origin, but whatever you call it, trying to across it in 40°-heat with a 40-kilo backpack while trying to dodge bullets would be hard work indeed.

However, as this blog points out, comparisons with Afghanistan’s much more rugged and allegedly betunneled Tora Bora where OBL narrowly evaded capture in 2001 are inaccurate (as is calling all the north Malian jihadists ‘Al Qaeda’). Having said that the Ifoghas’ location close to the borders of Niger and Algeria does match the Tora Bora along the Pakistani border. This must have been a factor or a welcome coincidence when the Algerian-based GSPC (later AQIM) first established itself here in the late 90s. Hostages were frequently brought down into the Ifoghas from the north or east to a place which has always been a remote outlier in Mali, with Bamako some 1200km away. You get the feeling the indigenous Kel Ifoghas Tuareg were pretty much left to themselves or neglected, depending on your point of view, while from my observations a minority of entrepreneurial Berabish Arabs (Moors) controlled a low-value smuggling commerce from places like Al Khalil (In Khalil) hard against the Algerian frontier. (That all escalated once light, compact and high-value cocaine entered the picture a few years ago).


More than the sporadically rough terrain, the main thing that hampers occupation in the Ifoghas is the need for water. There are no river or lakes of course, but in this sub-tropical south side of the Sahara there are few perennial waterholes as can be relied on in southern Algeria (left), for example and which are easily spotted on sat imagery.


One benefit of the bare rocky massifs is they drive what late summer run off there is straight down into the many oueds where vegetation gets concentrated and trees can sink their roots, and where wells can more easily reach the water table. Because of this the Ifoghas hills are more suited to nomadic occupation than say, the sandy void (or ténéré in Tamashek) which fills the northwest corner of Mali. We crossed this ‘empty quarter‘ in 2006; we saw our last tree near Ouadane in Mauritania and the next as we neared Ikhalil, north of Tessalit, some 2000km later. Nor did we see another soul apart from our rescuers who met us midway. (As far as I know the remains of my Hilux – right – are still in Al Khalil).

One Chadian soldier in this Aljazeera video filmed after the Ametetai battle (see also Chad TV link top of the page) described the area as having ‘heavy tree cover’ which seems an exaggeration. Sure, there are small clusters of trees along the oueds, but more likely the sandy creek beds, huge granite boulders and low cliffs are what made hunting down the well entrenched jihadists so difficult.


East of the Adrar Tighaghar Google depicts a well-used track (see map below) which doesn’t appear on any old maps and which leads up towards Timiaouine over the Algerian border and continues south to Kidal, about 120km southeast of Aguelhok. When I last travelled down the full length of the Tanezrouft piste in the late 80s, Kidal was the site of a political prison and off limits, but in recent years it opened up to a few intrepid tourists, visiting the Essouk music festival, nearby. The Tuareg group, Tinariwen (left) are originally from Kidal.
This track would have developed in the more recent smuggling and kidnapping era as the Kidal region became busier. Doubtless many other tracks developed in the area as AQIM and later groups established themselves in this region over the last decade. With the long overdue Operation Serval, you’d hope that era may be coming to an end. So far in 2016, it doesn’t look like it.