By Rida Lyammouri

December 3rd, 2015 

On 01 December 2015, Al Akhbar published a video of an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader speaking to a local crowd in northern Mali. The quality of the video is very poor and the event reportedly took place in Boujbeha, a remote village located 150km northeast of Timbuktu city arounf the 25 – 27 November 2015. The speech was in Arabic and directed to a crowd of Oulad Ich, a clan of Bérabiche tribe of Arab decent. The speech was supposedly delivered to a group of local Arab tribal leaders who were attending a gathering referred to as a “festival of Arab ethnic tribes.” According to an Al Alkhbar article, the AQIM leader was identified as Abu Talha al-Libi, head of al-Furqan brigade (sometimes also referred to as al-Quds brigade). This brigade is a branch of Sahara Emirate that is led by Yahya Abu al-Hammam. Sahara Emirate resurfaced in the past two weeks when it claimed to have played a role in the Radisson Blu attack in Bamako, Mali in collaboration with al-Murabitun.

Abu Talha insisted in his speech that AQIM has nothing against Arab tribes in northern Mali, in particular, and other ethnic groups, in general. Abu Talha accused France of attempting to turn local people against each other. Abu Talha claimed that France recruited and used locals as informants and spies after failing to defeat jihadist groups on its own in northern Mali. A masked member next to Abu Talha, reading through a written statement, warned against any further collaboration with French forces operating in the area. The crowd repeatedly chanted in support of the speech throughout the video that lasted little less than five minutes.

Sahara Emirate of AQIM is operating mainly in the Timbuktu Region and has been responsible for several executions and attacks. In early September 2015, the brigade released a video claiming responsibility and demonstrating a staged ambush north of Timbuktu city on United Nations troops killing five peacekeepers. Reportedly, on 27 November 2015, the brigade released a statement claiming responsibility for the execution of two members of the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA). The group justified the executions by claiming that both members were working as spies for French forces. Speaking to Al Jazeera Arabic on the phone, a spokesman of Sahara Emirate, referred to as Abu Abderrahmane al-Muhajir, stated the group will continue to conduct similar acts until all spies are eliminated. Furthermore, on 21 November 2015, most likely the same brigade posted a pamphlet on the door of a city hall in Ber, a small town located 60km east of Timbuktu city. The village is controlled by the MNLA in addition to United Nations troops conducting periodic patrols there. At the same village, unknown gunmen executed an MNLA commander on 09 October 2015. Little over a year ago, on 16 September 2014, AQIM kidnapped five men accused of assisting international forces at Zouéra, Timbuktu Region. On 23 September 2014, the body of a beheaded man was found near the village, about 80km north of Timbuktu. In April 2014, members of AQIM entered a local market in Zouera in theTimbuktu Region and distributed a pamphlet warning locals against supporting international forces.

AQIM succeeded at establishing itself in the Timbuktu Region by gaining the heart and mind of the local population and rarely ever carrying out violent acts against locals. However AQIM has strayed from that position since the French intervention in January 2013 as recent executions and warnings against locals have demonstrated. Since France’s intervention in northern Mali, international forces led by France have relied on information provided by locals. AQIM is well aware of this and of the value of human intelligence in an area where access to information depends on support from the locals. Major cities like Timbuktu city have been liberated and are less exposed to attacks by violent extremist organizations, but remote villages like Boujbeha, Zouera, Ber, and many more remain vulnerable and helpless. Because of fear, the local population in the Timbuktu Region, in particular, and in northern Mali, in general, will likely become more hesitant to provide priceless human intelligence to French, United Nations, and Malian forces unless those forces provide some protection to the locals.