The name Mokhtar Belmokhtar has become internationally notorious following the siege on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. The people of Gao, however, have known him for months as a figure of menace who ran their city after it was taken over by Islamist fighters in March last year.
The application of sharia law in the central-eastern city by the supposedly righteous one-eyed warlord was nothing if not pragmatic. While some of his jihadist followers would whip those who broke strictures banning smoking, others would be busy in the tobacco smuggling network, which earned Belmokhtar the monicker “Mr Marlboro” and made him wealthy.
One of the key demands of Belmokhtar’s “Those Who Sign in Blood” battalion, whose members have claimed the attack on the gas complex, was for the French to end their military mission to recapture territory lost to the rebels in Mali. French and Malian ground forces claimed their first gains in Mali today since France intervened a week ago. Malian troops and French special forces were reported to have recaptured the towns of Konna and Diabaly, which recently fell to the rebels.
Gao was one of the first of a trio of Mali’s big cities to fall in the jihadist tide. In the space of three days at the end of March, heavily armed rebel convoys rolled in there along with Timbuktu and Kidal, sending the country into a state of shock.
The rebels imposed a harsh and vindictive form of Islam under which amputations, beatings and stoning became the punishment for perceived transgressions. Gao was to suffer the most partly because, as its residents – who have fled – recall, the jihadists carried out two separate rounds of persecution. The first came when they arrived, and the second followed their defeat of the Tuareg rebel group, the more secular National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, after a series of battles in June.
“Our city changed when the rebels first came, not even overnight, but in a space of hours,” recalled Abdullahi Saneye, a 42-year-old businessman who fled with his family. “They were driving around in their [pick-up] trucks with their big guns, their faces covered, screaming at people to behave themselves. They said they were getting rid of corrupt oppressors, but we soon found out they were much worse oppressors.”
There were fleeting sights of Belmokhtar – a venerated “Emir” to his followers and who had lost an eye to shrapnel – being driven around in a white 4x4 escorted by two pick-ups full of young fighters.
“Behind his back people who didn’t like him called him laouar [one-eyed] but never to his face,” said Mr Saneye, who is now a village in the Segue region which is still under government control. “He used to be dressed in black, and he never smiled. His guards would escort him, and when they finished with that they would beat people for breaking the rules.”
One of those on the receiving end of such beatings was Amadou Fiqri, 19. He had been seen smoking. “The first time they caught me, I was slapped hard and kicked. The second time they kept hitting me with a wire whip. At the end they stopped, but they kept me tied up in the marketplace all night. But I was lucky: some people had their hands cut off for smoking.”
Mr Fiqri said there was gossip that Belmokhtar was involved in cigarette trafficking among other rackets, “but we were all too afraid to ask too many questions”, adding: “If you saw the kind of man he was, the people who were his fighters, you’d understand why.”
Belmokhtar did have to pay a price for his criminal activities, which also included drugs and stolen goods. He was removed from his post in Gao in October because he was “straying from the right path” declared a former partner, Abdelmalek Droukdel, leader of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Belmokhtar, however, continued to see himself as a religious champion. A month later, still in Gao, with new young recruits gathering around him, he stated: “The people of northern Mali have clearly expressed a wish to apply Islamic sharia law. Any foreign country which considered intervening would be considered as an oppressor and aggressor who is attacking a Muslim people applying sharia on its territory.”
Do the people of Gao retain any good memories of the “Emir”? “We know some of the Islamists turned against the Tuaregs and killed some of them, Belmokhtar did not do that,” said one of the refugees, Issa. “Also he donated money to the hospital there.”
Mr Saneye does not agree. “His men took part in the killings of the Tuaregs, we know that. As for his zakat [giving to charity], we all know how he made his money.”