The murder in cold blood of Edwin Dyer is a terrible loss for his family and friends. It also wrecks the efforts of many good people to open up the southern Sahara to tourism and development. Having helped to organise Mali's famous Festival in the Desert, and as manager of Tinariwen, the group formed by one-time rebel Touaregs, I am devastated by this killing.
This brutal act feels almost like a rape committed against a place and people who I love deeply. That Mr Dyer was returning from a festival of music and culture, which is the object of considerable pride to local people, and which has welcomed and enchanted many western travelers in the past, makes this murder particularly black.
The Sahara may seem like an empty and desolate wasteland to outsiders, but it is home to many different ethnic groups and cultures. It is also very complex politically. Since the independence of the Saharan countries in the 1960s, the main political issue has been the struggle of the nomadic Touareg for political freedom and autonomy. But after the vicious civil war in Algeria during the 1990s, the Sahara has also become a bolthole for numerous Salafist and Islamic fundamentalist militias from northern Algeria.
Rumour and reality are often hard to separate in the Sahara, but it is misleading to confuse the Touareg rebellion, and its various militias, with the Al Qaida in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group led by the infamously brutal Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. They have completely separate aims and agendas.
In fact, one of the bones of contention between the Touareg rebel movement and the Malian government is that, although the Malians have received aid from the US and the EU to combat Islamic terrorists, none has been used effectively. The only real opposition that AQIM has encountered within Mali is from the Touareg Alliance itself. So, far from being in cahoots with each other, as many claim, the two groups are at loggerheads.
This is the first time an Islamist militia based in the Sahara has killed a western hostage. So this is a serious change in strategy. It will be interesting to see how the Touareg react to this turn of events. I believe this atrocity, committed by outsiders, will be condemned by the vast majority. And AQIM had better be aware their very ability to operate or even exist in the northern Malian desert is conditional on good relations with the Touareg.
The Touareg are Muslims, but Middle Eastern and South Asian brands of political Islamic fundamentalism have never taken a hold among them, despite the best efforts of wealthy Saudi and Pakistani proselytizing organisations who send preachers to the southern Sahara. The Touareg practice their own relatively liberal form of African Islam, and are proud to do so.
It has always suited the governments of Mali and Niger to lump Touareg rebels and Islamic fundamentalists together, and to dupe international opinion into believing the two operate in unison to terrorise the civilian population. But this is not so. Since 1963, the Touareg rebellion has sought only political autonomy, equal rights, cultural recognition and development.
I still believe the southern Sahara is safer, statistically and actually, than many inner city areas of this country. I certainly won't stop travelling there myself in order to experience the peace and immensity of the landscape or the warmth, hospitality and generosity of the Touareg who inhabit it. But none of this will be of any comfort to Edwin Dyer's friend and family, or to the people who will now think twice about visiting this magical place.
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