Nigerians Flooded To Al Qaeda-Linked Camp In Mali, Locals Say, Drilling With Shoulder-Fired Arms
By Drew Hinshaw/The Wall Street Journal
Malians pass a convoy of French forces arriving in Sevare on Friday. France said President François Hollande would visit Mali over the weekend, as Paris brings pressure on Malian authorities to start a national reconciliation process now that insurgents have been dislodged from urban areas.
TIMBUKTU, Mali—Until just a few weeks ago, the bombed-out customs-police building on Timbuktu's desert fringe was a bustling training center, locals say, where Islamist militants learned to fix Kalashnikovs and launch shoulder-fired weapons.
Deserted after a French airstrike in late January, this site—and several like it across Timbuktu—was populated not only by local al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants. Timbuktu also served, locals say, as a training ground for hundreds of members of Boko Haram, a militant group based more than 400 miles to the southeast, in Nigeria.
The Nigerians trained here for about 10 months, intermingling with a local al Qaeda offshoot called Ansar Dine, according to a man who said he was hired to cook for the two terrorist groups. "Every day I saw people coming here, saying they want to sign up," said the man, kicking rubble through a sandy lot littered with Russian shells. His description of the militants' activities matched those offered by four neighbors.
The presence of Nigerian trainees here validates recent fears among regional and Western intelligence officials that parts of the Sahara have become incubators where al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is training Africans to fight jihad.
Recent militant attacks on Western targets—U.S. consular facilities in Benghazi, Libya, and an Algerian natural-gas site—have fueled concerns over AQIM's push into North Africa. But Boko Haram's presence here shows how this desert has also been used as a base to raise the sophistication of an insurgency to the south, in Africa's most populous country.
Well over 200 militants arrived in Timbuktu in April 2012, locals say, after AQIM swept into this isolated city. They arrived in about 300 cars, the cook said, an account that roughly matched the number of Toyotas that residents say pulled up to the customs building around then.
About 50 Boko Haram militants lived and trained at the customs building, locals say, and 50 more lived in an annex across a giant sandy lot. Others, they say, took up in other abandoned government buildings.
On Jan. 20, French jet bombed the customs building, as part of its three-week-old military campaign in Mali. Now, French flags fly over Timbuktu's old-world alleys. Children play on tanks abandoned by al Qaeda and their allies. On Friday, France's government announced that President François Hollande would travel to Mali over the weekend.
But threats appear to remain: Several days before the French strike, locals say, the militants disappeared into the desert.
For years, officials in the U.S. and Nigeria have scrutinized potential links between AQIM and Boko Haram, whose bloody campaign to install Islamic law in Nigeria has killed 2,800 people, according to Human Rights Watch. A 2011 car bombing that killed 26 people at a United Nations office in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, bore similarities to al Qaeda suicide attacks on U.N. offices elsewhere.
Nigeria's latest move against Boko Haram came Friday, when a gunbattle between soldiers and suspected Boko Haram members killed 18 people in northern Nigeria, the Associated Press reported, citing a Nigerian military spokesman.
In Timbuktu, neighbors say AQIM ran a sophisticated war college from several abandoned buildings. Here, judging by locals' accounts of the training, Boko Haram militants gained skills to allow them to expand beyond their typical quick-hit bomb strikes.
On dunes just west of the customs house, Boko Haram fighters fired shoulder-fired arms, the cook and four neighbors said—though it couldn't be determined if they were describing sophisticated rockets or more rudimentary mortars. In its Nigeria attacks, Boko Haram appears not to have used shoulder-mounted weapons.
Within a week of the foreign militants' arrival, the al Qaeda-backed groups began offering jobs to locals. A gunman came to the cook's door, looking for someone fluent in the language of Nigeria's north, Hausa—which the cook had learned in Kumasi, a trading town in Ghana with a large Hausa population. They paid him about $20 a day, he said, to cook for Ansar Dine and Boko Haram.
A restaurateur said he sometimes brought tubs of couscous and spaghetti to the training camp, but said the Boko Haram fighters didn't extend much courtesy to locals. "They are extremely rude," said the restaurateur, adding: "They pay whatever price you want."
On a typical day, after rising before dawn to pray and read the Quran, the militants ran five laps around the sand-choked lot, the size of several football fields, said the cook and neighbors who witnessed the exercises. After push-ups in the sand, the militants ate a breakfast of bread and powdered milk.
They then met with specialists, the cook said. He described an arms specialist from Pakistan, who he said taught Boko Haram and Ansar Dine members how to break apart and reassemble assault rifles, over and over again. There was a computer specialist who appeared, to the cook, to be mostly occupied making fliers extolling the fundamentalist cause. A heavy arms specialist who the cook said was from Afghanistan told militants how to breathe steadily when firing a shoulder-mounted rocket.
"Swear to God, every day, new people, they come," said Moulhar Arby, a girl in the earthen-wall house next door to the customs office. "Nobody knows how they come here."
Commanders from Boko Haram and Ansar Dine gave newcomers 4,000 West African CFA, the local equivalent of $8, to enlist, the cook said. After training, he said, recruits were given about $300—their first taste of money following months of sharing bathrooms with scores of militants. A folded stack of notebook paper discovered on the sandy lot appears to record the recruitment. In Arabic, it lists hundreds of names, most followed by the number 4,000.
Days before the French bomb hollowed out the customs building, the Nigerians sneaked away, neighbors said. Every night, a few came back to toggle the lights, these people said, an effort they believed was meant to convey to surveillance planes above that Boko Haram was still in Timbuktu.— Gabriele Parussini in Paris contributed to this article.