“The smart Muslim leader would do these kinds of concessions in order to achieve the word of God eventually and to support the religion,” he says.
Perhaps the biggest concession Droukdel urges is for his fighters to slow down in implementing Shariah.
When the Islamists took over northern Mali 10 months ago, they restored order in a time of chaos, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and even created a hotline number for people to report crimes. But whatever goodwill they had built up evaporated when they started to destroy the city’s historic monuments, whip women for not covering up and amputate the limbs of suspected thieves.
“One of the wrong policies that we think you carried out is the extreme speed with which you applied Shariah, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion,” Droukdel writes. “Our previous experience proved that applying Shariah this way, without taking the environment into consideration, will lead to people rejecting the religion, and engender hatred toward the mujahedeen, and will consequently lead to the failure of our experiment.”
Droukdel goes on to cite two specific applications of Shariah that he found problematic. He criticizes the destruction of Timbuktu’s World Heritage-listed shrines, because, as he says, “on the internal front we are not strong.” He also tells the fighters he disapproves of their religious punishment for adulterers — stoning to death — and their lashing of people, “and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population.”
“Your officials need to control themselves,” he writes.
Droukdel’s words reflect the division within one of al-Qaida’s most ruthless affiliates, and may explain why Timbuktu, under the thumb of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, experienced a slightly less brutal version of Shariah than Gao, one of the three other major cities controlled by the extremists. There was only one amputation in Timbuktu over their 10-month rule, compared to a dozen or more in Gao, a city governed by an al-Qaida offshoot, MUJAO, which does not report to Droukdel.
Droukdel’s warning of rejection from locals also turned out to be prescient, as Shariah ran its course in Timbuktu. The breaking point, residents say, was the day last June when the jihadists descended on the cemetery with pickaxes and shovels and smashed the tombs of their saints, decrying what they called the sin of idolatry.
Many in Timbuktu say that was the point of no return. “When they smashed our mausoleums, it hurt us deeply,” said Alpha Sanechirfi, the director of the Malian Office of Tourism in Timbuktu. “For us, it was game over.”
Droukdel’s letter also urges his followers to make concessions to win over other groups in the area, and in one case criticizes their failure to do so. For several months, the Islamists controlling northern Mali coexisted with the secular National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, or NMLA, the name given to Mali by Tuareg rebels who want their own state. The black flag of the extremists fluttered alongside the multi-colored one of the secular rebels, each occupying different areas of the towns.
In late May, the two sides attempted to sign a deal, agreeing to create an independent Islamic state called Azawad. The agreement between the bon vivant Tuareg rebels and the Taliban-inspired extremists seemed doomed from the start. It fell apart days later. By June, the Islamists had chased the secular rebels out of northern Mali’s main cities.
“The decision to go to war against the Azawad Liberation Movement, after becoming close and almost completing a deal with them, which we thought would be positive, is a major mistake in our assessment,” Droukdel admonishes. “This fighting will have a negative impact on our project. So we ask you to solve the issue and correct it by working toward a peace deal.”
In an aside in brackets, Droukdel betrays the frustration of a manager who has not been informed of important decisions taken by his employees: “(We have not until now received any clarification from you, despite how perilous the operation was!!)”
Droukdel also discusses the nuts and bolts of how territory and control might be shared by al-Qaida and the local Islamist group known as Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith. For much of last year, Ansar Dine claimed to be the rulers of both Timbuktu and Kidal, although by the end, there was mounting evidence that al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was calling the shots.
The reason for this is now clear in his letter: Droukdel asks his men to lower their profile, and allow local groups to take center stage.
“We should also take into consideration not to monopolize the political and military stage. We should not be at the forefront,” he says. “Better for you to be silent and pretend to be a ‘domestic’ movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no reason for you to show that we have an expansionary, jihadi, al-Qaida or any other sort of project.”
The emir acknowledges that his fighters live on the fringes of society, and urges them to make alliances, including fixing their broken relationship with the NMLA. He vows that if they do what he says, they will have succeeded, even if an eventual military intervention forces them out of Mali.
“The aim of building these bridges is to make it so that our mujahedeen are no longer isolated in society,” he writes. “If we can achieve this positive thing in even a limited amount, then even if the project fails later, it will be just enough that we will have planted the first, good seed in this fertile soil and put pesticides and fertilizer on it, so that the tree will grow more quickly. We look forward to seeing this tree as it will be eventually: Stable and magnificent.”