Hamaha indicated the Islamists have inherited stores of Russian-made arms from former Malian army bases, as well as from the arsenal of toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a claim that military experts have confirmed.
Those weapons include the SA-7 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, according to Hamaha, which can shoot down aircrafts. His claim could not be verified, but Rudolph Atallah, the former counterterrorism director for Africa in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said it makes sense.
“Gadhafi bought everything under the sun,” said Atallah, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, who was a defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mali. “His weapons depots were packed with all kinds of stuff, so it’s plausible that AQIM now has surface-to-air missiles.”
Depending on the model, these missiles can range far enough to bring down planes used by ill-equipped African air forces, although not those used by U.S. and other Western forces, he said. There is significant disagreement in the international community on whether Western countries will carry out the planned bombardments.
The Islamists’ recent advances draw on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s near decade of experience in Mali’s northern desert, where Fowler and his fellow U.N. colleague were held captive for four months in 2008, an experience he recounts in his recent book, “A Season in Hell.”
Originally from Algeria, the fighters fled across the border into Mali in 2003, after kidnapping 32 European tourists. Over the next decade, they used the country’s vast northern desert to hold French, Spanish, Swiss, German, British, Austrian, Italian and Canadian hostages, raising an estimated $89 million in ransom payments, according to Stratfor, a global intelligence company.
During this time, they also established relationships with local clans, nurturing the ties that now protect them. Several commanders have taken local wives, and Hamaha, whose family is from Kidal, confirmed that Belmoktar is married to his niece.
Fowler described being driven for days by jihadists who knew Mali’s featureless terrain by heart, navigating valleys of identical dunes with nothing more than the direction of the sun as their map. He saw them drive up to a thorn tree in the middle of nowhere to find barrels of diesel fuel. Elsewhere, he saw them dig a pit in the sand and bury a bag of boots, marking the spot on a GPS for future use.
In his four-month-long captivity, Fowler never saw his captors refill at a gas station, or shop in a market. Yet they never ran out of gas. And although their diet was meager, they never ran out of food, a testament to the extensive supply network which they set up and are now refining and expanding.
Among the many challenges an invading army will face is the inhospitable terrain, Fowler said, which is so hot that at times “it was difficult to draw breath.” A cable published by WikiLeaks from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako described how even the Malian troops deployed in the north before the coup could only work from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., and spent the sunlight hours in the shade of their vehicles.
“I have never seen a more focused group of young men,” said Fowler, who now lives in Ottawa, Canada. “No one is sneaking off for R&R. They have left their wives and children behind. They believe they are on their way to paradise.”
• Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako and Mopti, Mali.
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