Nouakchott — "These madmen are nothing like the children of God," former Gao chief Hicham Bilal said of the al-Qaeda offshoot.
The prospect of an imminent military offensive against terrorist strongholds in northern Mali is causing unrest in the ranks of Islamist fighters.
On Thursday (November 8th), the Gao commander of al-Qaeda breakaway group Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) surrendered to authorities in his native Niger.
"These madmen are nothing like the children of God; they're smuggling drugs, they do everything that Islam rejects, and to their minds, blacks are inferior to Arabs or whites," Hicham Bilal told AFP in an exclusive telephone interview from Niamey.
Bilal also lashed out at MUJAO leaders: "They've said that if there's a war, they'll put the black fighters in the front line, like cannon fodder."
He added that his former organisation had "already sent black fighters to encircle Mopti in case of an attack" by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which on Sunday (November 11th) approved a military plan to win back Islamist-held northern Mali.
"Following numerous defections from amongst its ranks, MUJAO has decided to kill anyone trying to desert it in order to escape the war which the Malian authorities are planning against the jihadist invaders, with the support of the international community," said Oumar Diakité of Malian newspaper Le Combat.
"That means that the movement, which is already on high alert and in a desperate situation, is trying all it can to hold onto its recruits," Diakité added.
According to analyst Daha Ould Sidi Ali, "The defection of Bilal Hicham is a heavy blow to MUJAO."
"Not only will it seriously affect morale, but the man has some valuable information about the movement's organisation, military resources and operational strategy," Ould Sidi Ali told Magharebia.
Algerian journalist Kaci Haider confirmed that "the armed groups occupying northern Mali for months now are starting to see defections from among their ranks, with the announcement of an imminent military intervention to dislodge them".
"Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was the first group to experience defections a few weeks after the side-lining of Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka "Laaouar"), who runs the El Moulethemine battalion," Haider said.
Belmokhtar "refused to accept being demoted by AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel and decided to withdraw, taking his supporters with him", the analyst added.
"A wind of paranoia is sweeping through the brigades of AQIM, MUJAO and [Malian Islamist group] Ansar al-Din, which have been increasing their checks and arrests among a civil population which they suspect of harbouring their unholy enemy's fifth column," Jeune Afrique editorialised on November 8th.
"The organisation is sick," Droukdel himself admitted in a letter to AQIM members intercepted in September by Algerian security forces.