Nouakchott — Ethnic and racial divisions are adding a new dimension to the internal strife within al-Qaeda linked terror groups in Mali.
Amid mounting defections within al-Qaeda linked terror groups in northern Mali, attention is turning to what some say see as racist practises of jihadist groups in the Sahel.
Racism has been a key factor pushing many young Africans of non-Arab descent to defect and return to their normal lives in their countries of origin. This is taking place at a time when the majority of these young Africans are beginning to realise more than ever that the promises of equality, freedom and dignity of true Islam have not materialised within the jihadist movements.
One of the most prominent jihadists to defect from Sahel terror groups over racism was Hicham Bilal. Bilal was the only black person leading a battalion within the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the group in control of the city of Gao.
He defected at the beginning of November and returned his native Niger. In an interview with AFP in Niamey at the time, he described the racism within the ranks of Malian jihadist groups.
"These lunatics from MUJAO are not children of God, they are drug traffickers. They do everything which goes against Islam and to them, a black man is inferior to an Arab or a white," Bilal said.
"For them, blacks are less valuable than white Arabs. This is what has made hundreds of black Africans recruits defect," the former terror leader said.
Bilal also described how the al-Qaeda-linked jihadists were sending black fighters to the frontline near Mopti in anticipation of a possible international military intervention.
"They say that if there is a war they will put all the black fighters in the front as cannon fodder," he said.
While Nigerian journalist and activist Hassan Ag Midal discounted racism as the cause for recent defections, he said that the conflict "proves in the end the existence of real internal splits, be they racial, tribal or material".
"It is known that the majority of elements of MUJAO, dominant in Gao, are black Africans as group leaders and members of the councils. They assume direct responsibilities but the founders and emirs are white," Timbuktu-based journalist Osman Mohamed Osman told Magharebia.
He explained that the reason behind this was that the majority of the population of Gao is black. "The white population of the city fled, except for the jihadists who are not afraid, though people fear them," he added.
Youth activist Ibrahima Mica, a Songhai resident of Gao, said that Arab and Touareg residents fled because of their rejection of control by "black African jihadists, even in the name of Islam. This contrasts with Timbuktu which is controlled by white-skinned Ansar al-Din and al-Qaeda white Arabs."
"Everybody in northern Mali realises that the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad is the only organisation that includes in its ranks black Africans who refuse to be under the control of Algerian or Arabs jihadists, even though they meet within the same jihadi creed," Mica told Magharebia by phone. Security analyst Babou Sek noted that MUJAO itself was a product of internal conflicts within al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
"The group that founded it wanted it to be a jihadist branch that would include black Africans, as well as some Arabs who were marginalised within al-Qaeda. It is no secret to anyone that this marginalisation is partly racist and partly due to resource sharing," he said.
He added that "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb tried to avoid a recurrence of such problems by establishing battalions and brigades led by Touareg emirs and Arab Mauritanians who had long suffered from exclusion by the Algerians. Yet the structural problem remained as the exclusion of black jihadists continued, even within MUJAO where blacks are a majority."