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In Timbuktu, AQIM managed to run this training center for about nine uninterrupted months. Moreover, it consciously followed the example of bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s.
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Timbuktu: Al Qaeda's Terrorist
Training Academy in Mali

The London Telegraph
Al Qaeda's North Africa branch created an academy for terrorists during its occupation of Timbuktu, The Daily Telegraph can disclose.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) turned a two-storey building on the edge of the ancient city into a sophisticated training center, which continued operating until it was destroyed by a French air strike three weeks ago.

America and its allies have always tried to make it impossible for al Qaeda to run permanent, dedicated training camps. After years of effort, they had come close to eradicating any centers of this kind.

Osama bin Laden's original network of training camps in Afghanistan was completely destroyed after September 11. The CIA's drone campaign then prevented a full replacement from emerging over the border in Pakistan.

But in Timbuktu, AQIM managed to run this training center for about nine uninterrupted months. Moreover, it consciously followed the example of bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Just as he gathered volunteers from across the Muslim world, so AQIM amassed a multinational array of recruits at its camp in Timbuktu.

Along with Malians, there were Pakistanis, Algerians and Mauritanians. But the biggest contingent of foreign trainees were Nigerians, all of them members of Boko Haram, a particularly violent group responsible for thousands of deaths. Their presence vindicates a claim made by Nigeria's government that AQIM has forged a strategic alliance with Boko Haram.

When AQIM captured Timbuktu last March, the movement took over the facilities abandoned by Mali's security forces. The local headquarters of the Gendarmerie Nationale, a paramilitary unit, was soon turned into a training camp.

Faraj Mohammed Arbi, a 30-year-old resident of Timbuktu, worked as a cook and cleaner at the facility. He watched as the building and its grounds, ringed by a perimeter fence topped with barbed wire, became the hub for AQIM's new recruits. They ate, slept and trained in the old Gendarmerie, turning some of its rooms into dormitories.

"Every day, new recruits would come: perhaps one or two – or more – every day," said Mr Arbi.

An Algerian commander in his thirties called Abu Harith was in charge. His deputy was another Algerian, Abu Hamza, who was responsible for weapons training, perhaps because he was a former soldier in his country's army.

A Pakistani, known as Amir, was in charge of maintaining the armory, which included heavy machine-guns as well as AK-47 assault rifles. AQIM often uses Toyota Land Cruisers and other four-wheel-drive cars to range across the Sahara. Amir's speciality was fixing heavy machine-guns on to these vehicles.

According to Mr Arbi the camp would wake soon after 4am and the day would begin with prayers at 5am. Afterwards, the recruits and commanders would gather for physical exercise in military uniforms of desert print camouflage. Carrying their AK-47s, they would run five circuits of the camp's perimeter fence. Then Abu Harith or his deputy would count as they performed 20 press-ups in the sand.

After this session – and more prayers at 7am – the trainees would go for target practice in a range of sand dunes behind the Gendarmerie. Until about 11am, they would hone their marksmanship with AK-47s and heavy machine-guns.

The volunteers would then have a break until the next prayers at 12:30. After that, they would eat a lunch of spaghetti or rice, prepared by Mr Arbi. The afternoons were reserved for formal lessons, with some rooms in the Gendarmerie turned into classrooms. The subjects included religious instruction and ideological indoctrination and recruits were issued with typical school exercise books.

After more prayers at 4pm and 7pm, the working day would be over. The more experienced trainees would then be assigned to guard the center overnight. A detailed rota ensured that no one would be on sentry duty for longer than an hour, minimizing their loss of sleep.

Today, the Gendarmerie building is a shattered wreck, pulverized by two French bombs. But Mr Arbi said that AQIM's commanders were quick to realize that their training center would be a target.


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