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A blue thread in Africa’s tangled web of violence – Sunday Times

When 16 Tuareg men burst onto the desert road with AK-47s pointing at our heads, pulled over our car, hurled us to the ground and cuffed and blindfolded us, I didn’t think this was the beginning of the blowback from the Libyan revolution. That’s not the sort of thing that goes through your mind at such moments.

Nor did it occur to me at any time during the next 24 hours, while I was held at gunpoint with a Libyan friend and his traumatised family. When someone is threatening to kill you within the next few hours unless his comrades are released from prison, geopolitical analysis isn’t the first thing on your mind.

Survival was the only thing. Every few hours we were moved to a different sun-baked hideout deep in the desert, as the Tuareg kidnappers, a gang of twentysomething desperados, made sure the Libyan security forces could not find us.

Nobody knows the desert better than the Tuareg. Time wore heavily as the appointed hour of our death approached. There was a horrifying moment when a couple of Tuareg jumped out of a pick-up and started digging our graves. I started saying my prayers — but there was no bullet in the back of the head. Eventually I was released into the night with my friend’s family. He was kept hostage for another three weeks, during which time he saw more young men from his home town kidnapped, stripped and beaten. He was subjected to regular mock executions.

Looking back on that terrifying experience of late 2011, it’s clear that the Tuareg kidnappings were one of the earliest signs of the fallout from the demise of the Gadaffi regime. This was the first tremor of a seismic shift that is now shaking Mali and Algeria and reverberating across the Sahara and the Sahel, the semi-arid belt immediately to its south. For David Cameron the region, rich in oil, gas and uranium, has become the new front line in the fight against terrorism. More than a decade after 9/11, the world is wearily familiar with al-Qaeda. By contrast, the Tuareg, who find themselves caught up in a tangled web of illegal trafficking, armed rebellion and imported Arab terrorism in a part of the world that is suddenly at the centre of global attention, are an unknown quantity. For most people the word means a four-wheel-drive Volkswagen.

If my kidnapping was one extreme, my other brush with the Tuareg was completely different: a peaceful encounter at the beginning of a 1,200-mile journey by camel across the Libyan Sahara in 1998-99. Then, a British friend and I travelled with a succession of Tuareg guides from Ghadames to Murzuk, both former centres of the Saharan slave trade from which the Tuareg had once profited handsomely. Here we learnt from past masters the skills that were dying out as the ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruiser replaced the trusted but plodding camel.

The Tuareg are ancient and nomadic desert pastoralists, estimated to number between 2m and 3m today. They are known as the Men of the Veil and the Blue People, after the stains left on their skins by the indigo-dyed tagilmus veils, traditionally the defining symbol of the Tuareg. “Almost all Tuareg . . . would as soon walk unveiled as an Englishman would walk down Bond Street with his trousers falling down,” wrote Francis Rennell Rodd, author of People of the Veil, a 1926 study. Sartorial standards have slipped since those days — my kidnappers wore filthy T-shirts and trousers rather than flowing robes — but a Tuareg man is rarely parted from his veil. Like the Kurds, the Tuareg are a people without a state, caught between the gaps of the Great Power scramble for Africa that began in the early 1880s and resulted in new states with borders that frequently made a mockery of realities on the ground. Like travellers in Britain, their nomadic way of life frequently conflicts with that of settled communities. They rove widely in the Sahara and Sahel, their territory encompassing a vast swathe of land from Libya in the northeast, through southern Algeria, northern Niger and northern Mali into Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Although they belong to the Maliki sect of Islam, compared with many of their Arab neighbours they are not especially religious — the word Tuareg means “abandoned by God” in Arabic. In 2011 I marvelled at their ability to pray one moment then poke me in the chest with a Kalashnikov the next. Unlike their menfolk, Tuareg women are not veiled, a rarity in the Muslim world. Equally extraordinary is that theirs is a matrilineal society with descent and inheritance coming through the maternal line.

Where once they were the masters of Saharan trade, running what would be called a protection racket today, offering their services as guides and armed guards to caravans travelling through their territory, now the Tuareg are more likely to eke out a living from drought-ravaged animal husbandry and tourism, which is why the crisis in Algeria and Mali will have such a savage effect on them.

More will be drawn into the lucrative smuggling business, trafficking people, drugs and cigarettes to the Mediterranean. A decade ago, trans-Saharan smuggling was worth about £850m a year, according to Jeremy Keenan, an expert on the Tuareg at the School of Oriental and African Studies in the University of London, with single convoys worth £10m travelling north from Mali or Niger into Algeria “not uncommon”. With the breakdown in security, this illicit trade is set to increase.

As the West tries to understand a complex and suddenly violent region, it is critical to distinguish between the Tuareg, who belong in the Sahel and Sahara, and the incoming fundamentalists of al-Qaeda, who do not. The travel writer Alistair Carr, author of a book on the Sahel to be published this year, worries that lines between the two will be blurred. “My first reaction when I heard the news about Algeria was concern that people would confuse the Tuareg rebellion [against the government of Mali], which is all about their marginalisation and struggle for political rights, with the fundamentalist Islamist factions responsible for the hostilities and destruction in Mali. They are distinct.”

Many fear French involvement will radicalise a new generation of Tuareg fighters and intensify the Islamic threat in the region. But the Tuareg and al-Qaeda are not natural bedfellows. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, which took control of northern Mali last year in an attempt to forge an elusive yet long-wished-for Tuareg homeland, is generally considered a secular, nationalist movement that opposes al-Qaeda.

While many would criticise Cameron’s assertion that the war in north Africa and the Sahel may last decades, he is surely right to emphasise the need to confront the Islamists’ “poisonous narrative”. Having worked on a successful project for the African Union and United Nations countering al-Shabaab’s Islamist narrative in Somalia, it is difficult to argue with the power of such an approach.

For the Tuareg, however, any more strategic miscalculations, such as the alliance with Gadaffi and the current dalliance with al-Qaeda, are only likely to spell disaster for this tough, turbulent and marginalised people.

Justin Marozzi is the author of South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara; @justinmarozzi