DAKAR, Senegal — A relatively new al-Qaida offshoot in northern Mali has pushed south, seizing a town less than 200 kilometers from the Malian army frontline.
Since 2011, the militant Islamist sect has been involved in kidnapping for ransom, a suicide bombing in Algeria, and most recently the execution of an Algerian diplomat, taken hostage in northern Mali in April. Analysts say the sect is still defining itself.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, more commonly known by its French acronym MUJAO, is one of a kaleidoscope of allied, armed Islamist groups in control of northern Mali.
The group emerged from al-Qaida's North Africa branch in 2011 with the aim of spreading jihad further south beyond the Sahara.
MUJAO seized the northern town of Douentza from a local self-defense militia on September 1. The town, in the Mopti region of Mali, marks the southernmost point of Islamist occupied territory, and its seizure has sparked concern in Bamako.
Northern community leader and analyst, Mohamed Ould Mahmoud, said MUJAO is eager to flex its muscle.
He said they want to show that they can move south, that they can go anywhere they want. He said MUJAO calls itself a West African jihadist movement and it has larger regional ambitions than the other Islamist groups in the north. Mahmoud said they want to prove themselves and are more unpredictable.
MUJAO was among the armed groups that took control of northern Mali following a military coup March 22 in Bamako. It has since consolidated its position in the northern town of Gao after pushing out Tuareg separatist rebels.
Malian authorities continue to explore a negotiated solution to the crisis, as well as a possible military intervention, with support from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS.
MUJAO's spokesman and security chief Oumar Ould Hamaha said this is a divine mission, just days before the group seized Douentza. He said that for now their fight is national, but if ECOWAS intervenes, the fight will go beyond Mali's borders. He said that if NATO countries intervene, they will attack those countries and their citizens. He said if the Malian army tries to retake the north and stop them from applying Sharia law, they will plant an Islamic flag at the presidential palace within 24 hours.
Hamaha is Malian, reportedly from the Timbuktu region.
The MUJAO group is believed to have Mauritanian leadership, but is said to have drawn militants from many West African nations.
Northern leaders and residents of Gao say that MUJAO appears to making a calculated effort to put a more local, Malian face on the movement. And that, they say, has included the recruiting local teenagers and young men into their ranks, though many also say the recruits are drawn by money, not ideology.
Town of Gao fights back
MUJAO continues to harden its approach to Sharia in Gao. The town, however, also has been the site of some of the strongest rejections of Islamist rule. Youth have repeatedly taken to the streets to protest and succeeded in preventing MUJAO from chopping off the hand of an alleged thief in early August.
The group's funding remains a mystery. MUJAO said it took in $18.4 million in July, as ransom payment for three European hostages.
Some Malians say MUJAO's extremist ideology is a mask for criminal activity, including cocaine trafficking. Evidence to support that theory is murky at best, though, and even if it were true, analysts say the two endeavors would not be mutually exclusive.