Paranoia in Bamako: Muslims arrested for ‘looking Islamist’

A screen capture of a video showing men accused of being Islamist extremists getting arrested and herded onto trucks by the police in Bamako. Video sent by our Observer.

While the Malian army and French forces combat Islamist fighters in the country’s north, to the south, residents of the capital Bamako are falling prey to paranoia. Anyone who looks like he might, perchance, be a radical Islamist is immediately denounced to the authorities.

In Bamako, a group of men that locals suspect were plotting a terrorist attack were arrested by police in a mosque on January 14. On a video showing their arrest, residents can be heard shouting: “Execute them!”; “They are infidels!”; and congratulating themselves for the “good catch”, even though there was nothing to prove their guilt.

Our Observer recorded the video on his mobile phone just after police arrived at the scene on. This incident took place at CAN-2002 village, a neighbourhood in western Bamako.
 
 
The 13 people wore traditional clothing from Central Asia. Some of them also had long beards. A witness who saw the scene from an apartment window says the men broke into the mosque carrying handguns. The local resident who called the police said they saw the men taking guns from a hearse before heading to the mosque.
 
A police officer contacted by FRANCE 24 said the men had been released for lack of evidence; however they still face a court hearing on January 16. The officer confirmed that no firearms were found on the men or in the mosque. The men, he said, were part of the Dawah Islamic sect and came to Bamako to attend a meeting for their movement at the Markaz mosque. They came from different cities and were staying at the mosque in CAN-2002.
 
Other Observers in Bamako say there have been similar arrests, and confirmed there have been more checks on people declared suspect by local residents, especially in mosques.

Dawah is an authorised Islamic movement in Mali which gained popularity in the 1990s. Its members say they practise a moderate form of Islam and that they have no Jihadist intentions. Iyad Ag Ghali – the current head of Ansar Dine, one of the armed groups currently fighting Malian and French forces in northern Mali – was a Dawah member before founding his radical Islamist group, which has links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim).

Last September, 16 members of the sect were killed by the Malian army under very unclear circumstances.

“The people we saw resembled Islamists”

Seybou is the person who filmed the video. He wished to remain anonymous.
 
I was near the area when I heard a deafening commotion. There were around a hundred people jostling to see what was going on. A passer-by told me there was a suspicious meeting of Islamists and they were being turned in to police. I decided to film what was happening to show my friends.

Some people started to shout [in Bambara, the national language of Mali] that the men should be executed. Others wanted to attack them but the police told everyone to keep calm [Editor’s note: according to the police officer contacted, in Bamako, police are in the practice of detaining all people who are accused of wrongdoing, allowing the police to either prevent mob justice if the person is innocent, or, of course, stop the person if they are not].
 
“We are scared the Islamists may already be scouting out Bamako”
 
The people we saw resembled Islamists: they had a look that we associate here with Mauritanians [Editor’s note: the police spoke of a ‘Pakistani’ look]. Their clothing was loose, they wore scarves on their heard and had long beards. The locals panicked because the men had never been seen in the area and they looked out of place. People immediately linked them with Islamist groups who are running rampant in the north.
 
People here are very scared and have been on edge ever since a state of emergency was declared [when it was announced on January 12, the interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, called for the “general mobilisation” of Malians]. They also try to work with the police to turn in anyone acting abnormally, for example anyone who stays on the phone for too long speaking in a language other than Bambara or French. We are scared the Islamists may already be scouting out Bamako and are mixing with the locals in order to send back information to their chief.
 

“No Dawah sect members have ever been implicated in a terrorist attack in Mali”

Abdoulaye Tamboura is a geopolitics researcher and a specialist in Sub-Saharan Africa. He is completing a thesis on “The Tuareg conflict and the geopolitical stakes in Mali” at the French Institute of Geopolitics, and has researched the Dawah movement.
 
Dawah is a radical sect with non-violent principles, and has nothing to do with extremist movements operating in northern Mali. It originated in Pakistan, where it is close to Lashkar-e-Taiba, an armed, anti-American Islamist movement. Dawah appeared in Mali around 20 years ago and has since been active from the south to the north of the country.
 
Its aim is to convert as many followers as possible to its ideology [“da’wah” means “invitation” in Arabic] by financing the construction of mosques and helping to create businesses. The Malian secret services keep an eye on its members because they practice massive evangelism.
 
Until now, there has been nothing to implicate them in terrorist attacks in Mali, and indeed, none of them have ever been arrested for planning an attack. People find them suspicious because many of them come from Mauritania [Editor’s note: most of the members of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujao - one of the extremist groups fighting in northern Mali - are Mauritanians.]
 
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