In an expert brief on August 3 I suggested that Ansar Dine and other radical Islamists groups that have taken control of northern Mali have little popular support. Developments over the past few days illustrate that reality. The New York Times reports the spontaneous formation of militias seeking to take back control of local areas from the Islamists. At present they are unarmed, but in a country awash with weapons that may change. On August 5, a crowd in the northern Malian city of Gao prevented the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (Mujao), a radical Islamist group similar to the better known Ansar Dine, from amputating the hand of an alleged thief. The alleged thief was a member of Mujao and accused of stealing weapons to sell them. Radio France Internationale reports a local resident as saying, “We don’t want to know what this young man did, but they are not going to cut his hand off in front of us.” This reaction recalls the anger of a crowd that Ansar Dine forced to witness the stoning to death of an unmarried couple.
Lack of popular support may feed Islamists’ viciousness. The Islamist-appointed police chief said publicly that he ordered the beating of a Malian radio presenter for having reported that the local people prevented the amputation from going forward and had his body dumped outside of the local hospital. As of now, the presenter has survived.