As people around the world watch the latest chapter of terrorism unfold in Mali, Moscow’s Peter Chilson is fielding interview requests from around the globe seeking his knowledge.Chilson is one of the few Westerners to travel and document conditions in Mali in the past year as the country collapsed in a succession of coups. Islamic extremist groups now rule Northern Mali, making it the largest al-Qaida-controlled space in the world.
Television and radio programs in Sweden, Britain and Ireland, along with reporters from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. and Al Jazeera, are some of those to contact him in the past week, Chilson says. “They’re all very interested because their governments are under pressure to provide military aid.”
Chilson, 51, is author of the e-book “We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches from the Lost Country of Mali.” The book was released Jan. 8, the day after a standoff broke between Mali’s government-controlled south and the militant-held north. That day, about 1,000 jihadist fighters attacked the village of Konna, the northern-most point controlled by the government. France, which occupied Mali until 1960, feared they would overtake the entire country, creating “an enormous Islamist terror state on its front door step,” Chilson says. It sent in its military and now is asking for help.
“Mali is the new front line on the war on terrorism. Really, no one quite saw this coming,” Chilson says of the country he first visited in 1985 as a Peace Corps volunteer.
France once controlled most of West Africa. Chilson, an author and Washington State University English professor, was working on a travelogue on the legacy of French colonial borders when a coup d’etat tore Mali’s government apart, plunging the 20-year-old democracy into a civil war. He applied for a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to document the situation. His e-book is the result, published in cooperation with Foreign Policy magazine, an arm of the Washington Post.
Chilson traveled to Mali last spring arriving in time for a counter coup. Fighting raged around his hotel. With a guide, he snuck out of the capital and into the northern territory where he was nearly kidnapped. His book traces his journey and the history that led to the current situation.
If it seems distant to Americans, it shouldn’t, he says. They need only to remember that nearly all the 9/11 hijackers were trained at al-Qaida camps along the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The U.S. invaded the camps and shut them down.
“Al-Qaida went shopping for an unstable country to set up in and they found Mali. They now have a large swath of land in which they can hide easily,” Chilson says about Northern Mali, which is the vast and empty Sahara Desert.
“There is a real risk to Europe and the U.S.”
Mali is one of the poorest countries in the world, he notes. Its government does not have the resources to defend itself against the jihad alliance that he calls “extremely well funded, well armed and well supplied.”
Mali’s civil war was initiated by Tuaregs, an ethnic group that wanted its own independent state. They allied with the seasoned jihadist troops. When they won the north, al-Qaida fighters instated Shariah law. Smoking, drinking, socializing and revealing skin in public were forbidden. Punishments include flogging, stoning and amputation. In the city of Timbuktu they have destroyed Muslim mausoleums and shrines, some nearly 1,000 years old, Chilson says.
“They feel the local population has been worshiping idols instead of Allah. The local population is Muslim; in other words, it’s a battle within the religion of Islam itself.”
About 600,000 people have fled the country for refugee camps set up outside its borders, Chilson says. The region is ravaged by drought and international aid groups are struggling to help.
“There are only about 3,000 jihadist fighters in the north. They do not have the support of the local population. The local population despises them,” Chilson says.
“It’s a massive, tragic human rights story.”
Chilson’s book is available online at pulitzercenter.org.
“We Never Knew Exactly Where: Dispatches from the Lost Country of Mali”
by Peter Chilson,
a Foreign Policy and the Pulitzer Center ebook,
89 pages, $4.99