A secret document revealing how al-Qaeda in north Africa planned to seize "command" of the jihadist struggle in the Sahara has been found by The Daily Telegraph in Timbuktu. Telegraph Chief Foreign Correspondent David Blair reports.
Al-Qaeda leaders might live as outlaws in the depths of the Sahara, but they remain sticklers for bureaucratic protocol. When the "prince" gathers his Council, a detailed note is taken and the meeting carefully numbered.
We know this because the record of the 33rd meeting of the leadership of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was found by the Daily Telegraph in Timbuktu. It shows that the group took a decision with profound consequences.
...outlined a "proposal and a vision for the future issued by one of our notables and member of the Consultation Council Ahmed Jebri". Wadoud is recorded as saying: "We have looked carefully into it and have found it interesting and satisfactory for this period of time, therefore we thought we would present it for you to discuss and give it careful consideration."
Jebri's idea was to praise Ansar al-Dine for their "victories during the latest encounters which have been carried out by our Muslim heroes on this grand desert". He added: "This heroism thrilled and reassured us following what we had thought to be an unknown fate because of the lack of complete gathering of information."
But there was a sting in the tail. AQIM wanted a share of Ansar al-Dine's impending capture of northern Mali. In fact, it wanted to take over completely. "We had to think of the necessity to draw a plan to command and control the jihad activities there at this critical moment and target all efforts to achieve the required goals".
AQIM's solution - which was to take command - reaped a handsome reward. In the next two weeks, Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal - the three main cities of northern Mali - all fell into the hands of Ansar al-Dine and Tuareg insurgents.
In accordance with the plan in the document, AQIM then pushed them aside and won de facto control over 300,000 square miles of Mali, complete with arms dumps, airports and ready-made training facilities.
Al-Qaeda has always sought to hijack the success of other extremists. In Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban did the hard work of capturing territory; al-Qaeda moved in behind and turned the country into its training and recruitment hub. The document shows that AQIM was following the same modus operandi in Mali.
The opening page of this record was found outside a building on the northern edge of Timbuktu that AQIM had used as a training centre. Recruits from across the Muslim world would gather in the old headquarters of the Gendarmerie Nationale, a paramilitary unit. Here, they were drilled and indoctrinated until last month, when French bombs destroyed the sand-coloured building.
About two weeks later, the detritus left by its former occupants still lay in the rubble. Old shoes and rags of desert-print camouflage mingled with shattered concrete. In among them, hundreds of loose pages were scattered to and fro, stained by desert sand.
Along with a Telegraph photographer and two local guides, I gathered as many pages as seemed manageable. All were printed in Arabic and, at that moment, none of us could tell the significance of what we were picking up. In London, a translator went through the haul. Most of the material turned out to be jihadist propaganda and religious sermons, as befitted the building's use as a training centre.
But one document provided a rare insight into the deliberations of AQIM's high command. Tantalisingly, we only have the first page. But the momentous events of the last year in Mali appear to have flowed from AQIM's 33rd council meeting.