Al-Qaeda's North Africa branch created an academy for terrorists during its occupation of Timbuktu, The
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) used a two-storey building on the edge of the ancient city which they turned into a sophisticated training centre which continued operating until it was destroyed by a French air strike three weeks ago. America and its allies have always tried to make it impossible for al-Qaeda to run permanent, dedicated training camps. After years of effort, they had come close to eradicating any centres of this kind.
in Timbuktu, AQIM managed to run this training centre for about nine uninterrupted months. Moreover, it consciously followed the example of bin Laden's camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Just as he gathered volunteers from across the Muslim world, so AQIM amassed a multinational array of recruits at its camp in Timbuktu.
Along with Malians, there were Pakistanis, Algerians and Mauritanians. But the biggest contingent of foreign trainees were Nigerians, all of them members of Boko Haram, a particularly violent group responsible for thousands of deaths. Their presence vindicates a claim made by Nigeria's government that AQIM has forged a strategic alliance with Boko Haram.
When AQIM captured Timbuktu last March, the movement took over the facilities abandoned by Mali's security forces. The local headquarters of the Gendarmerie Nationale, a paramilitary unit, was soon turned into a training camp.
Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, the AQIM commander who organised the raid on an Algerian oil installation last month, was a regular visitor to Timbuktu. He would stay in a modest house on the southern fringe of the city, near the airport road.
. . . AQIM's commanders were quick to realise that their training centre would be a target. After the first French air raids on Jan 10, they evacuated the Gendarmerie building and dispersed their trainees elsewhere in Timbuktu. When the centre was safely empty, Abu Harith switched on every light, presumably to distract the French away from more valuable targets. The French air force duly took the bait and destroyed the Gendarmerie.