DAKAR (Reuters) - A veteran jihadist called for a return to sharia law in north Mali at a meeting attended by hundreds of local residents, a video showed, pointing to difficulties Western powers face in countering the influence of extremists in the fragile region.
The 13-minute video was the first in a series entitled "From the Depths of the Sahara" released by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) Al Andalus Media Productions, SITE Intelligence Group said on Thursday.
It shows a man identified as Commander Talha al-Azawadi, a former head of Timbuktu's Islamic police, which became notorious among locals for banning music and stoning alleged adulterers to death during a brief Islamist militant occupation in 2012.
While security experts have said Islamist extremists are unlikely to recover their 2012 positions and re-establish sharia law now that a U.N. peacekeeping force is in place, the video points to support jihadists still enjoy in some communities.
"This is Azawad and, Allah willing, it will be Islamic, and we will not give it up to the enemy," Talha al-Azawadi said at a community gathering at Boujbeha, north of Timbuktu on an unspecified date.
Azawad is the name used by some Arab and Tuareg locals to describe Mali's north. Some rebel fighters drawn from those populations were allied with jihadists during the occupation.
French forces drove Islamist fighters from major urban centers in 2013, but the fighters remain active in the West African country and have recently intensified their insurgency and spread farther south, striking in the southern capital, Bamako.
Former colonial power France continues to fight militants in Mali and elsewhere in the desert band known as the Sahel with a 3,500-strong counterterrorism force called Barkhane.
French military spokesman Colonel Gilles Jaron said on Thursday the force carried out 150 operations last year, with the support of military partners from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso.
The video also purports to show Abu Baseer al-Bumbari, a fighter identified as having been imprisoned in Mali and swapped for French hostage Serge Lazarevic who was freed in 2014. That could not immediately be independently confirmed.
(Reporting by Emma Farge; Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier in Paris; Editing by Peter Cooney)