BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Police in Mali's capital have dismantled a terrorist cell belonging to the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, three officials confirmed on Tuesday.
The presence of the cell confirms fears that the jihadist groups, which sprang up last year in northern Mali, have succeeded in travelling past the numerous roadblocks to the country's most populous city.
The cell was first discovered more than a month ago, Sougalo Togola, press officer for the Ministry of Internal Security, told The Associated Press by telephone. The information was confirmed by an intelligence official involved in the case, as well as by a member of the capital's gendarmerie, or paramilitary police. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
"There was indeed a MUJAO cell in Bamako and it's been dismantled," said the intelligence agent.
Photographs of the seven suspects were published Tuesday on Maliweb.net, an online news portal which often publishes messages from the military. All seven have the last name "Diallo," indicating they're from the Peul ethnic group.
MUJAO is led by commanders who splintered from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the al-Qaida affiliate in North Africa. For years the fighters operated out of bases at the feet of the Sahara desert in the remote northern triangle of Mali. Then in March 2012, after a coup in Mali's capital, they pushed south and succeeded in taking the important provincial capital of Gao, located 1,200 (750 miles) northeast of the capital.
The jihadists actively recruited locals, including from the Peul ethnic group, from the villages around Gao, an area of the country where some communities were already practicing a more conservative form of Islam, known as Wahabism. Although the cell dismantled in Bamako was in its early stages, experts have long warned that Mali's central government is too weak to stop the movement of potential jihadists to the capital.
Security at even the most crucial buildings in the capital, like the National Assembly, is lax and if a mature cell was able to take hold in Bamako, the damage they could do could be substantial, say experts.
MUJAO, and the two other Islamic extremist groups controlling northern Mali, were ousted from the main cities in January, after a full-on military intervention by over 2,000 French troops. They have not succeeded, however, in flushing out entrenched cells in rural areas and since the French-led intervention there have been repeated suicide bombings in Gao, as well as in the other two major northern cities — Kidal and Timbuktu.
The cell dismantled in Bamako did not have the capacity to do significant damage, said the official with the gendarmerie in Bamako. "These are people who were based in the north and who received military training," he said. "When the war started, they got spooked and they fled south. They are not experienced fighters."
Associated press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.
Baba Ahmed can be reached at www.twitter.com/babahmed1
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi