The arrival of the first militants of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which would later be renamed Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, at the beginning of the second half of 2003 was the starting point of the wave of jihadist Salafist penetration of the Azwad region of northern Mali. Among those at the forefront of the new arrivals to the region were two eminent leading figures of the organization, Ammar Alsaifi also known as ‘Abdul Razzaq El Para’ and ‘Mokhtar Balmokhtar’ also known as ‘Khaled Abu Abbas’ (who also holds the more commonly used nom du guerre ‘Bal’ur’). The two leaders rose to prominence after they kidnapped thirty-four western hostages from the Algerian desert. After this operation, El Para left the north of Mali to carry out an exploratory expedition in the Great Sahara, seeking a safer base of operations and an easier life. During his travels he and a group of his fighters were captured by the rebel ‘Movement for Justice and Democracy in Chad’ and were handed over to Algeria through Libyan mediation.
Meanwhile, a little while before the beginning of 2005, Bal’ur (who had become Emir of the ninth region the Sahrawi region) decided to set up camp in the Azwad desert bordering Algeria, Mauritania and Niger. He followed a carrot and stick policy, bestowing gifts to those who supported and kept the peace with him, and striking with all brutality those who were hostile or tried to harm him.
Bal’ur sought to propagate the jihadist Salafist message to both segments of the Azwad society, the Tuareg and the Arabs, as well as to black African communities such as the Songhay who were the recipients of much of Bal’ur’s proselytizing efforts. Facilitating Bal’ur’s work in this area was the absence of all types of other proselytizing and ideological activity. It had a low level of religiosity and a lack of theological interest among the people, largely due to the difficulty and harshness of desert life. Bal’ur and his supporters spread their jihadist Salafist ideology to the people as the ‘true’ religion, and his gifts and handouts spread as far as Sufi elders and other spiritual leaders in the area.
Bal’ur pursued a policy of appeasement with the Malian government under whose sovereignty the Azwad region lay at the time. He held back from carrying out operations against the Malian military, except for a few operations carried out in retaliation against military actions from Malian territory against his organization. As such, the cases of friction between him and the Malian military remained limited. Bal’ur also took advantage of the widespread corruption and cronyism within Malian state institutions to build relationships with some of the state’s senior officials and officers. He intentionally tried to create connections with the local community through marriage and kinship ties; he himself married into the prominent Arab Barabich tribe, and directed his fighters to marry women from the region to increase his movement’s connections and ties within the local populace.