The Sahara Is Lost

After 14 centuries, Islamist Arabs have once more conquered the Berbers of North Africa. The Sahara is lost again.

First the government of the African nation of Mali was overthrown by a military coup in March. Next, Tuareg Berber rebels, allied with Islamist forces, briefly seized control over a longed-for homeland in Northern Mali the size of France. They call it Azawad and it includes the fabled medieval city of Timbuktu.

But on June 28, the Tuareg rebels were brutally crushed as their Islamist allies -- linked to al Qaeda -- turned on them and grabbed total control of Northern Mali.

On July 1, the civilized world was horrified to hear that dozens of al Qaeda-linked fighters began tearing down more than a dozen ancient Sufi Muslim shrines in Timbuktu, despite an outcry in the UN.

The action reminds me of the blowing up of centuries old giant Buddha statues carved into cliffs in Bamiyan, Afghanistan in 2001.

UNESCO called immediately for protection of three of the tombs which date back to the 12th century. But with local people unarmed and unable to intervene, the destruction of the tombs appeared inevitable. The al Qaeda supporters are Wahabbis and believe that any tomb of saints that are venerated by Muslims represents a form of idolatry.

The Tuaregs wanted to create an independent secular state but the Islamists want to establish Sharia law throughout Mali.

Berbers form the majority of the population stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic to Libya. Millions live in Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Libya and other countries bordering the Sahara Desert. For centuries they faced discrimination and repression by the dominant Arabs.

For the West, the success of the al Qaeda-linked Islamists creates a troubling new stateless region like the Pakistan Tribal Areas and Southern Yemen -- perfect areas for the Islamists to install Sharia law and gear up the inevitable bombings, shootings and other accoutrements of terror.

The Tuareg people of impoverished Mali now face the loss of any hope for independence or autonomy. They also can look forward to stoning, amputations and other good things the Taliban and al Qaeda have revived after centuries of neglect.

It appears the Islamists were simply better armed and trained as well as more fanatical and ready to kill and die for their cause than the Tuaregs -- largely former nomads.

These indigenous wanderers of the desert lived in remarkable harmony with nature, following the stars and the ancient routes from water hole to water hole, even as their camels were replaced by jeeps in recent years.

Now fanatics are in control of the region. Nigerian killers from Boko Haram -- which means Western books are forbidden -- responsible for murdering thousands of Christians and Muslims -- are reportedly sending their recruits to northern Mali for training.

Soon it will become another faculty of terror in the vast university of pain and fear created by the Islamist revival in the wake of the Afghan-Soviet War.

Several years ago I traveled with Polisario guerillas claiming to represent another Berber tribe -- the Sahrawi. We crossed the Sahara from southern Algeria into Mauretania and the Western Sahara, now occupied by Morocco. I saw how they navigate and survive, following the stars, shooting rabbits, locating hidden water holes, keeping vehicles far apart so if one gets stuck in loose sand, the other can pull it out with a cable.

If we are to prevent the Sahara from turning into a vast training ground for terrorists, we must make swift moves.

- First we must back West African leaders who tried to reach peace with both Tuareg and Islamist leaders and met again June 29 in the Ivory Coast to consider sending peacekeeping troops to restore Mali's unity. We should give them money, intelligence and training through the U.S. African Command, which is already on the ground in the region; helicopters, missiles and vehicles should be supplied to West African peacekeepers to restore civilian rule in Mali's capital and recapture the North.

- Gasoline is key to movement and control in the region. The Land Rover pickup trucks I rode in with the Polisario had additional 300 liter gas tanks welded into their rear decks, allowing us to roam for five days without refueling. We must block additional fuel and strike at rebel fuel depots and the surplus tanks they hide under web netting.

- We must work with respected Islamic leaders from the region to discredit the al Qaeda forces which are not representative of Islam. None of the region's leaders support them. We should also provide humanitarian aid to more than 200,000 Malian refugees who fled the rebel takeover.

- Human Rights Watch has reported that Tuareg forces -- before their al Qaeda allies turned on them -- had kidnapped and gang raped young girls in the towns they captured. Through the media and leaflets we must inform them they will face punishment for such crimes and encourage them to treat civilians with respect according to international law and practice.

When the Berber Tuaregs sought autonomy or independence, it seemed a romantic cause. After all, since the 7th century when Arabs inflamed with the new Muslim religion poured westward to Morocco in conquest, the Berbers have been marginalized from power. Even use of their native language Tamazight was forbidden in Algeria, Libya and most other countries.

But when they rose up in recent decades against national armies in northwestern Africa, they were crushed -- much like the American Sioux Indians facing U.S. troops in the 1800s. In addition, while the Tuaregs are dominated by Arabs in the north from Morocco to Libya, they are outnumbered and dominated in the south by Africans in the Sahelian states from Senegal to Chad.

Despite this, many individual Tuaregs and other Berbers have lived peacefully and prospered in both Arab and African dominated countries. But the rebellion has inserted a wedge between the nomads of the desert -- sometimes known as Blue Men due to their colored robes -- and the rest of society.

One might easily dream of peace in the region -- peace in which the Sahara's minerals and transport routes could be a source of wealth. And with peace will come foreign visitors to view the magical landscapes of the Sahara -- its ancient rock carvings, stone mountains, curving wadis and resilient thorny shrubs and trees. The Paris to Dakar road race would be safe once more.

But the Sahara has become another victim of the Islamist revival. Outsiders are already pretty much banned from the majesty of the Khyber Pass, the medieval apartment blocks of Southeastern Yemen and the ancient Afghan cities of Herat and Kandahar. Kidnappers and terrorists roam the Sinai desert, Philippine islands, Somalia's beaches and Chechnya's mountains.

In the past few months, the vast Sahara has joined them as unsafe to all but the believers in an authoritarian, vengeful god, aimed at slaughtering the infidels and imposing a brutal law on people who want none of it.

Ben Barber has just launched a project to support a book of photojournalism -- photos he took while reporting from the Sahara, Morocco, Afghanistan and many other places. To see the project please go here.