NAIROBI, Kenya — Omar Ould Hamaha, the military commander of a surging jihadist rebel group that’s in control of a swath of northern Mali, has fallen ill and is recovering in a Saharan town in the presence of his family, according to the chief of the village where he’s staying.
Hamaha arrived in Gossi, a town in the Timbuktu region of Mali where he has a wife and children, on Wednesday evening. Feeling ill, he went to the sole town pharmacist, one of the few left in the desert region riled by conflict.
On Thursday morning, he was put on an intravenous drip, said the village chief, Maiga Congo. Another resident of the village confirmed Hamaha’s presence in the town.
Hamaha, when reached by cellphone Thursday evening, said he was feeling sick, and he asked to be called back the next day. He didn’t disclose his location.
It was unclear what Hamaha was suffering from, but there was no reason to suspect that it was especially serious. Intravenous drip treatment is common in Mali, and it’s frequently used to treat malaria. Malaria is rampant across much of Africa, and although it’s often fatal for infants, adults treat it as Americans do the common cold or the flu.
The case emphasizes, though, how openly traceable one of the top Islamist militants in Mali continues to be, even as he threatens the United States and Europe and vows a campaign to bring ultra-conservative Islamic shariah law to all of Mali and beyond.
Andrew Lebovich, a researcher on security in West Africa, said the al Qaida-linked leadership in charge of northern Mali appeared unconcerned at the moment about being tracked.
“They’ve been in the cities; they’ve been talking to people. They’re not trying to hide in any way,” Lebovich said. “You have to assume at a certain point that if they are doing things like this, it is at least in some part intentional.”
Hamaha, a Malian national, himself is a case study in the enigmatic nature of the al Qaida-linked coalition of extremist groups that took over firm control of northern Mali this summer after pushing aside a secular Tuareg rebellion, which had led to a military coup and subsequent state collapse in Mali’s southern capital, Bamako.
Hamaha was known as the right-hand man of Algerian Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader in Mali of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which is considered the North African affiliate of the global terrorist network. But this summer, Hamaha became the spokesman for Ansar Dine, an associated Islamist rebel group led by the nomadic Tuaregs.
Now Hamaha is the military commander of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, an African-led splinter group from al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
The three Islamist groups have divided northern Mali, an area the size of Texas, among themselves. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa controls the area around the town of Gao, which includes Gossi.
According to residents, the group is rapidly expanding its ranks, both from conservative young men from Mali’s southern region and from foreigners entering from Niger to join the jihadist cause. The movement pays its fighters in a region swept with poverty.
According to Congo, the chief of Gossi – who said he enjoyed a good relationship with the Islamist leader – Hamaha frequents Gossi town. On Wednesday, Hamaha established a 14-man crisis committee to administrate the town, Congo said.
Lebovich said Hamaha was an experienced fighter and preacher, and was well-known in northern Mali.
“He’s certainly very bombastic in his rhetoric, and he seems to enjoy the press attention. However, everything he’s said and done strikes me as very serious,” Lebovich said.
Speaking by phone to McClatchy on Sunday, Hamaha taunted the United States, saying his Islamist movement wants the world superpower to come fight it.
When he was asked whether his group had been involved in the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Hamaha called the accusation “nonsense.”
It wasn’t clear if Hamaha was speaking only of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, the group he currently leads, or of all three Islamist groups in Mali. In the past, Hamaha has said the three groups work together for the same cause, though there’s speculation that sharp divisions exist among their leaders.
“There is this proverb that goes, ‘If the hyena wants to eat his mom, he will say that her eyes look like that of a sheep.’ Tell the Westerners that we are not sheep,” Hamaha said. “But if they want to come and fight, they should come and fight.”
MClatchy special correspondent Brahima Ouologuem contributed to this article from Bamako, Mali.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation that focuses on human rights issues. Twitter: @alanboswell.