Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emerged from the shadows in northern Mali, where the laws of the jungle now prevail. Exposed, the terror network is revealing the ruthless nature of the group's internal dynamics.
The terror group is willing to liquidate those who oppose its radical trends. Even its own members are at risk if they dare to refuse orders from its top regional "warlords", Abdelhamid Abou Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar ("Laaouar"), who now move freely in Timbuktu.
"AQIM's ability to govern a small patch of land, even if temporarily, has made the world discover the horrible face of the group," analyst Sid Ahmed Ould Tfeil says. "There have been executions, amputation of hands and whippings of people accused by al-Qaeda of violating the Sharia law it seeks to impose on Timbuktu and Gao."
"Al-Qaeda recently killed some of its own after they showed opposition to the behaviour of the group's emirs against residents," Ould Tfeil adds. "Al-Qaeda has started to lose its mind."
AQIM saves its greatest cruelty for those it accuses of backing down on jihadist ideology.
The heinous execution carried out at the end of March against a citizen kidnapped two weeks earlier from Timbuktu is but one example of this internal dissolution and paranoia.
Al-Qaeda accused Ahmed Ould Mohamed Aali of providing information to the Mauritanian military about the group's movements during a recent Mauritanian security offensive. Just before the victim was abducted, Mauritanian airstrikes had successfully destroyed an al-Qaeda convoy in northern Mali.
"Ahmed Oul Mohamed Aali was severely beaten by al-Qaeda elements before the eyes of people in Timbuktu and no one dared intervene," said local resident Abdallah Ould Sidi. "After that, they took him to an unknown place, accusing him of collaboration with the Mauritanian army."
The same armed Islamic group opened fire on city residents who protested the seizure of their city.
Islamist armed groups have "summarily executed two men, amputated the hand of at least one other, carried out public floggings, and threatened women and Christians," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on April 30th.
According to the international rights watchdog organisation, the armed groups that captured Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu have "robbed ordinary residents during home intrusions, stolen cars and motorcycles, and attacked boutiques and small shops".
"Christians were hiding lest they should be killed by the armed groups," a Christian cleric told Maliactu.com.
Witnesses also said that Islamists had destroyed bars and hotels they associated with alcohol consumption and prostitution.
In early April, al-Qaeda ally Ansar al-Din cut the ear of a woman for wearing a short skirt, Gao residents told HRW. On April 20th, they publicly flogged a Kidal man for consuming alcohol, and another who had been caught stealing.
"They put his hand down on a piece of wood, and whacked off his right hand above the wrist, lecturing everyone about this being what a robber deserves. They spoke about Sharia. I was trembling; it was too much," a witness recounted.
"We don't know this kind of violence in Mali," the witness added.
Not long before AQIM and Ansar al-Din swept through northern Mali, infamous al-Qaeda regional leader Abdelhamid Abou Zeid killed 30 Mauritanians under his command because he suspected them of having ties to Mauritanian intelligence services,
The "merciless and barbaric" act prompted "a sense of repulsion among young men working under him", Algerian daily Ennahar reported.
This has made many young people resort to any means to escape and return to their normal lives.
Incidents such as these, where al-Qaeda is seen conducting an internal purge of presumably "disloyal" members, generate despair and confusion among the group's remaining elements.
According to Iselmou Ould Elmoustafa, director of the website Tahalil and an expert in terrorist groups, this behaviour reflect the group's fragility.
"I can frankly say that al-Qaeda's liquidation of its elements on charges of treason means that no new elements can now be recruited, because recruitment mainly depends on persuasion rather than intimidation," Ould Elmoustafa says.
A preoccupation with security has become strong among the now troubled organisation, hetells Magharebia
"This is because the Sahel region is no longer a scene for al-Qaeda alone; rather, there are now other armed groups that don't have the same al-Qaeda agenda," he says.
Ansar al-Din, he points out, has adopted a different approach than al-Qaeda regarding hostages. It released the Swiss woman without making any demands or conditions.
Al-Qaeda is also threatened by the willingness of some Touareg movements to assist international powers in their war on terror, as well as "the appearance of the Arab armed group in Timbuktu that declared its rejection of the application of Sharia", Ould Elmoustafa notes.
"Therefore, if the world wants to deal rationally with the security situation in northern Mali, it has to support Touaregs against terrorism," he says.
Public rejection, security crackdowns, internal dissent and ideological revisions by former proponents of jihadist ideology have all led to severe cracks in AQIM, analyst al-Mokhtar al-Salem tells Magharebia.
"AQIM understands well that if Mauritanian elements and Touareg young people abandon the Salafist jihadist ideology and return to normal life, this will significantly help put an end to al-Qaeda," al-Salem says.