National Geographic : 2011 Jan
• did not really want to sell the manuscript, which had been passed down through his mother's ancestors, but that his family needed the money. "He works for the guides, but there are no tour- ists," he said. " e problems in the desert are making all of us su er." Finally, he mentioned the plight of the Frenchman. "I have heard the One-Eye has set a deadline." During my time in Timbuktu, several locals denied that the city was unsafe and beseeched me to "tell the Europeans and Americans to come." But for much of the past decade the U.S. State Department and the foreign services of other Western governments have advised their citizens to avoid Timbuktu as well as the rest of northern Mali. e threats originate from a dis- parate collection of terrorist cells, rebel groups, and smuggling gangs that have exploited Mali's vast northern desert, a lawless wilderness three times the size of France and dominated by endless sand and rock, merciless heat and wind. Most infamous among the groups is the one led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian leader of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Reputed to have lost an eye ghting the Rus- sians in Afghanistan, he is known throughout the desert by his nom de guerre, Belaouer, Algerian-French slang for the One-Eye. Since 2003, his men have kidnapped 47 Westerners. Until 2009, AQIM had reached deals to release all of its hostages, but when the United King- dom refused to meet the group's demands for Edwin Dyer, a British tourist, he was ex- ecuted---locals say beheaded. His body was never found. In the weeks before my arrival, Belaouer and his cohorts had acquired a new inventory of hostages: three Spanish aid work- ers, an Italian couple, and the Frenchman. "Belaouer is very clever," the salt merchant emphasized. He described how AQIM gained protection from the desert's Arab-speaking clans through Belaouer's marriage to the daughter of a powerful chief. One popular rumor describes him giving fuel and spare tires to a hapless Peter Gwin is a National Geographic sta writer and a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grantee. Brent Stirton is on sta with Reportage by Getty Images. At its peak Timbuktu boasted 50,000 residents and streets swollen with arriving camel trains that stretched for miles. Today the city's population is about the same, but the caravans are almost extinct.