Many guide books and foreign affairs websites and other such notices for travellers still post warnings about the north of Mali. It is difficult to know just what intelligence they are privy to but any whispers of potential threats to western travellers is a red flag. It is understandable that they feel the need to do so to protect themselves from liability if anything were to happen to a traveller. For this same reason I hesitate to assure you that all is well. I will say that take dire warnings of danger with the understanding that the people giving them may not have complete knowledge of what is happening on the ground and want to protect themselves from liability.

Tuareg Rebellion
There has been a situation of affrontment between a certain faction of Tuareg in the region of Kidal and the Malian authorities. This has included armed attacks and has led to kidnapping and death of a number of Malian military. However the "rebels" as they are being called were restraining their activities to government installations and the military. The history of the conflict is complicated but in summary in 2006 after ten years of peace the "rebels" were demanding that the government respect its promises given in the peace accords signed after the Rebellion of 1990, which the government has yet to implement. The 2006 crisis was calmed but the Tuareg were not willing to wait patienly for the new promises to be instituted so after a short seace fire they took to arms again. In the course of one affrontment between the military and rebels some civilians were killed in the cross fire. It should be noted that this situation has callmed down and most of the “rebles” have given themselves up and handed over thier wepons. It has been 2 years since the last skirmishes. The Tuareg’s stated clame is justice from the Malian government and an attempt to put international pressure on Mali to respect the peace accords. It is therefore in the interests of the rebels not to alienate the international community which it would do by attacking tourists. At no time during this period did the turage take acction anywhere in the region of Timbuktu.

There are have been Sadafists, an Islamic integrist group, in the south of Algeria for some years, which made it a risk to try and go overland in to Algeria from Mali. Occasionally there were rumours that they had strayed over the border into northern Mali and foreign embassies panicked. While it is important to be alert to these events, in fact, they did not come this far south there was usually still several hundred or maybe a thousand km of desert between them and Timbuktu.
Recently this group has started calling itself Al Queda of the Maghreb Islamic or AQMI. The word Al Queda automatically raises red flags and fears of terrorism in western governments. Until recently the activities and behaviours of this group did not show evidence of being closely linked with the Al Queda in Afghanistan and many commentators dubbed their activities as more motivated by material interests than religious fervour. There have been a number of kidnappings in recent years in Niger and some in Mauritania that this group has been involved in. It is suspected that they are held somewhere in the deserts of Northern Mali. However only one westerner has been kidnapped within Malian boarders. A French man who lived in a small town in the Gao region closer to the Nigerian boarder than to Gao itself. From what is known of the members of this group few are actually Malians and those who are few are Tuaregs. This is not an extension of the Tuareg rebellion.
The leader of AQMI stated in November 2010 that the negotiations for the current group of hostages should be conducted directly with central Al Queda and that group made statements giving credence to AQMI’s legitimate status as part of Al Queda. This is a change from past policy and it is not clear what the future holds neither with their activities nor the response of Malian, and neighbouring countries governments nor that of interested western governments. The biggest concern is what impact all of this might have on the local populations; possible increased risk to tourists and there subsequent abandonment of the region is on the top of the list.

There is some contraband trade that goes on between Mali and the neighbouring countries but it is mostly benign: avoiding paying duty on powdered milk and pasta, which is what allows people in Timbuktu to afford such goods. The police and customs officers sometimes do stake-outs at night on the fringes of town to try and catch them. There have been a few errors where a legitimate car was mistaken for a contraband and they have a hassle with the authorities about it. I even heard of one incident where someone called the police thinking there was some bandit staked out to do something dastardly in the night and they went and arrested the customs officer who was parked outside of town waiting for clandos to come in. This should not be a concern for anyone taking normal modes of transport. When you are driving your own vehicle make sure your papers are in order. For those adventurous types coming overland in trucks or by unusual routes be sure you have your papers in order too. The police usually only bother the driver and those passengers who do not have appropriate ID.
There does, however, exist some more nefarious traffic of arms, drugs, and illegal immigrants. No one who is not directly involved really knows much about it but they then to use the open unguarded spaces of the desert to transport their cargo. These means that they are in an area well north of the city of Timbuktu in a very inhospitable zone. Most travellers will not be in a position to encounter them and based on there activities they are likely to want to avoid you as much as you do them.

Warnings from guides in the south
When local people in places like Mopti give dire warnings about brigands on the route to Timbuktu it is a ruse to get you to stay in their sector, or use their services as a guide, or leave your bags and valuables in Mopti “where they will be safe” so that you will be unable to stay long in Timbuktu and will be obliged to return to them. If you choose to leave some of your stuff in Mopti so as to be able to travel light, be careful where you leave it and with whom. If you are leaving your vehicle so as to be able to take a river trip up or down, leave it with the police or in some hotel that permits parking and has a guardian.

From my experience I have never heard of anyone getting held up or hijacked on the road to Timbuktu from Douenza. In some areas in the north there have been a few incidents of car theft or jacking. These were usually fancy new 4x4 belonging to ONGs and on at least some occasions of theft they were left in insecure locations (parked on the street someplace with no guardian) The car-jackings I have heard about, the local nomad population have rapidly taken steps to recover the vehicle because they know they will be accused of the theft.
In any event there are two things to keep in mind: Simply leaving your house carries some risk. When you decide to travel you accept to do so at your own risk. There have been a handful of auto thefts in the last few years in the area north of Timbuktu but the city has virtually no violent crime and petty theft is much lower than in the major cities in the south of Mali. It is no more dangerous than anywhere else in the world; take the same safety precautions you would anywhere.
Some safety tips.
* Don’t give out your travel itinerary to every random person who asks.
* Be vague about exact dates of departure or arrival (besides the person taking reservations for your transport or lodging, of course).
* Don’t take out your money in public, if you don’t let people see where the money comes from they will have a harder time knowing where to make a snatch.
* Don’t flaunt your wealth or fancy electronic gadgets.
* Keep some of your money hidden in various places so if something does get stolen you will still have some more.
* Register with your embassy. If you do not have an embassy find out which other embassy serves you while in Mali. See the sections on
visas and embassies for more information
* Do not publicize the fact if you are someone who comes from a very wealthy family or have connexions with famous or political personalities it could make you a target.
* Let someone at home know your general plans so if you are not back or in contact by a certain time they can make inquiries.
* If you plan to make a long trip into the north, let someone trustworthy in a town know your general plans so they can make an inquiry if you are delayed. Bandits are not the only danger. Illness, injury, getting lost could also happen.
* Don’t attempt to find your own way in the desert. Always go with a competent local guide and over estimate the amount of water you will need. The Sahara is not a joke.