Ibrahim Kontao is busily signing checks as men and women line up outside his air-conditioned office in the Malian capital, Bamako, to ask him for donations and help with their children’s school fees.
Kontao, who studied theology in Saudi Arabia, heads Mali’s wealthiest Islamic charity, known as Al-Farouk, which channels $3 million a year from donors in Gulf Arab states and Turkey to open mosques, Koranic schools and health clinics in rural areas starved of social services. Critics say it and other groups are championing the stricter Wahhabi school of Islam that inspires al-Qaeda- and Islamic State-affiliated militants who claim attacks across West Africa.
“They gain people’s trust by taking care of their needs,” said Brema Ely Dicko, the 36-year-old head of the Social Anthropology Department at the University of Bamako. “Today you see women wearing niqabs, something that used to be very foreign to Mali.”
Mali teetered on the brink of collapse when a loose alliance of ethnic Tuareg separatists and Islamist insurgents, bolstered by an influx of weapons from Libya, seized the north in the wake of a 2012 coup that left the army in tatters.