It’s the dry season in Mali’s remote northern deserts, yet the sky spits unceasing rain down on the French military convoy, turning sand into sheets of mud as slick as ice. Slipping and sliding past the acacia trees, the column of dull-green armored trucks inches along, destination Timbuktu. Unlike their colonial forefathers, they come not in pursuit of gold but to liberate a people from a 21st-century jihad.
In early December, Abu Zeid, the brutal leader of the Mali operation of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, called a meeting in the desert for a number of disparate Islamic militant groups. Here, a pact was signed, and a plan was agreed on. Abu Zeid, who is also known as Abid Hammadou, is a skinny Algerian, with a penchant for orange soda and strawberry biscuits. He is ambitious and ruthless, often financing his fight with the taking of Western hostages. Even by his standards, the plan was bold: uniting the militant Arab and Tuareg groups and challenging the government by taking the fight to the capital, Bamako.
Last year, during a period of instability in Mali following an Army coup, Tuareg rebels conquered northern parts of the country. And seeking greater autonomy, the nomads declared the establishment of the independent state of Azawad. Some Tuareg, however, formed alliances with Islamist militia groups, and, over the course of the year, the radical Islamists managed to wrest control of the north and impose harsh Sharia.
A month after Abu Zeid had called the meeting in the desert, many of the fighters massed in Lere, a border town on the edge of Mauritania. They raised the al Qaeda flag, set up a satellite Internet connection, and brought women from Mauritania refugee camps for their enjoyment, according to a mechanic in Lere. Then, in mid-January, hundreds of pickup trucks set out for the capital, speeding south along desert tracks, each truck carrying up to a dozen fighters and antiaircraft guns mounted on the back. The fighters were well armed, some wearing bulletproof vests. Locals who saw the fighters move south toward the capital said there were many foreigners among them.
The offensive was as short as it was bold—the Malian Army fled at the sight of the fighters approaching the capital where President Dioncounda Traore was frantically pleading for help. It was the French who came to the rescue.
Within hours of the call, jets from the French-led alliance (which also included several European countries and logistical help from the U.S. and the U.A.E.) set off from neighboring Chad, and bombs were unleashed on the columns of jihadists. But at least some rebels remained insouciant. Paris would soon come to regret its actions and be mired in Mali like the U.S. had been mired in Iraq, Oumar Ould Hamaha, the occasional spokesman for the militant group, Ansar Dine, told CNN. The red-bearded jihadist leader, who’s deeply involved with a motley crew of drug-running Islamist militias in Timbuktu, warned that France had opened the “gates of hell.” Nonetheless, Opération Serval, as it was code-named by the French after the African wild cat, were soon near Hamaha’s hometown of Timbuktu. But the soldiers didn’t know what awaited them in the fabled city.
Advancing troops first took the airport on Sunday, Jan. 27. Late that night, the moon illuminated Timbuktu’s mud-brick roofs as paratroopers silently dropped into the desert, north of the city. At dawn, armored troops made their way from the south through the city while the paratroopers blocked all exits into the northern desert. There was little resistance. The jihadists vanished like a mirage, leaving behind only the explosives and ammunition they couldn’t carry.
Mali, a former French colony with a diverse ethnic makeup, has long been a troubled country. The French departed in 1960, and democracy was established in 1992. But unstable governments, famine, and clashes between various groups continued to make life hard.
Abu Zeid first arrived in Mali in 2007, with the blessing of al Qaeda’s leadership, to start a new affiliate in the vast reaches of the Western Sahara. It was fertile territory. Along ancient trade routes, cocaine, kidnappings, tribalism, corruption, weapons, and jihad swirled like toxic quicksand. Abu Zeid set his sight on drug running and hostage taking, making al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb one of the richest al Qaeda affiliates, according to retired Air Force lieutenant colonel Rudolph Atallah, the former Africa counterterrorism director for the department of defense under President George W. Bush. “They are flush with cash on every level,” he says. “And so they’ve used it to buy people.” In addition to ensuring the loyalty of even high-level politicians, the wealth has allowed the group to buy weapons from the poorly guarded Libyan stockpiles while mounting an aggressive recruitment campaign in one the world’s poorest countries.
Abu Zeid and his radical Islamist militias took over the ancient city of Timbuktu last year. Abu Zeid’s headquarters was an abandoned garage, where he would fix pickup trucks between operations. Their rule was months long, arbitrary and vicious, Timbuktu residents said. Dressed in flowing green, blue, gray, and brown robes, short pants above their ankles, and turbans, the jihadist imposed an extreme version of Sharia. Those caught by the dreaded Islamic police faced public beatings, imprisonment or, in extreme cases, amputation. When citizens organized a meeting with Abu Zeid to ask him to put a stop to the chaos, he seemed to listen, but the violence just increased.
One wedding videographer I spoke to, his livelihood banned, turned to videotaping the religious police and the confessions they extracted. After the French liberation, he invited me to his house to watch the videos he had made, he said, under duress. One scene in particular stayed with me. In it, hundreds of curious onlookers gather next to the local mosque as the foreign jihadists strut around the square with their Arab and Tuareg partners. The town’s imam, a gentle-seeming man, watches nervously as a local collaborator translates a rambling speech about the accused: a young couple, whose baby has been born out of wedlock. Though a relative promises to marry the couple immediately, the Islamic court refuses. Then the sentence is issued: a hundred lashes each. After each set of 10 lashes, a new fighter strides up for his turn at the whip. At first, the 15-year-old girl doesn’t move under the blows, but halfway through, after 50 lashes, her body begins to jolt with each crack of the whip. When it is over, she staggers away.
Residents of Timbuktu say the jihadists left as soon as French precision strikes hit their headquarters—a villa built by Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi but never used by him. But the fighters left a trail of destruction. Before the assault, they had already destroyed dozens of tombs, telling residents that the Quran commands that all graves are equally modest. Iyop, the son of Abu Zeid, a brash 25-year-old known for speeding through town in the latest model Toyota Land Cruiser, tried to torch all the city’s ancient manuscripts before his hurried exit. When I visited the library, a pile of ash was blowing into the green robes of the guardian who had been unable to protect the books. (Some manuscripts, it has since come out, were saved.)
Despite the devastation, the mood in Timbuktu was euphoric when I arrived on the heels of the liberating troops. After months under the yoke of the radical Islamists, the people of Timbuktu cheered as the French tanks rumbled through the city streets. People flooded into the streets to sing and dance. Young women let the veils fall from their heads. Radios flickered to life playing West African reggae. Everyone was eager to do all that had been forbidden by the jihadists. “Mali, Mali” and “France, France” echoed among the brick walls of the town. But the loudest cry was “Liberté!”
“I have not sung a word in 10 months,” said Kiakiq Maouloud, a famous local singer. “Now I have so many songs to write, so many words to sing, about freedom, and peace.” Two girls raced through downtown on the back of a motorbike, holding the French and Malian flags. A woman in a flowing pink dress walked through the city as if in a daze. It was the first time she had left her house in nine months. “Since they left, we’ve had a two-day party,” Maouloud exclaimed as she and her friend started up in song again, banging on pots and pans. A 15-year-old girl bounded down the street, spreading her arms wide in joy, and the town hummed with the sounds of drums far into the night.
Yet there was also a strange hollow quality to the celebrations. Nearly every Arab and Tuareg had left the city—some because they were affiliated with the jihadist groups, but many others because of the retaliation they feared was on its way, doled out by the other ethnic groups that populate the country.
Revenge arrived the following day. Children as young as 6 tore through the Arab shops, ripping out anything they could carry. A young man carried shelves on his back; a child had grabbed a fan, and women streamed out of a shop, clutching packets of spaghetti. It was as if the value of the objects didn’t matter to the rioters, but rather the feeling of taking something back. Standing in the shadow of a shattered boutique, Zeimalaos, a 20-year-old woman, covered the lower half of her face with a yellow veil as she talked. “They said they were Muslim, but they did what they wanted, and took what they wanted,” she said, her eyes flashing in the harsh sunlight. “I will cut them to morsels if I see them.”
Few were as angry about Sharia as Mohamane Cisse, whom I met at a tiny Quranic school with a grass mat ceiling. The 19-year-old told me how his brother was caught stealing a TV set and some bags of rice. A relative offered to pay for the offense, but the judge refused, and days later, Cisse’s brother was taken to the desert for his punishment. The militants brought out an electric saw, and gave the young man cocaine to numb the pain. And then cut off his hand. “So many people steal in Timbuktu, why did they cut off my brother’s hand?” he said. “I wanted to kill them. What they did haunts me still.”
As the rioters moved deeper and deeper into the market, the Malian Army rolled by, slowly, looking straight ahead as if they didn’t notice the chaos around them, and only returning once the damage was done. “People are angry because [the Arabs] betrayed us,” said Aboubacine, a young man in a plaid shirt as he watched the looting. “If we see them, we will cut their necks.”
In Timbuktu, this much was clear: al Qaeda’s radical fighters had succeeded in sowing the seeds of division. The war in Mali may not be over but just beginning.