Illustration by Jordan Rein
This February, after a victorious battle against Islamic insurgents in the Saharan city of Gao, the Malian army put on a tour for the assembled press. Journalists from various news outlets from around the world stood in a dusty courtyard in the heart of the city. Gao is a conservative town—the sort of place where six-month-old babies wear hijabs—and since last year, it has played host to some of the fiercest battles in an international conflict that could reach far beyond Mali’s 15 million people: the fight to prevent al Qaeda from flourishing in Africa.
The press tour was supposed to be a victory celebration. French soldiers, who had offered military support to the Malian troops in the recent battle, stood silently at the edge of Gao’s central courtyard and watched with amusement as the Malians led reporters around the battlefield. Gendarmes swathed in ammo belts guided the journalists around the town’s courthouse, pointing out dismembered limbs and dead jihadists crumpled on the ground.
One soldier called our attention to a severed head facedown in the dust. “Is it Malian, do you think?” I asked. The gendarme kicked it over and studied the face. Dark blood dripped from its mouth. A fly crawled up its nose. “Nah, maybe Algerian or Nigerien,” the gendarme said, grinning with pride. Nearby, in the town hall, next to a body hunched in a stairwell over its machine gun, the soldiers pointed out a wide streak of blood that had burst up the wall and across the ceiling. “Suicide bomber,” they said. “Look, here’s his head.” It was more of a face than a head, though, a puzzled countenance lying wrinkled on the floor in a dusty frown, its skull sheared off by the blast. The cameramen pointedly avoided filming it. “You’d never get it on TV,” one reporter later said, “so why even bother?”
Not long before our grim tour, I had traveled to Mali to witness the aftermath of France’s intervention. I was to ride with a French military convoy from the capital of Bamako to Gao—a five-day journey across the desert. We would be the first such convoy to reach the city, where for the previous six months, al Qaeda and their local allies had taken over and created an Islamic theocracy, indoctrinating youths in jihad and enforcing Sharia law on the locals with whips and butcher’s knives. French troops had subsequently retaken the city with jets and attack helicopters, and we were bringing them food, bottled water, and generators: the full, ungainly logistics trail of a modern army digging its heels in. As we slogged through the Sahara, villagers periodically appeared from their huts to greet us as liberators, waving tricolours and shouting, “Vive la France!” and “Merci, merci!” But as one gets closer to Gao, the Islamist influence grows, and soon I would find out that not all the locals viewed their French saviors with the same fuzzy glow.
The war officially began in January 2012. That’s when a rebel faction from the Tuareg, a nomadic desert tribe based in Saharan Africa, overtook key cities in the north of Mali, which they then declared a separate Tuareg state christened Azawad. They named their army the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which would act as a secular political group, even though Tuaregs in Mali are mostly Muslim, albeit the variety who get away with whoring and drinking every so often. They quickly brokered a marriage of convenience with a constellation of jihadist groups who also operate in the region—the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO); the Islamist Tuareg group Ansar Dine; and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Like Afghanistan in the 1990s, Mali’s northern territories have served as a playground for Africa’s most committed terrorist groups—a safe haven from which to plot jihad, smuggle cocaine into Europe, and trade Western hostages for extravagant ransoms. Although the Tuareg are historically nomadic, they’ve wanted a territory they could call their own for at least 50 years. And so, according to the agreement between the MNLA and the jihadist groups, they would rule this new frontier side by side: the Islamists would lend the Tuareg vital muscle in exchange for being allowed to implement Islamic law in the Azawad territories.
But after several months of serving as co-rulers of the northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao, the jihadists turned on their secular erstwhile allies, ousting the MNLA from power and establishing their own semicompetitive Islamist emirates along largely ethnic lines. Timbuktu was seized by Ansar Dine who banned all music in the famously musical city, while Gao—the largest city in the north—was overthrown by MUJAO, a local jihadist group heavily salted with Arab commanders, who quickly made their mark on the place by chopping off the hands of petty thieves.
No one from the international community made a move until it seemed that the Islamists might expand beyond the north and take over all of Mali. Finally, the French government—which ruled the country as a colony until 1960—ordered air strikes against the jihadists. On January 12, 2013, the first jets attacked Gao, bombing strategic sites like the city’s customs house, a major Islamist base at the center of town, and showcasing the full power of the armée de l’air. French pilots prepared the stage for ground troops who swiftly took back Gao and Timbuktu, sending the jihadists fleeing into the arid mountains of the far north. Those who stayed behind melted into the local population, where some suspected they were waiting to wage a guerrilla counteroffensive.
On the road to Gao, the situation seemed calm as the French contentedly basked in their role as liberators. It all seemed easy—perhaps too easy—and the French officers on the convoy waved off my questions about a nascent insurgency. “This isn’t Afghanistan,” one captain said. “The people love us here. You see how they wave at us when we drive past?”
Shortly after this conversation, the convoy ground to an unexpected halt for the night. French scouts had found two newly planted IEDs on the road ahead of us, an insurgent tactic familiar to Western troops from long and bloody campaigns against invisible opponents in the Middle East.
The IEDs would have to be defused in the morning light, so we spent the night at a French base, lulled to sleep by the purr of armored vehicle engines in a mud-brick fort; it was almost as if Mali were still a French colony. As we set up camp beneath a star-studded sky, a young Foreign Legion cavalry officer came to our campfire to chat with us. He was feeling happy: his men had just captured an insurgent in the nearby desert and driven him into the fort bundled into the back of a Land Cruiser like a trussed sheep. “They are cowards, these jihadists,” he said. “When we catch them they cry like children. They’re not warriors, like the Taliban. When we catch one my men hold him down and I piss on him.”