Al Qaeda Wants Africa

Are the French in Over Their Heads in Mali?

By Aris Roussinos


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.” 


French soldiers deploy from their armored vehicles and prepare to storm the marketplace in Gao.

We arrived in Gao several days later. While the jihadists had been driven from the city, the stark heraldry of their rule was still apparent. Black billboards emblazoned with al Qaeda’s flag greeted our convoy at the city gates. welcome to the islamic state of gao, the signs read in jaunty, white-lettered French. The emir of Gao and spiritual leader of MUJAO, Abdelhakim al-Sahrawi, had loved signs. don hijab, they implored from every roundabout, obey shariah, fight the kuffar. Unlike in Timbuktu, there had never been many musicians here—but the jihadists banned their melodies and harmonies anyway.

The next day in the Place de Shariah, a dusty parade ground that passes for Gao’s main square, a group of local men took me to see the mounds of gray-black ash dotting the sand. This is where the Islamists burned the townspeople’s CDs, SIM cards, televi- sions, and all of their cigarettes, a few bystanders told me. Some locals took me to a concrete pillar gouged deeply with machete blows and stained with blood. “And this is where they cut the hands,” the men explained. “We saw it all ourselves.” A small boy was pushed into a squatting position and his arms stretched behind him around the pillar as they reenacted the sharp blows with their own hands and arms. The right hand first, chop, and then the left hand, chop. I asked how they felt after witnessing this. They shrugged. “They weren’t good kids, the victims,” one said. “They were just thieves. They were all bad boys.”

I wasn’t surprised that some citizens had welcomed the Islamists. The MNLA had made bad victors, drinking the city’s bars dry, raping women and children, and looting shops and houses. When Gao’s citizens gathered in the streets last June to protest against Tuareg rule, the MNLA fired shots into the demonstration. The jihadists launched their putsch against their secular allies the same day capturing the city in a matter of hours, and restoring order—although it was the kind without compromise. At least they were better than the MNLA, people on the street told me. There were no more rapes or thefts, and business was good. If you got flogged for smoking a cigarette, well hey, cigarettes are bad for you, right?

In their own brutal way, the MUJAO tried to be as humane about their amputation spree as possible. “We’re not cruel,” Abdelhakim, the MUJAO leader, had told the town’s only surgeon, Dr. Abdelaziz Maiga, in an awkward meeting at his hospital office. I interviewed the doctor there one day. “We don’t want to kill anyone, God forbid,” Abdelhakim had told the doctor. “We just have to carry out God’s law.” So he came up with a solution: Would the doctor cut off their hands, with anesthetic, in as clean and surgical an environment as possible? Abdelaziz thought about it but politely declined. “As you wish,” shrugged Abdelhakim as he rose from his chair and left the office. He rang Abdelaziz a few days later from a nearby village, his voice swelling with pride. “It’s OK,” he said. “We don’t need you anymore, we’ve found a solution. As soon as we cut their hands off, we dip their stumps in boiling oil to cauterize the wound. It works really well, we’ve just tried it on three thieves.”

The next day, a group of local vigilantes loyal to the Malian government, the Gao Patrollers, took me to a nursery school filled with munitions they’d found hidden in safe houses. While kids lolled on the swings outside, the Patrollers opened dusty crates of Russian missiles for me to inspect. “We found these just this morning in a terrorist safe house around the corner,” their commander said. “Every day we find something new: rifles, ammunition, explosives.”

Clearly, the jihadists had been laying up supplies for their defense of Gao—or for its recapture from the French. To prevent this, the Malian military, along with Nigerien allies, had erected a ring of steel around the city, with checkpoints at every entrance to shake down the locals, search their cars, and check their papers. It would be impossible for the insurgents to smuggle weapons into Gao for any planned impending uprising. But the stockpiles of weapons we found suggested that they wouldn’t need to. The high-walled compounds and abandoned villas of Gao were—the military was slowly discovering—filled with weapons just waiting to be picked up by infiltrators or locals and used against the French occupiers.


French troops pull back from the marketplace before helicopters rake the last surviving jihadists with gunfire.

After a week, I left Gao to edit a film back in the comfort of Bamako, the country’s capital on the other side of the nation that had yet to be affected by the war. But it was just my luck that the day I arrived in Bamako, the rebels struck Gao in force. The handful of remaining journalists reported that black-clad mujahideen had attacked the city center, occupying the police station and firing from rooftops at the Malian soldiers in the streets below. French helicopters circled overhead, firing rockets at the rebel-controlled police station until the fighting died down. Then, several hours after it had begun, the jihadists slipped back into the countryside.

A week later, I set out for Gao once again with another French convoy—this time with a fearsomely equipped infantry of armored vehicles, a sign their generals were expecting more trouble ahead. From their vast base at the airport outside of Gao, the nerve center of France’s Mali campaign, the French exerted their control on the city and the surrounding area. They had locked down the lone road south—or at least whatever stretch they happened to be driving along at the time. But the attack had proved what French officers must have feared all along: the entire countryside and empty desert surrounding Gao and the rest of northern Mali were still occupied by the insurgents. The locals know the country well, a French sergeant explained on the journey back. At night, they sneak out and deploy new IEDs along the road. By day, they study the French convoy’s movements, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses.

“This place is just like Afghanistan,” the sergeant said, gesturing wearily at the desert with his cigarette. “The only difference is here there are fewer mountains.” A Malian journalist who had been in communication with the rebels echoed this statement but with more ominous phrasing: “You, the French, the journalists, when you drive around Gao and through the villages, you don’t see MUJAO. But MUJAO sees you,” he smiled. “MUJAO sees you. Tu comprends?”

With the French huddled in the Gao airport, the responsibility for breaking up MUJAO sleeper cells fell to the Malian army. The idea seemed good in theory: putting a Malian face on the war would allow the ragtag local forces to gain the vital counterinsurgency experience they’d need when—or if—the French eventually withdrew, while making the intervention look less like an Iraq-style occupation. In practice, the concept worked less well. The Malian forces are almost all drawn from tribes from the country’s deep south, with kit bags full of magic amulets and juju fetishes to prove it. Their knowledge of Gao’s populace and politics is almost nil, and when I returned to the city I found that their attempts at providing security seemed to consist primarily of detaining suspicious Tuaregs for walking too closely to military installations or the single functioning hotel.

“At least under MUJAO we didn’t have all these checkpoints and searches,” one local shopkeeper told me under the shade of his store’s awning. Despite the previous week’s attack, everything seemed mostly back to normal. “They’d look for weapons, sure, but they wouldn’t check your papers or hold you up for hours for no reason. And business was good.” I said that it didn’t sound so bad. “It wasn’t. What can I say? MUJAO were OK.”

A few days later, I interviewed a victim of punitive amputation in the Place de Shariah, trying to discover the reason for his mutilation as he ummed and erred, giving me contradictory and questionable sob stories that danced around his being a petty criminal who was caught robbing a boutique. Halfway through, a smartly dressed local businessman strolled over and started berating my interviewee. “You motherfucker, you accursed thief,” he shouted. “If you weren’t such a fucking thief, they wouldn’t have cut your hand off. That’s what happens! Don’t think just because you only have one hand I won’t kick your ass, you son of filth.”


French soldiers take up position in Gao’s central Place de Shariah, the former stage of the MUJAO’s punitive amputations.

Over the course of the next week, I worked closely with Malian neighborhood patrols locating and photographing bomb factories in abandoned houses in the city center.

The scale of each day’s haul was terrifying: sealed packets of Russian-manufactured propellant charges, huge IEDs made from gas cylinders and filled with military-grade explosives, each of which could send a lightly armored French vehicle spinning into the air. But more worrisome was the fact that the Malians, informed of the location of these bomb caches, had neglected to tell the French army, and that the French, when eventually alerted, didn’t have the bomb-disposal capacity to clear them. The French bomb-disposal teams were all in the mountains in the far north, trying to capture al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s last Malian stronghold, leaving the troops in Gao without the capability to remove IEDs.

A few nights later, around midnight, the dull thump of nearby explosions woke me in my hotel. A few miles upstream from Gao—along the banks of the slow-moving Niger—lie the villages of Kadji and Bourem, both Islamist strongholds that had yet to be secured by the French army. Under the cover of darkness and moving silently in traditional pirogue fishing canoes, a jihadist commando unit had slid downriver from Kadji, evaded the checkpoints that stud every land entrance to Gao, and slipped undetected into the city center. Suicide bombers blasted their way into the city’s principal buildings, the town hall, and the courthouse. Their surviving comrades then rushed in and fortified their positions for the day of fierce fighting to come. The Malians cordoned off the city center and awaited daylight and the onset of battle. It was as if everyone had the same premonition that it would be the heaviest fighting they had seen in the war for Gao thus far.

After a fitful sleep followed by a rushed breakfast of Nescafé and cigarettes, I hopped into a Malian pickup truck crammed with anxious soldiers and headed toward the city center and the roar of gunfire. The situation was confused: the Malians knew MUJAO forces were back in town, but they didn’t know where they were holed up or how many were waiting for them. Shots from hidden snipers whizzed past us from all directions, and eventually the commandant in charge deployed an ancient armored car to batten down the courthouse gates as soldiers and gendarmes ambled behind it for cover. As the metal gates crumpled on impact, the armored car’s machine gun raked the courtyard with fire to provoke a response. It worked, and we immediately came under fire and scuttled for cover.

The commandant ordered a team into a post office opposite the courthouse to clear the building of suspected snipers, after which they would set up a position across from the jihadists. I followed five soldiers into the building as they maneuvered up the stairwells, sweat dripping down their anxious faces. They shot its doors open and sprayed the rooms with fire one by one, realizing with a mixture of relief and disappointment that the building was empty. “Up on the roof,” said one of the soldiers. We rushed up the stairwell, burst onto the flat roof, and waved at the Malian soldiers in the street below to show that we were friendlies. They responded by shooting at us with a blast of machine-gun fire before they realized we were on their team.


A child jihadist killed in battle by a French soldier.

We crawled into position on the roof and the Malians began to spray wild, untargeted bursts of Kalashnikov fire in the general direction of the jihadists who were shooting intermittently at us, hoping to suppress them before the main assault began. For a half hour or so, the Malian troops pummeled the courthouse with rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire in a display of firepower that was notable more for its enthusiasm than its accuracy. The jihadists responded with carefully aimed shots. Outnumbered and outgunned, they were nonetheless far more disciplined than France’s Malian allies.

An overweight corporal joined us on the roof, his ass hanging out of his pants, and took charge. The Malians, it seems, don’t have radios. Instead the corporal chatted amicably to his commanding officer with his cell phone, while firing the Kalashnikov into the courthouse with his free hand. After a brief cigarette break punctuated by the constant rat-a-tat of urban combat and the joyful shrieks of the Malian machine gun crew who were visibly high on war, we clattered down the stairwell back to the street to approach the courthouse. The corporal had a plan, and the commandant was going to listen whether he wanted to or not. “Where’s the commandant?” the corporal shouted, almost in tears with adrenaline and frustration. “Where the hell has he gone now?” When he found him nearby, the corporal grabbed his boss by the arm and shouted that they needed to break down the courthouse compound walls with the armored cars before rushing in en masse. “I need to get permission first,” the commandant said apologetically, and in response received an anguished wail and a violent torrent of curses from the corporal. But permission to advance became moot almost instantaneously; just then a jihadist bullet hit the commandant in the leg. As he lay in the dust screaming, the corporal ordered everyone else to return fire with everything they had.

I ran to the low wall that separated the street—where the Malian soldiers were positioned—from the jihadists in the courthouse garden. A dozen men took turns emptying their magazines over the wall over and over again: they didn’t hit anything, but it looked good and they were having fun. As an armored car trundled toward the jihadists’ position, we darted 50 yards back down the street to reload and wait for the breach. Jihadist bullets whizzed overhead once again as the Malians laid down yet another storm of rifle and machine-gun fire, sometimes standing exposed in the street.

The armored car smashed down the wall and retreated, machine-gun bullets ricocheting off its thin armor. The hail of fire abated suddenly, from our side at least: the jihadists were still managing to keep the Malian soldiers’ heads down as they threw cigarettes to one another and searched their pockets for spare cartridges, bickering about what they should do next. The haphazard plan was to storm the courtyard, but they abandoned their mission after faltering under the jihadists’ gunfire a few times. After four hours of fighting, the Malian army had run out of ammunition. They had achieved nothing. It was time for the French to come to their rescue.

Armored fighting vehicles of the 92nd Infantry rumbled up to our position in an awesome display of French firepower. Hiding behind them for cover, we inched our way down the street to the rear wall of the courthouse, adjoining Gao’s once-picturesque marketplace. Their rear doors opened with a persistent beep-beep-beep, and French infantrymen leaped out from their air-conditioned steel bellies, raking the Islamists with short rifle bursts, cannon fire, and rockets as the Malians relaxed behind a low wall to watch the show.

I’d come to Gao with these guys—stocky country lads from southwest France who constantly talked about food and tucked rugby balls into the recesses of their armored vehicles. Now I was following them into the crowded alleys of the marketplace to finish the job the Malians could not. Peering around the colonnades, firing bursts into the open windows overlooking us, they crept through the deserted market. A huge Polynesian corporal looked into the infrared scope of his rifle and scanned the alleyway as I peered over his shoulder. A jihadist jumped out of a market stall, maybe ten yards away, and aimed his weapon at us. The corporal dropped him with a single shot. For ten minutes, as other French fire teams cleared the city center of the last surviving jihadists, we watched the corporal’s victim die gurgling in the dust and burning sun, before he was finished off with a second mercy shot. This dead jihadist was a kid, perhaps 15 years old, too young to grow a beard. But it was him or us. He knew the risks. Maybe he wanted a martyr’s death. If so, he got it. 


A suicide bomber’s leg, dragged into the street by a dog.

The next day, with the jihadists defeated once again, and French and Malian soldiers and police swarming everywhere to count the dead, I set off on my own to look for the body of the kid I’d seen die the day before. I found him where we’d left him: in the ruins of the marketplace. His face was young and innocent. Dark red blood was encrusted around his open dusty lips. Birdsong twittered peacefully from the nearby trees, their leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. Iridescent flies glittered like green-gold jewels as they crawled across his face.

I sat on the ground next to him, staring for a long time. I don’t know how long. Eventually the chief of police strode over with his retinue. A tall man in a Chelsea Football Club tracksuit snapped a photo of the kid with a cheap camera and said, “That makes three in the market now, 13 in total.” The chief of police grunted noncommittally. “There’s more bodies round the back,” an officer told me helpfully. “Non, merci,” I said. “I think I’ve had enough for now.” A dozen jihadists, some of them children, had held off hundreds of Malian soldiers for a full day of fighting, until the French were forced to intervene. The city center was a smoldering ruin. For all the politicians’ talk in Paris of a swift end to their campaign in Mali, it seemed unlikely to me that the French would be going home any time soon.

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