The town of Konna lies along the eastern bank of the Niger River in central Mali, a semi-desert, speckled with thorn trees, that turns vibrantly green during the brief summer rains. For nearly a year, since rebel Tuaregs — the nomadic Berber people who live in the interior Sahara region of North Africa — and Islamic militants seized control of northern Mali, this settlement of 20,000 marked the limit of government-held territory. Five hundred troops in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns stood guard in the bush just north of the town. Beyond lay empty scrubland and a paved road to Timbuktu and Gao, the two main population centers under the jihadists' control.
On Wednesday night, January 9, forty pickup trucks filled with Islamist fighters and heavy weaponry descended on Konna. Taken by surprise, government forces managed to repel the initial onslaught. Around midnight, however, another 150 armed jihadist vehicles arrived. A thousand fighters attacked the town's defenders from three sides, using rocket-propelled grenades and large-caliber machine guns. After an eight-hour battle, the government lines broke. Hundreds of soldiers retreated in panic through the dirt streets of Konna, some of them stripping off their dark-green camouflage uniforms and begging locals for civilian clothes.
Ousmane Bah, a truck driver, watched the Islamists roll into town at 3:45 on Thursday afternoon. Dressed in desert khakis, they blew up a handful of military installations, and herded people to Konna's mosques. A local street preacher who had joined the militants last year commanded them to gather the corpses of government troops. “Bury your dead dogs,” he told them. The jihadists ordered Konna's imams to inform the people, Bah said, that “Sharia law is now introduced in Konna, and all women must be covered.”
On Friday morning, according to Bah, the chief jihadist arrived to claim his prize. Iyad Ag Ghali is a burly Tuareg whose black-bearded face is well known in the country. A former diplomat, smuggler, and hostage negotiator, Ghali had now taken on a new identity: the founder and commander of Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, a radical Islamist organization allied with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a force financed partly by the ransoming of Western hostages. “He was wearing a black turban, and a long blue robe,” Bah told me. “He gathered people together and declared that Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda would run things now.”
Until recently Mali, a nation of 15.8 million people in the Sahel — the arid belt that extends across North Africa — was widely viewed as a gentle if very poor democracy, a favorite of low- budget tourists and world music fans alike. The Festival in the Desert, a kind of African Woodstock in the dunes near Timbuktu, drew thousands of Western and local visitors every January. Timbuktu itself, in the last few years, underwent an unlikely renaissance as a cultural oasis in the Sahara, with half a dozen libraries that preserved a trove of Arabic manuscripts from a millennium ago that had recently been rediscovered.
But the country has long combined poverty, radical Islam, and tendencies to armed rebellion. Mali ranked 178th out of 182 countries assessed by the United Nations Development Program for a World Development Report in 2009. According to UNICEF, it had a 26 percent adult literacy rate in 2010, and a per capita annual income of $600. The Sahara desert, beset by droughts and avoided by governments, is a zone of discontent and lawlessness. Between 1963 and 2006, the region's Tuareg population mounted four armed uprisings. Each time the government promised more development projects, but the pledges fell short. The Sahara also became a sanctuary for outlaws — including narcotraffickers, cigarette smugglers, and, in the last ten years, jihadists bent on creating a Caliphate across the desert.
In late 2011, the combustible mix exploded. Following the downfall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Tuareg mercenaries in his army returned to Mali laden with heavy weapons. Allied with Islamic militants, they seized control of the north of Mali, bordering on Algeria. Soon the Tuaregs were pushed aside and the jihadists took over. Seemingly overnight, northern Mali, a region the size of France long ignored by the West, became perhaps the globe's most significant terrorist threat. In September, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called northern Mali a “safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”
The threat became more acute after the fall of Konna in January. Although some say that the jihadists' main goal was the Mopti airport in Sévaré, thirty miles south of Konna, Ghali reportedly urged his followers to take the capital, Bamako. Adam Thiam, the country's best-known investigative journalist, told me that had the French not intervened, the Islamists could have seized all of Mali “in two or three days.” Thiam said that “many Westerners would have been killed.”
The rise of Ghali and his jihadists is partly a fallout from the Arab Spring, which set off a chain of events that few could have anticipated. But many observers I talked to say that blame also lies with regional governments and Mali's Western benefactors. According to leaked US diplomatic cables, high ranking Malian officials and Muslim militants worked together in the drug trade — turning part of the Sahara desert into a transit point for cocaine between South America and Europe. (In 2009 a cargo plane was found burned in the desert near Gao; UN investigators believe Islamists torched it after unloading the drugs.) Meanwhile, the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a military aid program in the Sahara that bore almost no tangible results. The US passed up opportunities to act against the extremists, and ignored obvious signs that Mali's army was completely outmatched.
In late January, I arrived in Bamako, Mali's dusty capital, straddling the banks of the Niger River. French forces had gotten there ten days earlier, and people were feeling relieved and elated; an American friend who has lived in Bamako for twelve years told me that she had packed her bags and prepared to evacuate to Paris after fighters left their northern enclaves and streamed toward the south. Last year many Malians had bitterly blamed France for the loss of half of the country. Now, however, the tricouleur hung from windows, draped over side mirrors, fluttered from poles. One Bamako newspaper celebrated the French troops as “agents of God.”
I paid a visit to Imam Chérif Ousmane Mandani Haidara, the first Muslim leader to denounce jihadist rule in the north. His headquarters is a green-domed mosque on a sealed-off street in Bamako, protected by metal detectors and a battalion of private guards wearing red berets. Pilgrims crammed the courtyard for a one-week festival commemorating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Upstairs in his opulent quarters, Haidara told me that he was on edge. The city had been infiltrated by jihadist sympathizers, including some powerful imams, he said.
He was worried about his safety. His moderate Islamic organization — Ansar Dine — had been tainted by Iyad Ag Ghali's appropriation of the name. “Iyad Ag Ghali is a Wahhabi, his Ansar Dine is not the same as my Ansar Dine, I am a pacifist,” said the imam, an imposing figure swathed in a golden bubu, a traditional Malian robe, and a green wool scarf. “They created Ansar Dine to make trouble for me.” The imam told me with exasperation that some of his adherents had recently been thrown into jail in the Republic of Congo. “The police said, 'Ansar Dine? Oh, that's Iyad's violent group.'”
The next day, I set out for the north. The tarmac quickly turned to dirt, and I fell in behind a half-mile-long French military convoy. In 1994 I had traveled with the French army in Rwanda, and the scenes were familiar. French flags hung from mud-brick huts, jeeps and trucks kicked up clouds of dust, and children waved from the roadside. The French intervention in Rwanda had been clouded in ambiguity, but the mission in Mali was moving ahead with what seemed like near-universal approval, although some officers I met made it clear that they didn't want to be photographed.
After ten grueling hours and 390 miles, I pulled into Mopti, by the Niger River, which was once favored by backpackers but has now fallen on difficult times. Once-popular cafés such as the Restaurant Bar Bozo — noted for its views of sunset over the river — had shut down, following a series of kidnappings and killings of Westerners a year ago. Here the signs of the war became more apparent. At the gendarmerie, a bright pink and blue stucco building in the center of town, Malian police showed me a sullen teenager wearing too-short khaki pants and a dirty olive parka that hung down below his knees — an Ansar Dine fighter who had been captured the day before in Douentza, on the road to Gao. He claimed he'd been a cook, and swore that he had “never picked up a gun.” I asked the police what would become of him, and the men shrugged and said nothing.
The next morning, under a slate-gray sky, I drove toward Konna. Malian soldiers at a roadblock outside Sévaré refused to let me go any further. I waited at the checkpoint for six hours, along with fifteen other frustrated journalists, then gave up. Some speculated that the Malian army was determined to impede the Western media, after French TV reported that soldiers had murdered suspected Islamists on the eve of the intervention and thrown their bodies down a well in Sévaré. A friendly French commander from the Fifth Helicopter Regiment promised to intervene on our behalf with the Malian army. We learned that as the French units advanced, the jihadists were moving out of Gao and Timbuktu.
Iyad Ag Ghali first rebelled against the state in 1990, when he and Tuareg followers from the northeast Malian town of Kidal attacked Malian military bases across the Sahara. But in 1991, he flew to Bamako and signed a peace deal. For years “everybody respected him because he kept the peace,” said Manny Ansar, a Tuareg music promoter from Timbuktu who had a long friendship with the former rebel. Ghali, who was then a moderate Muslim, and Ansar bonded over music. “He loved Malian music, he'd even written a song for [the Tuareg group] Tinariwen, he went to their concerts, he smoked cigarettes,” Ansar told me.
Over the next decade, Ghali became a kind of Tuareg elder statesman, cutting lucrative business deals, dabbling in smuggling, serving as an intermediary for the government with bandits and jihadists. In 2003 he was dispatched to the mountains to negotiate the release of dozens of European hikers who had been seized by Islamic militants; Ghali was said to have gotten a cut of the $6 million ransom reportedly paid by the German government.
Around 2005, however, a new wave of fundamentalism began sweeping the country. Ghali fell in with a group of Pakistani Salafists who had come to Mali to win adherents. “He became harder and harder,” said Ansar. “He lived like a monk, eating only dates, with a little milk and tea. He demanded that his wife stay at home. With me, he said, 'Manny, go to the mosque, read the Koran.'”
Eventually the onetime friends clashed bitterly about the Festival in the Desert, produced by Ansar at Essakane, an oasis of sand dunes and acacia groves forty miles west of Timbuktu. “Iyad would tell me, 'You have to stop this festival, there are people drinking alcohol. Men and women who are not married are together,'” Ansar recounted. “I said, 'This [cultural exchange] is good for the locals, it's good for the economy, I'm not listening to you.'” After Ghali accepted a two-year posting as Mali's consul general in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2007, the two men drifted apart. Ansar last encountered Ghali in February 2011. “I was on the way to another music festival in Segou, and I saw him en route. He was on his way to Kidal. We stopped and said hello, but he was very cold.”
In the fall of 2011, a four-hundred-man Tuareg regiment crossed the Sahara from Libya and set up camp in the desert near Kidal. The Tuareg warriors declared themselves the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a secular group seeking the independence of the traditional Tuareg territory they call Azawad and that takes up about 60 percent of Mali's total area. The commander rebuffed Ghali's demands to take over. “He told Iyad, 'You are too much of an Islamist, and you are too close to the government of Mali,'” Ansar said to me.
It was at that point that Ghali made a fateful decision: he founded a rival movement, appealing to disaffected Tuaregs seeking an Islamic alternative to the secular group. Algerian intelligence officials — so I learned in Algiers — saw Ghali as a stabilizing force and a counterweight to the Tuareg independence fighters. They cultivated him and provided his followers with food, gasoline, and other supplies. In fact, Ghali was already meeting with a counterpart in al-Qaeda, and planning jihad.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed native of the Algerian Sahara, and now Ghali's ally, is one of the desert's most charismatic and dangerous characters. He is a former Mujahideen in Afghanistan, and an ex-fighter for the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria — the most brutal group to battle Algeria's secular regime during the 1990s civil war. He and Ghali first met in 2003, during negotiations to free the European hikers. They had been captured by Belmokhtar's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which sought to bring down secular Arab regimes and establish a Caliphate in the Sahara.
Over the next decade, Belmokhtar organized further kidnappings in Mali of Westerners for ransom and oversaw a lucrative cigarette-smuggling business — an operation that earned him the nickname “Mr. Marlboro.” In 2003, according to The Washington Post, US military commanders planned air strikes against Belmokhtar and a group of Arab militants in the Malian desert. The US ambassador to Mali at the time, Vicki J. Huddleston, vetoed the plan, warning of a backlash against Americans.
In recent years, Belmokhtar had established himself in northern Mali. He married into an Arab family in a village outside Timbuktu, prayed at a Wahhabi mosque on the city's outskirts, and constructed wells to win local support. “We would see him coming in his 4 x 4 to pick up gas, food, and other supplies,” I was told by Azima Ag Mohammed Ali, a tour guide in Timbuktu. “It was an open city for him.” In early 2007, Belmokhtar and fellow GSPC leaders, with the approval of the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, changed the name of their group to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
In his book A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda, Robert R. Fowler, a Canadian diplomat kidnapped by Belmokhtar's men near Niamey, Niger, in 2008, describes a “revered leader” who exuded a sinister magnetism:
He was relatively slight, with a heavily weathered and deeply lined face and curly black hair. He looked older than what we were told were his thirty-seven years…. He had thin lips set in a straight line, and his mouth twisted from time to time into a ghost of a cold, almost wry smile…. His most distinguishing feature was a deep almost vertical scar that began above the middle of his right eyebrow, crossed his right eyelid, and continued across his right cheek, disappearing into his moustache.*
The discussions between Ghali and Belmokhtar, which also involved the secular MNLA, resulted in a bargain: the jihadists would gain legitimacy by attaching themselves to the Tuaregs' cause, and the Tuaregs would get a hardened fighting force. Government envoys made repeated trips to the Sahara to forestall an attack by making payoffs. “A special delegation met them in Kidal, and gave them $100,000 and forty tons of food, and they saw all the weapons,” I was told by Imam Chérif Ousmane Mandani Haidara. “They hoped they would go away.”
Mary Beth Leonard, the US ambassador to Mali, told me that the US had no way of knowing the strength of the fighting force. “There was a lot of discussion about what kinds of weapons might be coming from Libya but no clarity,” she said. “It is a big and remote place. The degree of military acumen and weapons that the other side had was a surprise even to the Malians.” The US trained and provided supplies to Malian troops between 2005 and 2011 — an important part of a $500 million regional program called the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative. But according to Leonard, the assistance was given only to a handful of elite tactical units and didn't include weapons. Nobody could foresee a conventional attack from a heavily armed foe. “Our interactions were not with the larger army” of Mali, she said. “We gave vehicles and communications equipment.”
The Malian journalist Adam Thiam told me that the US was well aware that the Malian military was “in bad shape” and would likely collapse if confronted by a full-scale attack. “The soldiers didn't receive per diems, they didn't get ammunition, and if you gave them ammunition they would sell it to al-Qaeda,” he says. “It was terrible.”
On January 24, 2012, militants attacked Aguélock, the army's main base in the Sahara. The troops fought back with aging Bulgarian weapons and ammunition and soon ran out of bullets. Tuareg fighters overran the base and executed 160 soldiers; many were found with their hands tied behind their backs and their throats cut. Six weeks later, after a two-month siege, militant Tuaregs and Muslim jihadists took control of Tessalit, another base in the far north. Most of the five hundred government soldiers escaped across the border to Algeria, and were flown in a cargo plane back to Bamako. In the capital junior military officers then ousted Mali's president, accusing him of failing to support the army. In the ensuing chaos, Gao fell on March 31; Tuareg fighters from theMNLA swept into Timbuktu the next morning. Al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine fighters arrived hours later from desert camps, in trucks flying black jihadist flags. They quickly sent the secular Tuaregs to the airport, about four miles outside town.
Hamidou Ag Issa, a Timbuktu resident, told me that in the first days after the militants' takeover, they created a favorable impression. The gunmen stopped, without violence, a wave of looting that had followed the flight of the Malian army and the Arab militias that had been requested by the Malian government. “They presented themselves as moderate. They won the confidence of the people,” Issa said. But in late June 2012, Ghali's and Belmokhtar's men swept aside their secular Tuareg rivals — killing some of them — and declared Sharia law across the north. The La Maison Hotel in Timbuktu, where the rock star and philanthropist Bono and his entourage had stayed in January 2012 while attending the Festival in the Desert, became Timbuktu's Sharia Court.
Mahamen Bebao, twenty-three, a slim man with a wispy beard, was that court's first victim. During the looting that followed the Islamist takeover, he told me, holding up an empty sleeve, he had purchased a stolen mattress from a friend for $22. Last September, the Islamic police summoned Bebao to the court and sentenced him to a month in jail and a $750 fine for possession of stolen property. On the day before Bebao's scheduled liberation, he was given a new sentence: amputation.
The police, Bebao recalled, bound him to a chair with bicycle inner tubes. They dispatched a volunteer to the market to purchase a kitchen knife. Bebao received an injection that put him in a semi-conscious state, he said. He was carried in the chair to a public square, where his hand was sawed off. “People think it's done with a single stroke, but it's with a knife, slowly cut, as if you're an animal,” said Hamidou Ag Issa, who witnessed the amputation of a cousin's hand two months earlier, near Gao. In a Timbuktu clinic, a local physician nursed Bebao back to health. Then he fled to Bamako, walking and getting rides, one of about 300,000 people from the north who sought refuge in Mauritania and southern Mali.
On December 12, 2012, at Essakane in northern Mali, where Ali Farka Toure and Robert Plant once played guitar beneath the desert stars and Western girls danced in the dunes with their Tuareg guides, six hundred jihadists gathered for a war conference. By selecting the oasis once used for the Festival in the Desert, Iyad Ag Ghali was sending his erstwhile friend Manny Ansar a message. A Malian political figure told me, “He was saying, 'The place is for jihad now.'” Among those present were Belmokhtar, then based in Gao, and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, Belmokhtar's co-commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Two years earlier, Abou Zeid had ordered the beheading of a sixty-one-year-old British hostage, Edwin Dyer, after the British government refused to pay a ransom. In Essakane, the men slaughtered goats and roasted them on spits. Then, drinking tea and eating traditional kebabs, known as mishwee, they “very joyfully,” an insider told me, set a date of mid-January for the invasion of southern Mali from the north.
According to Adam Thiam, Ghali had decided to attack Konna partly out of pride. “He had been humiliated by Abou Zeid, who said, 'You are not a jihadist, you are not a Muslim. If you were, you would have declared Sharia law in Kidal, but it is not happening there.' They even told him, 'We know that Tuaregs are not real Muslims.'”
But Ghali had little time to savor victory. Mali's interim president Dioncounda Traoré appealed to French President Fançois Hollande for miliary assistance, warning him that the entire country was in danger of falling to the rebels. On Friday afternoon, January 11, a helicopter swept in low over Konna, and began firing rockets at the militants' positions. “At first we thought it belonged to the Malian army,” said Ousmane Bah, who was burying the corpses of soldiers in a trench when the chopper arrived. Bah returned to Konna and climbed onto his rooftop, “but all I could see was dust.” Militants fired back at the helicopter, fatally injuring the pilot. A second helicopter arrived early in the evening. By Friday night, says Bah, everyone knew that they were French. Ghali and his militants vanished into the desert, dragging the bodies of their dead comrades.
On my second morning in Mopti, the French seized Timbuktu. Fighters from al-Qaeda and Ansar Dine paused before fleeing to commit one last act of desecration: they set fire to hundreds of manuscripts at the city's Ahmed Baba Center, a library that I had visited in 2006 and 2009. Timbuktu's citizens had buried thousands of other ancient books in holes in the desert and elsewhere, and prevented a far graver loss. “We are joyful,” I was told by Azima Ag Mohammed Ali, the Tuareg who had been my guide in 2009. In November 2011 Azima's last client, a German backpacker, had been shot dead outside a Timbuktu hotel after resisting gunmen's attempts to kidnap him. Azima got there a few minutes later and “saw his body lying in the street.” Three other Europeans had been dragged off and still remain hostages in the desert. After nearly a year's absence, Azima was preparing to return home to Timbuktu with his wife and children to try to start his life again in the city.
Back at the Hotel Kanaga on the river in Mopti — the only functioning hotel for Westerners in the city — I listened to radio reports about a related hostage drama that was just winding down. Forty al-Qaeda militants had seized dozens of Western employees at the extensive In Amenas gasworks in the Algerian Sahara, and made plans to blow them up. Algerian security forces attacked the terrorists, and thirty-eight hostages and twenty-nine Islamists were killed. The militant behind the attack was identified as Mokhtar Belmokhtar, seeking revenge for the French intervention in Mali.
Today, four thousand French troops occupy Timbuktu, Gao, and other northern towns, supported by 1,800 soldiers from Chad and small contingents from other African countries. The jihadists have taken refuge in the canyons and dunes of the Sahara. Many are believed to be in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains, a near-impenetrable range north of the small and very poor town of Kidal, near the Algerian border. The French say that they will begin to withdraw in March and turn their operations over to a 12,000-man African force mandated last year by the UN Security Council. Few have discounted the possibility of a long insurgency. “The speed with which the French have gone through the cities has been surprising to people, we are all waiting to see what's next,” Ambassador Leonard told me in Bamako. “If you are not doing well in the traditional theater, then you worry about the asymmetric issue. Where does that pop up? The Paris Metro? Or Bamako?”
My American friend living in Bamako shares those concerns. On my last night in Mali she took me out to dinner at a popular café on the Route de Bla Bla, in the capital's ramshackle entertainment district. The place was filled with French embassy workers, UN diplomats, and Western journalists, but there wasn't a metal detector or a security guard anywhere. “How easy would it be to plant a bomb here,” she said.
In A Season in Hell, Fowler portrayed his captors as committed jihadists, skilled at surviving and fighting in the Sahara. They camped in well-protected redoubts, drove enormous distances at night to avoid detection, and carefully planted caches of fuel, water, and food at strategic points across the desert. They were also sustained by a fanaticism that impressed Fowler:
They will not, in my opinion, soon be defeated. They seemed to have no trouble recruiting. The youngest among them was seven…and the voices of three of the others had yet to break. Parents, we were proudly informed, brought them their sons as “gifts to God.” I know of no argument that would convince them to abandon their chosen path.
Some militants have already vowed to continue the fight. “The [foreign troops] will lose interest, and we will wait them out,” a Tuareg rebel told one of my colleagues by satellite phone from the desert two weeks ago. On February 8, a suicide bomber from Mujao, another Islamist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, blew himself up near a group of Malian soldiers in Gao, killing one of them. One day later gunmen infiltrated the heart of that city and pinned down French and Malian forces for hours before melting away. The fighters are believed to have entered Gao from nearby villages along the Niger River, which have long been breeding grounds for extremist ideology and now provide sanctuary for the militants. “The jihadists are still in the environs,” a Malian commander told The New York Times. “There are small caches of them, in hiding, forty, eighty miles from here.”
Mokhtar Belmokhtar remains elusive; in mid-February, French fighter jets bombed a suspected hideout deep in the Sahara, only to learn, according to the French military, that Belmokhtar had fooled them by setting up a decoy camp using wrecked cars and empty houses. The other figure most responsible for the brutality and bloodshed in the north has apparently decided that he has had enough violence for the while. Around February 10, there were reports that Iyad Ag Ghali had dispatched twelve Tuareg envoys across the desert in four-wheel drive cars to request political asylum for him in Mauritania. Ghali was still in hiding, but the Malians I know will not be surprised if he does take refuge in Mauritania — then moves back across the border in a four-wheel drive when he decides the time is right.
* HarperCollins, 2011, p. 51.
This article was produced in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.