“The Arabic speakers were in charge,” recalled Moussa Sangire, 71, a retired soldier who lives next to a house taken over by a group of foreign fighters.
What began as a homegrown, Malian-led rebellion is now entrenched as a conflict directed by al-Qaeda’s West and North Africa wing, mostly foreign fighters from Algeria and Mauritania, according to Western diplomats, Malian military officials and analysts.
As French and Malian forces advance in northern Mali, they are learning more about the rebels who have held this Texas-size swath of territory for months, mostly out of view of outsiders. Diabaly, briefly held by the militants, has now changed hands and offers a small window into the leadership of the jihadists.
They are an enemy that appears determined to broaden the conflict into a wider struggle against the West. The first reaction by the insurgents to the French forces’ takeover of parts of the town of Gao on Saturday came from a top regional al-
Qaeda leader, published on the Arabic Web site of the al-Jazeera television network. He vowed to resist what he described as a “new Crusader aggression,” adding that a “jihadist Islamist emirate” would be created in northern Mali.
“It seems that these groups are being led by AQIM,” said Bertrand Soret, chief political adviser to the European Union delegation in Mali, referring to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. “The tactical backbone of the rebels is more influenced by AQIM.”
In Diabaly, the jihadists covered their pickup trucks with mud and parked them under the thick canopy of mango trees to hide them from French airstrikes. They stole ubiquitous scooters and used them to patrol the town and blend into the population. They mounted antiaircraft guns on the rooftops of homes.
Some residents described seeing Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior AQIM leader, though his presence in the area could not be independently verified.
The rising influence of the foreign fighters could bode well for efforts to negotiate with Malian insurgents to defect and turn against AQIM. Some local fighters have already defected, suggesting that they were unhappy with the direction the fight was taking.
But it also means that French forces could face a full-blown guerrilla insurgency punctuated by suicide bombings, homemade bombs and ambushes, tactics used in Afghanistan, Algeria and neighboring Nigeria. Many of the foreigners are veterans of these and other conflicts, according to Western diplomats and security analysts.
Western diplomats in Mali’s capital, Bamako, predict that the French forces, with their airstrikes, superior weaponry and manpower, will probably take full control of Gao and the two other major militant strongholds of Timbuktu and Kidal after some resistance, as the militants retreat tactically or meld into the population.