How bad are the bad guys in Mali? The answer, in four powerful paragraphs

One of Mali's Islamist rebels, a member of extremist group Ansar al-Dine, gestures to the camera. (AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images) One of Mali's Islamist rebels, a member of extremist group Ansar al-Dine, gestures to the camera. (AHMED OUOBA/AFP/Getty Images)

As the French military expands its campaign to halt the Islamist rebels who have already seized half of Mali, it's worth asking: what makes these guys so bad that France intervened against them? 

Mali's Islamist rebels have earned a record for cruelty and barbarity since seizing the northern half of the country. That's probably not the only reason France intervened (more on this in a later post), but it's an important – and disturbing – part of the picture.

The Post's Sudarsan Raghavan visited Mali recently, where he discovered just how brutal the Islamists' rule had become. Here, from his December 11 story, is a glimpse into life under their rule:

SEGOU, Mali — On a sweltering afternoon, Islamist police officers dragged Fatima Al Hassan out of her house in the fabled city of Timbuktu. They beat her up, shoved her into a white pickup truck and drove her to their headquarters. She was locked up in a jail as she awaited her sentence: 100 lashes with an electrical cord.

“Why are you doing this?” she recalled asking.

Hassan was being punished for giving water to a male visitor.

... [R]efugees say the Islamists are raping and forcibly marrying women, and recruiting children for armed conflict. Social interaction deemed an affront to their interpretation of Islam is zealously punished through Islamic courts and a police force that has become more systematic and inflexible, human rights activists and local officials say.

Life in Mali, after just a few months of the Islamists' rule, is already changing dramatically. Music, long at the center of Malian culture (it also happens to be very good), is now banned. To many Malians, Raghavan wrote after spending time with recent exiles, it feels like "a shattering of their culture."

None of this means that France's intervention is necessarily the right decision for Mali or that it will work, but it helps convey the sense of urgency, and why the French government seems determined not to allow the Islamists to reach the capital in Mali's south.

Mali's music is often called some of the best in the world, but its musicians are fleeing Islamist rule. If you haven't heard the country's soulful, catchy sound before, check out our guided listening tour of Mali's best music. Hear the music now outlawed in its homeland.

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Max Fisher · January 14, 2013

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