Half of Timbuktu’s population left the ancient city when Islamists took control of northern Mali. Four months after French troops established control over the area, the Post’s Sudarsan Raghavan reports the city is still struggling. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

At the entrance to this fabled city, Malian soldiers clutching Kalashnikov rifles didn’t dare approach the truck. Instead, they shouted from a distance of 15 feet for the passengers to step out, lift up their shirts and turn around.

The soldiers were searching for explosives-laden belts.

They didn’t find any, but they were taking no chances: Suicide bombers had killed several of the troops’ comrades in recent weeks. The soldiers allowed the truck to pass, still viewing the passengers with suspicion.

Four months after French forces intervened in northern Mali to prevent jihadists from gaining more territory, the conflict is increasingly evoking similarities to the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The radical Islamists and al-Qaeda militants have been pushed out of Timbuktu and other major towns, but they are now dispatching suicide bombers and using improvised explosive devices to attack their enemies. Many have melted into the population, raising fears about an underground spy network and ambushes.

On Friday, at least five suicide bombers struck in two northern towns, seriously wounding at least two Malian soldiers, according to a military spokesman, Capt. Modibo Niaman Traore.

“The jihadists spent 10 months here,” said Col. Keba Sangare, commander of the Malian troops in Timbuktu, who are fighting alongside the French and other African forces. “Some got married. Some have children. They have links here. Even if they are physically not here, spiritually they are.

“Even when there are no attacks, it doesn’t mean we are in peace. We are definitely at war.”

In Timbuktu, once the primary base of the jihadists, the tensions are evident. Although there is collective relief that the militants’ rule has ended, the mud-walled city remains a shadow of its illustrious past. The streets, once bustling with traders and visitors, including Western tourists, are deserted. Most shops are shuttered. Prices of staple items such as gas and grains have soared.

Tens of thousands of residents who fled during the jihadists’ reign have yet to return, remaining in refugee camps outside Mali or with relatives and friends in the capital, Bamako, and other southern towns where the conflict never reached.

Nearly all of Timbuktu’s minority light-skinned Tuareg and Arabic-speaking Moor population has fled. Many members collaborated with the Islamists or supported a separatist Tuareg rebellion that helped trigger the Islamist takeover. Even those who supported neither movement left, fearful of reprisal attacks by Mali’s darker-skinned ethnic groups, which were persecuted the most by the Islamists.

“The city has changed,” said Nadjim al-Mubarak, 52, a tailor, as he walked down a desolate, sand-covered street. “There used to be traffic, business and people everywhere. Now, life is dead.”

France plans to withdraw about three-quarters of its 4,000 troops by the end of the year. Replacing them will be a 12,600-member U.N. peacekeeping force, scheduled to arrive ahead of elections in July. But the peacekeepers’ mandate prevents them from using force except in self-defense, posing long-term challenges to efforts by France, the United States and other countries to stop a jihadist haven from emerging in West and North Africa.

The United States has deployed a small number of troops to Mali and is setting up a drone base in neighboring Niger. The U.S. role may grow if Mali chooses a president democratically, which would remove legal restrictions on American military aid imposed after a military coup in March 2012.

The jihadists took advantage of the chaos surrounding the coup, joining with the Tuareg rebellion, and overran the north. They included militants from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the terrorist network’s West and North Africa affiliate, and other radical Islamists who called themselves Ansar Dine, or “defenders of the faith.” By April 2012, the rebels had arrived in Timbuktu.

Soon, the radicals turned against the Tuareg separatists and asserted control. They swiftly imposed Islamic sharia law on the moderate Muslim population, enforcing their codes through public amputations, stonings and prison sentences. In Timbuktu, an ancient center of Islamic learning nestled on the edge of the Sahara, the jihadists destroyed several earthen tombs of Sufi saints, declaring such shrines as idolatry and a sin under Islam.

Persistent danger

At the end of a dirt road near the city’s center is a dun-colored building with a sign that says “Islamic Prison” in French and Arabic and is emblazoned with the jihadists’ flag. Scrawled on a blackboard inside on a recent day was a drawing of the Timbuktu region, with the words “Islamic Republic” written above.

The jihadists’ goal of setting up their own Islamic emirate was disrupted in January when France launched its assault, pushing the jihadists out of the city and the towns of Gao and Kidal. The fighters have disappeared into the desert and mountains and into remote villages. From there, they stage attacks.

During the past four months, there have been at least eight suicide bombings in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, as well as several other attacks across the region, which have killed and injured troops and civilians. On April 29, a French soldier was killed and two others were injured in a roadside bombing near Kidal. This month, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle targeted a Malian military patrol near Gao as other militants in a car sprayed bullets, sparking a clash that left at least three of the attackers and two soldiers dead, according to Malian military officials.

“These guys know the terrain and all the market days of different villages, so they can blend into the crowds,” said Ousmane Halle, the city’s mayor. “They move from place to place. They know how to hide their weapons. After passing security checkpoints, they stage ambushes.”

“The situation here is not completely without threat,” conceded Col. Mamadou Mangara, the governor of Timbuktu province, of which the city is the capital. “But we understand their system, and we are taking precautions to limit their activities.”

Mangara works out of a hotel that is heavily guarded by soldiers. Wherever he travels, a military escort accompanies him.

There’s not much of a city to govern. Basic services are woeful; residents get only five hours of electricity a day. Only a handful of local administration officials have returned. Most reside in the same hotel as Mangara. A small contingent of police officers from Bamako has arrived, but residents said they rarely see them on patrol. No one can enter the city after 6 p.m., and a driving ban goes into effect at 6:30 p.m.

The rule of the jihadists, who kidnapped Westerners, decimated the tourism industry, the economic life support of most residents. Most hotels and curio shops have been shuttered since the takeover.

“The situation of the city is that there are no jobs,” lamented Abdoulaye Toure, 32, a cobbler. “Why would anyone want to return?”

Mixed reactions

In the Abaradjou section of the city, where most of the Tuaregs and Arab Moors lived, nearly every house is empty. Those who haven’t fled stay indoors.

Among Timbuktu’s majority-black community, the departure of the Tuaregs and Arab Moors has evoked mixed reactions. For generations, many Tuaregs and Arab Moors have enslaved blacks and considered themselves superior to their darker-skinned compatriots. Many blacks view them as racists who refused to accept black-majority rule and have long sought an autonomous state.

There were differences in languages and traditions, but the communities coexisted relatively peacefully and mixed freely. That changed when the jihadists arrived, residents said.

“They were with the Islamists,” Toure said of the lighter-skinned residents. “And the Tuaregs and Arabs were always arrogant to us.”

But other residents said the Tuaregs and Arab Moors were important to the city’s economy. Their nomadic traders would bring back goods from nearby Algeria, Libya and Mauritania, keeping prices down in a city that has long been impoverished. Now, the Timbuktu mayor said, the links with these places are gone and “commerce has died.”

The city depends on goods arriving from Bamako — a two-day journey on poor roads — which has played a key role in driving prices up.

“Timbuktu cannot survive without the Tuaregs and Arabs,” said Alpha Saloum Maiga, who manages the hotel where the governor and other officials reside. “We need them to come back.”

Soumaila Guindo in Bamako contributed to this report.