Most of the rebels who took over this central town for five days this month were Malian and spoke the local languages of the north and the south. But their commanders were different, local residents said. They were foreigners who spoke Arabic.
Six bodyguards protected the most senior commander, with a gray-speckled beard and a black turban. The Islamist militant ate Algerian-made spaghetti and Mauritanian-made canned tomato sauce. Malian fighters served only as his interpreters or brought him intelligence reports.
“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.
But the real struggle for the north, they said, would likely unfold afterward, as less-experienced Malian and African forces secure the towns. The jihadists can take advantage of the vast northern desert they have lived in for years to disappear, train and rearm — creating a base to stage stealth attacks against French, Malian and other African soldiers in and outside urban areas.
“The million-dollar question is at what point they will work out that they can’t defeat the French on the battlefield,” said a Western diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing military matters. “Once they reach this conclusion, we have to anticipate an asymmetrical terror campaign.”
During their brief siege of Diabaly, which ended a week ago, the militants unveiled some of their tactics: using civilian neighborhoods as refuges and to deposit weapons and ammunition, and turning local people into human shields. To accomplish this, they were polite to most Muslim residents, offering them dates and peanuts.
One Arabic-speaking commander, through a Malian fighter, informed Hamidou Sissouma that they were interested in killing only French and Malian soldiers. Clutching a black walkie-talkie, he handed Sissouma a ringlet of Muslim prayer beads as a gift.
“He said, ‘We’re not going to hurt you. Our mission is to teach you the proper religious ways,’ ” recalled Sissouma, 45, a teacher. “They were so kind. They were trying to win the people over.”
In March, secular Tuareg separatists took advantage of a military coup in Bamako to seize the northern half of the country, pushing out the weak Malian army with the help of arms smuggled from former Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s arsenal. AQIM fighters and other religious extremists piggybacked on the rebellion and soon marginalized the secular Tuaregs, installing a harsh brand of Islamic law, enforced by public amputations, stonings and whippings.
Initially, a homegrown group called Ansar Dine, or “defenders of the faith,” was in control. Iyad Ag Ghaly, its leader, is a prominent Malian Tuareg religious hard-liner who has been fighting for a separate Tuareg state since the late 1980s. But gradually, Western diplomats and analysts said, AQIM and its offshoot, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, began to assert more authority over the rebellion. Increasingly, Ag Ghaly needed money from AQIM to finance his movement, and the al-Qaeda affiliate, its coffers flush with millions of dollars from kidnapping Westerners, was happy to oblige.
“He has been relying more and more on AQIM, and now he has been taken over by AQIM,” Soret said.
Further bolstering AQIM’s presence within the rebellion was the split last week inside Ansar Dine, with the defecting faction saying it was willing to negotiate with the French and Malian forces.
AQIM’s origins can be traced back to the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching or Combat, an insurgent group that initially fought the Algerian government in the 1990s but later embraced al-Qaeda’s philosophy and changed its name to AQIM.
Today, Soret said, AQIM’s goal is to “internationalize the conflict as best as they can.” It appears to be working to some degree. Since the French military intervention began on Jan. 11, AQIM has been lionized by radical groups and in extremist Internet chat rooms, with some referring to Mali as a religious war. The hostage-taking this month at a natural gas plant in neighboring Algeria, in which at least 37 foreigners were killed, has also bolstered its image in global jihadist circles.
On the ground, the foreign fighters have overseen the fighting to the minutest degree. In Diabaly, residents said the foreign commanders walked around town inspecting the damage from French airstrikes. They sent Malian jihadists on scooters, dressed in plain clothes, to gather information.
In one house, residents said they recognized Abou Zeid from his photo shown on television the night before. Born in Algeria, he is considered one the most violent jihadist commanders in the region, linked to several kidnappings and executions of Europeans.
Moussa Komare, 48, who lived near a house occupied by Abou Zeid, said the medium-height, bearded commander was surrounded round-the-clock by six bodyguards. He arrived on a Wednesday, two days after the town was captured.
While he was there, he did not leave the compound, Komare said. The bodyguards referred to him only as “our leader.”
If true, the presence of Abou Zeid on an obscure front line would underscore the extent to which AQIM is directing the Mali conflict on the ground.
Late Thursday, a day after he arrived, he left Diabaly, residents said. The next morning, the rest of the jihadists began pulling out, and by Saturday, they had all vanished.