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Mali town recalls Islamist invaders as both terrifying and gentle

Malians watch a French soldier as he leaves a shop in the recently liberated town of Diabaly.
(Nic Bothma, European Pressphoto Agency)

DIABALY, Mali — The militants came with gifts of dates, milk, peanuts, cookies and plastic prayer beads, extolling Islam and promising townspeople they wouldn’t hurt them. They took over houses, unloaded truckloads of ammunition, food and water and ordered families not to run away.

They took down the national flag from the school and replaced it with a black Islamic flag. They blasted the concrete cross off a church.

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They wore turbans covering their faces like masks, but spoke gently, promising to pay for any damage they caused.

When not shooting, they slept, ate and prayed.

The Al Qaeda-linked Islamic fighters seized Diabaly in a dawn assault on Jan. 14, three days after France launched attacks on militants elsewhere in Mali to destroy what it called the threat of a new terrorist state in West Africa, one capable of exporting terrorism to Europe and beyond.

The militants’ assault on this central Malian town laid bare the country’s weak, shambolic army, which was in danger of ceding the entire country to the extremists. The Islamists had already seized the north, where they imposed a harsh form of sharia, or Islamic law, that included the hacking off of people’s hands for relatively minor offenses.

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Since then, the French military has made swift progress, with Islamists abandoning some of their strongholds, while airstrikes and fighting are reported in some towns.

Once the French started airstrikes on Diabaly, four days into the takeover, the militants quickly slipped away into the countryside. French troops were able to move in, to cheers from the residents, without a shot being fired.

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However, the brief tenure of the militants in Diabaly hinted at their tactics: seize the town, dig in among the population of 14,000, use residents as a human shield, and melt away before they could be trapped. The episode underscores their ability to disappear in Mali’s vast northern reaches, where they can unleash guerrilla attacks at will.

It suggests the difficulties lying ahead for a mission that the French have said will be brief.

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Malian military officials warn that their army has little hope of containing the terrorist threat in the north after the French depart, even with the promised help of other African countries.

The quiet town of Diabaly, next to a narrow canal with swaying reeds and blossoming water lilies, seems an unlikely new front in the fight against terrorists. Families sit in the red dust under sprawling mango trees in their mud brick compounds while chickens peck, oxen chew their cud and donkeys roll in the dust nearby. The streets are littered with dried tree branches, hacked off by Islamists to camouflage their SUVs.

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The militants’ stunning dawn attack on Diabaly, launched days into the French campaign in Mali, came just as everyone supposed the Islamists were running away. Instead, it was the Malian soldiers who fled, as they had in earlier battles, some stripping off their uniforms and donning civilian clothes, residents said.

Rebels poured into the compound of Mohammad Sanogo, 32, at dawn. He fled with his family, ignoring rebels’ commands to stay.

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A day later, with the rebels firmly in control, a pale green Toyota Prado arrived, carrying a high level commander. Rebels parked the four-wheel-drive vehicle under a tree and carefully coated it with red mud for camouflage.

“Six bodyguards went with him wherever he went, like a president,” said neighbor Mousa Koumary, 48, who said he recognized the commander from pictures on television. It was Abou Zeid, the Algerian-born hard-line commander of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, he said. Another neighbor, Gaousou Kone, 35, who came to collect his motorcycle from the compound, also said he recognized Abou Zeid, who was sitting with the Koran in his hand.

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“When I saw who he was, I was very afraid,” Kone said. “They told us not to be afraid and invited us to dine with them, but I was too scared.” He said another rebel confirmed the commander’s identity. The claims cannot be independently verified.

Barnabe Dakouo, 63, was sleeping when Islamists smashed down his front mud wall using an SUV. Outside, his compound was full of fighters.

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“I was shocked and I couldn’t count, but there were many. They were trying to shoot down the French planes.”

In Issa Dembele’s yard, with its sprawling mango tree offering generous camouflage, dozens of Russian or Ukrainian rockets and boxes of Chinese ammunition lay in piles, left behind when the rebels melted away into the night, four days after taking Diabaly.

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“There were whites and blacks among them,” Dembele said of the militants. Residents said the men were from Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria and Senegal, and spoke the local language as well as French, English and Arabic.

Hamidou Sissouma, a schoolteacher, evacuated his family but stayed in the yard with the rebels, his fear of them ebbing, day by day. They gave him prayer beads.

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“They told me to practice Islam. I told them, ‘I do pray.’ They said, ‘That’s not enough. You have to practice it and cut your trousers short and grow a beard.’ They said women must wear veils and shouldn’t show their hair.”

Mali is an overwhelmingly Muslim country; about 90% of the population practices Islam, and 5% is Christian, according to the U.S. State Department. But Malians are not, for the most part, fundamentalists.

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Boubacar Cisse, 62, sent his family away but spent four nights sleeping in his house with the rebels, more afraid of the deafening, but accurate, French airstrikes than of the Islamists, who’d promised to do no harm.

“I didn’t think the rebels would kill me. They were friendly but the only thing they didn’t like was if they saw you smoking. I saw one of them take someone’s cigarette and break it in half, saying it was un-Islamic.”

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The fighters took medicine from the clinic to treat their wounded. They commandeered motorbikes to blend into the population, casting them aside when they ran out of fuel, residents said. And the night after the airstrikes, they vanished.

Malian officials insist that the Islamists cannot blend into the population because they are foreigners, and because their harsh brand of sharia is alien to Malians. However, many of the militants have had years of experience at hiding in the desert, crossing borders at will.

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Two days after the Diabaly attack, another Mali-based, Al Qaeda-linked militia seized a gas plant in the Algerian desert, taking hundreds of hostages, 37 of whom died during the four-day siege. The two attacks underscored the militants’ scope and military sophistication.

So far, the rebels have mainly focused on local grievances going back many years. France, the colonial power and only Western force fighting in Mali, is likely to be the main target of any attacks against the West, but the raid on the Algerian gas complex may presage a more internationalized approach.

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The mayor of Diabaly, Oumar Diakite, said the Malian army could never control the north, with its porous borders and network of smuggling routes.

“Those routes are not under the control of the army, and these jihadist people know those routes well through Algeria and Morocco and it is easy for them to get to Europe. It’s a very vast zone that the army can never control,” he said.

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“Without the power of the French army, the militants will control the north of Mali for a long time,” said Col. Sedou Sogoba, commander of Malian forces in Diabaly. “And they will launch attacks from there against the whole world.”

robyn.dixon@latimes.com


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