GAO, Mali — It was Saturday, Jan. 26, when the people of Gao, a trans-Saharan trading hub nestled on the banks of the Niger river, took their first act of revenge against the rebels who had terrorized them for close to a year.
A mob had surrounded a jihadi fighter whose vehicle had been destroyed by a French airstrike. The rebel had retreated to the center of town via a stolen donkey cart. He had no idea that his comrades had abandoned the city earlier that morning.
The jihadi was a member of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or Mujao, a group that had spent the better part of a year implementing a destructive form of sharia law that included public amputations, floggings, and sexual slavery. He begged for his life, invoking Allah and the virtues of compassion. Then Dani Sidi Touré, a 29 year-old handyman and painter, took a screwdriver out of his pocket and stabbed the jihadi in the neck.
Touré tried to remove the screwdriver, but the handle broke off and the metal shaft remained lodged inside the jihadi's neck. A man with a large knife came over and struck the Mujao fighter on the head. He fell to the ground and others quickly joined the fray, descending upon him with wood planks, stones, and chunks of concrete.
In a display of communal catharsis, the residents of northern Mali's largest city continued to beat the body long after it was dead. When they were done, they tossed it into the Islamic police station, a building that had come to symbolize the brutal interpretation of shariah law that Mujao had imposed on their city.
The official liberation of Gao came only hours later, when French and Malian troops toured the city in front of cheering crowds. Women ripped off their veils. Gao's mayor -- a slick-talking, fedora-wearing businessman who campaigned in 2009 on the slogan "Yes We Can" -- stood atop a French military vehicle and doled out cigarettes. Men and women danced in public, undulating together to Takamba -- a trance-inducing local music played at celebrations -- for the first time in months.
It took less than two weeks for the euphoria of that January evening to give way to uncertainty, and a string of suicide bombings and gun battles between Mujao and Malian forces have shattered any pretense that Gao is now safe. The municipal buildings at the center of the desert city were once merely pockmarked with bullet holes from skirmishes between rebel groups over the last year. But now, these same buildings have been laid to waste by heavy artillery, French airpower, and suicide bombers -- and the charred concrete that remains serves as the first monument of a war that has come after liberation.
For Gao residents, Mujao's resilience comes as no surprise. In fact, the most telling component of the incident between the angry mob and the jihadi is not the actions of the crowd or the jihadi's gruesome demise -- it is the fact the Mujao fighter was black and spoke a local dialect of Songhai, Gao's language of commerce. Both details indicate that he didn't come from abroad to impose a foreign culture onto northern Mali , but hailed from the region himself.
Though much of the media attention to date has focused on the French and Chadian battles against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) -- the al Qaeda franchise whose core membership is thought to be made up of Algerians and nationals from other Arab countries -- it is Mujao that may prove to be the most durable and destructive group going forward. Amply funded and guided by a subversive mix of ideology and illicit economic interests, Mujao has come to embody one of the most disquieting truths about militant Islam here: while the occupation of Gao was spearheaded by those from outside the community, it was aided, abetted, and sustained by those who call it home.