In the war for the heart of northern Mali, the real fear isn’t al Qaeda, it’s the criminals and fundamentalists lurking just around the corner.
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.
Since it first emerged as an offshoot of AQIM in 2011, Mujao's composition, stated goals, and activities have often seemed incoherent from afar. But on the ground in Gao, its lack of ideological clarity is anything but a weakness. In fact, its opaque aims enable it to thrive as both a criminal enterprise and jihadist organization, appealing to drug traffickers and religious zealots in a symbiotic and self-sustaining manner.
Mujao first made substantial inroads with Gao citizens when it succeeded in driving a separatist group led by ethnic Tuaregs called the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) out of the city. For much of Gao's population -- the majority of whom are not Tuareg -- the MNLA's brief reign over their city had come to be associated with anarchy. Though few in the city were enthusiastic about shariah law, Gao residents welcomed the ascendancy of Mujao at the expense of the MNLA.
"The people here hated life under the MNLA ... they looted hospitals and banks, they raped women, and they used their guns to steal whatever they wanted," explains Gao resident Abdul Cissé. "So when the Islamists fought them, many youth joined them just to fight the MNLA."
Locals say that Mujao quickly launched an aggressive hearts and minds campaign, restoring a sense of safety and security to a city bruised from weeks of abuse. They created hotlines that people could call to report instances of theft. They paid out of pocket for public works projects. They subsidized food prices and even offered free water and electricity for a time. When local youths organized mass protests in response to a ban on soccer and watching television, Mujao responded in kind by relaxing the restrictions.
Mujao's "foreign" leadership maintained a low-profile in the city itself, outsourcing everyday governance to a cadre of local collaborators lured to the group by money and power. The leaders -- predominantly Mauritanians, Arabs from northern Mali, and various nationals from northern Africa -- largely stayed in villages and camps outside of Gao, and few people in the city interacted with them.
As part of a broader campaign to brand itself as a "black" or "sub-Saharan" movement, Mujao appointed a local Songhai named Aliou Mahamane Touré as head of the city's Islamic Police. All manner of crass opportunists quickly emerged, Gao residents say, offering their services to the city's new masters and helping to establish a legal regime nominally based on shariah law.
Those unfortunate enough to find themselves on the receiving end of Mujao's harsh interpretation of sharia law maintain that the high-profile punishments were little more than a public brandishing of Islamist credentials. In actuality, they say, the application of sharia was haphazard, arbitrary, and often personal.
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Algalas Yattara, who had his right hand cut off by Mujao, was officially punished for stealing a mattress. But the real story, he says, has little to do with any conception of justice, and actually stems from the fact that he would not allow a local member of Mujao -- a man called Sididi -- to marry his younger sister.
According to Yattara, he told Sididi that he did not want to see him again and to stop coming by the house, to which his antagonist replied, "I'm going to cause problems for you." The next day, Sididi, along with three Arab men showed up at Yattara's home just after he arrived from work. The four men, all armed with Kalashnikovs and wearing black turbans, began beating Yattara with an animal whip as his sister looked on. They tied his hands with a cord and dragged him to the Islamic police station.
Yattara was later taken to the former mayor's office which had been converted to the Islamic court. He appeared with 15 other men in front of a tribunal, staffed by four Arab men. None of the men was given the opportunity to speak or plead his innocence. Rather, each defendant went before the judges individually, who issued each sentence after speaking in Arabic for several minutes. All 15 men were found guilty.
"I didn't say anything.... I was powerless," explains Yattara, who says he was so depressed he did not eat or drink anything for the two days that he waited for his punishment.
Unlike other amputations, his was not carried out in public at the notorious "place de Sharia" -- formally a public square celebrating Mali's independence from France.
Yattara says they tied his legs to a chair and placed his right hand on a stone. A man yelled, "Allahu Akhbar" -- Arabic for God is great -- and proceeded to saw off his hand, without administering an injection.
"It was very painful," Yattara describes. "I screamed, I cried, and I eventually passed out."
Yattara used to make only a few dollars a day as a manual laborer, but no one will hire him now. The fingers on his remaining left hand are mangled from the beating he received during his arrest. He now provides for his family -- inadequately -- by begging his neighbors for money and food.
"This is not sharia law," says Yattara, "they [Mujao] are not Muslims, they are just criminals."
For others, it was the day-to-day pettiness of Mujao and the thugs that comprised its rank and file that made life in the city excruciating.
"We could not smoke, we could not drink, and we could not talk to our girlfriends in the street without them harassing us," said Dani Sidi Touré, who described the months of pent-up frustration that led to him stabbing the Mujao fighter in the neck. "You were not allowed to listen to music. They would stop you in the street, take your phone out of your pocket, check the memory card and delete it."
Touré talks freely about the incident, and his disdain for the man he killed is palpable. "I don't even think about it," he said, "these people, they are not Muslim, they just use the name of Islam to do their drug trafficking and arms trafficking."
Many hoped that Mujao's reliance on the local population would weaken it in the long-term, making it more susceptible to local pressures. The belief that Mujao could be softened and eventually marginalized by local culture stemmed from the widely held theory that the group and its collaborators were above all criminals and drug traffickers, and that its interest in sharia only extended to its utility for maintaining law and order.
There is no shortage of evidence supporting this view. One detainee, whose name cannot be made public due to an ongoing investigation, confirmed that he was a member of Mujao, but maintained that he was forced to join them initially. He stayed on, he says, because they paid well and he needed to provide for his family. Others who admit to joining or collaborating with the group, if only briefly, tell a similar story in which personal gain or desperation, rather than religious zeal, prompted them to turn against their own people.
"These children working for them, they are our children. They will listen to us. We are already Muslim, so their message means nothing to us. Our traditions, our views, our religious leaders ... we will gradually convince them [Mujao] to adopt our practices," one official told me last summer, when Mujao began recruiting local youths. . "They will not be able to change our culture," he said, with a confidence that was either sincere optimism or practiced denial.
The tidy narrative of drug traffickers posing as jihadis, however, is self-serving and incomplete. It masks a tragic reality, one with which the people of Gao are only just beginning to come to terms.
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Less than two weeks after the liberation of Gao, a suicide bomber accompanied by about a dozen gunmen attacked a checkpoint at the edge of the town. The next day, French and Malian forces found themselves in a protracted gunfight against Mujao rebels in the heart of the city. Fresh battles and even more suicide bombers have followed, and today the specter of a nasty guerilla war looms over the region.
Mujao's stubborn resistance suggests that it cannot be written off as a front for opportunists and drug traffickers. There are ideologues among them, and the pool of potential recruits is vast.
Even before the attacks, Gao residents warned that the city was not secure, insisting that Mujao fighters -- often referred to locally as mujahideen, or holy warriors -- had taken refuge in villages that are sympathetic to their cause.
In villages such as Kadji and Gouzoureye, for example, many residents describe themselves as "Wahabbi" -- the fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam often associated with extremist groups operating in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. For decades, locals say, these areas have been trending away from more moderate interpretations of Islam commonly practiced in West Africa.
Some of these villages are ruled as fiefdoms by religious leaders, who wield absolute power over their communities. In the village of Kadji, a now deceased imam named Seydou Drissa once issued an edict stipulating that new brides were obligated to live and sleep with him for a week before joining their husbands in marriage.
Mujao focused their recruitment efforts on these types of communities, knowing they could find supportive imams and a populace conditioned to follow religious authority. They would visit Quranic schools and persuade young students to join them. In some cases, desperately poor families would offer their sons to Mujao in exchange for money and the comfort of knowing that he would go directly to paradise upon death.
Meanwhile, the small team of Malian military police that have set up shop at a defunct health clinic at the edge of town are clearly overwhelmed. According to Cpt. Banfa Ballo, the officer tasked with leading investigations of suspected rebels, hundreds of people have been probed -- but only 18 have been transferred to the Malian capital of Bamako for further proceedings. The rest have been released due to lack of evidence, prompting concerns that many of those let go are Mujao fighters who will blend back into the population for now, only to come back to fight another day.
"This is the horrible truth about Mujao," said Kata Data Alhousseini Maiga, a teacher and community organizer who stayed in Gao throughout the conflict. "We say they are foreigners and opportunists, but their ideology is here and it has been here. They are traffickers. They are Islamists. They are us."