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.
* * *
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."