The New York Times, A17, by Peter Tinti and Adam Nossiter (Gao, Mali, Feb. 17, 2013) — Aguissa Ag Badara, a former tour guide, now rides around the city on the back of a motorcycle looking for Islamist militants who may still be lurking about. He even wears a pin to advertise his mission. It reads, “Vigilance Brigade: Patrollers of Gao.”
“We said Mujao had infiltrated the population, but no one listened,” said Mr. Ag Badara, referring to the Islamist militants who attacked this strategic city last week. “We support the French, we support the Malian state and the African forces, but why are they only at the checkpoints and in their camps? The war is here in the streets.”
The battle for Mali is not over. Remnants of the militant forces that once controlled major towns have not simply burrowed into their rugged, mountain hideaways far to the north. They also appear to have taken refuge in smaller villages nearby, essentially pulling back to less-contested ground after the French-led intervention to oust them, residents and experts say.
That infiltration, in a string of neighboring villages along the Niger River, is what enabled last Sunday’s attack in the heart of Gao, a town of about 86,000 whose reconquest was a pivotal part of the French offensive last month. For hours, bullets flew as jihadists from around Gao pinned down French and Malian forces.
Control in the town itself has now been re-established, but Islamist fighters have blended imperceptibly with the local population around Gao. And much of that population, in the isolated villages, looks on them benevolently, say residents and experts who know the area well.
“The jihadists are still in the environs,” a Malian Army commander, Col. El Hajj Ag Gamou, said in a telephone interview from Gao. “They are certainly around. There are small caches of them, in hiding, 40, 80 miles from here.”
Their presence suggests potentially fertile ground for a sustained guerrilla conflict — something the French have said they are determined not to get enmeshed in. Though the lightning-quick French campaign in January succeeded in pushing the Islamists from major towns, it is far from clear how many fighters the French actually eliminated. Estimates of deaths, from both the French and the Malians, have been vague and inconsistent, and the jihadists are evidently still lurking in the shadows.
“These villages followed the jihadists when they first came to Gao,” said Oumar Moumouni, a schoolteacher in Gao who said he had lived for extended periods in the neighboring villages. “And the jihadists, they recruited many of the youth of Kadji and Gouzoureye,” he added, naming two of the villages.
“That’s the problem at Gao now; there are jihadists hiding in these villages,” Mr. Moumouni continued. “These are native jihadists. And the Malian military can’t tell the difference between them and the population,” he said.
Like others, he said he expected more attacks in Gao.
“These are villages that have pledged allegiance to the Mujao,” said Ousmane Maïga, another schoolteacher in Gao, referring to the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. “They gave many of their sons over to it.”
“Barely three miles from Gao, there are villages where they are in hiding,” he continued. “After the first attacks” by the French, “I saw them on motorcycles, hiding among the thorn trees.”
Even in Gao itself, the jihadist fighters are thought to have faded into the populace. “The city is full of Mujao,” said Sadou Diallo, the mayor of Gao. “During the 10 months they were here, they benefited and integrated lots of youth. It is the 18-year-olds from Koranic schools, the talibé,” or disciples, “who believe that if they blow themselves up they go directly to paradise.”
The attack last Sunday began with a failed suicide bombing late the night before at an army checkpoint; a band of jihadists was spotted near the bomber. Some officials in Gao said the gunmen used the confusion of the bombing, in which the bomber blew himself up and wounded a Malian soldier, to enter the city; the army insisted the gunmen arrived by boat. In either case, the jihadists would not have traveled far.
“Most of them are natives of those villages,” said Kader Touré, who runs a radio station in Gao called Radio Annia. “We think they are being hidden by relatives, all along the river.”
For many years, these villages have practiced a strict form of Islam that is at odds with most of the looser practices in Gao itself, say experts and residents.
“There have been very conservative villages in that area for decades,” said Benjamin Soares, an expert on Islam and Mali at the African Studies Center in Leiden, the Netherlands. “Back to the 1940s in this region, there has been a broader movement to follow a more rigorous practice of Islam.”
That has made them particularly receptive to fleeing Mujao fighters, say residents of Gao, who characterize the villages as Wahhabi, after the conservative brand of Islam that originated in the Arabian Peninsula.
In Kadji, “a village I know well,” said Mr. Maïga, one of the teachers, “around 85 percent of the population have pledged allegiance to Wahhabism.” Mr. Maïga said he had ancestral roots in the area.
Mr. Touré, the director of Radio Annia, said, “Even before the arrival of the Islamists, they wanted to install a radical form of Shariah.” He added, “They have some extraordinary sets of rules governing daily conduct.”
“The imam is all-powerful,” he continued. “Everyone pledges allegiance to him. There is neither individual nor collective liberty. Women are veiled. This is radical Islam. An isolated life that has nothing to do with Mali.”
Others argued that local residents had joined the Islamists for personal gain or preservation, not out of religious conviction. One former fighter for Ansar Dine, another of the Islamist militant groups that seized northern Mali last year, said he had hoped to trade his militancy for a position in the Malian Army.
“I tried to join the Malian military many times but I failed the exam,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals against his family.
“My goal was only to receive training so that I could join the Malian Army once they came back to the north,” he explained, referring to past rebellions in which rebels were integrated into the army as part of postconflict reconciliation.
Another detainee being held in Gao confirmed that he was a member of Mujao, but he contended that he was forced to join.
“I was captured by Mujao, and I became their translator in order to save myself,” said the prisoner, who was handcuffed to a metal bench, dressed in tattered clothes and spoke on the condition of anonymity as six Malian soldiers looked on. “I swear to God I never received money or carried a gun. They wanted me because I speak all of the local languages.”
For much of the past week, Gao has been calm. On Wednesday, troops found what appeared to be a bomb-making factory. But residents fear the current calm could be deceptive.
“There is a real threat weighing on Gao,” said Mr. Moumouni, the other teacher.
Peter Tinti reported from Gao, and Adam Nossiter from Dakar, Senegal.