Fight for Mali town shows how al-Qaida melts into population, uses civilians as cover

Abou Zeid, the shadowy and feared emir of one of al-Qaida's most successful cells, commandeered the packed-dirt home of a family here last week, embedding himself and his hundreds of men in this community of rice growers. He ate spaghetti and powdered milk, read the Quran and planned a war.

His bearded and turbaned men parked cars under the mango trees of the farmers, slept in their bedrooms and turned their courtyards into command centers and their warehouses into armories. And it took eight days before French air strikes finally drove them out of Diabaly, a pinprick of a town, in the first major showdown of the struggle to reclaim Mali's al-Qaida-occupied north.

The tactics used by the Islamist fighters in Diabaly offer a peephole into the kind of insurgency they plan to lead, and suggest the challenges the international community will face in the effort to dislodge them. They show how the Islamists are holding their ground despite a superior French force with sophisticated fighter jets, a fleet of combat helicopters and hundreds of soldiers armed with night vision goggles and 70 mm cannons.

"The only thing that prevented the French planes from annihilating these people is that they were hiding in our homes. The French did everything to avoid civilian casualties," said Gaoussou Kone, a resident of the Berlin neighborhood of Diabaly, where Abou Zeid set up his command center. "That's why it took so long to liberate Diabaly."

Testimony from families, statements by French and local officials and the trash left behind by the fighters — including a handwritten inventory of weapons — provide a sketch of how the Islamists operated. The portrait that emerges is of a determined and nimble band of fighters, who have adapted to the terrain around them and who instinctively understand that France, which unilaterally launched the intervention 12 days ago in their former West African colony, cannot afford to kill civilians.

The strategy of melting into the population and of winning over the communities who house them is one that al-Qaida has already used successfully elsewhere, including in Afghanistan. It's now being perfected in Mali by a new generation of jihadists, like Abou Zeid, with coaching from the terror network's veterans.

"They have seasoned al-Qaida fighters that have fought overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan and that are essentially providing coaching and training," said Rudolph Atallah, former director of counterterrorism for Africa at the Pentagon, who has led several defense missions to Mali.

Diabaly, population 35,000, only one of everything — one pharmacy, one road, one secondary school.

Kone and his neighbors were woken up at 3 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 14, by the sound of gunfire. By breakfast time, the column of fighters entered the town, and the government soldiers stationed here were seen fleeing on foot. The combatants wore bulletproof vests over an unfamiliar style of tunic that stopped at their knees, meant to evoke that worn by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.

They handed out candy to the children and took down the Malian flag flapping above the school. Then they scouted out houses.

"It was Monday at around 7:30 a.m. that they came into my house. They gave out bonbons and gifts to the children, and told us not to be afraid," said Hamidou Sissouma, a 48-year-old schoolteacher, pulling out a short, gray-colored string of prayer beads they had given him. "Then they made themselves tea. They used my bucket to wash themselves. ... I was afraid, so I left and went to stay with friends."

Within hours, French jets arrived and bombed five rebel vehicles parked in the open, leaving only their charred shells. By Tuesday, the Islamists were looking for cover for their fleet of about 30 to 40 all-terrain vehicles.

When Sissouma returned to his house, he found they had rammed a pickup truck into the wall of his compound, punching a hole large enough to drive two 4-by-4's into his courtyard. They promised to reimburse him for the damage.

The men at Sissouma's house reported to a light-skinned Arabic-speaking man, whose unit also took over the home of a neighbor, Mohamed Sanogo. Both houses seem to have been chosen for their bountiful mango trees. The men parked their cars so close to a tree in Sanogo's yard that they shaved off a lower branch, Sanogo said, showing the scarred, freshly-cut stump. He said they collected dirt, added water and painted their vehicles with mud, further camouflaging them.

When Kone came over to Sanogo's house on Wednesday, he stumbled upon the uninvited houseguests. He immediately turned to leave. The short, light-skinned man who appeared to be their leader waved him in, telling him not to be afraid. "Do you know who I am?" the man asked. His white beard pointed out from his chin in a scruffy goatee, and he spoke only a smattering of French, using Arabic with his guards.

When Kone said no, the commander told him to go watch the evening news. Then, changing his mind, he declared: "I am Abou Zeid."

Roughly a dozen other residents confirmed that the man occupying the house had identified himself as Abou Zeid, and their description matches the few photographs that exist of the man described by the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations as "the most violent and radical" of the leaders of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Born in southern Algeria, the 50-something jihadist has operated in Mali since at least 2003, and is behind dozens of kidnappings of European aid workers and tourists, each of whom earned him an estimated $2 to $3 million, according to Stratfor, an intelligence gathering unit. He is known for his fanaticism and deep-seated hatred of the West, has executed several hostages and is the subject of United Nations sanctions due to his association with al-Qaida.

In Diabaly, he exuded authority, residents say, and fighters approached him with deference, speaking in a lowered voice, almost a whisper, as if addressing a priest. He spent the daylight hours sitting on a mat in the shade reading the Quran. At all times, he was flanked by at a minimum five guards, and at least one stood sentinel at night when Abou Zeid slept.

The rebels were traveling with boxes of unperishable food imported from Algeria, Abou Zeid's birthplace. He left behind several discarded macaroni packets made by a brand headquartered in Algeria, according to the label, along with packages of Algerian powdered milk on the floor of the room where he slept.

Although Diabaly residents were terrified by the fighters, and many came out to cheer the French, they said the Islamists had gone to lengths to show respect.

When fighters entered the compound next to Sidi Toure's, they addressed Toure over the shared wall between the two homes. His neighbors had fled.

"They explained that they wanted to take over my neighbor's house, and said they were willing to pay rent," he said. "Even for the water that they took from our well, they offered to pay."

Toure said he told them he did not need their money and would rather they leave, and they said they would not stay long.

The room they used to stock their arms is now empty, except for a few cardboard boxes and a former ammunition crate. What they forgot to take was a notebook, where they started writing in the ledger from the back page to the front, as is customary in Arabic.

The first page of writing begins with an inventory of weapons: "One 60 mm mortar, One Toshka machine gun, Three machine guns, Four Dabekterbov machine guns without a magazine, One armored Bika, 16 Chinese Kalashnikov rifles without magazines, 21 Sardinia 23, 26 RPG shells ..." in a list that reads like the ingredients for a Soviet-era war.

As the French air strikes intensified, the fighters blended in more and more with the population, said witnesses. They no longer drove their cars, borrowing scooters from locals. And they timed their movements to match those of the civilians they knew France would not bomb.

"When the population is outside, they are outside," said Kone. "When the population is indoors, they are indoors."

The French managed to bomb with remarkable precision. When they took out five cars parked just yards from the home of Adama Nantoume, they did not harm his family or damage his home.

"The explosions were so loud that for a while I thought I had gone deaf," Nantoume said. "I was suffocated by the smoke. And the light burned my eyes. The gas made me cry. ... But I was not hurt."

As Diabaly began to empty out, the Islamists set up roadblocks to prevent civilians from leaving, according to locals whose families and friends were turned back. Many made it out anyway, cutting across the rice fields in an area they had left unpatrolled.

Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, the Islamists left on Thursday. As they went, residents said, they saw cars that looked like moving bushes because they had so much foliage attached to them.

It was another four days before the French declared the area safe to enter.

As of Monday, life in Diabaly appeared to have gone back to normal. Women gave their children bucket baths and washed their pots and pans in the irrigation canal running along one side of the town. The families whose properties had been occupied by the Islamists were starting to clean up the trash they left behind.

One of the few things the Islamists stole, residents said, was a Canal+ cable television decoder. They wanted access to French channels to learn what the French thought of their insurgent tactics.


Associated Press writers Baba Ahmed in Diabaly, Mali and Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.