Byline: Trevor Snapp
Militant Islamists flee after months of brutal rule.
It's the dry season in Mali's remote northern deserts, yet the sky spits unceasing rain down on the French military convoy, turning sand into sheets of mud as slick as ice. Slipping and sliding past the acacia trees, the column of dull-green armored trucks inches along, destination Timbuktu. Unlike their colonial forefathers, they come not in pursuit of gold but to liberate a people from a 21st-century jihad.
In early December, Abu Zeid, the brutal leader of the Mali operation of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, called a meeting in the desert for a number of disparate Islamic militant groups. Here, a pact was signed, and a plan was agreed on. Abu Zeid, who is also known as Abid Hammadou, is a skinny Algerian, with a penchant for orange soda and strawberry biscuits. He is ambitious and ruthless, often financing his fight with the taking of Western hostages. Even by his standards, the plan was bold: uniting the militant Arab and Tuareg groups and challenging the government by taking the fight to the capital, Bamako.
Last year, during a period of instability in Mali following an Army coup, Tuareg rebels conquered northern parts of the country. And seeking greater autonomy, the nomads declared the establishment of the independent state of Azawad. Some Tuareg, however, formed alliances with Islamist militia groups, and, over the course of the year, the radical Islamists managed to wrest control of the north and impose harsh Sharia.
A month after Abu Zeid had called the meeting in the desert, many of the fighters massed in Lere, a border town on the edge of Mauritania. They raised the al Qaeda flag, set up a satellite Internet connection, and brought women from Mauritania refugee camps for their enjoyment, according to a mechanic in Lere. Then, in mid-January, hundreds of pickup trucks set out for the capital, speeding south along desert tracks, each truck carrying up to a dozen fighters and antiaircraft guns mounted on the back. The fighters were well armed, some wearing bulletproof vests. Locals who saw the fighters move south toward the capital said there were many foreigners among them.
The offensive was as short as it was bold--the Malian Army fled at the sight of the fighters approaching the capital where President Dioncounda Traore was frantically pleading for help. It was the French who came to the rescue.
Within hours of the call, jets from the French-led alliance (which also included several European countries and logistical help from the U.S. and the U.A.E.) set off from neighboring Chad, and bombs were unleashed on the columns of jihadists. But at least some rebels remained insouciant. Paris would soon come to regret its actions and be mired in Mali like the U.S. had been mired in Iraq, Oumar Ould Hamaha, the occasional spokesman for the militant group, Ansar Dine, told CNN. The red-bearded jihadist leader, who's deeply involved with a motley crew of drug-running Islamist militias in Timbuktu, warned that France had opened the "gates of hell." Nonetheless, Operation Serval, as it was code-named by the French after the African wild cat, were soon near Hamaha's hometown of Timbuktu. But the soldiers didn't know what awaited them in the fabled city.
Advancing troops first took the airport on Sunday, Jan. 27. Late that night, the moon illuminated Timbuktu's mud-brick roofs as paratroopers silently dropped into the desert, north of the city. At dawn, armored troops made their way from the south through the city while the paratroopers blocked all exits into the northern desert. There was little resistance. The jihadists vanished like a mirage, leaving behind only the explosives and ammunition they couldn't carry.
Mali, a former French colony with a diverse ethnic makeup, has long been a troubled country. The French departed in 1960, and democracy was …