DIABALY, Mali (AP) — 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.
“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 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 communities that house them and winning them over is one al-Qaida has already used successfully elsewhere, including in Afghanistan. It’s now being perfected in Mali by a new generation of jihadists, with help 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, has 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 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. 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. Their description matches the few photographs that exist of a 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. Known for his deep-seated hatred of the West, he 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 he slept.
The rebels were traveling with boxes of 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. 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 timed their movements to match those of civilians.
“When the population is outside, they are outside,” said Kone. “When the population is indoors, they are indoors.”
Where they managed to bomb, the French did so with remarkable precision. They took out five cars parked just yards from the home of Adama Nantoume without harming his family or damaging 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 unpatrolled rice fields.
Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, the Islamists left on Thursday. It’s not clear if they went because of the damage done by the sustained air raids, or in the face of a pending land assault. Residents said their departing cars 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 cleaning 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 were saying about the battle they had just fought.
Associated Press writers Baba Ahmed in Diabaly, Mali and Jamey Keaten in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.
More Related Stories
- Here come the tornado truthers. Already
- Peace Corps to allow gay couples to volunteer together
- Moore officials: Funds for "safe rooms" were held up by red tape
- Rand Paul: Congress should apologize to Apple, not the other way around
- Rescue crews race to find tornado survivors
- Looting in Oklahoma?
- Hundreds of low-wage federally contracted workers strike in D.C.
- Okla. mother's tearful reunion with her 8-year-old son
- New campaign compares gun control to anti-LGBT discrimination
- Study: Salt Lake City is gay parenting capital of the U.S.
- Inhofe and Coburn: Red state hypocrites
- Teen activist to meet with Abercrombie CEO
- Watch: Family emerges from storm shelter after tornado
- Must-see morning clip: Barackalypse Now
- Okla. tornado survivor reunited with dog trapped in rubble live on camera
- Is Pope Francis an exorcist?
- Oklahoma death count confirmed at 24, 9 children
- Frantic parents search for children in tornado's wake
- Crews dig through rubble after deadly tornado
- 51 killed in massive Oklahoma tornado
- Don't cry climate-change wolf
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11