The town of Konna lies along the eastern bank of the Niger River in central Mali, a semi-desert, speckled with thorn trees, that turns vibrantly green during the brief summer rains. For nearly a year, since rebel Tuaregs—the nomadic Berber people who live in the interior Sahara region of North Africa—and Islamic militants seized control of northern Mali, this settlement of 20,000 marked the limit of government-held territory. Five hundred troops in pickup trucks with mounted machine guns stood guard in the bush just north of the town. Beyond lay empty scrubland and a paved road to Timbuktu and Gao, the two main population centers under the jihadists’ control.
On Wednesday night, January 9, forty pickup trucks filled with Islamist fighters and heavy weaponry descended on Konna. Taken by surprise, government forces managed to repel the initial onslaught. Around midnight, however, another 150 armed jihadist vehicles arrived. A thousand fighters attacked the town’s defenders from three sides, using rocket-propelled grenades and large-caliber machine guns. After an eight-hour battle, the government lines broke. Hundreds of soldiers retreated in panic through the dirt streets of Konna, some of them stripping off their dark-green camouflage uniforms and begging locals for civilian clothes.
Ousmane Bah, a truck driver, watched the Islamists roll into town at 3:45 on Thursday afternoon. Dressed in desert khakis, they blew up a handful of military installations, and herded people to Konna’s mosques. A local street preacher who had joined the militants last year commanded them to gather the corpses of government troops. “Bury your dead dogs,” he told them. The jihadists ordered Konna’s imams to inform the people, Bah said, that “Sharia law is now introduced in Konna, and all women must be covered.”
On Friday morning, according to Bah, the chief jihadist arrived to claim his prize. Iyad Ag Ghali is a burly Tuareg whose black-bearded face is well known in the country. A former diplomat, smuggler, and hostage negotiator, Ghali had now taken on a new identity: the founder and commander of Ansar Dine, or Defenders of the Faith, a radical Islamist organization allied with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a force financed partly by the ransoming of Western hostages. “He was wearing a black turban, and a long blue robe,” Bah told me. “He gathered people together and declared that Ansar Dine and al-Qaeda would run things now.”
Until recently Mali, a nation of 15.8 million people in the Sahel—the arid belt that extends across North Africa—was widely viewed as a gentle if very poor democracy, a favorite of low- budget tourists and world music fans alike. The Festival in the Desert, a kind of African Woodstock in the dunes near Timbuktu, drew thousands of Western and local visitors every January. Timbuktu itself, in the last few years, underwent an unlikely renaissance as a cultural oasis in the Sahara, with half a dozen libraries that preserved a trove of Arabic manuscripts from a millennium ago that had recently been rediscovered.
But the country has long combined poverty, radical Islam, and tendencies to armed rebellion. Mali ranked 182nd out of 187 countries assessed by the United Nations Development Program for the Human Development Report published in 2013. According to UNICEF, it had a 26 percent adult literacy rate in 2010, and a per capita annual income of $600. The Sahara desert, beset by droughts and avoided by governments, is a zone of discontent and lawlessness. Between 1963 and 2006, the region’s Tuareg population mounted four armed uprisings. Each time the government promised more development projects, but the pledges fell short. The Sahara also became a sanctuary for outlaws—including narcotraffickers, cigarette smugglers, and, in the last ten years, jihadists bent on creating a Caliphate across the desert.
In late 2011, the combustible mix exploded. Following the downfall of the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Tuareg mercenaries in his army returned to Mali laden with heavy weapons. Allied with Islamic militants, they seized control of the north of Mali, bordering on Algeria. Soon the Tuaregs were pushed aside and the jihadists took over. Seemingly overnight, northern Mali, a region the size of France long ignored by the West, became perhaps the globe’s most significant terrorist threat. In September, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called northern Mali a “safe haven” that could allow terrorists “to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”
The threat became more acute after the fall of Konna in January. Although some say that the jihadists’ main goal was the Mopti airport in Sévaré, thirty miles south of Konna, Ghali reportedly urged his followers to take the capital, Bamako. Adam Thiam, the country’s best-known investigative journalist, told me that had the French not intervened, the Islamists could have seized all of Mali “in two or three days.” Thiam said that “many Westerners would have been killed.”
The rise of Ghali and his jihadists is partly a fallout from the Arab Spring, which set off a chain of events that few could have anticipated. But many observers I talked to say that blame also lies with regional governments and Mali’s Western benefactors. According to leaked US diplomatic cables, high ranking Malian officials and Muslim militants worked together in the drug trade—turning part of the Sahara desert into a transit point for cocaine between South America and Europe. (In 2009 a cargo plane was found burned in the desert near Gao; UN investigators believe Islamists torched it after unloading the drugs.) Meanwhile, the United States spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a military aid program in the Sahara that bore almost no tangible results. The US passed up opportunities to act against the extremists, and ignored obvious signs that Mali’s army was completely outmatched.
In late January, I arrived in Bamako, Mali’s dusty capital, straddling the banks of the Niger River. French forces had gotten there ten days earlier, and people were feeling relieved and elated; an American friend who has lived in Bamako for twelve years told me that she had packed her bags and prepared to evacuate to Paris after fighters left their northern enclaves and streamed toward the south. Last year many Malians had bitterly blamed France for the loss of half of the country. Now, however, the tricouleur hung from windows, draped over side mirrors, fluttered from poles. One Bamako newspaper celebrated the French troops as “agents of God.”
I paid a visit to Imam Chérif Ousmane Mandani Haidara, the first Muslim leader to denounce jihadist rule in the north. His headquarters is a green-domed mosque on a sealed-off street in Bamako, protected by metal detectors and a battalion of private guards wearing red berets. Pilgrims crammed the courtyard for a one-week festival commemorating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Upstairs in his opulent quarters, Haidara told me that he was on edge. The city had been infiltrated by jihadist sympathizers, including some powerful imams, he said.
He was worried about his safety. His moderate Islamic organization—Ansar Dine—had been tainted by Iyad Ag Ghali’s appropriation of the name. “Iyad Ag Ghali is a Wahhabi, his Ansar Dine is not the same as my Ansar Dine, I am a pacifist,” said the imam, an imposing figure swathed in a golden bubu, a traditional Malian robe, and a green wool scarf. “They created Ansar Dine to make trouble for me.” The imam told me with exasperation that some of his adherents had recently been thrown into jail in the Republic of Congo. “The police said, ‘Ansar Dine? Oh, that’s Iyad’s violent group.’”
The next day, I set out for the north. The tarmac quickly turned to dirt, and I fell in behind a half-mile-long French military convoy. In 1994 I had traveled with the French army in Rwanda, and the scenes were familiar. French flags hung from mud-brick huts, jeeps and trucks kicked up clouds of dust, and children waved from the roadside. The French intervention in Rwanda had been clouded in ambiguity, but the mission in Mali was moving ahead with what seemed like near-universal approval, although some officers I met made it clear that they didn’t want to be photographed.
After ten grueling hours and 390 miles, I pulled into Mopti, by the Niger River, which was once favored by backpackers but has now fallen on difficult times. Once-popular cafés such as the Restaurant Bar Bozo—noted for its views of sunset over the river—had shut down, following a series of kidnappings and killings of Westerners a year ago. Here the signs of the war became more apparent. At the gendarmerie, a bright pink and blue stucco building in the center of town, Malian police showed me a sullen teenager wearing too-short khaki pants and a dirty olive parka that hung down below his knees—an Ansar Dine fighter who had been captured the day before in Douentza, on the road to Gao. He claimed he’d been a cook, and swore that he had “never picked up a gun.” I asked the police what would become of him, and the men shrugged and said nothing.
The next morning, under a slate-gray sky, I drove toward Konna. Malian soldiers at a roadblock outside Sévaré refused to let me go any further. I waited at the checkpoint for six hours, along with fifteen other frustrated journalists, then gave up. Some speculated that the Malian army was determined to impede the Western media, after French TV reported that soldiers had murdered suspected Islamists on the eve of the intervention and thrown their bodies down a well in Sévaré. A friendly French commander from the Fifth Helicopter Regiment promised to intervene on our behalf with the Malian army. We learned that as the French units advanced, the jihadists were moving out of Gao and Timbuktu.
Iyad Ag Ghali first rebelled against the state in 1990, when he and Tuareg followers from the northeast Malian town of Kidal attacked Malian military bases across the Sahara. But in 1991, he flew to Bamako and signed a peace deal. For years “everybody respected him because he kept the peace,” said Manny Ansar, a Tuareg music promoter from Timbuktu who had a long friendship with the former rebel. Ghali, who was then a moderate Muslim, and Ansar bonded over music. “He loved Malian music, he’d even written a song for [the Tuareg group] Tinariwen, he went to their concerts, he smoked cigarettes,” Ansar told me.
Over the next decade, Ghali became a kind of Tuareg elder statesman, cutting lucrative business deals, dabbling in smuggling, serving as an intermediary for the government with bandits and jihadists. In 2003 he was dispatched to the mountains to negotiate the release of dozens of European hikers who had been seized by Islamic militants; Ghali was said to have gotten a cut of the $6 million ransom reportedly paid by the German government.
Around 2005, however, a new wave of fundamentalism began sweeping the country. Ghali fell in with a group of Pakistani Salafists who had come to Mali to win adherents. “He became harder and harder,” said Ansar. “He lived like a monk, eating only dates, with a little milk and tea. He demanded that his wife stay at home. With me, he said, ‘Manny, go to the mosque, read the Koran.’”