Terror at the Edge of the Sahara

This report was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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Joe Penney/Reuters
Malian soldiers with Tuareg men in the village of Tashek, near Timbuktu, July 2013

In 2012 Mali descended into chaos. Much of the north of this large and very poor country of 16 million people—its area about the size of France and Spain put together—was taken over by a shaky alliance between hard-line Islamists and Berber Tuaregs, some of whom had come from post-Qaddafi Libya, some from their traditional home in northern Mali. At the same time, the government in the capital city of Bamako was deposed in a military coup led by Amadou Sanogo, a midlevel military official. In January 2013 some four thousand French troops joined the Malian army in an offensive that drove out the Islamists and Tuareg fighters and restored control of much of the north to the government. Fighting still continues, and a residual French force remains in Mali alongside a smaller contingent of German troops and a sizable African force.

Visiting Mali in February, I flew in a United Nations–chartered Antonov jet from Bamako to Kidal, a sand-blown regional capital of 30,000 people, tucked into the northeastern corner of the country (see the map below). The plane was packed with civilian engineers, French officers, and contingents of soldiers and police from Senegal, Guinea, and Burkina Faso. Almost everyone got off in the towns of Mopti and Gao, and I was nearly alone on the plane when it finally touched down at Kidal. I was the first journalist to visit the outpost since al-Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb, the North African affiliate of the international terrorist organization, kidnapped and murdered two French correspondents there last November. The UN civilian staff members who arranged my trip told me that the place was so dangerous that I could stay on the ground for only twenty-four hours, and would not be able to leave the UN compound except in an armored vehicle, with an escort of blue helmets for protection.

Stepping off the plane into the blinding sunlight, I watched UN peacekeepers in turbans roar up in six camouflage-painted pickup trucks with heavy machine guns, protecting the plane from attack. A hot wind was blowing, sending up sprays of sand. In the distance, I could see the Adrar des Ifoghas, a long line of black mountains rising above a sea of scrub. “The terrorists are still there,” a French colonel told me as he waited to board the plane for the return flight to Bamako. A 97,000-square-mile wilderness of granite peaks, narrow canyons, and cul-de-sacs, the massif has long served as a sanctuary for Islamic radicals, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian cigarette smuggler turned kidnapper and murderer who led al-Qaeda’s takeover of northern Mali. Many jihadists sought refuge there after the French intervention in January 2013—Operation Serval—flushed them from Mali’s major towns.

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Mike King

There are, I was told, just two or three ways into the black mountains. “If you don’t know your way around …

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