Ali Cissé, 30, a shopkeeper, couldn’t contain his curiosity when a new wave of gunmen rolled into town. Outside the governor’s compound in downtown Gao — a dusty administrative center of adobe architecture and open skies — he saw a fleet of armored vehicles with foreign fighters standing guard. “I saw [militants] from Niger, Pakistan, Algeria, Mauritania [and] Tunisia,” Cissé tells TIME by phone from northern Mali. “I identified them by their accents because they like approaching people… to try to win their [sympathy].” Whatever their provenance, the fighters had one thing in common: they rode with Ansar Eddine, a group at times almost indistinguishable from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the regional terror franchise.
Ever since a motley combination of Tuareg separatists and Islamic supremacists swept through northern Mali in a blaze of gunfire, an echo-chamber of rumor, gossip and misinformation has supplanted hard facts, and it’s worth treating all information — however credible the source — with caution. But it isn’t just Cissé claiming that foreign Islamic militants are flocking to this latest of troublespots. In the fabled waystation of Timbuktu, 300 miles upriver from Gao, a tour guide called Buba tells TIME that “Algerian nationals” are prevalent among the armed groups controlling the city. Taken with other reported sighting of foreign Islamist supremacists arriving in northern Mali, it’s one of a number of signs that will have al-Qaeda watchers wondering whether northern Mali is becoming a new jihadist playground — even as the U.S. and its allies move against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and a relentless drone campaign batters the badlands of Pakistan’s Northwest frontier.
If Cissé kept a diary, it would provide a troubling record of the power struggle between secular Tuareg separatists and a host of religiously-inspired militants seeking to impose Shar’ia across the region. The day after Cissé saw holy warriors in downtown Gao, the 30-year-old shopkeeper says he picked his way through a military base that until recently housed U.S. special forces training the Malian army — but has now been laid waste by the various armed groups that have seized northern Mali. The next day, protesters took to the streets of Gao chanting, “Down with Ansar Eddine and the MNLA” — the initials of the secular group vying with the Islamists for supremacy and blamed for the prevailing lawlessness. On Wednesday, May 16, Cissé says that “sporadic gunfire” continued as the Islamists and gunmen from the MNLA dispersed crowds by firing over them. Continue reading