SOKOLO: The first time the members of al-Qaeda emerged from the forest, they politely said hello. Then the men carrying automatic weapons asked the frightened villagers if they could please take water from the well.
Before leaving, they rolled down the windows of their pickup truck and called over the children to give them chocolate.
That was 18 months ago, and since then, the bearded men in outfits like those worn by Osama bin Laden have returned for water every week. Each time they go to lengths to exchange greetings, ask for permission and act neighbourly, according to locals, in the first intimate look at how al-Qaeda tries to win over a village.
Besides candy, the men hand out cash. If a child is born, they bring baby clothes. If someone is ill, they prescribe medicine. When a boy was hospitalised, they dropped off plates of food and picked up the tab.
With almost no resistance, al-Qaeda has implanted itself in Africa’s soft tissue, choosing as its host one of the poorest nations on earth. The terrorist group has created a refuge in this remote land through a strategy of winning hearts and minds, described in rare detail by seven locals in regular contact with the cell. The villagers agreed to speak for the first time to an Associated Press team in the “red zone,” deemed by most embassies to be too dangerous for foreigners to visit.
While al-Qaeda’s central command is in disarray and its leaders on the run following bin Laden’s death six months ago, security experts say, the group’s five-year-old branch in Africa is flourishing. From bases like the one in the forest just north of here, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is infiltrating local communities, recruiting fighters, running training camps and planning suicide attacks, according to diplomats and government officials.
Even as the mother franchise struggles financially, its African offshoot has raised an estimated $130 million in under a decade by kidnapping at least 50 Westerners in neighbouring countries and holding them in camps in Mali for ransom. It has tripled in size from 100 combatants in 2006 to at least 300 today, say security experts. And its growing footprint, once limited to Algeria, now stretches from one end of the Sahara desert to the other, from Mauritania in the west to Mali in the east.
The group’s stated aim is to become a player in global jihad, and suspected collaborators have been arrested throughout Europe, including in the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, England and France. In September, the general responsible for US military operations in Africa, Army Gen. Carter Ham, said AQIM now also poses a “significant threat” to the United States.
The answer to why the group has thrived can be found in this speck of a town, where homes are made of mud mixed with straw and families eke out a living either in the fields of rice to the south or in the immense forest of short, stout trees to its north.
It’s here, under a canopy stretching over an area three times larger than the city of New York, that Sokolo’s herders take their cattle. They avoid overgrasing by organising themselves into eight units linked to each of the eight wells, labelled N1 through N8, along the 50-mile-long perimeter of the Wagadou forest. They pay $5 per year per head of cattle, and $3 per head of sheep, for the right to water their animals.
When the al-Qaeda fighters showed up with four to five jerry cans and asked for water, they signalled that they did not intend to plunder resources.
“From the moment you lay eyes on them, you know that they’re not Malian,” said 45-year-old herder Amadou Maiga.
They started to come every four or five days in Land Cruisers, with Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. At first they stayed for no more than 15 to 20 minutes, said the villagers, including herders, a hunter and employees of the Malian Ministry of Husbandry who travel to the area to vaccinate animals and repair broken pumps. If on Monday they took water from one well, on Wednesday they would go to another, always varying their path.
Fousseyni Diakite, 51, a pump technician who travels twice a month to the forest to check the generators used to run the wells, first ran into the cell in May 2010, when he saw four men in Arab dress inside a Toyota Hilux truck, all with AK-47s at their feet.
He said the men come with medical supplies and try to find out if anyone is sick.
“There is one who is tall with a big chest _ he’s Arab, possibly Algerian. He’s known for having an ambulatory pharmacy. He goes from place to place giving treatment for free,” Diakite said.