Dispatch

Vive La France, Allahu Akbar

Islamic militants messed with the wrong city on Saturday night.

Daniel Seckman
Daniel Seckman

TIMBUKTU — An attack in Timbuktu by Islamist militants that began Saturday evening with a suicide bombing against a government checkpoint ended 17 hours later with women and men dancing in the streets to celebrate the Malian Army’s victory over the sustained assault on the city. "I feel free again. I’m so relieved this is over," said Timbuktu resident and high school student Fatima Al-Hajj. 

Mali is still recovering from last year’s Islamist takeover of almost half the country, and as this attack indicates, the fight is far from over. In April 2012, several Islamist movements, including al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, seized control of Mali’s northernmost cities, eventually commanding a huge swath of territory that stretched from the Sahara to within 200 miles of Bamako, the nation’s capital.

In January, French forces unilaterally intervened to prevent an Islamist takeover of the country, quickly dispatching them, but despite that victory, fighting has continued in several northern cities, even where Malian and French soldiers are deployed. 

This weekend, after the bombing, some 20 Islamist fighters attacked. About a half dozen roamed the city center, taking over abandoned buildings, attacking Malian Army positions, and pushing toward the popular La Colombe hotel, where the regional governor and his staff were staying.

Timbuktu citizens played an integral role in repelling the fighters, with men, women, and children forming mobs that chased the Islamists through the city. Armed with sticks and stones, approximately 75 civilian residents angrily denounced the attackers and provided critical information, including Islamist locations, to the Malian Army. 

Islamists used the cover of Timbuktu’s Old City to their advantage, slipping across rooftops and in and out of houses. (See the above photo of a militant who was killed shortly thereafter.)

One local resident, Draman, a 31-year-old taxi driver, felt compelled to oppose the Islamists. Gathering his friends, he led them through Timbuktu’s narrow alleys. Like other residents, he was undeterred by the fact that the men he was chasing were well-trained militants armed with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests. "It was my duty," he said. "This is my city. We have never liked these kinds of people."

French soldiers and warplanes stayed on the sidelines of the conflict for the first 12 hours, preferring to let the Malian Army take the lead in attacking the Islamists. One local resident, who worked with French forces to liberate northern Mali three months earlier, spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying, "French troops want the Malian Army to get experience fighting the Islamists, so they don’t quickly intervene sometimes." 

Citizens were not concerned that French forces had not provided assistance beyond a lone warplane circling over the city, adding that they were pleased with the Malian Army’s performance. Banya, a local mail clerk, who also took part in tracking the Islamists through the city, said, "It took a bit longer than [the French], but they got the job done." Fatima added, "I’m very proud of the Malian Army." 

Affection for France and its military intervention runs strong in this city. Combined cheers of "Vive la France" and "Allahu Akbar" echoed throughout the streets when residents heard that the fighting had ended. 

Banya, the mail clerk, realized once the fighting had stopped that one of the Islamists was a fighter who had helped occupy the city last year. "His name was Abu Muhammad. He was an Algerian," he said, pointing to his body, which still had an active suicide vest on it. "No one liked him. He used to make little children say the shahada at gunpoint," referring to one of the pillars of Islam. 

France’s military force in Mali includes some 4,000 soldiers, half of whom are leaving in July. By December, only 1,000 troops will remain, according to statements made by French President Francois Hollande. 

Timbuktu residents are not concerned about the withdrawal of French forces. "We never liked these Islamists, and we don’t want them back," said Banya. "Why should we be worried? We can do this again if they come back."

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