Gao, Mali. With his finger on the trigger and a menacing look, a 14-year-old recruit ordered a vehicle to pull over on the road from the Niger border to Gao, the biggest city in northern Mali, now under control of Islamist armed groups.
“We have decided to reinforce security here and take the necessary steps to do so,” Malian teenager Aziz Maiga told AFP at this checkpoint in Labezanga, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) from Gao, before he joined in a search of the waiting vehicles.
The rifle-toting Islamist fighters, wearing turbans and military uniforms or fatigues and dusty black combat boots, inspected all the passengers and their baggage.
Perhaps the most startling thing about these fighters along this frontier route is that nearly all of them are from sub-Saharan Africa rather than the Maghreb.
“Me too, I am surprised,” Nigerien Hicham Bilal, who is leading a katiba (combat unit) to Gao, admitted to AFP. “Every day we have new volunteers. They come from Togo, Benin, Niger, Guinea, Senegal, Algeria and elsewhere.”
Since all of them want to go to war, Bilal said, the fighters are no longer divided into separate Islamist movements.
“We are all mujahedeen,” he declared. “Here, there’s no more MUJAO (Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa), Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) or AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb).”
A young Ivorian, clearly a new recruit, boasted: “We are ready for battle. We are waiting for the French or African troops to arrive.”
His battle cry referred to a military force that West African nations are planning to deploy in Mali, with logistical aid from France, to help Bamako take back control of the north which was seized by Islamist groups following a March coup. The deployment is awaiting authorization from the United Nations.
Islam has no borders
In Gao, the new arrivals present themselves at the Islamist police headquarters. The fresh fighters showing up there appear younger and younger.
“I am Khalil, an Egyptian, and I came to help my mujahedeen brothers,” said one man in Arabic, speaking through a translator from Sierra Leone.
Another volunteer said in English that he is Pakistani. “Islam has no borders,” he added.
While these two work with the police, several dozen Algerian fighters have taken up positions on the frontline to the south of the city on the road that leads to the Malian capital Bamako.
According to one witness, the Algerians are part of the combat unit of powerful AQIM chief Mokhtar Belmokhtar, alias Belaaouar, who controls the Gao region.
The Islamists have divided northern Mali into three regions: Belmokhtar in Gao, Algerian Abdel Hamid Abou Zeid in charge of Timbuktu, and Malian Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghaly, the leader of Ansar Dine, in his native Kidal area.
At Gao’s airport, the Islamists have parked broken-down vehicles on the runways to prevent “enemy” planes from landing there.
Residents near the airport claim there are two training camps for new fighters.
“I saw some of them training. There were two sessions on shooting and military tactics. A lot of them are very young, they say they are ready to die,” said a civil servant in Gao, who requested anonymity.
Around the nine districts in the city of Gao, locals say “camouflaged” fighters are setting up in the houses.
“I saw two heavy weapons in one house in the fourth district of Gao. It’s the first time I’ve seen that,” said one young resident named Djenakou.
Life for the citizens of Gao has become harder after the Islamists recently imposed strict sharia law in the region. On September 10, five men accused of robbery each had a hand and foot cut off.
No music or tobacco
Around the city, private radio stations can no longer play music. Women must wear a veil or face punishment including being sent to prison. And it is rare to see someone dare to smoke in public.
To discreetly buy tobacco, people use a code name: “paracetamol.”
One man complained that everyone in his village of Bamba is out of work “because Bamba is the main area for growing tobacco, which is now banned from being sold.”
The Islamists, who were tolerated by the local population when they first took control, appear to have become more and more unpopular. Still, the city market is bustling with people and basic foodstuffs can be found in the stalls.
And the shoppers say they are opposed to any military intervention by foreign troops.
“When elephants fight each other, it’s the grass that suffers. The elephants are the (Islamist) fighters here and the army from Bamako with outside support. The grass is the poor civilians, us,” lamented Mahamane, a retired civil servant.
A timeline of Mali unrest
Key events in the north of the west African state of Mali, which has been occupied by armed Islamist groups since shortly after a March 22 coup which overthrew the elected government:
22: Mutinous soldiers led by Captain Amadou Sanogo announce they have overthrown the Bamako government, saying it has failed to give the armed forces the means to defeat a rebellion by Tuareg rebels and Islamists in the north.
The junta leaders detain President Amadou Toumani Toure and suspend the constitution.
30-31: Tuareg groups in the north, some allied with the regional branch of Al-Qaeda, capture a string of key towns, including Kidal and Gao.
1: The National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), the main Tuareg group, says it controls the desert town of Timbuktu, the last major center in Mali’s north to be under government control.
2: The Islamist Ansar Dine group, along with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, moves into Timbuktu.
6: The MNLA declares independence in the north, a move rejected by the international community.
12: New interim leader Dioncounda Traore, the former parliament speaker, threatens to wage total war on Tuareg rebels and Islamists as he takes the oath of office.
21: The new leader Dioncounda Traore is attacked and injured in his Bamako office by protesters. He is flown to Paris for treatment.
27: Islamists seize total control of the northern city of Gao, ousting the MNLA after deadly clashes between the once-allied groups.
30: Armed Islamists destroy ancient tombs of Muslim saints in Timbuktu and threaten to wipe out every religious shrine there.
8: Reports emerge that the Islamist forces occupying the north are applying an extreme form of Islamic law, and have notably cut off the hand of a man convicted of stealing.
20: Traore appoints a national unity government under Cheick Modibo Diarra.
1: In the north, Islamists take control of the town of Douentza, on the de facto boundary with the government-controlled south.
20: Islamists controlling Timbuktu begin arresting women not wearing a veil and order any women caught out in the street late at night jailed, residents report.
23: Mali and ECOWAS agree on conditions for deployment of an African force to help Bamako reclaim the north.
25: Mali asks the United Nations authorization for a West African-led military force to help it seize back territory from Islamist rebels.