TIMBUKTU, Mali — At the entrance to this fabled city, Malian soldiers clutching Kalashnikov rifles didn’t dare approach the truck. Instead, they shouted from a distance of 15 feet for the passengers to step out, lift up their shirts and turn around.
The soldiers were searching for explosive belts.
They didn’t find any, but they weren’t taking any chances: Suicide bombers had killed several of their comrades in recent weeks. The soldiers allowed the truck to pass, still peering at its passengers suspiciously.
Three months after French forces intervened in northern Mali to prevent jihadists from gaining more territory, the conflict is increasingly evoking similarities to the battlefields of Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. The radical Islamists and al-Qaida militants have been pushed out of Timbuktu and other major towns, but they are now dispatching suicide bombers and using improvised explosive devices to attack their enemies. Many have melted into the population, creating an underground force of potential spies and recruits.
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On May 10, at least five suicide bombers staged attacks in two northern towns, seriously wounding at least two Malian soldiers, according to military spokesman Capt. Modibo Niaman Traore.
“The jihadists spent 10 months here,” said Col. Keba Sangare, commander of the Malian forces in Timbuktu, which are now fighting alongside the French and other African forces. “Some got married. Some have children. They have links here. Even if they are physically not here, spiritually they are.
“Even when there are no attacks, it doesn’t mean we are in peace. We are definitely at war.”
In Timbuktu, once the primary base of the jihadists, the tensions are evident. While there is collective relief that the militants’ rule has ended, the mud-walled city remains a shadow of its illustrious past. Once bustling with traders and visitors, including Western tourists, the streets are now deserted. Most shops are shuttered. Prices of staple items such as gas and couscous have soared.
Tens of thousands of residents who fled during the jihadists’ reign have yet to return, remaining in refugee camps outside Mali or with relatives and friends in the capital, Bamako, and other southern towns that the conflict never reached.
Nearly all of Timbuktu’s minority light-skinned Tuareg and Arabic-speaking Moor populations have also fled. Many members collaborated with the Islamists or supported a separatist Tuareg rebellion that helped trigger the Islamist takeover. Even those who supported neither movement have left, fearful of reprisal attacks by Mali’s darker-skinned ethnic groups who were persecuted the most by the Islamists.
“The city has changed,” said Nadjim Al Mubarak, 52, a tailor, as he walked down a desolate, sand-covered street. “There used to be traffic, business and people everywhere.”
France plans to withdraw about three-quarters of its 4,000 troops by the end of the year. Replacing them will be a 12,600-member U.N. peacekeeping force, scheduled to arrive ahead of Mali’s planned elections in July. But the peacekeepers’ mandate prevents them from using force except in self-defense, posing long-term challenges to efforts by France, the United States and other countries to stop a jihadist haven from emerging in West and North Africa.
The United States has also deployed a small number of troops and is setting up a drone base in neighboring Niger. The U.S. role may grow if Mali chooses a president democratically, which would remove legal restrictions on military aid imposed after a military coup in March 2012.
The jihadists took advantage of the chaos surrounding the coup, joining with the Tuareg separatist rebellion, and overran the north. They included militants from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the terror network’s West and North Africa affiliate, and other radical Islamists who called themselves Ansar Dine or “defenders of the faith.” By last April, the rebels had arrived in Timbuktu.
Soon, the radicals turned against the Tuareg separatists and asserted control. They swiftly imposed Islamic sharia law on the moderate Muslim population, enforcing their codes through public amputations, stonings and prison sentences. In Timbuktu, jihadists destroyed several earthen tombs of Sufi saints, declaring the shrines idolatry.
The jihadists’ goal of setting up their own Islamic emirate was disrupted in January when France launched its assault, pushing the jihadists out of the city and from their strongholds in the cities of Gao and Kidal. The fighters have disappeared into the desert and mountains and into remote villages. From there, they stage attacks.
During the past three months, there have been at least eight suicide bombings in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, as well as several other attacks, killing and injuring soldiers as well as civilians.
In Timbuktu, there’s not much of a city left to govern. Basic services are woeful; residents get only five hours of electricity a day. Only a handful of local administration officials have returned. A small contingent of policemen from Bamako have arrived, but residents said they rarely see them on patrol. No one can enter the city after 6 p.m., and a driving ban takes effect at 6:30 p.m.
The rule of the jihadists, who have kidnapped Westerners, decimated the tourism industry, the economic support of most residents.
“The situation of the city is that there are no jobs,” lamented Abdoulaye Toure, 32, a slipper maker. “Why would anyone want to return?”