The black Jihadist flag is the first indication of who is in command in this moment in Gao. After repelling the Tuareg of the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) at the end of June, the Islamists are now dictating law in the city.
Serge Daniel, correspondent of Jeune Afrique, is among the few foreign reporters who managed to enter the rebel stronghold in North Mali. In Gao, writes Daniel, “the entire international Jihad” is present: there are fighters from Algeria, Somalia, Nigeria, Benin, Niger, Gambia, Guinea. The signs of the battle between the MNLA and Jihadists are still visible.”
“I was told that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a founding member of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI), who personally led the attack against the Tuareg”, reports Daniel, adding that Belmokhtar is living in the city with his family.
Gao is formally in the hands of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Timbuktu is controlled by the AQMI, while the Ansar al Din governs in Kidal. It is all however theoretical: “On the field, the three Islamic groups are very porous and the fighters circulate easy from one side to another”. There are new recruits among them, even armed minors indoctrinated to their interpretation of the Sharia Islamic law. In Timbuktu the Sharia is applied more severely. In Gao, the MUJAO, made up by Sahrawi, appears more tolerant and even beer can be found on the black market.
According to the Jeune Afrique correspondent, the city almost looks deserted (only half of the 70,000 residents have remained), though those who stayed behind acknowledge that the occupying force acted with “respect”, contrarily to the Tuareg of the MNLA.
Despite bars, hotels and banks being closed, the Islamists are providing some services such as street cleaning, fuel for generators and security for transport coming and going to Gao.
The Islamists, writes Daniel citing local sources, also financed the cleaning of the city sewers, which hadn’t been done for 15 years.