DIABALY, Mali — Just as he was paid to do, Madou Ndaou stood guard over his bank in Diabaly and watched for days as Islamist rebels moved across the village battling French aircraft before finally disappearing Thursday evening.
"There were many Arabs, many blacks. Some were old, some were young. They spoke all different types of languages. They were all heavily armed," he said.
One observation in particular irked him.
"Some were boys as young as 15," he said, speaking on Sunday in Diabaly. "I was shocked."
The French military intervention, which began Jan. 11, is hugely popular among Malians, especially in the south, mostly because the Islamist militants are not. A French convoy rolled through the streets of one central Malian town to shouts of "Vive la France."
But the Islamists seem to have a strategy to circumvent their tenuous standing among their host population: Make nice to the young, and then recruit them.
Clearly, the strategy was not enough to save the Islamist militants from the French air assault here in Diabaly, the town they captured last week and held for four days before returning toward the north. On Monday, French forces rolled into the town for the first time next to the twisted remains of pickup trucks that their planes had rocketed from the sky days earlier.
The French Ministry of Defense confirmed the retaking of Diabaly, 220 miles north of the capital, Bamako, and Douentza, some 520 miles northwest of Bamako, by the Malian armed forces.
But their brief stay in the central Malian town of Diabaly gives some clues as to how the Islamists have tried to spread themselves deeper into the society of northern Mali, where the rebels have been alone to rule for the past six months as the international community debated what to do in response, and where some places already practice their brand of conservative Islam.
Several adults admitted they relied on their children for information during the crisis. While adults stayed mostly indoors, terrified to venture out, the rebels in Diabaly encouraged the youth to wander around, offering candy and money, asking them to sit and have tea.
"They say, Dont be afraid of us, we are your friends," said Fousseni Traore, a rail-thin 19-year-old whose bright red sunglasses transformed to two white orbs under the Malian sun.
The rebels used the youth as intelligence sources, asking children to point out the families of soldiers or government officials, residents said. Traore said he was given the equivalent of $2 and then asked for such information. "They say they are just looking for the kaffirs," said Traore. Kaffir is an insult meaning unbelievers that the rebels use to describe government soldiers or officials, whom they then execute and refuse Muslim burials.
"They told us we are free to join them. They promise money," Traore said.
During their stay, the rebels began to implement some forms of Shariah law. They confiscated televisions and removed memory cards from cellphones. If women came out into public with their hair uncovered, they were reprimanded.
To the youth, however, the rebels seemed especially at pains to put a gentle face on their ideologies, which includes punishing certain crimes by amputating limbs.
The courtship paid dividends. A number of youths from the town joined the rebels, said several residents, although no one was sure how many. But it caused open fights with families and friends, they said. Most surprising, though, was that the offer extended even to those whom Malian culture considered merely boys.
"Even kids like him have guns," Traore exclaimed, pointing to Idrissa Berte, who said he was 13 but looked even younger. Idrissas older brother, Saidou, piped in: "There were more than a hundred of them my age." Saidou Berte, even though he crossed his arms and leaned back authoritatively as he spoke, is only 14.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Islamist rebels in northern Mali have trained hundreds of children since their rebellion began in April 2012. The New York-based rights organizations says that witnesses have regularly described children as young as 12 within the rebel ranks.
The group has gathered eyewitness reports that the Islamist forces deployed many children to the Islamists other main battle with France, in the town of Konna. The rebels presence in this front, too, was manned heavily by those not even yet men.
The youths who joined in Diabaly might now be having second thoughts. The rebels told residents they planned to stay in Diabaly for two months, teach the population their version of Islam, and then move on, until all of Mali was under their control.
Within days, however, they were fleeing the French aerial attacks, and the youths theyd recruited were whisked away back to the north.
Special correspondent Ouologuem reported from Diabaly, Mali. Boswell reported from Markalal, Mali. Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part by a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation focused on human rights. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @alanboswell