MANGAIZE, Niger — One day in early January from her home in the middle of the Sahara Desert, Rakia Wallet al Hamdou watched as a hoard of Islamist rebels pulled out of the town of Kidal on what would turn out to be a surprise offensive into central Mali. When they returned in a trail of dust more than two weeks later, this time in retreat, their numbers had swelled. Then, they disappeared again.
All across northern Mali, residents recount similar sights: pickup trucks packed with Islamist militants snaking north past curious eyes, leaving the shrubby green of central Mali for the austere desert grit from whence they’d come. By the time French or African forces arrived on the ground, there was usually no foe left to fight.
Those accounts of the Islamist flight, patched together from phone calls and visits to refugee camps in neighboring Niger, offer the strongest evidence yet that the quick advance by French troops against al Qaida-linked Islamist militants was less a military rout than an orderly and strategic withdrawal into terrain far more suitable for a gritty, drawn-out insurgency campaign.
That suggests that, rather than mortally wounded and backed into a corner, the Islamist militants were bloodied but not beaten. In other words, their retreat from northern Mali isn’t game over, but game on.
“We have inflicted very important damages to the enemy, but it’s not over yet,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a small group of reporters in Paris earlier this week.
It’s difficult to know just how weakened the Islamists are. Le Drian said the Islamists suffered “serious” losses from the French campaign, including scores of dead, damaged equipment, and the destruction of fuel and ammunition stores. There are also rumors that French warplanes struck the Islamist convoys as they fled across the desert – rumors the French will neither confirm nor deny.
But the accounts of the Islamists’ generally orderly withdrawal suggest that at a minimum thousands were able to pull back from their original position before they’d suffered major losses.
In Diabaly, to the west of the Niger River, a group of Islamist militants led by a regional al Qaida commander, Abou Zeid, fled in a convoy of 53 vehicles, according to eyewitness Massako Konta, who counted the vehicles as they passed through the village of Dogofry. The vehicles, mostly pickup trucks, kept their headlights off and withdrew one by one over a period of 12 hours, an orderly pattern designed to limit group exposure to French aircraft.
On the other side of the Niger River, the rebel force that on Jan. 9 seized Konna, prompting the French intervention, also retreated as a group. The convoy pulled through the town of Douentza on Jan. 20, according to resident Salif Ongoiba, staying just long enough to eat before continuing north. The next day, the rebel convoy sped through the town of Gossi, 147 miles northeast from Douentza, said resident Idrissa Maiga, who estimated the strength at 30 vehicles.
From there, possibly bypassing the town of Gao, the militants pulled into northern Mali’s Kidal on Jan. 23, according to Hamdou, in an interview at the Mangaize refugee camp, 40 miles south of the Mali border.
Along the way, the group swelled in size as other retreating rebels joined the flight. “They had more people than when they left,” said Hamdou, including more black-skinned Africans.
The Islamist rebels disconnected the mobile phone network in Kidal, and by Jan. 25, they had disappeared again, she said.
Similar tales of Islamist escape came from Menaka, a town in Mali’s northeast, where on Jan. 22, according to Al Mahmoud Ag Ahangase, French planes, apparently on a reconnaissance mission, buzzed overhead.
No bombs were dropped, however. The rebels inside Menaka drove their trucks under tree cover lining a dry riverbed. Then, when the planes had left, they sped away in two groups, past an old military camp and Ahangase’s house, toward Kidal.
In the group that drove nearer him, he counted about eight vehicles and a motorbike. The other group was too distant, he said, to get a good count.
Another resident of Menaka confirmed that there had been no airstrikes on the rebel positions when they decided to withdraw.
One big question, unanswered, is whether the French were able to strike the convoys as they fled into the desert.
Reports from Diabaly said that 33 of the rebels’ estimated 60 vehicles were reported destroyed as the Islamists fled. But the French Defense Ministry has declined to respond to requests for information about specific incidents and hasn’t provided a detailed report of how many vehicles were hit, saying only that “hundreds” of rebels were killed out of the estimated 3,000 original combatants.
The accounts of convoys flowing north indicate, however, that French air pressure was not so great that the rebels were forced to scatter, vehicle by vehicle.
Aklinine Ag Bogali, who spent years traversing his desert homeland in northern Mali, described some of the caves there as so large that they open onto underground lakes.
“Some people might cheer ‘Bravo, bravo, the war is over.’”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “No.”
McClatchy special correspondent Frederic Castel contributed from Paris.
Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent. His reporting is underwritten in part with a grant from Humanity United, a California-based foundation focused on human rights. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @ alanboswell