THE SUN HAS just set over the dunes of the Sahara, and the terrace bar of the Hotel Bouctow, Timbuktu's oldest tourist lodge, is filling up with customers. Tuareg nomads draped in traditional blue robes, or bubu; Westernized locals in jeans and college T-shirts; and foreign tourists sway to the music of Salif Keita, the great Malian vocalist. In the fading light, almost nobody seems to notice the five young Americans with close-cropped hair and trim physiques nursing Castel beers at a circular table in the corner. "They've taken over a block of the Hotel Bouctou, and they keep to themselves," Azima Ali, a Tuareg tour guide, whispers to me as the call for the muezzin from Timbuktu's dozens of mosques rises over the sandy alleys in the gathering darkness.
The strangers at the corner table may seem mysterious but, here in Timbuktu, their identity has become something of an open secret: They are U.S. Special Forces. What's far less clear is exactly what they do when they leave the hotel and strike out over the dunes. "We're not authorized to talk to the press, sir," one of them responds when I sidle over to their table and introduce myself.
For centuries, the word "Timbuktu" has been a metaphor for the end of the earth. But, now, this desolate patch of mud mosques and mud-brick houses at the southern fringe of the Sahara has assumed an unlikely new identity: a focal point in the global war on terrorism. According to Western diplomats and Malian officials in Bamako, Mali's capital, Islamic terrorist groups have come to regard the poorly controlled, sparsely populated region north of Timbuktu as both fertile ground for recruitment and as a potential site for training camps, modeled after the secret enclaves set up by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Concerned about the radical threat in Mali, the Bush administration has been sending teams of Special Forces to Timbuktu and Gao, an oasis 250 miles to the east, to train Malian troops in counterterrorism and to conduct their own operations.
After a rocky start that one American diplomat attributes to bureaucratic rivalry and a clash of strategies for fighting terrorism, the State and Defense departments are cooperating closely in the Sahel, the vast region bordering the southern Sahara. Military training and border patrols have gone hand in hand with an ambitious outreach program run by diplomats in Tuareg villages along the old salt route between Mali and Algeria. But the Islamic extremists in Mali aren't giving up easily. Repeating a pattern seen in other countries, such as Kenya, they are marrying into the local population and buying support among sheiks and imams, quietly spreading the message of jihad.
U.S. Special Forces, operating quietly out of Timbuktu, train Malian soldiers to destroy enemy camps.
THE ROOTS OF the problem in Mali's north go back at least 15 years, when Tuareg nomads, frustrated by years of drought and the failure of the Malian government to come to their aid, rose in armed rebellion. After a series of peace accords, the uprising ended in 1996, and the Tuaregs surrendered hundreds of Kalashnikov rifles, which were buried in the concrete pedestal of a "Monument of Peace" that sits on a rise on Timbuktu's outskirts. But the final agreement was essentially a face-saving device for the Malian government, which had neither the funds nor the manpower to continue fighting. Malian authorities agreed to draw down their military presence in the region north of Timbuktu, and the diplomats say there was also a tacit understanding that they would not interfere with the Tuaregs' traditional source of income, the smuggling of contraband across the porous desert borders. After the Malian army retreated in the mid-'90s, the area became an ever wilder no-man's land, and radical elements moved into the vacuum.
Mali emerged as a potential terrorist threat in spectacular style three years ago. In early 2003, a radical guerrilla movement, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat--an offshoot of the Islamists who fought a bloody civil war against Algeria's military regime in the '90s--seized 32 European trekkers who were wandering unescorted in the desert border zone between Algeria and Mali. Algerian commandos rescued 17 of them two months later. The remaining 15 were held captive in a nearly impenetrable wasteland of arid canyons and cliffs inside Mali, several hundred miles northeast of Timbuktu. The Salafist leader, Amari Saifi, a charismatic militant with ties to Al Qaeda, handed out gifts, including four-wheel-drive vehicles, to local sheiks in exchange for support and protection. American officials say that he married at least two Tuareg girls in Mali, which helped his group dig its roots deeper into the region.
Ultimately, the German government reportedly paid the Salafists a $6 million ransom for the release of the remaining hostages in August 2003. (One German woman died of heatstroke during the group's long and harsh captivity.) Intelligence sources say that the Salafists used the cash to purchase surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, mortars, satellite telephones, and global positioning systems to enable them to bury and then recover weapons caches in the Sahara sands.
Shortly after the hostages' release, locals tell me, the first U.S. Special Forces showed up at the Hotel Bouctou. They have been coming and going ever since. "They stay for a month or so, then they disappear," says Ali, who spends most evenings at the Bouctou bar, sometimes engaging the men in small talk about the desert and Tuareg traditions. "They are friendly, but if you ask them about what they're doing here in Timbuktu, they change the subject."
In fact, the men serve as an integral part of the U.S. government's Trans-Sahara Counter Terrorism Initiative, a five-year, $100 million program aimed at preventing groups allied with Al Qaeda from establishing a foothold in the thousands of miles of desert that stretch in northern Africa, from Mauritania to Chad. The Special Forces have trained their African counterparts in desert-combat techniques, provided them with four-wheel-drive vehicles and tracking and communications equipment, and tried to establish cross-border cooperation between counterterrorism units that, in the past, have had almost no contact with one another. In 2004, the Special Forces achieved their biggest success, orchestrating the ambush and capture in western Chad of Saifi, the Salafist group's leader, nicknamed "Al Para" because of his background as a paratrooper in the Algerian military. Western diplomats tell me that the Salafist group has continued to carry out attacks against the Algerian government--but that Al Para's successor has apparently decided against more high-profile seizures of Western tourists. "They're still using Mali as a rear base to rest and recuperate," one diplomat tells me.
IN RECENT MONTHS, Western and Malian officials have detected a surge of Islamic recruitment efforts in the Malian Sahara. The Malian government has closely followed the travels of several itinerant imams from Pakistan who have proselytized throughout the north. "They've let the Pakistanis know they're not welcome," one Western official tells me. In Kidal, a desolate Tuareg trading post 150 miles north of Gao, not far from where the European hostages were held, the town mayor established close ties to Al Para in 2003 and has since become a convert to Dawa Al Tabligh, an extreme branch of Islam whose adherents often advocate using violence to spread the religion. In recent months, sources say, more Tuareg women have been wearing the burka in Kidal, and the mayor has given impassioned speeches urging people to send their children to madrassas and to reject secular influences. Meanwhile, the Saudis have constructed dozens of Wahhabi mosques in Timbuktu and other desert communities, founded orphanages, and lavished cash on local charities. "The north is huge and impoverished, with lots of unemployed and angry young men," a Western diplomat in Bamako tells me. "The potential for the exploitation of disenfranchised youth definitely exists."
I get a sense of the new atmosphere one stiflingly hot afternoon in Timbuktu. With a blinding sun high overhead, my driver and I wind along the edge of town, where concrete huts give way to Tuareg canvas tents, sand dunes, and herds of goats foraging through piles of trash. Amid the squalor rises a bright yellow stucco mosque, built recently by Saudi Wahhabists and topped by a 30-foot-high minaret. It is by far the best-constructed new building in Timbuktu. The imam, a member of the local Songhai tribe, has succeeded in attracting about two dozen residents of Timbuktu to Friday prayers, my driver, Baba, tells me, including some of the same young men who proudly displayed Osama bin Laden T-shirts after September 11. But Azima Ali, the Tuareg tourist guide, tells me that the imam's message is still unpopular in Timbuktu. "The people here are not extremists," he says. "The kind of Islam that we practice is generous and kind. We don't believe in spreading the religion through violence. If you are not a Muslim, nobody can force you to be one."
It remains unclear whether the Islamist will find a safe haven in Mali's desolate north. But everybody knows that the threat is there. After our visit to the Saudi-built mosque, Baba and I drive through the center of town. We pass Timbuktu's renowned Djingareyber Mosque, an imposing mud fortress built in the fourteenth century, when Timbuktu was a commercial and intellectual center of north Africa. "As long as this mosque rises over the city," Baba tells me, "the Wahhabis can never become strong." Baba's confidence isn't thoroughly convincing. A few moments later, a jeepload of Malian troops roars past, kicking up clouds of dust, back from an exercise in the Sahara. Baba watches them somberly. "We are glad to have them here," he murmurs. "Who knows what is happening in the desert?"
This article originally ran in the March 6, 2006, issue of the magazine.