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Islamists recruiting children to bolster their numbers in Mali

By Alan Boswell and Brahima Ouologuem

By McClatchy Newspapers
On January 23, 2013

  • Charts show highlights of a new poll that shows how Malians feel about their government institutions before and after a military coup and Islamist rebels took control of the north of the country. © MCT 2013

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 who have toppled their government 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, 'Don't 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.

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