Lunch With Al Qaeda: Timbuktu's Crisis Committee Had Cordial Relations With Islamist Leaders

This picture on July 26, 2013 shows an old sign reading 'Timbuktu the minaret of islam, at the entrance of the sharia rule, w
This picture on July 26, 2013 shows an old sign reading 'Timbuktu the minaret of islam, at the entrance of the sharia rule, welcomes you' at the entrance of the town. Millions of Malians are expected to vote Sunday in 'imperfect' elections they hope will usher in a new dawn of peace and stability in a country torn apart by an 18-month political crisis and armed conflict. Voters will have a choice of 27 candidates as they go to the polls for the first time since a separatist uprising led to a coup and then a sweeping Islamist offensive last year which upended one of the region's most stable democracies. AFP PHOTO / DOROTHEE THIENOT (Photo credit should read Dorothee Thienot/AFP/Getty Images)

TIMBUKTU, Mali -- When the leaders of Timbuktu's beleaguered population wanted to petition for mercy from the Islamists who had taken over their town by force early last year, they sent the small Committee of the Crisis to beg for a meeting.

The response took them by surprise: The Islamists swiftly granted committee members an audience -- and, when the meeting went long, gave them sodas and prepared a meal for them.

For nine long months in 2012, before the French military arrived in January to remove them, Islamist radicals linked to al Qaeda dominated this tiny town in the desert of northern Mali. Their rule was harsh and brutal. Islamic guards with leather whips monitored public areas to make sure women were properly covered at all times, following them to their workplaces and homes, and to the markets where they would whip them if a bit of leg showed when they bent over to pick up a vegetable. Two men, convicted of theft in a makeshift Islamic court, had a hand cut off in public; a third was executed in a barren river basin at the edge of town.

But relations between the townsfolk and the Islamists did not always fit the gruesome caricature. Members of the Crisis committee, which residents formed to serve as a point of contact with the Islamists, tell HuffPost that their experiences meeting on a regular basis with the jihadist leaders were more practical -- even more dignified -- than many have understood.

"It was a little bit exciting, to be honest," said El-Boukhari Ben Essayouti, a literature professor and one of the committee members. "To be sitting at a table with Abu Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokthar? Sometimes I thought it was like a dream -- or maybe a nightmare."

Abdulhamid Abu Zeid was the leader of the rebel forces that dominated Timbuktu in 2012; he was killed in fighting near the Algerian border in early March 2013. Belmokthar is an Algerian Islamist militant best known for his connection to the deadly raid on a gas plant there in January.

Diadie Hammadoune Maiga, another leading committee member, described the atmosphere at the meetings as "communal, calm, respectful."

"Despite the fierce repression of the town, when it was the time for a meeting, they were always professional," he said.

Both Maiga and Ben Essayouti described the period of Islamist rule last year as a terrible experience for them and the town. "It was a year which could be described as feeling like 10 years for our society -- because of the frustration, because of the terror," said Maiga.

And yet, while the committee was not always successful in its entreaties, the two leaders said, sometimes it had breakthroughs. At one point, members were able to convince the Islamists to let secondary school students continue their studies so they would not miss an entire year of exams. Other times, they managed to secure permission for food and medical humanitarian aid -- mostly provided by the International Committee for the Red Cross -- to reach the desperate population.

But the most dramatic, and unexpected, break, Maiga said, came when the committee complained about the abusive behavior of the Islamic guards.

"There was one enforcer called Mohammed Moussa, who was feared by all the people of Timbuktu, and he was responsible for all the Islamic guards," Maiga recalled. When the committee brought the allegations of abuse to Abu Zeid, the leader at first was skeptical.

But after the committee provided testimony and evidence to the officials, Abu Zeid's reaction was swift: He relieved Moussa of his command, and paid for the victims' hospital treatments. "He even apologized," Maiga said. (A few weeks after the French intervention, Moussa, who was number three in the Islamist network called Ansar al-Dine, was arrested near the Algerian border.)

The two-sided management of Timbuktu by the Islamists indicated a division within the ranks of the rebels, Maiga said, but it also suggested a somewhat worrisome truth for Westerners concerned with the battle of ideas against radical Islam: Had they treated the people better, the jihadists might have won more popular support for their strict version of Islam.

"It goes to show that you can brutalize a population but if you win over the leaders, you might be able to change minds," Maiga said. "If they were as diplomatic with the regular population as they were with us, the people might not have rejected them."

CORRECTION: The deadly gas plant raided by men commanded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar occurred in January and is run by several international companies. An earlier version of this story stated the wrong month for the raid and that a French company managed the plant.