Mali radicals recruit youths
GAO, Mali — The radical Islamic fighters showed up at Mohamed Salia's Quranic school, armed with weapons and demanding to address his students.
The leader, named Hamadi, entered one of the classrooms, took a piece of chalk and scrawled his message on the blackboard.
“How to wage holy war,” he wrote in Arabic. “How to terrorize the enemy in combat,” the lesson plan continued.
Then his mobile phone rang, and he stepped away to answer. Salia urged his students to pose questions when he returned: Where had he come from? And what did he want with a bunch of young people?
Hamadi told the students that people did not ask questions like that where he was from. Islam knows no nationality, he replied and then left — and did not return before the French-led military operation ousted him and his fighters from power last month.
“I told my students to be careful — that these men may be well-versed in the Quran, but their Islamic point of view is not the same as ours,” the teacher recalled.
Nearly a month after the al-Qaida-linked terrorists were driven out of Gao and into the surrounding villages, students are returning to the city's Quranic schools.
Many classrooms, though, are half full, as tens of thousands of people fled the fighting and strict Islamic rule imposed by the extremists.
However, other pupils left Gao not with their families but with the Islamic fighters when they retreated, say human rights activists and local officials.
The Islamic radicals attacked Gao several times last week — their second assault on the strategic city since they retreated in the face of French and Malian military, and their young recruits appear to be part of the strategy of MUJAO, or Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa.
“MUJAO took many of the students from the Quranic schools because they speak Arabic and are easier to convert and manipulate,” Gao Mayor Sadou Diallo told The Associated Press. “Between 200 and 300 children have disappeared with the jihadists.
“The schools were all complicit. They didn't have a choice — if you didn't collaborate with MUJAO, you died,” Diallo said.
At the Adadatou Alislamiatou madrassa in Gao, pupils are back in class after the disruptions caused by the fighting and a Feb. 10 attack when the militants reinvaded the city in a show of force before being pushed back into the bush by French and Malian forces.
Abdourhamane Maiga, assistant director of the Adadatou Alislamiatou madrassa, recalls one student who dropped out of school after being asked to repeat a grade.
The next time Maiga saw the pupil, he was wielding a firearm with the Islamic fighters at their police headquarters downtown.
“They didn't come here to practice Islam,” he says of the extremists. “The prophet never would have accepted a child of 10 years old waging jihad and taking up arms.”