SOKOLO, Mali — The first time the members of al-Qaida emerged from the forest, they politely said hello. Then the men carrying automatic weapons asked the frightened villagers if they could please take water from the well.
Before leaving, they rolled down the windows of their pickup truck and called over the children to give them chocolate.
That was 18 months ago, and since then, the men have returned for water every week. Each time they go to lengths to exchange greetings, ask for permission and act neighborly, according to locals, in the first intimate look at how al-Qaida tries to win over a village.
Besides candy, the men hand out cash. If a child is born, they bring baby clothes. If someone is ill, they prescribe medicine. When a boy was hospitalized, they dropped off plates of food and picked up the tab.
With almost no resistance, al-Qaida has implanted itself in Africa’s soft tissue. The terrorist group has create a refuge in this remote land through a strategy of winning hearts and minds, described in rare detail by seven locals in regular contact with the cell. The villagers agreed to speak for the first time to an Associated Press team in the “red zone,” deemed by most embassies as too dangerous for visits.
While al-Qaida’s central command is in disarray and its leaders on the run following bin Laden’s death six months ago, security experts say, the group’s 5-year-old branch in Africa is flourishing. From bases like the one in the forest just north of here, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, is infiltrating communities, recruiting, running training camps and planning suicide attacks, according to diplomats and government officials.
Even as the mother franchise struggles financially, its African offshoot has raised an estimated $130 million in under a decade by kidnapping at least 50 Westerners in neighboring countries and holding them in Mali for ransom. It has tripled in size from 100 combatants in 2006 to at least 300 today, say security experts. And its growing footprint, once limited to Algeria, now stretches from one end of the Sahara desert to the other, from Mauritania in the west to Mali in the east.