Islamic combatants in a pick-up truck in Gao. Photo taken at the end of September by our Observer Idrissa Gao.

Last weekend, several hundred jihadists from Arab countries arrived in the regions of Timbuktu and Gao, in northern Mali, to bolster the ranks of Islamist groups in preparation for a possible international military intervention. One of our observers in Timbuktu describes the new arrivals.
Bamako, the Malian capital, hosted a meeting on Friday between high-level representatives from the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union, the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS), and neighbouring countries such as Algeria and Mauritania. Their aim was to discuss military plans to recapture the north of the country, which has been controlled by Islamic groups since April 2012. Even though the precise composition, financing and even the date of the ECOWAS force’s deployment are still to be decided, Islamist groups seem to be taking the threat seriously.
In addition to our observer in Timbuktu, we contacted several residents in Gao. None of them saw the foreign jihadists arrive, but some have confirmed to us that the fighters went directly to training camps situated around 10 kilometres from the city.

"They were speaking in Arab and English (…) The feeling among Ansar Dine and AQIM militants is fear"

Bakary M. (not his real name) lives in Timbuktu.
On Friday morning, I saw four pick-up trucks circling the city around the area of San Fil with Arab Islamist fighters on board. They were speaking in Arab and English. They were all wearing long white shirts. All of them had beards and a Kalashnikov rifle around their shoulders. My Touareg friends told me they are men from Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); certainly from West Sahara where the small group has numerous bases [Editor’s note: Timbuktu is in the hands of AQIM and the Islamic group Ansar Dine. The city of Gao is controlled by the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA)].
The trucks were all equipped with ground-to-air missile launchers. On Monday, even more pick-up trucks came and drove around, but I don’t know the reason for all these new arrivals.
“They thoroughly search any vehicles coming into the city”
For the past three days, Ansar Dine and AQIM have been bracing for a potential attack by Malian forces and their foreign allies. They are preparing for an army intervention at any moment. They thoroughly search any vehicles coming into the city to make sure that weapons that are not for them will not enter. They have also gone door knocking to ask people to protest in the streets against a military offensive [Editor’s note: We have not been able to verify this information]. But people didn't follow this order because they believe the region should be freed from Islamist groups.
You can feel a lot of tension here. The Islamist groups are on guard. The feeling among Ansar Dine and AQIM militants is fear. A lot of them leave their car keys in the ignition, maybe because they want to be able to flee in case of an attack. They are especially anxious about aerial bombardments. If Timbuktu comes under siege, I think most of the Islamist fighter would try to take shelter in the town of Douentza, which is a strategic location because it’s surrounded by hills and plateaus.