DIABALY, Mali (AP) -- Abou Zeid, the shadowy and feared emir of one of al-Qaida's most successful cells, commandeered the packed-dirt home of a family here last week, embedding himself and his hundreds of men in this community of rice growers. He ate spaghetti and powdered milk, read the Quran and planned a war.
His bearded and turbaned men parked cars under the mango trees of the farmers, slept in their bedrooms and turned their courtyards into command centers and their warehouses into armories. And it took eight days before French air strikes finally drove them out of Diabaly, a pinprick of a town, in the first major showdown of the struggle to reclaim Mali's al-Qaida-occupied north.
The tactics used by the Islamist fighters in Diabaly offer a peephole into the kind of insurgency they plan to lead, and suggest the challenges the international community will face in the effort to dislodge them. They show how the Islamists are holding their ground despite a superior French force with sophisticated fighter jets, a fleet of combat helicopters and hundreds of soldiers.
"The only thing that prevented the French planes from annihilating these people is that they were hiding in our homes. The French did everything to avoid civilian casualties," said Gaoussou Kone, a resident of the Berlin neighborhood of Diabaly, where Abou Zeid set up his command center. "That's why it took so long to liberate Diabaly."
Testimony from families, statements by French and local officials and the trash left behind by the fighters -- including a handwritten inventory of weapons -- provide a sketch of how the Islamists operated. The portrait that emerges is of a determined and nimble band of fighters, who have adapted to the terrain around them and instinctively understand that France, which unilaterally launched the intervention 12 days ago in their former West African colony, cannot afford to kill civilians.
The strategy of melting into the communities that house them and winning them over is one al-Qaida has already used successfully elsewhere, including in Afghanistan. It's now being perfected in Mali by a new generation of jihadists, with help from the terror network's veterans.
"They have seasoned al-Qaida fighters that have fought overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan and that are essentially providing coaching and training," said Rudolph Atallah, former director of counterterrorism for Africa at the Pentagon, who has led several defense missions to Mali.
Diabaly, population 35,000, has only one of everything -- one pharmacy, one road, one secondary school.
Kone and his neighbors were woken up at 3 a.m. on Monday, Jan. 14, by the sound of gunfire. By breakfast time, the column of fighters entered the town, and the government soldiers stationed here were seen fleeing on foot. The combatants wore bulletproof vests over an unfamiliar style of tunic that stopped at their knees, meant to evoke that worn by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century.
They handed out candy to the children and took down the Malian flag flapping above the school. Then they scouted out houses.
"It was Monday at around 7:30 a.m. that they came into my house. They gave out bonbons and gifts to the children, and told us not to be afraid," said Hamidou Sissouma, a schoolteacher, pulling out a short, gray-colored string of prayer beads they had given him. "Then they made themselves tea. They used my bucket to wash themselves. ... I was afraid, so I left and went to stay with friends."
Within hours, French jets arrived and bombed five rebel vehicles parked in the open, leaving only their charred shells. By Tuesday, the Islamists were looking for cover for their fleet of about 30 to 40 all-terrain vehicles.
When Sissouma returned to his house, he found they had rammed a pickup truck into the wall of his compound, punching a hole large enough to drive two 4-by-4's into his courtyard. They promised to reimburse him for the damage.
The men at Sissouma's house reported to a light-skinned Arabic-speaking man, whose unit also took over the home of a neighbor, Mohamed Sanogo. Both houses seem to have been chosen for their bountiful mango trees. The men parked their cars so close to a tree in Sanogo's yard that they shaved off a lower branch, Sanogo said, showing the scarred, freshly-cut stump. They collected dirt, added water and painted their vehicles with mud, further camouflaging them.
When Kone came over to Sanogo's house on Wednesday, he stumbled upon the uninvited houseguests. He immediately turned to leave. The short, light-skinned man who appeared to be their leader waved him in, telling him not to be afraid. "Do you know who I am?" the man asked. His white beard pointed out from his chin in a scruffy goatee, and he spoke only a smattering of French, using Arabic with his guards.