Mali: The War Grinds On

A French missile struck this Al Qaeda weapons truck in Konna, Mali, in January 2013—the opening salvo of a war against jihadists in the north that continues to this day. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

United Nations peacekeepers and locals unload cargo from a UN military flight in restive Kidal, northeast Mali, where Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda are still at war. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

La Maison de Qaddafi—Muhammar Al Qaddafi's villa in the desert outside Timbuktu became an Al Qaeda headquarters until the French blasted it to pieces in January 2013. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

Al Qaeda fighters burned 2,400 priceless medieval manuscripts at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu just before fleeing the city in late January 2013. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

The jihadists left their calling card during their day long occupation of Konna, in central Mali, in January 2013, just before they were ousted by French Special Forces. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

French forces stand guard with their armor at the airstrip in Kidal. Three thousand French troops remain in Mali, a year and a half after the start of Operation Serval. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

In the spring of 2013, dozens of Al Qaeda fighters infiltrated Gao, the north's biggest town, and captured key government buildings. French troops killed most in a day-long battle; the rest blew themselves up. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

UN peacekeeping troops from Burkina Faso disembark from the Niger River ferry after their disengagement from Timbuktu. The legendary city is well protected, but security ends at the municipal borders. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

United Nations military planes land in the desolate outpost of Kidal, in northern Mali, where Malian troops and UN peacekeepers still clash with Tuareg rebels and Al Qaeda. Image by Joshua Hammer. Mali, 2014.

In January and February 2014, I spent five weeks in Mali working on several magazine assignments and doing research for my upcoming non-fiction book, Taking Timbuktu : A Story of Music, Manuscripts, and Madness at the Edge of the Sahara. The reporting included a 24-hour stay in the embattled city of Kidal and a 14-day road trip to the former jihadist strongholds of Gao and Timbuktu. French troops and a growing number of United Nations peacekeepers (mostly from West Africa) have secured the main roads through northern Mali and the region’s biggest towns. But militants from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continue to carry out hit-and-run attacks on UN and French forces, and lob rockets from time to time at airports and other key government installations. And secular Tuareg separatists continue to demand autonomy, or independence, for the vast desert region they call Azawad. Eighteen months after the French launched Operation Serval, the war has dropped off the global radar screen. But Mali is not much closer to a lasting peace.