A year and a half ago, the world watched crowds cheer as French soldiers liberated Timbuktu and Gao. But the real war was unfolding hundreds of miles away: in a desolate valley called the Ametettaï.
In late January 2013, about 600 fighters led by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, the commander of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Mali, and one of the world's most wanted terrorists, fled the French military advance and retreated to the mountainous northeast corner of the country. The militants took refuge in the Amettetaï Valley, a longtime sanctuary for Tuareg rebels, drug traffickers, and Islamic extremists. While the world focused on photogenic images of the liberation of Timbuktu and Gao, the struggle for Mali's future was unfolding hundreds of miles away—in a bloody, ten-day battle whose details are only now coming to light.
The Amettetaï Valley runs east to west for 25 miles, and is 800 yards wide at its western entrance. Low gray and black granite hills, eroded to rubble and pocked with caves, rise on both sides. Fields of boulders and rocks, with countless crawl spaces, cover the valley floor. Besides offering good defensive positions for a long siege, the Ametettaï had one other advantage for the jihadists: water. The rocky hills drive the summer rain straight down into a sandy riverbed, called a oued, where wells can easily reach the water table. At the north end of the valley, in the middle of the oued, stands a hamlet, Ametettaï - four stone huts build by nomadic herders. Nearby, in the shade of thorny acacias and fruit trees, four large cavities in the sand, dug to just thirty feet, contain ample reserves of water.
The fighters buried mines at the valley's entrance points, camouflaged their 4x4s beneath acacia trees, set up sniper positions in the hills, filled caves with food, water, guns, and ammunition, and waited for the French.
On February 22, 2013, a Chadian battalion made an initial foray into the Ametettaï valley from the east, in armored trucks and on foot. The jihadists were prepared for them. Suicide bombers, wearing explosive belts filled with steel pellets, threw themselves on patrols. Twenty-six Chadian soldiers were killed and 70 injured in close combat. Helicopters evacuated the dead and wounded, and weary survivors returned by truck to Tessalit, a US-built military base fifty miles from the Ametettaï. They spent three days convalescing. Before dawn on February 25, they joined 1,200 French soldiers for a coordinated assault on Al Qaeda.
Captain Raphaël Oudot de Dainville, a third-generation military man who graduated from the Military Academy of Saint Cyr, the West Point of France, in 2005, commanded a company in the French Foreign Legion, legendary for its esprit de corps and the shadowy reputation of many of its recruits. His men came from England, the Balkans, Poland, Russia, and half a dozen former states of the Soviet Union. He considered them to be tougher, more disciplined, and more used to hardship than their French counterparts. Many were wanted by the police in their home countries for other crimes and were, as he puts it, "looking for a second chance".
The Legionnaires's objective was to divide the valley in two, capture Ametettaï village, and cut off the jihadists' access to water.
At 3:30 in the afternoon on February 25 Oudot de Dainville's soldiers dismounted from their trucks in a riverbed, near the Ametettai's northern entrance. Sappers checked for mines in the sand. The men walked in a tight formation. The temperature was 122 degrees. Each man wore a helmet, flak jacket, and sixty-pound backpack filled with six plastic bottles of water, meals-ready-to-eat, and ammunition. They carried M4 rifles; anti-tank missiles, mortar tubes, and disassembled 12.7-millimeter machine guns. The hamlet of Amettetaï was four miles from their point of entry into the valley. In between lurked about 200 jihadists, dug into caves with enough materiel to hold out for weeks.
Moments after Oudot de Dainville and his men entered the Ametettaï, jihadists opened up with small-arms and rocket-propelled grenades. The parachutists fell to the ground, and crawled to cover behind rocks. Then they inched forward, creeping up on the sides of their caves and tossing in grenades. The explosions resonated across the valley. They moved across the stony terrain, taking sniper fire from the hills, sweeping the area for fighters and weapons, clearing caves and moving on. The jihadists fired back with ferocity. Four French soldiers were saved by their Kevlar vests; a bullet lodged between one man's helmet and his skull.
That night the French camped on rocks, cushioning themselves with sheets of cardboard ripped off boxes of mineral water. Oudot de Dainville bunked down in the middle of his company. Teams of sentries kept watch.
French intelligence intercepted radio transmissions from Abou Zeid exhorting his men to wage jihad against les chiens, as he called the French. Abou Zeid's cave was just one or two hundred yards from French position.
As the parachutists inched across the stony terrain at sunrise, they made use of long-range guns and air power. Oudot de Dainville's forward air controller singled out concentrations of enemy fighters and radioed for support. Caesar howitzers pummeled the jihadists with 155 millimeter shells, fired with accuracy from 25 miles away. Mirage jets dropped 400 pound bombs capable of destroying nests of fighters hidden deep underground. Tiger helicopters swooped in low across the battlefield and struck the jihadists with rockets.
Helicopters ferried in 10 tons of bottled water daily for the two battalions - an average of two and a half gallons per soldier—enough to ward off thirst and even give them a shower from a bottle once a day. Small perks—cigarettes trucked in from Algeria, a raw onion at dinner to make up for the absence of fresh fruits and vegetables—lifted their spirits.
On February 27, "air burst" cluster bombs killed 40 fighters hunkered down at the southern end of the valley.
"The French have hit us very badly," reported one commander in an intercepted radio transmission. "I think the game is up for us."
That day, the voice of Abou Zeid fell silent.
Two days after the cluster bombardment, Foreign Legion parachutists captured Ametettaï village, the jihadists' only source of water in the valley. One company of Foreign Legionnaires occupied the stone huts and established a perimeter around the wells. Oudon de Dainville's company seized the heights above the village. The capture marked the turning point. Holed up in their grottoes and crawl spaces, the jihadists were now dependent entirely on the water that they had stashed inside. Victory, Oudot de Daiville knew, was just a matter of time.
The battle of the Ametettaï was a lopsided struggle between a modern army, equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry and advanced communications systems, and a ragged band of fanatics who possessed only two advantages: strong defensive positions and a willingness to die for a cause. Soon they began to give up the former. Their water ran low and they recklessly emerged from their caves in search of fresh supplies. The French took prisoners—including pre-adolescent "runners" who had been employed to carry guns and ammunition between caves. Groups of 15 or 20 jihadists charged from their grottoes, shouting "Allahu Akbar." The fighters sometimes advanced to within sixty feet of Oudot de Dainville and his men, then gunfire cut them down.
On March 4, the French Foreign Legionnaires and the Chadian battalion met in the center of the valley and shook hands, their pacification of the Amettetaï complete. The last jihadists slipped out of the valley, leaving behind the corpses of 600 comrades. The French had suffered only three deaths. French forces had also rooted the extremists out of Gao and out of the Telemsi Valley along the Niger River, a stronghold of Wahabbism where the jihadists had sought refuge.
The French had not killed every jihadist in Mali, but they had crippled their ability to mount coordinated attacks with large numbers of fighters. Military strategists and world leaders commended Operation Serval as a model for future interventions—an example of a European nation going into a former colony and efficiently ridding it of a jihadist power, while suffering minimal losses. At the same time, the ease of the French victory underscored the weakness of the Malian army, raising questions about the sustainability of the enterprise. French Prime Minister Hollande made it clear that the army had no intention of lingering in Mali, but the fragility of the north suggested the French would find no easy exit. (A year and a half after the battle of Amettetaï, 3,000 French soldiers remain in the country.)
Oudot de Dainville returned to Tessalit, drank a cold beer, washed his clothes, and took his first shower in two weeks. Then he and his men headed to the Terz valley, just south of the Amettetaï, to search for jihadists who got away. They found it deserted. As for Abou Zeid, the French recovered a corpse that, following DNA testing in an Algiers laboratory, was positively identified as that of the Al Qaeda leader. The corpse had been retrieved by Chadian troops at seven o'clock on March 2, after eight hours of close combat. According to the Chadian soldier who found and photographed the body, the jihadists' resistance had ended abruptly with a thunderous explosion. It appeared that Abou Zeid had blown himself up when he realized there was no way out.