The first time the members of Al-Qaeda 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 bearded men in tunics like those worn by Osama bin Laden 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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda has implanted itself in Africa’s soft tissue, choosing as its host one of the poorest nations on earth.
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 AP team in the “red zone,” deemed by most embassies to be too dangerous for foreigners to visit.
While Qaeda’s central command is in disarray and its leaders on the run after bin Laden’s death six months ago, security experts say, the group’s 5-year-old branch in Africa is flourishing.