Northern Mali is virtually inaccessible to journalists at present. Sharia law has been in effect there since last spring, when fundamentalists took control of a large part of the country, which had been considered a model nation until then. The fundamentalists stone adulturers, amputate limbs and squelch all opposition. They have destroyed tombs in Timbuktu that were recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site. Despite the risks, Paul Hyacinthe Mben, 39, a SPIEGEL employee and journalist in the capital Bamako , which is not yet under Islamist control, ventured into northern Mali . Before the trip, he spent weeks negotiating with Islamist leaders for safe passage. In return, he was forced to accept certain conditions. During his almost three-week stay in the north, he had to conform to the Islamists' dress code, as well as submit to a number of searches and interrogations. But he never revealed to the Islamists where he was staying overnight, and he never stayed in the same place for more than a day. He lived in constant fear of being kidnapped. He had hardly returned to Bamako before learning that seven armed men had been following him in the north, with the aim of taking him captive.
A checkpoint set up by the Islamist police on the road to Gao marks the beginning of the region controlled by the new rulers of northern Mali. Adolescents wielding Kalashnikovs stand at the barrier with their legs apart. The oldest one keeps repeating the same instructions through a megaphone: "No cigarettes, no CDs, no radios, no cameras, no jewelry," an endless loop of prohibitions, a list of everything that's haram, or impure, with which this journey to the north begins. The men stand guard in the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
With arrogant gestures, they stop the few long-distance buses still coming from southern Mali. One of the men, holding his weapon at the ready, inspects the busses by walking down the aisle and checking to make sure everyone is in compliance with the Islamists' rules: Are women and men sitting in separate areas? Are the women wearing the hijab? And are the men wearing trousers that reach to their ankles, the kind of trousers that radical Muslims believe the Prophet favored? They are now obligatory in Gao.
The driver and the passengers submit to the procedure in silence. When it's over, the inspector jumps out of the back door, still wielding his Kalashnikov, and calls out "Salam alaikum," the greeting commonly used in the Muslim world. The bus has now been cleared to pass through the checkpoint.
A Divided Nation
Mali has been a divided country since April, when Islamists took control of a region in the north larger than France, while the south is still administered by a government that is incapable of defending itself.
This spring, forces with the Tuareg ethnic group drove the Malian army out of the country's northern regions within only a few weeks. They proclaimed the Tuareg nation of Azawad, which no nation in the world has recognized.
Then came the Islamists, armed to the teeth with what was left of the arsenal of the former Gadhafi regime in nearby Libya. The Islamists are also well connected with al-Qaida fighters who for some years now have found a safe haven in the Maghreb region of North Africa and the countries of the Sahel zone south of the Sahara Desert.
Those Tuareg who didn't join the Islamists were driven out. The fronts of buildings in Gao still show traces of the power struggle between the two groups, including bullet holes and blackened and crumbling walls. The world is now deeply concerned that Mali could turn into another Somalia or Afghanistan.
In principle, the United Nations Security Council has already approved the deployment of international troops against the north. The European Union has decided to send military advisors, and the United States is even considering the use of remote-controlled drones to fight the Islamist leaders. Northern Mali, less than a five-hour flight from Paris, cannot become a new hotbed of terrorism or a second Somalia, says German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. His US counterpart, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believes that the Islamists in Mali were behind the attack that led to the death of the American ambassador in the Libyan city of Benghazi seven weeks ago.
A Lifeless Place
Gao, a city of 100,000 people, has become a lifeless place since the Islamists took over. It was once a stopping point for tourists traveling to Timbuktu, but now the roadside stands have disappeared, bars and restaurants are boarded up and music is banned. The new strongmen proclaim their creed on signs posted at street corners, written in white Arabic lettering on a black background, that read: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger."
To make matters worse, garbage collection has been suspended, leaving waste to rot in the streets at temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Around 400,000 people have already fled the Islamists. Most who have left represent the better-educated parts of the work force, like the engineers who kept the power plant and waterworks in operation. Foreign aid organizations are gone, as are government officials who were in the process of implementing a new road construction program.
"Gao is a dead city," says Allassane Amadou Touré, a mechanic, as he drinks tea in the shade. He is unemployed, like many in the city, and says that Gao's economic output has "declined by 85 percent" since the spring.
The Islamic police have become the city's biggest employers. Ironically, their headquarters are on Washington Street in downtown Gao. From there, the armed police officers, most of them young men who are little more than children, are sent out into the neighborhoods to drum into residents what is considered "haram" and "halal," or pure.
Until recently, the Sharia courts' sentences were also carried out on Washington Street, but now the Islamic police have become more cautious. Since an angry crowd managed to rescue people who had been convicted of crimes from the executioner, hands and feet are now being severed in secret.
The Sharia court uses a former military base outside the city to carry out its grisly punishments. One of its victims is Alhassane Boncana Maiga, who was found guilty of stealing cattle. Four guards drag Maiga, wearing a white robe, into a dark room and tie him to a chair, leaving only one hand free. A doctor gives the victim an injection for the pain.
Then Omar Ben Saïd, the senior executioner, pulls a knife out of its sheath. "In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful," he calls out, takes the convicted man's hand and begins to slice into it, as blood squirts out. It becomes more difficult when Saïd reaches the bone, and it's a full three minutes before the hand drops into a bucket. The executioner reaches for his mobile phone, calls his superior and says: "The man has been punished."
Maiga had kept his eyes shut the entire time, not even screaming. The men lead him into another room, where his arm is bandaged, and after 15 minutes he is released and stumbles into the street. "I'm innocent," he says. "What am I supposed to do now? I can't work anymore."
A few days later, Maiga is dead, probably as a result of blood loss or an infection.
A Mastermind Behind the Islamist Terror
One of the masterminds behind Islamist terror in Mali is Iyad Ag Ghali. He lives in Kidal, 320 kilometers (200 miles) northeast of Gao, in an opulent house near the airport, which is now closed. A short man with a long beard and sunglasses, Ag Ghali is constantly surrounded by a throng of heavily armed men with the group Ansar Dine, or "Defenders of the Faith."
Ansar Dine is a new organization. Until last year, Ag Ghali was known as a leading Tuareg separatist. He vacillated between seeking dialogue with Bamako and declaring an independent Tuareg state. Ag Ghali had a reputation for smoking and drinking, but he was also considered unreliable, so the Tuareg rebels marginalized him politically last November. That was probably the moment Ag Ghali discovered Islamism.
From then on, instead of calling for a Tuareg nation, he promoted Sharia, saying: "All those who do not walk on Allah's paths are infidels." His change of heart secured him the support of al-Qaida and other extremists from the Maghreb.
His group is also involved in the drug trade in the Sahara. South American cartels send cocaine by ship to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. From there, the drugs travel northward by land, transported -- in return for a hefty share of the profits -- by rebels, revolutionaries and bandits, like the Ansar Dine combatants. Kidnappings are another source of income for the "Defenders of the Faith." When the UN approved the deployment of troops to northern Mali in mid-October, Ansar Dine threatened to kill French hostages under its control.
Ag Ghali has little to say to the visitor. "Welcome to the Islamic city of Kidal," he says, before getting into his SUV and racing off, followed by his entourage.
Islamic Police Everywhere
But Kidal isn't really welcoming at all. Half of its residents have fled to Mauretania or Niger, and Islamic police in pickup trucks patrol the streets. The market is closed, and women are no longer permitted to go out in public alone in the city.
The men were instructed to grow beards. Those who do not obey the muezzin's call to prayer are either whipped or jailed for three days. Listening to the radio is banned, and the new rulers have simply sawed off satellite dishes on the roofs of houses.
Yacouba Mahamane Maiga is dozing under a tree. He is wearing a washed out T-shirt and shorts. He was one of the richest men in the city before the Islamists came to Kidal.
"I can't stand any of this anymore," he says, making a fist and pointing it in the direction of the boys with the Kalashnikovs. Before the takeover, his construction company had just been hired to build a new prison and a new courthouse, both government contracts worth millions. Maiga invested €1.5 million ($1.9 million) in new excavators and cranes.
But there has been no construction in Kidal since the Islamists arrived, and Maiga is forced to look on as his country falls apart. His machines are covered in desert dust, and his employees have fled. "I worked with these hands my entire life," he says. "Those stupid Salafists." He refuses to take them very seriously and isn't fooled by their piety. He calls them bandits, not holy warriors.
Tirades in public can be dangerous. The Islamic police are everywhere, and yet Maiga no longer makes any effort to hide his anger. There are more than 20 ethnic groups in Mali, and until now, Muslims, Christians and animists coexisted peacefully. Religion was always a private matter, says Maiga. He is convinced that the Islamists have no popular support, and he says that the people of Kidal are tired of being pushed around by adolescents.
Pushed Around by Adolescents
Maimouna Wallet Zeidane, 27, is one of the people who are trying to organize the resistance that is popping up everywhere. When it was still allowed, she was very athletic and shared a two-room apartment with her boyfriend in the Etambar neighborhood.
Now she lives alone. Thugs with Ansar Dine wanted to cut off her boyfriend's hands, because they were living together. He has since fled to Algeria. "We live in 2012. How can they try to turn back time to the days of the Prophet?" Zeidane asks.
She wears jeans and a T-shirt at home, but if she wore such clothing outside she would be beaten with a stick. She has spread out sheets of paper in her living room and started writing out slogans. One reads: "Islamists = Drug Dealers."
There is a knock at the door, and she quickly puts away the paper. "If the Islamic police find this here, they'll burn down the building." She puts a veil over her head and opens the door, by only a crack at first, but then all the way. Three women, her fellow campaigners, walk into the apartment. They call themselves the "Kidal Amazons." The group also consists of 250 women, and it grows larger at every demonstration, they say.
They'll be back on the streets in a few days, holding up their banners, in the middle of the Islamic city of Kidal. They'll risk beatings, each consisting of at least 40 lashes with a stick or a whip, and they'll go to prison.
But Zeidane is determined to take that risk. The Islamists have destroyed her life, and she is no longer afraid of the men with the beards and guns. "They should all burn in hell," she says.