Skip to content

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

How one Chadian migrant got in and out of jihad

I first met Mahamat Saleh in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, in 2018. I was looking for a guide to show me the new migratory routes that had opened up in the east of the country. He had been recommended to me by a trusted friend. As someone who had tried to make it to Europe, Mahamat Saleh knew the issue well. Flying into N’Djamena from Paris, I was stopped at the airport by intelligence agents, who gave my luggage a thorough search and confiscated some documents—papers, books, photographs—as well as my satellite phone. Over the following week, as I was putting things in place for my journey east, Mahamat Saleh tried to sort the matter out. Without telling me, he even slipped some banknotes into the hands of the agent in charge of my case. Even so, my file moved up to two high-ranking officers of the National Security Agency (ANS).

They summoned us to ANS headquarters—not a place one enters without anxiety—and explained that the Chadian government didn’t quite approve of the things I’d written about then-president Idriss Déby. After an afternoon of questioning, I was driven back to my hotel, where a guard was stationed outside my room, which I was forbidden from leaving. The next morning, while French diplomats were negotiating my expulsion, Mahamat Saleh came to keep me company in the hotel. “I know you like adventurers’ tales,” he told me. (In francophone Africa, the word aventure is commonly used to describe a journey away from home, not least to North Africa or Europe. It has a positive connotation: migrants proudly call themselves aventuriers.) “Me, too, I’ve been on an adventure. I have been a jihadi in Mali.”

At that moment, my first feeling was resentment—toward the friend who placed me in the hands of a former jihadi, whatever his other qualities. Then I recalled that an ANS agent had asked Mahamat Saleh if they’d met somewhere. “I don’t think so,” he had quietly replied. (Later, I learned that he had indeed spent months in the service’s prison.) My disquiet gave way to curiosity, and I began to listen to Mahamat Saleh’s story.

Enfant Terrible

Mahamat Saleh was born in 1990 in Hiriba, a small town in the Wadi Fira region of Chad, very close to the eastern border with Sudan. (Mahamat Saleh is his first name. His father’s name, which also serves as the family surname, is concealed.) The town’s name means “well of cows,” though by then pastoralism had begun to shift from cattle to camels, a result of the severe droughts of previous decades. Like that of many migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Mahamat Saleh’s story begins with a loss. “I was seven when my father died from illness,” he told me. “I hadn’t really known him. I remember that one day he slapped me for having poured sand on millet. And that, during a feast, he brought me beautiful clothes from the market. Another day, he put me behind him on his horse. He was a wealthy herder, but he was sick. One day he sold a dozen rams to travel to Sudan for treatment. He didn’t come back.” Some months after his father’s death, Mahamat Saleh was enrolled in a community-managed primary school in a nearby village, Argawni; he split his time between the classroom and the open steppe, rearing the family’s livestock every second day. The next year he joined Hiriba’s state school, where his absences grew longer. He missed entire months trailing camels to remote pastures, especially in years of drought.

“I was un enfant terrible,” Mahamat Saleh told me, “I wanted to join the rebellion.”

Mahamat Saleh is part of the Zaghawa tribe, whose members live on both sides of the border between Chad and Sudan. In 2003, when the insurgency broke out in Darfur, many of his cousins crossed over to join the rebels. After decades of rebellions and ethnic strife, fighting in a militia had become something of an “everyday occupation” for locals, as Marielle Debos shows in her study Living by the Gun in Chad: Combatants, Impunity, and State Formation (2016). Acheikh Ibn-Oumar, Chad’s current minister of national reconciliation and himself a former rebel leader, has noted that child-soldiering—known as jana jeish, or “army of small people”—is seen as a culturally acceptable activity in the region.

“I was un enfant terrible,” Mahamat Saleh told me, “I wanted to join the rebellion.” With a friend, another shepherd boy, he ran away from home and hitchhiked south to Abéché, capital of the Wadday region, where they had a contact among the rebels who smuggled them to a camp across Sudan’s border. But before their training could begin, Mahamat Saleh was spotted by an older cousin among the insurgents, who brought the child soldier back to Chad. Deciding to take him away from the frontline, his family sent him to live with another cousin, a businessman in Ngaoundéré, Cameroon. N’Djamena sits at the confluence of the Logone and Chari rivers, which mark the border between the two countries. It’s easy to cross the Chari on pirogues, as smugglers from Cameroon do on a daily basis, bringing sugar to Chad. People from both sides also cross over when either country descends into war. In any case, Chadian nationals didn’t need a visa to enter Cameroon. Mahamat Saleh just had his laissez-passer stamped at the N’Gueli bridge across the Chari.

In Ngaoundéré, Mahamat Saleh enrolled in a state school. At fifteen, he was a lot older and taller than his classmates in fourth grade. But now, freed from having to take care of the livestock, he discovered a passion for learning. He caught up, skipping three grades and gaining admission to the law and political science faculty at a state university when he was twenty. He had been inspired to study law after watching a documentary on Nelson Mandela, who had also trained as a barrister. “I had ambitions,” he told me, “I wanted to join the Chadian civil service, then enter politics.”

But by his third academic year, Mahamat Saleh had run out of money. In principle, his father had left him enough camels and cows in the inheritance. His family, however, refused to send him a fair share. A custom among the Zaghawa compels a widow to remarry her late husband’s brother—which, for the children of the first marriage, can lead to an abrupt change in life. As Mahamat Saleh’s father only had an older brother, a first cousin stepped in to marry his widow. Mahamat Saleh felt that his stepfather was deliberately withholding the inheritance, and the young man was bitter.

The academic year began on October 1. Mahamat Saleh attended the first three days of classes. “On the evening of October 3, I quarreled with my cousin,” he told me. “I couldn’t sleep, I spent the night thinking. That’s when I took the decision to cut ties with my family, to leave without telling anyone. I didn’t really know where to go. I had nothing to lose, I was ready to take any risk, ready to die. I even considered suicide. I thought of joining the Chadian or Darfur rebellion, but neither struggle was that active. Then I decided to leave for Europe.”

Mahamat Saleh had a vague idea of his itinerary: he’d cross northwest to Nigeria, then travel further north to Niger, and from there cross the Sahara until reaching the Mediterranean. At the time, the easiest route across the desert was through Libya. Since 2011, when Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi was ousted in the NATO-backed revolution, Libya’s borders and coasts had come under the control of local tribal militias—or of no one at all. Young men, many from communities that straddled the Niger-Libya border, had acquired pickup trucks, setting up lucrative business smuggling people. They were known in Arabic as sawag NATO, or “NATO drivers.” Every week, between one hundred and two hundred trucks, each with thirty or so migrants, made the journey from Niger to Libya, often in convoys escorted by the Nigerien army.

The system worked well enough for the smugglers. It was growing dangerous for migrants, however, as the situation in Libya deteriorated, with a rise in kidnappings and torture for ransom. Not only asylum seekers but an increasing number of migrant workers in Libya wanted to flee to Europe. The figure, which was seven thousand in 2012, the year Mahamat Saleh hit the road, peaked at one hundred sixty-five thousand four years later—and this does not account for the thousands of deaths at sea. In the meantime, a less dangerous route had begun to reopen through Mali, Algeria, and Morocco, from where migrants crossed the Gibraltar Strait to Spain. Mahamat Saleh had to choose one of the two. Not that he could afford either.

A map of the area around Mali, Nigeria, and Cameroon.
Mahamat Saleh’s journey. | No Ideas

Jihadis Wanted

On the morning of October 4, Mahamat Saleh put some clothes and a toothbrush in a small backpack and left home before his cousin could wake up. Avoiding the main bus station, he went to a smaller one near the university, to discover that the next bus heading north was two hours away. After killing some time at the university, where the lecturer didn’t show up to class, he returned to the bus station and bought a ticket under a fake name. He had decided to vanish. Were he to ever return, it would be as a hero with riches. “I was leaving for adventure. There was no way to turn back, I was driven by anger.”

While listening to the radio, he overheard an expert claim that a jihadi group operating in nearby Mali was recruiting militants on a monthly salary of $300.

The bus dropped Mahamat Saleh in Maroua, capital of the far north region of Cameroon, where he shifted to a minivan that took him as far as Banki, at the Nigerian border—a small bribe was enough to get past the border agents. Then he squeezed in beside five passengers in a Toyota Corolla, which took him as far as Maiduguri in northeastern Nigeria. Waiting for the next bus, he slept under the stairs in the bus station. Having split his money between two pockets, he woke up to find one of them empty. It was the first hard blow in the journey, and it necessitated the first serious lie. Mahamat Saleh went to a local mosque and asked for help, claiming he was on his way to study the Koran in Niger. A group of believers gave him some banknotes, which he used to pay his fare north. Nigerien security forces extorted passengers at each checkpoint; he had to sell his phone to keep going.

Mahamat Saleh spent five days in Niger’s capital, Niamey. He slept in the dormitory of a private bus company, which was free for passengers—there was a crowd of West Africans on their way to Libya. On the first night he found a mat, but by the next it had been claimed by someone else. So he laid his jacket on the floor. Within three days, he had spent all his remaining money on food. Then he lied a second time, pretending to have lost his luggage. Chadian countrymen gave him some cash, though not nearly enough to continue toward Europe.

At this point, Mahamat Saleh might have given up and returned to Cameroon. As luck would have it, while listening to the radio with a Nigerien he had befriended at the dormitory, he overheard an expert—this was on Radio France Internationale—claim that Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a jihadi group operating in nearby Mali, was recruiting militants on a monthly salary of $300. Under other circumstances, he would have hardly registered the information. But he was desperate. And by a strange coincidence, he had just read an article on Malian jihadi groups in an issue of Jeune Afrique, the leading glossy magazine in francophone Africa. Taking the issue out of his backpack, he reread the piece, which claimed that the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a jihadi group which had then recently taken control of Mali’s Gao region, was offering salaries of about $130 a month. It seemed believable. While Mahamat Saleh never had the slightest interest in jihad, he felt that a few months with either group would allow him to save up enough to make it to Europe. He spent his remaining money on a bus ticket to Gao.

Mahamat Saleh hit it off with a young Malian couple sitting next to him on the bus. They were unmarried. “In Gao, if we’re surprised together, we’ll get a hundred lashes!” they told him—by then MUJAO was enforcing sharia law in the region. Aliou, the young man, was smoking. “If you have cigarettes, you risk ten lashes,” he said. “If you ever want to buy some, ask for cola nut, it has become the code for cigarettes.” The bus went through the border checkpoint guarded by the Nigerien army. Once it reached the Malian side, the driver separated the passengers—men were made to sit in the front, women in the back. A curtain was drawn between them. Soon after, the bus was stopped at a MUJAO checkpoint. The jihadis searched the passengers, looking for cigarettes or alcohol (eighty lashes). Then the bus set off again.

Heavenly Hierarchy

The landscape—sand plains with scattered acacia trees, rocky hills, and earth houses—was not unfamiliar to Mahamat Saleh. It looked pretty much like home. The Sahel, which means “the coast” in Arabic, is the band of arid steppe to the south of the Sahara Desert. In Arab historiography, it referred to the line of metaphoric ports—that is, towns—where one arrived after crossing the Sahara’s sea of sand. The Sahel’s northern tip runs roughly along areas where it rains more than four inches a year. Above that, in the Sahara, millet cultivation and cattle rearing give way to camel herding, the big nuts of the doum palm trees to dates, the red-fronted gazelle to the brighter dorcas gazelle, and the pied crow to the brown-necked raven.

That night, a sheep was slaughtered and roasted in the restaurant’s oven to welcome the new recruit.

For centuries, the Sahel has been a civilizational highway. Eastward migration routes linked a number of precolonial kingdoms—the Mali and Songhay empires along the Niger river, the Bornu kingdom around Lake Chad, the Wadday sultanate in eastern Chad, and the Darfur sultanate in present-day Sudan. Pilgrims moved the same way to reach Mecca. In certain periods, whole communities moved east in search of a better life, like Fulani and Hausa communities from West Africa, who are now main ethnic groups in eastern Sudan, along the border with Ethiopia. Ideas traveled, too, and not only in one direction: West African Sufi scholars made large numbers of followers along the Sahel belt up to Sudan. Today, of course, Western strategists prefer to overlook these complex histories, viewing the Sahel simply as a wretched, arid, poverty-stricken theater of war, where their allies battle jihadis.

Gao was once the capital of the Songhay empire, whose power crested in the sixteenth century. Like the more famous Timbuktu, it is a town built of earth. Gao is known as the “big city” of northern Mali, but Mahamat Saleh was not so impressed—it reminded him of Abéché, the provincial capital in eastern Chad. The big difference was the jihadi patrols and black flags of MUJAO. The Malian government had abandoned the town and its surrounding region. In March 2012, Gao had been taken over by Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), who declared it the capital of their self-proclaimed Azawad State. Jihadi groups had soon chased the MNLA out. After saying goodbye to the lovers, Mahamat Saleh headed for a building bearing a black flag, one of the MUJAO bases. He was waved away. The same thing happened at several camps. In desperation, he picked one of the bases and kept walking toward it even as the guard aimed his Kalashnikov. With hands raised, he finally reached the guard, a Tuareg man who spoke neither Arabic nor French. Two Sudanese jihadis were summoned to vet the new candidate.

“What are you looking for? Money?” they asked.

“I came to fight.”

The jihadis wanted to know how Mahamat Saleh had come to hear of MUJAO. He handed them his copy of Jeune Afrique. “The media speak a lot about you!” Flipping through the pages, the men were taken aback by photographs of militants they seemed to recognize. They saw a picture of Côte d’Ivoire’s former first lady Simone Gbagbo, and immediately one of the jihadis covered her unveiled face with his hand. Mahamat Saleh could tell that their rules would be difficult to follow. (Later, he saw them cover the television screen when a female news presenter came on.)

After much questioning, Mahamat Saleh seemed to win their trust. That night, a sheep was slaughtered and roasted in a restaurant’s oven to welcome the new recruit. “We ate the meat with rice, salads, sodas, and juices. I was well received,” Mahamat Saleh told me. “One of the Sudanese then gave me my nom de guerre: Siddiq, the truthful.” He was told not to give his real name to anyone.

Mahamat Saleh later learned that MUJAO members had kept a close eye on him through his first week. Possibly as a test, he was sent to accompany the two Sudanese militants to their office, a police station that had been rebranded as the “Islamic police station.” This is where those suspected of breaching sharia were brought in for questioning. Some of them would be sent on to the new “Islamic court” for judgement.

Arriving at the police station, Mahamat Saleh saw the two lovers, who had been arrested for behaving improperly in the street—they were caught clasped in each other’s arms. They were visibly shocked to see their travel companion among the jihadis. The couple didn’t speak Arabic, and their interrogators didn’t speak French. So Mahamat Saleh was asked to translate. “Please tell them we are brother and sister,” Aliou begged him. Mahamat Saleh relayed as much, adding, “It’s true, I know them.” Some days later, Mahamat Saleh would run into Aliou again.

“What do you find interesting with those guys?” Aliou asked.

“It’s money that interests me,” Mahamat Saleh replied.

“You won’t become rich with them!” Aliou predicted, laughing.

Some twenty days of training in a barren plain outside Gao followed, where around forty new recruits were taught to operate Kalashnikovs, machine guns, and grenade launchers. But the most important thing, it was stressed, was to attend the three daily sermons. “If you know a bit of religion, you know some of those teachings are against Islam,” Mahamat Saleh told me. “After a few days, I wanted to run away.”

In the media, Hamada ould Mohamed Kheirou, known as “al-Mauritani,” is generally presented as MUJAO’s founder and emir (leader). But according to Mahamat Saleh, he was mostly playing the role of mufti (lawyer) in charge of issuing religious decisions. The real authority laid with one Abderrahman ould Amer, also known as “Ahmed al-Tilemsi.” He and his second-in-command, Sultan ould Bady, were the leaders of MUJAO’s two main katiba (battalions), respectively named Osama bin Laden and Saladin, after the Kurdish king who led a victorious jihad against the Crusaders, taking back Jerusalem in the twelfth century. Both were Malian Arabs who had cut their teeth in AQIM before joining MUJAO. Their goal was to establish an Islamic caliphate governed by sharia law in Mali. And to this end they employed the classical strategies of desert warfare, while also dabbling in more spectacular jihadi tactics, including suicide attacks and the kidnappings of Westerners, all the while making a sideline in drug trafficking. (The Malian desert is a main conduit for hashish from Morocco.)

Roughly a month after his arrival, Mahamat Saleh was posted at a checkpoint on the road between Gao and Kidal, nearly two hundred miles further north. There travelers were searched, and those found with cigarettes or music on their phone were sent to the Islamic court. The punishment for listening to music was ten lashes, as it was for women who didn’t wear the veil; thieves had their hands cut off. There were exceptions, however. One day, Mahamat Saleh found hashish concealed in powder milk tins in a vehicle passing through the checkpoint. The zonal commander intervened: “This belongs to the big boss, leave it.” He was referring to Ahmed al-Tilemsi.

As the weeks dragged on, Mahamat Saleh began to have second thoughts about MUJAO. Though there was definitely money to be made, it was largely pocketed by the top brass. It didn’t help that most of the leaders were ethnic Arabs, mainly from Mali, who were flagrantly racist toward Black combatants. “The Blacks were relegated to cooking,” Mahamat Saleh told me. “The Arabs always called us slaves. Once I heard an Arab calling a Black that way, and I took my gun. He didn’t see the problem, he replied that for him Black and slave were one and the same.” As his dissatisfaction grew, Mahamat Saleh began to plot his escape. He pretended he needed to leave to bring back a brother who wanted to join MUJAO; the leaders didn’t buy it. When an attack was planned in Niger, he thought of fleeing mid-conflict, but his unit was ordered to withdraw before they reached the border.

In January 2013, when the French army launched its “Serval” operation to chase the Islamists from northern Mali, Mahamat Saleh’s katiba was called into action for the first time. On March 1, a combined force of Malian and French troops attacked a MUJAO base in Imenas, south of Gao, near where his unit was stationed. Before heading into battle, the unit commander, Mohamed ould Meidi, didn’t eat the morning meal with his men, claiming: “I’ll take my breakfast in heaven!” He tied an explosive belt around his waist and asked Mahamat Saleh to do the same. “He was the chief, I couldn’t refuse.” The two kamikazes went and scouted around. When they were alone and hidden by trees, Mahamat Saleh lodged a bullet in his commander’s head. Rejoining the unit, he pretended the commander had been killed by an enemy bullet and ordered a retreat. This was more or less the extent of his unit’s war experience.

Mahamat Saleh’s best friends in MUJAO were Adam and Cissé, two young men from Burkina Faso. The three privately disapproved of the jihadis. “Abu Zubeir, the Sudanese preacher, kept talking of paradise, of martyrdom, promising the martyrs seventy-two virgins,” Mahamat Saleh told me. “In reality, only a few fought for ideological reasons and don’t give a shit about death. Malians are there by opportunism, some come for money, others to acquire a weapon, and others by tribal affinities.” One evening, while all were gathered for prayer, Adam asked to speak and openly criticized Abu Zubeir: “What you say, it’s not Islam. What you do, it’s not Islam. Suicide attacks are against Islam. You’re not true Muslims.” No one had the courage to support him.

Abu Zubeir consulted al-Mauritani, who gave Adam three days to repent. His friends urged him to save his life, but he stood firm and was executed for apostasy. “They took him under some trees and killed him. I didn’t want to attend the execution,” Mahamat Saleh told me. “Others, the Blacks, refused too.”

Coming Clean

After their defeat in the Gao region, the jihadis fled northwest through the open desert, to an area some 250 miles north of Timbuktu. The landscape was extremely barren, without enough tree cover to conceal their convoy from air strikes—which is why the vehicles were covered with sand-colored tarpaulins. There were no villages, only nomadic camps, where Mahamat Saleh met people who had never seen a proper house. They set up a base at a place where they found a few trees. A few miles away was an older camp of the Algerian jihadi Mokhtar Belmokhtar, aka “The One-Eyed”—so named for a shrapnel injury in the left eye he had received while fighting beside the Afghan mujahideens in the 1990s. After years of waging jihad in Algeria, Belmokhtar had moved to northern Mali in 2002, where he had set up the camp that Mahamat Saleh now visited, which was nicknamed Guantánamo. “When they first got here, they had nothing to eat and had to hunt birds to feed themselves,” he told me. “This is why, because of the hard life, that they nicknamed the place Guantánamo. It was a barren place. There was only one big tree, under which Belmokhtar liked to spend the day while we had to cope with the shade of small shrubs or pulling a piece of cloth between a car and a shrub.”

When they were alone and hidden by trees, Mahamat Saleh lodged a bullet in his commander’s head.

Belmokhtar had helped found AQIM in 2007. By 2012, he had grown closer to MUJAO, leading the joint AQIM and MUJAO forces that expelled the MNLA Tuareg rebels from Gao. In December 2012, Belmokhtar finally broke with AQIM to form a new movement, al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam, or “Those Who Sign with Blood.” (In June 2013, the United States put a bounty of $5 million on his head.)

When Mahamat Saleh met him, Belmokhtar was planning an attack in Chad, in retaliation for the losses the Chadian army—fighting alongside the French forces in Mali—had inflicted on the jihadis. This set his alarm bells ringing. Some of his relatives were part of the Chadian troops. Besides, he felt uneasy that his country was being targeted. In May, he asked the chief of his katiba for permission to join Belmokhtar’s group—so as to take part in the planned attack—and this was half-heartedly granted. (In any case, MUJAO and “Those Who Sign with Blood” were unified in August.) His idea was to thwart the operation from within and return home with his head held high. While waiting to be deployed, Mahamat Saleh noted down GPS coordinates of bases and arms caches. One night, however, Belmokhtar’s lieutenant Omar Ould Hamaha, aka “Red Beard” (for whom the U.S. bounty was $3 million), surprised him while he was using his GPS. Mahamat Saleh quickly hid the device, but Red Beard suspected something. He was excluded from the attack on Chad.

Mahamat Saleh had to alter his escape plans once again. Every two or three weeks, the jihadis left their desert base for an advanced position about eighteen miles from the village of Tangara, to pick up cell service. Some militants even dressed as civilians, entering town to buy provisions like pasta, tea, sugar, and soft drinks. Mahamat Saleh called his family—they thought he had been arrested or killed—and asked them for the phone numbers of the Chadian or French forces in Mali. They only managed to track down contacts for the French embassy in Chad and for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. He dialed the numbers, to no avail—the officials only wanted to speak to French citizens.

And so Mahamat Saleh decided to surrender without making prior contact. On the night of August 23, 2013, while all the others were asleep in the camp near Tangara, he put his laptop and GPS in a bag, into which he put another seized laptop, another GPS, wads of banknotes, as well as papers listing hundreds of GPS coordinates. He walked. Tired, he hid his bag with the two laptops and the money under a shrub, then resumed walking. Early the next morning, while within sight of Tangara, he was surprised by two jihadis in civilian clothes, who had been sent in pursuit on a motorbike. They searched him and grabbed his GPS. Then they called an accomplice based in Tangara: “A guy has been trying to escape. We’ll shut him up in your house, then, at night, we’ll bring him back to the camp.”

Mahamat Saleh was forced to sit between the two men on their motorcycle. When they drove in front of villagers, he pushed down with all his weight so that the bike fell on its side. Worried about drawing attention, his pursuers lowered their voices and tried to persuade him to return, promising his safety. “I was sure I would be executed,” Mahamat Saleh told me. “I had not attended the execution of my friend Adam, but I had seen others.”

In the end, Mahamat Saleh managed to convince the two men that he would not denounce them. He left quietly, stopped in a shop to drink a Coke while the jihadis watched from a distance. Then he walked to the Malian army base and turned himself in as an informer, saying he knew the location of landmines between Tangara and Gao and had intelligence on a planned attack in Chad. The Malian soldiers placed him in the back of a pickup truck, tied and blindfolded. He was beaten on the road. “You came to spoil our country,” the soldiers said, “and now you want to save yours!” In Bamako, he was locked in an empty cell and interrogated. A few days later, he was transferred to what appeared to be a VIP prison—not a cell but a large office with a sofa, mats, air conditioning, and a mosquito net. They even brought him a radio and newspapers. He claims that the information he provided led to the discovery of arms caches, the bombing of bases, and the arrest of jihadis sent to Chad. He was also interrogated by American officers. “They asked me everything, even the location of Belmokhtar’s toilet.”

A Hero’s Welcome

Mahamat Saleh had to wait for six months in his luxury detention before ANS agents arrived. Instead of questioning him, they handed him paper, asking that he write the report they had been tasked with drawing up. After getting over his surprise—“I said to myself that with such people, only God was protecting Chad!”—he gave them what they wanted: an account of his personal journey, information on the jihadis and on the attack planned on Chad. While they promised to issue a passport, he still had to wait until June 2014 to return home.

The Malian soldiers placed him in the back of a pickup truck, tied and blindfolded. He was beaten on the road.

Handing over Mahamat Saleh, the Malians gave the ANS agents an envelope with a reward for him. But arriving in N’Djamena, he was promptly imprisoned, and the money disappeared. He remained in jail for a year and half, until January 2016. On his release, he learned that one of his interrogators, named Suleiman, had extorted $3,000 from his family in exchange for his freedom.

On March 16, 2018, Mahamat Saleh sent me the following message on WhatsApp: “The ANS guy wants to make me problems regarding the Malian story. He told my family that if I don’t shut up, I’ll be jailed again . . . That’s why my family summoned me. We’ll have to continue the discussion after the Friday prayer.” Then, later, after that family meeting: “All day, my family tried to dissuade me from writing my story. It’s Suleiman who doesn’t want the story to come out, the one who interviewed me, wrote a false report against me, and defrauded my family . . . Here people are afraid of the intelligence service but not me . . . My decision is, more than ever, taken . . . I want you to publish my story if anything happens to me.”