The Hunter Becomes Prey in the Sahel

In the early months of 2004, a lone convoy of Toyota pickup trucks and SUVs raced eastward across the southern extremities of the Sahara. Raffi Khatchadourian
wrote a long piece for the Village Voice this week.

“The convoy, led by a wanted Islamic militant named Ammari Saifi, had just slipped from Mali into northern Niger, where the desert rolls out into an immense, flat pan of gravelly sand. Saifi, who has been called the “bin Laden of the Sahara,” was traveling with about 50 jihadists, some from Algeria, the rest from nearby African countries such as Mauritania and Nigeria. The Chadian soldiers were ill equipped, with little food, ammunition, or medical supplies. In contrast, Saifi and his men were well armed, with rocket-propelled grenades, automatic rifles, ammunition, night-vision goggles, and advanced communications gear. Ramstein had the C-130s airborne in one hour, and 10 hours later, the planes approached an austere military outpost in northern Chad, the Faya-Largeau Airport.

By the battle’s end, the soldiers had killed or captured 43 militants. But Saifi and some of his men, once again, slipped away. Hungry, destitute, and uncertain of their precise location, the militants wandered off on foot, only to confront further hardships. In Tibesti’s desert mountains—some as high as 10,000 feet—there are virtually no natural sources of food or water. The region is controlled by a secular rebel group known as the Movement for Democracy and Justice in Chad, or MDJT, which has been fighting the Chadian government since 1998.

It wasn’t long before the rebels found Saifi, put him in chains, and announced that the Sahara’s most notorious hostage taker had, himself, been taken hostage.”