When Souleymane al Mahmoud, a Malian who belongs to the Sahara Desert’s Tuareg ethnic group, reached the border with Niger after fleeing Gao, he told the border police that he, his two wives and their eight children were refugees.
The border police ordered him out of the car and politely made him prove it.
"They checked my IDs, my work documents, all of our luggage. They even took my phone to check all my contacts and my recent calls," he said. "They checked everything," before letting him into a United Nations-run refugee camp where he took shelter from a sandstorm this week under a shelter of slanted cloth.
This desolate West Africa border crossing is the less heralded front of Africa’s newest war. The goal: keeping the fight in Mali.
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The loose coalition of Islamist fighters that held northern Mali for most of last year have fled before a French-led assault on their strongholds. Most have simply disappeared, without offering any resistance.
That’s disconcerting news for Mali’s desert neighbors, which now are seeking ways to make sure the Islamists don’t a find a new haven within their borders.
For Niger, the process appears thorough but unsophisticated in a world where Westerners are accustomed to airport scanners.
For the most part, the effort relies on meticulous hand searches by Nigerien border guards, according to refugees, a local official and a Nigerien security official.
Cellphones are checked for recent calls. Laptops are opened and examined for incriminating documents and searches. License plate numbers are run past Malian officials on the other side.
The Nigerien security official said the system already had caught several known Islamists, who were detained and sent to the capital, Niamey, where they were locked up. Their phone contacts have been added to a list of suspect names, along with those provided by Malians who interacted with the rebels during the Islamists’ long occupation.
But the security official, who adamantly cited government protocol in declining to be named, admitted that the dragnet was hardly impermeable. Even though the Nigerien military has beefed up patrols along the border, there was little to stop the Islamists from fleeing down the Niger River, he said, or simply off-roading through the shrub and sand to evade checkpoints.
Other countries in the region also are seeking ways to keep the Islamists from setting up operations inside their borders.
In Niamey, Algerian officials, some in military uniform, are staying at the same hotel as officials from Chad, a French ally that’s assumed the burden of chasing the rebels north, where Mali has a long, mostly unmarked border with Algeria. Algeria argued for months against an international intervention in Mali, fearing that al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which was founded in Algeria, would be pushed back into Algeria.
A Chadian military intelligence officer told McClatchy on Wednesday that he thought the rebels would flee to Libya or Mauritania. Libya doesn’t border Mali, so rebels would have to pass through Algeria or Niger to get there. Mauritania borders Mali on the west.
U.S. officials in Washington voice concern that North African countries, with the exception of Algeria, don’t have the resources or the experience to track the Islamists’ movements.
"In some of the other theaters in which we’ve confronted a terrorist challenge we’ve had either a natural partner or a partner . . . that is somewhat up the scale of capability," one senior U.S. intelligence official said, referring to nations such as Pakistan and Yemen. "It’s not really as clear right now that we have a natural partner with whom we can work effectively.” He declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The refugees themselves wonder what’s happened to the militants who brought a harsh and foreign form of Islamic law when they seized northern Mali, silencing the area’s rich musical tradition, banning cigarettes and forbidding memory cards in phones.
In the town of Ansongo, Ahana Joudou said, young men who’d been forced to join the Islamists shed their tunics and guns and tried to flee when French planes first arrived overhead. But the Islamists – “men with long beards," he called them – chased them and tried to stop them.
A week later, when the airstrikes started, said Bilal Ag Lama, who’s 30, the Islamist intruders seemed to vanish the next day.
"Nobody saw which way they went. It’s a really a wide open place," he said.
The Nigerien security official said the same question was on everyone’s mind.
"Where have they gone? We don’t know. They’ve vanished," he exclaimed.
Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article from Washington.