Using the pretense of doing their Islamic duty to fight for the honor of Allah, many families were duped by the group into the outright sale of their children.
“They used religion to recruit a lot of child soldiers, and we’re calling on the U.S. to help us get those children back,” says Aissata.
Aissata says families paid less than $50 U.S. to buy the boys, who range in age from 10 to 15 years old.
But finding the children will be a tall order. AQIM is engaged in a serious fight against the French military, which has received U.S. assistance.
The U.S. is providing significant support for French and African troops from various countries. Personnel and supplies are being flown into and out of the country. Pentagon officials have been urging NATO to keep up the relentless pressure on al-Qaida.
In February, President Barack Obama ordered that $50 million be spent to help France and Chad fight off al-Qaida’s advances, with the intention of helping Mali return to a peaceful and stable country.
But that may not be so simple.
“While we (the U.S.) build nations, they (al-Qaida) build their war chest,” says Tom Creal, an international expert in financial investigations.
AQIM is known to raise tens of millions of dollars a year through kidnappings for ransom. The French government recently paid the group $17 million to secure the release of some of their kidnapped nationals.
Creal says Mali did everything the U.S. and international community asked in order to insulate itself from al-Qaida’s takeover, including building strong democratic processes, economics and trade systems and educational institutions.
But Creal says an omitted step was to “bankrupt” al-Qaida — a move without which the war against the terror group cannot be won.
Miscalculating al-Qaida’s capabilities also is common.
“The French supply lines are enormously overextended,” Barrett says.
AQIM is affluent enough to buy caches of weapons and to pay recruits.
“You can attract people by offering them a sense of adventure, by saying, ‘Come to Mali and you have a great fight, and we’ll pay you,'” Barrett says.
That strategy appears to be working, as foreign fighters continue to sift into North Africa.
Meanwhile, Aissata is coming to Washington to ask the U.S. to get more involved in the fight.
“We want the United States to go into Northern Mali to back the French in the fight against the jihadists,” she says.
But the U.S. government faces a dilemma. Military officials say that coming out of two exhaustive campaigns against al-Qaida and the Taliban, the Pentagon is in no mood to get bogged down in another conflict with the group.
At the same time, U.S. intelligence officials point out they are keenly aware that if al-Qaida is not defeated in North Africa, it will continue its quest to attack the U.S.