Six bodyguards protected the most senior commander, with a gray-speckled beard and a black turban. The Islamist militant ate Algerian-made spaghetti and Mauritanian-made canned tomato sauce. Malian fighters served only as his interpreters or brought him intelligence reports.

“The Arabic speakers were in charge,” recalled Moussa Sangire, 71, a retired soldier who lives next to a house taken over by a group of foreign fighters…

They are an enemy that appears determined to broaden the conflict into a wider struggle against the West. The first reaction by the insurgents to the French forces’ takeover of parts of the town of Gao on Saturday came from a top regional al-Qaeda leader, published on the Arabic Web site of the al-Jazeera television network. He vowed to resist what he described as a “new Crusader aggression,” adding that a “jihadist Islamist emirate” would be created in northern Mali.