Dar es Salam, northern Mali - We make a flashing signal with our headlights to let them know our car is in trouble.
They drive a wide berth around us at high speed. Unsure who we are, they fear an ambush on their caravan. It is late at night and there are many forces in this Sahara.
After some hesitation, a group of men get out and in a staggered V-shape military formation, guns at the ready, start walking toward us in the dark.
"Al Sallam alaykum." "Wa alaykum sallam."
"Are you from Ansar Dine?" we ask referring to the local Malian Islamist armed group.
They do not say yes.
"We are mujahideen in the cause of Allah."
Exclusive: Al Qaeda urges Mali to reject foreign intervention.
The hair on our necks stands on end.
The fighters look like desert military preachers - members of some stoical sect that took a vow of poverty and jihad. They wear double bandolier ammo belts over austere beige cotton smocks and matching high cropped pants - like inhabitants of Tatooine, the desert planet in Star Wars. These are not outfits one buys at the market, or inherits from a brother or friend. They are uniforms tailor-made to send a message of simplicity.
The men, mostly Mauritanians, are escorting a caravan of trucks loaded with food and medical aid for the people of Timbuktu - a gift from the Higher Islamic Council of Mali.
One picks up a walkie talkie and relays: "They're just civilians. Their car is stuck in the sand." A voice in Arabic comes over the line: "My brother, why didn't you tell us this before?"
The mujahideen set about helping us extricate our car - its wheels churning deeper and more hopelessly into the sand. One enters the driver's seat to manoeuvre while the others help us push from behind. The effort drags on for an hour.
They banter easily with our team in Tamasheq, the Tuareg language - evidence that they have spent years living in northern Mali where al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had a mountain base and a tacit agreement with the Malian state.
They do not have to spend all night stuck in the sand with us. Their generosity is impressive, their faces luminous, their voices soft, their manners exquisite. And they have given us the satisfying feeling that we are more important to them than time, or anything else.
Omar, a local Arab travelling with us in his old pick-up truck, is impressed.
"Look my brother," the mujahideen tell him, "your car is very old, it can't work. You need to buy a new car." It is an ingeniously subtle flag - and it elicits the intended response. "I wish you would buy me a new car because I have no money," Omar says.
The fighters barely need to signal what everyone in this impoverished Sahara long ago came to know: al-Qaeda has money and they can help you with it.
"We can bring you to a path that is even better than money," they tell Omar, "the path to paradise."
"I love the idea of jihad," says Omar, "but I have children and elderly people relying on me. I have to support them and I can't leave them behind."
At this moment two of the fighters say almost simultaneously: "If you tasted jihad you would leave all of this and come with us."
Omar decides to stay the night with the mujahideen who are bedding down in the sand. It will not be possible to reach Timbuktu tonight.
The suffering of Timbuktu
The barge crosses slowly, silently - making its way over the river to Timbuktu. On board: a fleet of shiny new 4x4 Land Cruiser trucks, bristling with communications gear, black jihad flags flying.
The ship driver chews his siwak and concentrates on the bigger picture: the water and sandy yellow shore he will get to. All kinds of people cross here. In the absence of a state, the default position is to mind one's own business.
"Recognise us as a state, and then we can talk about fighting al-Qaeda."
- Bilal Ag Cherif, the head of the MNLA
Timbuktu is the gateway to the Sahara desert. North of here are vast seas of sand believed to be filled with oil and gas. Algeria, France and Qatar are exploring the Mauritanian side of the massive Taoudeni Basin, while Algeria holds exploration concessions on northern Mali's side. The region's indigenous Tuaregs believe this land also contains a mother lode of uranium, gold and more.
But northern Mali is only rich in theory - it is one of the poorest regions on Earth, which the government of Mali has done little to develop.
That is one of the reasons why the secular Tuareg rebel movement - the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) - rose up in January 2012 and swept the northern two-thirds of Mali, declaring an independent state called Azawad.
But the MNLA rebels were soon sidelined by al-Qaeda and its local offshoots, which pushed them from the cities and took over the region, imposing Sharia. The MNLA declined to fight al-Qaeda and beat a tactical retreat. They say their primary enemy is Mali, and until the world recognises them, they cannot lose blood and treasure opening a second front.
"We should fight al-Qaeda in exchange for what?" asks Bilal Ag Cherif, the head of the MNLA and president-in-waiting of the Tuaregs' hoped-for Azawad state.
"Will they recognise Azawad?" asks Bilal. "Provide clear political, economic, security and military assistance to the Azawadis? Those are the requirements of war. So give us those things, recognise us as a state, and then we can talk about fighting terrorism."
In the meantime, Timbuktu is being run by AQIM in partnership with local Islamist armed group Ansar Dine - an organisation of mostly Malian Tuaregs and Arabs which serves as an umbrella and host for the foreign fighters of al-Qaeda, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan. The two groups work hand-in-glove managing the Islamic police and distributing charity.
Many here are afraid of the mujahideen and say so quietly - they feel sad and confused by the imposition of unfamiliar interpretations of Islam and the destruction of their heritage.
"Aren't we Muslims?" asked one old man in the street. "By God this is the land of Islam. We have many good Islamic scholars here. We don't understand their ways. We feel like we're in prison."
Exclusive: Humanitarian Crisis in Timbuktu
Timbuktu is now a city of the hungry, where food staples like millet have tripled in price and no one has money to buy them anyway.
In the slums where Tuareg families who have lost their animals scratch a living from garbage heaps, the mujahideen are playing the role of humanitarians.
"When the Salafis came with millet and rice, we got some of it," says Fatimatou, who is now dependent on the groups to survive.
"I can't lie before God. They came to us and paid their respects. At the time these little girls were not wearing hijab. They put hijabs on them and gave us a dress code."
At Timbuktu hospital where starving babies are beginning to appear, Ansar Dine spokesman Sanda Ould Boumana stalks the halls worrying about the hungry children.
"Any humanitarian aid to assist people here, regardless of who it comes from or under what name, we have no problem with it," says Sanda, adding that the only aid they would reject is evangelical aid.
Sanda's mobile erupts with the sound of a laughing baby - the preferred ringtone of the mujahideen because it is family-friendly and is not music.
"We call upon the world," he resumes, "we ask them to please give aid to this poor and suffering people."
Sanda, who did hard jail time in Mauritania for being an alleged member of al-Qaeda, does not understand why almost no one is giving.
Amidst the whimpers of children too hot or sick to cry, the beleaguered director of this hospital, Saidou Bah Salloum, looks like he is going to explode from suppressed grief or anger, or both.
"I am a committed Muslim," he says choosing his words carefully to protect the hospital, which receives aid from the armed groups. But his eyes contradict the calm tone, telegraphing a message of desperation.
"For all the people of Timbuktu, as a native of Timbuktu, I hope that God will accord us a better tomorrow and that he will really help us. We are Muslims. And the only reason we are still alive is because of our faith."
How did al-Qaeda get here?
Al-Qaeda has based itself in northern Mali for 10 years, as part of an alleged secret agreement with Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), the president of Mali who was deposed in a military coup in March 2012 as northern cities were falling to Tuareg rebels.
During ATT's presidency, AQIM amassed an outrageous fortune in Mali – collecting up to $250m in hostage ransoms from Western governments for more than 50 European and Canadian hostages kidnapped over the past decade, usually from neighbouring Niger.
At this moment there are still European hostages being held by al-Qaeda in northern Mali pending delivery of a $132m ransom.
The ransom negotiations, which were carried out under the auspices of the presidency, were confirmed by the Wikileaks cables to be a goldmine for the Malian VIPs involved - with each receiving his cut of the jackpot including, according to a former Malian official with knowledge of the deals, the president himself.
Another powerful individual alleged to have enriched himself from hostage ransoms was ATT's close political and business associate Iyad Ag Ghali who has been involved in nearly every al-Qaeda hostage negotiation since the first one in 2003.
Iyad Ag Ghali is the head of al-Qaeda offshoot Ansar Dine, and the closest thing Mali has to a Mullah Omar.
Now Mali's closest neighbour seems to be confirming the deal.
Niger's foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum recently told the French National Assembly: "ATT was very proud to appear on the steps of his palace trying to return former hostages to their country. But there was a deal with AQIM, which kidnapped the hostages in Niger and Mauritania before taking them into Malian territory. The hostages were then released through the mediation of the Malian president. And his emissary was often Iyad Ag Ghali."
For years Malian Tuaregs have been complaining that their government was in bed with al-Qaeda, but their cries fell on deaf ears.
"Mali opened the field to Al Qaeda- to roam among the camps and villages, to build relationships with the people… Mali facilitated Al Qaeda."
-Colonel Al Salat Ag Habi,Commander MNLA
According to numerous northern residents, AQIM fighters have been circulating openly in Tuareg towns, not for the past year, but for the past 10 years; shopping, attending weddings, and parading fully armed in the streets, in front of police stations and military barracks.
Colonel Habi ag Al Salat, a Malian army commander who defected in 2011 to join the MNLA, was one of the first to notice the Algerian fighters from the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) entering Tuareg towns of the far north such as Aguelhoc, which was under his command.
But when Habi warned his army superiors they told him to stand down and leave the men alone because they were "not enemies" of Mali. When the GSPC changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, following a pact announced by Ayman Al Zawahiri, that policy did not change.
"Mali opened the field to al-Qaeda - to roam among the camps and villages, to build relationships with the people," says Habi.
"Local people benefitted up to a point from the trickle down of money flowing to al-Qaeda by way of Mali. And this ensnared many of our youths who are unemployed. Mali facilitated al-Qaeda, providing them complete freedom of movement among our families because they believed the presence of this group would impact the Tuareg struggle against the governing regime which has been going on for 50 years."
Yet for all the huge sums of money, most Tuaregs in northern Mali dislike Salafism and remain un-seduced by al-Qaeda. Most still cling to dreams of independence and find old-school national liberation groups like the MNLA attractive, in spite of the fact that it cannot even afford to feed its troops.
"We are Muslims but we can't stand the Salafi way," says Bukhadu, a 22-year-old Tuareg herder who likes the MNLA. "We want our sisters to feel the wind in their hair."
Were it not for legendary Tuareg warrior-turned-Salafi Iyad Ag Ghali, who led Mali's Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s and who has used all his political and tribal capital to press his followers into the cause of jihad, al-Qaeda would have little support in northern Mali, and the Tuareg push for independence would have been hard to stop.
Now, thanks to his alliance with al-Qaeda, Iyad Ag Ghali has muscled Ansar Dine to a place at the negotiating table with a prize bargaining chip in hand - much to the relief of regional negotiators who prefer dealing with Ansar Dine, which unlike the MNLA, does not want an independent state.
The forbidden state
Can the welcome mat Mali extended to AQIM be understood only as a case of greed?
This region has been dealing with Tuareg rebellions and Tuareg separatism for 50 years. Not a single country in the Sahel or Sahara supports the notion of a new state, especially not one that might fuel Berber aspirations in Algeria, or more seriously, spark Tuareg irredentism on the part of oil-rich southern Algeria's Tuareg populace, or oil-rich southwest Libya's Tuaregs, or uranium-rich northern Niger's Tuaregs.
The major existential threat to states like Mali, Niger and Algeria is Tuareg/Berber rebellion and separatism.
Exclusive: Al Qaeda linked groups take over northern Mali
The fact that Tuaregs are one of the world's poorest and most isolated people living atop some of the world's richest resources only fuels the fear, and the desire.
Of the millions of dollars in US and EU support allocated to help the Malian army fight al-Qaeda, much of it was diverted to fight the Tuareg insurgency.
Ighlas Ag Offin, a national security official in the Office of the President witnessed ATT ordering 55 military vehicles and a massive weapons cache to equip an Arab militia during the 2008 rebellion.
"Those weapons had come to Mali as foreign aid to fight terrorism. All of it went north to fight the Tuaregs," says Offin, "and to this day they are still in the hands of that militia."
Profits and kickbacks from drug smuggling were also allegedly thrown into the fight.
"The president was surrounded by drug smugglers," says Offin, "every single day drug smugglers were coming and going from the presidency."
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), northern Mali is a major drug trafficking corridor for the $1.8bn to $2bn worth of cocaine that is moved from West Africa to European and Middle Eastern markets every year.
Ibrahim Ag Al Saleh, a former MP from Bourem, which is the epicentre of northern Mali's cocaine traffic, says ATT and his wife were deeply involved in the business.
"The president used the profits from drug smuggling and al-Qaeda hostage ransoms to help fund northern militias to protect the drug traffic and fight the Tuareg rebellion," says Ibrahim, whose home area is now under the control of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), another al-Qaeda offshoot.
"Today it is those very same drug smuggling protection militias who are raising the black flag with the words upon it ‘No God but Allah' in Gao and in Bourem. They no longer have ATT to protect them. Now they are hiding behind the Salafists."
"I invite the Muslim people of Mali of all its tribes to put their hands together with their brothers Ansar Dine… and save the country from break up."
- Abdul Malek Droukdel, Emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
While ATT relied increasingly on ethnic militias and special units to crush Tuareg insurgency, the Malian army was starved and demoralised, its hungry soldiers forced to sell their weapons to eat, to watch AQIM parade before their barracks, and planes filled with cocaine landing near their bases. The system was rotten. Could they be blamed for overthrowing it?
The most interesting testimony on the relationship between AQIM and Mali comes from the organisation itself.
The emir of AQIM, the Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel a.k.a. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, seen earlier this year by Al Jazeera touring Timbuktu's main souq, recently addressed the people of Mali.
Reading from a teleprompter in a television studio, Droukdel begged Malians to reject the MNLA and to preserve the territorial integrity of Mali.
"France lies to you," he implored, "when they pretend that they want to protect the unity of Mali while all the evidence proves their intentions are otherwise and confirm they want to divide the country. Are they not the ones who supported MNLA in order to put them in charge of northern Mali and make an independent state there? But thanks to Allah, your brothers, the mujahideen, your brothers in the north, the Islamists, they are the ones who stopped this satanic plan and corrupted their steps …. I invite the Muslim people of Mali of all its tribes to put their hands with the hands of their brothers Ansar Dine and to come to a mutual understanding with them that they become one hand and one cohesive group and save the country from break up."
It is an unusual plea from a group professing only to defend Islam, and to have no interest in the preservation of secular states and their borders. It sounds almost nationalistic.
"We know the intelligence agencies of a number of countries have been working with the leadership of these groups," says MNLA chief Bilal Ag Cherif.
"Where are the resources and capabilities these groups enjoy coming from? Why are the leaders of these groups able to enter the capital cities of neighbouring countries and then return here, while they have been declared 'terrorist' organisations? Why do they not arrest them in those capitals, whereas the minute they return to Azawad they say: ‘Fight them'?"
Bilal stares amazed. "This game of chess should not be played."
The one armed force that has both the numbers and local knowledge to credibly expel al-Qaeda from a wide swath of the Sahara and keep them out over the long term would be the region's indigenous Tuareg fighters.
But giving them a mandate to do that would mean recognising and empowering them as a force with legitimate demands, which neither Mali, nor any neighbouring country wants to do.
Meanwhile the Tuaregs have a sinking feeling: The fear that they are the ones who will be killed in any coming war, in the name of fighting al-Qaeda.