Al Qaida fighters have left behind a crucial document spelling out the terror network's strategy for conquering northern Mali and reflecting internal discord over how to rule the region.
The confidential letter, tucked under a pile of papers and rubbish, is an unprecedented window into the terrorist operation, indicating that al Qaida predicted the military intervention that would dislodge it in January and recognised its own vulnerability.
The letter also shows a sharp division within al Qaida's Africa chapter over how quickly and strictly to apply Islamic law, with its senior commander expressing dismay over the whipping of women and the destruction of Timbuktu's ancient monuments. It moreover leaves no doubt that despite a temporary withdrawal into the desert, al Qaida plans to operate in the region over the long haul and is willing to make short-term concessions on ideology to gain the allies it acknowledges it needs.
The more than nine-page document, found by The Associated Press in a Timbuktu building occupied by the Islamic extremists for almost a year, is signed by Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, the nom de guerre of Abdelmalek Droukdel, the senior commander appointed by Osama bin Laden to run al Qaida's branch in Africa.
The clear-headed, point-by-point assessment resembles a memo from a chief executive to his top managers and lays out for his jihadists in Mali what they have done wrong in months past, and what they need to do to correct their behaviour in the future.
Droukdel, the emir of al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, perhaps surprisingly argues that his fighters moved too fast and too brutally in applying the Islamic law known as Shariah to northern Mali. Comparing the relationship of al Qaida to Mali as that of an adult to an infant, he urges them to be more gentle, like a parent.
"The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs," he writes. "If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands." He scolds his fighters for being too forceful and warns that if they do not ease off, their entire project could be thrown into jeopardy.
The letter is divided into six chapters, three of which the AP recovered, along with loose pages, on the floor of the Ministry of Finance's Regional Audit Department.
Droukdel's letter is one of only a few internal documents between commanders of al Qaida's African wing that have been found, and possibly the first to be made public, according to University of Toulouse Islamic scholar Mathieu Guidere. It is numbered 33/234, a system reserved for al Qaida's internal communications, said Mr Guidere, who helps oversee a database of documents generated by extremists, including Droukdel.
While the pages recovered are not dated, a reference to a conflict in June establishes that the message was sent at most eight months ago. The tone and timing of the letter suggest that al Qaida is learning from its mistakes in places like Somalia and Algeria, where attempts to unilaterally impose its version of Islam backfired. They also reflect the influence of the Arab Spring, which showed the power of people to break regimes, and turned on its head al Qaida's long-held view that only violence could bring about wholesale change, Mr Guidere said.