The practice also takes advantage of a long tradition in western Africa, where parents in rural areas send their children away to the distant cities for an Islamic education, particularly if they have no money to pay for school fees or meals.
In the dusty and remote village of Goundam, dotted with mud homes, at least two children under 18 were inscripted into the Ansar Dine militant group back in August. The boys are no longer in contact with their parents, said the deputy mayor of the town of about 13,000 near Timbuktu.
The children stay at camps with the militants on the outskirts of towns. Sadou Diallo, the mayor of the town of Gao, said members of al-Qaida's North Africa branch, known as AQIM, are giving them military training and religious indoctrination.
One young Malian who underwent training at a camp run by Ansar Dine confirmed that his instructors were Algerian members of AQIM.
"They showed us how to load and unload a weapon, and how to use them in case of attack," said the 20-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "Our instructors told us that during this time all Muslims should know how to defend themselves with arms."
The role of the instructors was clear when a Toyota pickup truck stopped on the side of a dusty road in the town of Douentza. The truck carried Abou Dardar, the head of the Islamists in Douentza, and three child soldiers piled into the back. The children did not make eye contact with Dardar and did exactly what he said.
One of them, 13-year-old Abdullahi, was looking after his family's animals in the desert only a few months ago. Now he goes by the name of "Abou Konana," in keeping with the tradition of bestowing new "fighter" names upon those who join the Islamists.
His head and face were wrapped in a black turban, and his AK-47 dangled from his nose to his knees. When he's not doing military training exercises, he carries a notebook for Quranic studies inside a khaki-colored shirt several sizes too big.
"I have only my life to give to God," he told a reporter from The Associated Press.
Dardar, a bearded man wearing a camouflage jacket, acknowledged that there are youngsters in the ranks of the militants. But he insisted that his followers were motivated by God, not by signing bonuses.
"If they are not, we can't work with them," he said.
He turned to Hamadi, a 14-year-old who also worked as a shepherd before coming with his uncle to join the Islamists. The boy now goes by "Bilal," and told the AP that he prefers his new life of jihad to his old one.
"I know that there is death, but it's a death because of God," he said.
The local head of the Islamists interrupted to remind the boy that the militants believe death will put them next to God.
"When we fire our Kalishnikovs, it is not us firing the weapon," he said. "It is God."
Back at the bus stop, Salif, the 16-year-old offered money, said several of his friends have joined the Islamists, and some are working as security guards for them.
"One friend told me, 'It's a good education. You don't have to work for money. You are working for Islam and for God,'" he said.
But Salif turned down the offer. He now lives outside rebel territory in Mopti, and is already hoping that one day the rebels will leave. When they do, he does not want the people of Timbuktu to know him as another child soldier who worked for them.
"My parents would not want me taking part in something like that," he said. "And I'm not brave enough to shoot anybody."
Ahmed reported from Douentza, Mali.
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