Al Qaeda Now 'Owns' Northern Mali

FILE - In this April 24, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during a hostage handover in th
FILE - In this April 24, 2012 file photo, fighters from Islamist group Ansar Dine stand guard during a hostage handover in the desert outside Timbuktu, Mali. In recent months, al-Qaida and its allies have taken advantage of political instability within Mali to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over an enormous territory which they are using to stock arms, train forces and prepare for global jihad. And as 2012 draws to a close and the world hesitates, delaying a military intervention, the extremists who seized control of the area earlier this year are preparing for a war they boast will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/File)

As the world focuses its attention on the conflict in Syria, northern Mali has become the biggest expanse of territory controlled by al Qaeda, which is seeking to establish an autonomous state. Rukmini Callimachi from the Associated Press describes Mali as "Al Qaeda's new country" while extremists that have seized over 240,000 square miles of area claim the jihad in Mali will be worse than the war in Afghanistan. Former UN diplomat Robert Fowler, a man kidnapped and held by al Qaeda for 130 days in 2008, recently seconded this ominous prognosis: ''Al Qaeda never owned Afghanistan. They do own northern Mali."

Jihadists from Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith), a group linked to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), took advantage of a security vacuum created nine months ago by a military coup in March, forcing President Amadou Toumani Touré into exile for his perceived mishandling of the Tuareg rebellion. Now, Taliban-like turbaned fighters amputate limbs, flog women for not covering up, and have destroyed seven world heritage sites, which unschooled Sunni mullahs have deemed "un-Islamic" because they contain the remains of Sufi saints.

Adam Nossiter, the New York Times' West African bureau chief, told NPR that the perpetrators claim the Quran justifies all of their brutal tactics. They've also banned any kind of music, including ringtones on cellphones. "If they catch you with a cellphone that plays a tune, they'll confiscate it and they'll punish you. The only thing you can have on your cellphone is a verse from the Quran." AQIM has apparently co-opted the anti-regime struggle of the Tuareg, a nomadic tribal people that have traditionally practiced a moderate form of Islam.

The chaos has devastated Mali's tourism industry and has triggered the suspension of most foreign aid, plunging the economy into recession. Until recently, according to Geoffrey York of the Globe and Mail, Mali was seen as an economic star on the African continent with an economy that had grown by nearly 5 percent annually for most of the past decade. However, GDP shrank by 1.5 percent within the past year, partly because tourists began to vanish after a wave of kidnappings by Islamists. Over the past twelve months only a couple dozen visitors have ventured into Djenné, one of West Africa's oldest and most beautiful towns, compared to 30,000 tourists in 2005.

Malian government officials recently met with leaders from Ansar Dine and the Taureg-led National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who formally agreed to respect Mali's national unity and territorial integrity and supposedly rejected all forms of extremism and terrorism. However, over the weekend, less than a month after agreeing to a ceasefire, the jihadists said they planned on renewing hostilities.

France, Mali's former colonial ruler, fears the West African state could become a launching pad for AQIM terrorist strikes against French political and economic interests at home and abroad. On December 20th, the U.N. Security Council authorized a French-drafted resolution to deploy an African-led force to train Mali's defeated army, and declared "its readiness to respond to Mali's request for an international military force." But because of the size and hostile nature of the terrain, it will be more challenging to root out extremists in Mali than it was in Afghanistan.

Although Fowler believes the international community must intervene to "degrade and diminish al-Qaeda," human rights groups are warning that the toll on civilian lives could be substantial, with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in West Africa estimating that intervention will displace more than 300,000 Malians while the 500,000 people living in the north will face food insecurity, starvation and disease due to reduced access to aid.

UN ambassador Susan Rice described the French-designed plans to intervene as "crap" because the Malian army, supported by a Nigerian-led coalition of 3,300 troops from 15 Western African countries, lacks the manpower and skills required to contend with a battle-tested insurgency acclimated to fighting in the Sahel's unforgiving desert.

Some argue that the instability caused by the Libyan intervention has fed the insurgency in Mali given the mind-numbing amount of arms that entered the black market. The UN reported last January that smuggled weapons include rocket-propelled grenades, machine guns with anti-aircraft visors, automatic rifles, ammunition, grenades, explosives, and light antiaircraft artillery mounted on vehicles. In addition, since Gaddafi's fall fighters in Libya have moved freely across porous borders through Algeria into Mali.

In a July New York Times piece Ross Douthat argued that if interventionists want to claim credit for saving lives in Benghazi and heralding the success of the "responsibility to protect" doctrine, they must acknowledge that this approach cost lives in Timbuktu. The crisis has garnered little media attention because Mali is "neither oil-rich nor strategically important," Douthat contends, yet toppling a dictator in one country appears less strategic if it gives rise to a theocratic regime in another.