How Islamist groups seized control in Mali

French forces have entered Mali as groups associated with al-Qaida threaten to take control of the restive country.

To the casual Western observer, all had been relatively quiet in Mali up until last week.

When the topic of Islamic extremism in Africa came up before then, most conversations turned toward Somalia in Eastern Africa, where the al-Qaida-linked group al-Shabaab controls large portions of the country and possesses between 7,000 and 9,000 fighters, many of them foreign and highly trained, according to the BBC.

This week, however, the conversation about terrorism in Africa has turned to Mali in Western Africa, where France, the former colonial ruler of the country, has begun fighting al-Qaida groups who are rapidly carving out expansive terrain and erecting defensive infrastructures.

Mali is such a tinderbox, experts say, because the provisional government is weak and the land up for grabs is so enormous. Security officials liken the land grab to a disaster waiting to happen. They say what’s at stake is bigger than what extremists were able to snatch up in Afghanistan.

"Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan," former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by an al-Qaida chapter, told the AP. "They do own northern Mali."

Couple that with a largely unprotected 4,300-mile border with six nations and evidence of new Islamist bases, supply networks and tunnels, and it’s easy to understand why security experts cringe at what could happen if radical groups were to seize the capital of Bamako.

"One could come up with a conceivable containment strategy for the Swat Valley," Africa expert Peter Pham, an adviser to the U.S. military's African command center, told the AP, referring to the region of Pakistan where Taliban fighters once dominated.

"There's no containment strategy," Pham said of Mali’s Sahel desert region. Leaked diplomatic cables show Mali’s former leader acknowledging that he was unable to patrol a frontier twice the length of the US-Mexican border.

If Mali were to fall into rebel hands, Islamists could create a haven for al-Qaida in a country much closer to Western Europe than Afghanistan, Paul Melly, associate fellow of the Africa program at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, warned.

"It is difficult to see what other option France had," Melly told NBC News.

Extremist advances in Mali have been startling. Since a military coup rattled the once-stable Malian government nine months ago, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb syndicates in the poverty-riddled nation have slowly crept out of the shadows and gained a larger — and more legitimate — foothold.

What’s worse: Before the coup, Mali was long seen as a paragon of democracy and peace in Africa. That all changed last year when separatist groups were unable to stop al-Qaida splinters from seizing sizable chunks of territory in the country’s civil war. Those groups quickly set up control in Mali’s northern main city of Gao, where they imposed sharia (Islamic) law on a traditionally liberal Muslim country. Shockingly, new hardline Islamic regimes began amputating hands and feet for theft. Reuters, using information gathered by the United Nations, estimates that there are more than 1,000 soldiers fighting for a trio of Islamist groups in Mali.

After a desperate plea from the fledgling Malian government, France entered the fight against radical fighters in Mali last week, providing more than 750 foot soldiers (who’ve yet to fight) and ordering numerous airstrikes against rebel positions in northern portions of the country.

French progress, so far, has been sporadic.  While troops from that country have driven insurgents out of the village of Kona, rebel units also overran Malian units in Diabaly. Former French prime minister Dominique de Villepin repeated the vexing and scattered view of "success" in Mali, writing in the Journal du Dimanche that "none of the conditions for success have been met."

"Stopping the jihadists advance south, retaking the north, eradicating" terrorist "bases — these are all different wars," he added.

Support for France’s mission has been widespread, but slow-moving. Great Britain has pledged transport planes, African nations are raising troops and the United States has said it will provide intelligence, but many of the foreign resources France seeks in Mali could take weeks to materialize. African forces need to be trained and financed, as do local Malian units.

Currently, France insists it will not use ground forces in northern Mali, but that could change depending on the impact of its airstrikes and the continued drive of Islamist units.

Oumar Ould Hamaha, an insurgent leader, told Europe 1 Radio that France "has fallen into a trap which is much more dangerous than Iraq, Afghanistan or Somalia." He added that the country had "opened the gates of hell for all the French."

In response, France has ramped up security across the country, including at the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. According to Reuters, some 100,000 Malians are residents of France, with regular direct flights between Bamako and Paris.

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