Terrorists have dug themselves firmly in to northern Mali, according to an Associated Press reporter who made it into and out of remote Mopti with tales of Islamist fighters preparing to stay forever:
Deep inside caves, in remote desert bases, in the escarpments and cliff faces of northern Mali, Islamic fighters are burrowing into the earth, erecting a formidable set of defenses to protect what has essentially become al-Qaida’s new country.
They have used the bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts. In just one case, inside a cave large enough to drive trucks into, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, according to experts.
Northern Mali is now the biggest territory held by al-Qaida and its allies. And as 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.
“Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan,” said former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by al-Qaida’s local chapter, whose fighters now control the main cities in the north. “They do own northern Mali.”
The terrorists are carrying out amputations and floggings, just like their colleagues did in Afghanistan. They have destroyed half the World Heritage shrines in Timbuktu.
There is little immediate prospect of help for these Malians living under increasingly powerful and radical Islamist control. It’s bad luck for them, but not good for the rest of us either, as northern Mali will gradually become a major international center for planning, training and financing jihadis. Some will take aim at Europe and the west; others will support groups like Boko Haram and other radical insurgencies found where Christianity and Islam meet in weak and dysfunctional states across Africa.