Al-Qaeda carves out ‘own country’ in Mali, builds impregnable fortress
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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 defences to protect what has essentially become al-Qaeda'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-Qaeda 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-Qaeda never owned Afghanistan," said former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by al-Qaeda's local chapter, whose fighters now control the main cities in the north. "They do own northern Mali."
Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Africa has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger.
The catalyst for the Islamic fighters was a military coup nine months ago that transformed Mali from a once-stable nation to the failed state it is today. On March 21, disgruntled soldiers invaded the presidential palace. The fall of the nation's democratically-elected government at the hands of junior officers destroyed the military's command-and-control structure, creating the vacuum which allowed a mix of rebel groups to move in.
With no clear instructions from their higher-ups, the humiliated soldiers left to defend those towns tore off their uniforms, piled into trucks and beat a retreat as far as Mopti, roughly in the centre of Mali. They abandoned everything north of this town to advancing rebels, handing them an area that stretches over more than 620,000 square kilometers. It's a territory larger than Texas or France — and it's almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.