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Jihadists from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan are flocking to northern Mali to train al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups and Islamist insurgents, turning the region — an area the size of Texas — into the next epicenter of international terror.
Terrorism in the African Sahel — the sub-Saharan stretch of desert that includes the West African nations of Mali, Niger, Burkino Faso and Mauritania — has been gathering in intensity since the collapse of Muammar Gadhafi’s Libyan regime in October 2011.
At that point an influx of mercenaries and looted weaponry, including missile launchers, armored vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles, have flooded into the Sahel and into the hands of a rogue’s gallery of al-Qaeda, Islamists, and criminals long engaged in rampant terrorist attacks, arms dealing, drug trafficking, and ransom kidnapping.
This collection of Islamist killers and gangsters has been able to move relatively unchallenged throughout the Sahel, and the recent seizure of northern Mali by both Islamist and separatist forces has opened the window for northern Mali to become a permanent training base and safe haven for terrorists operating throughout the region.
To that end, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has reportedly extended an invitation to jihadists from around the globe to come to northern Mali to help train its fighters, as well as those from two other al-Qaeda-linked groups: the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and Nigeria’s Boko Haram.
Those jihadist calls have been enough to make Mali, according to one American official, “a cool place for jihadists from the region,” while French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said their presence risks turning northern Mali into “a West African Afghanistan.”
That nightmare scenario is being facilitated by the ongoing battle over control of northern Mali between the Ansar Dine (Defenders of Faith), an al-Qaeda-linked and AQIM-backed Islamist group, and the separatist Tuareg MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad).
The battle between the two groups began in April, shortly after Ansar Dine and MNLA forces — aided by a March military coup which ousted then-Mali President Amadou Toumani — seized control of nearly two-thirds of the country and declared the conquered territory the independent state of Azawad.
Specifically, Ansar Dine and MNLA broke ranks over questions of whether and how to implement Sharia law in Azawad, a development not terribly shocking given the disparate stated agendas of the two groups.
While the MNLA, which has vehemently denied any Islamist or al-Qaeda links, has maintained its only goal was the creation of an independent secular state in the north, Ansar Dine’s stated objective has been to turn all of Mali into an Islamic dictatorship under Sharia law.
Thus, when a statement at the end of May from the MNLA surprisingly announced its official merger with Ansar Dine and declared that the two groups had agreed to turn Azawad into an Islamist state, it came as little surprise when that joint declaration was almost immediately rejected by top MNLA officials.
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