MOPTI, Mali – 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 last 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 in 2008 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.
Al-Qaida’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.
In recent months, the terror syndicate and its allies have taken advantage of political instability within the country to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over an enormous territory that they are using to stock arms, train forces and prepare for global jihad.
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 center of Mali. They abandoned everything north of this town to the advancing rebels, handing them an area that stretches over more than 240,000 square miles. It’s a territory larger than Texas or France – and it’s almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.
Turbaned fighters now control all the major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares like the Taliban did. Just as in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.
The area under their rule is mostly desert and sparsely populated, but analysts say that because of its size and the hostile nature of the terrain, rooting out the extremists here could prove even more difficult than it did in Afghanistan. Mali’s former president has acknowledged, diplomatic cables show, that the country cannot patrol a frontier twice the length of the border between the United States and Mexico.
Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as AQIM, operates not just in Mali, but in a corridor along much of the northern Sahel. This 4,300-mile-long ribbon of land runs across the widest part of Africa, and it includes sections of Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad.
One could come up with a conceivable containment strategy for the Swat Valley, said Africa expert Peter Pham, an adviser to the U.S. military’s African command center, referring to the region of Pakistan where the Pakistan Taliban have been based. There’s no containment strategy for the Sahel, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.
Last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north and sought backing from the United Nations. Last month, the Security Council authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions, including training Mali’s military, which is accused of serious human rights abuses since the coup. Diplomats say the intervention will likely not happen before September.
In the meantime, the Islamists are getting ready, according to elected officials and residents in Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, including a day laborer hired by al-Qaida’s local chapter to clear rocks and debris for one of their defenses. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety at the hands of the Islamists, who have previously accused those who speak to reporters of espionage.
In Timbuktu, the fighters are becoming more entrenched with each passing day, warned Mayor Ousmane Halle. Early last year, he said, the Islamists left his city in a hurry after France called for an imminent military intervention. They returned when the U.N. released a report arguing for a more cautious approach.
At first you could see that they were anxious, Halle said by telephone. The more the date is pushed back, the more reinforcements they are able to get, the more prepared they become.
In Gao, residents routinely see Moktar Belmoktar, the one-eyed emir of the al-Qaida-linked. Belmoktar, a native Algerian, traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and trained in Osama bin Laden’s camp in Jalalabad, according to research by the Jamestown Foundation.
His lieutenant, Oumar Ould Hamaha, brushed off questions about the tunnels and caves but said the fighters are prepared.
We consider this land our land. It’s an Islamic territory, he said, reached by telephone in an undisclosed location. Right now our field of operation is Mali. If they bomb us, we are going to hit back everywhere.
Hamaha indicated the Islamists have inherited stores of Russian-made arms from former Malian army bases, as well as from the arsenal of toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a claim that military experts have confirmed.
Hard to invade
The Islamists’ recent advances draw on AQIM’s near decade of experience in Mali’s northern desert, where Fowler and his fellow U.N. colleague were held captive for four months in 2008, an experience he recounts in his book A Season in Hell.
Originally from Algeria, the fighters fled across the border into Mali in 2003, after kidnapping 32 European tourists. Over the next decade, they used the country’s vast northern desert to hold French, Spanish, Swiss, German, British, Austrian, Italian and Canadian hostages, raising an estimated $89 million in ransom payments, according to Stratfor, a global intelligence company.
During this time, they also established relationships with local clans, nurturing the ties that now protect them. Several commanders have taken local wives, and Hamaha, whose family is from Kidal, confirmed that Belmoktar is married to his niece.
Fowler described being driven for days by jihadists who knew Mali’s featureless terrain by heart, navigating valleys of identical dunes with nothing more than the direction of the sun as their map. He saw them drive up to a thorn tree in the middle of nowhere to find barrels of diesel fuel. Elsewhere, he saw them dig a pit in the sand and bury a bag of boots, marking the spot on a GPS for future use.
In his four-monthlong captivity, Fowler never saw his captors refill at a gas station, or shop in a market. Yet they never ran out of gas. And although their diet was meager, they never ran out of food, a testament to the extensive supply network that they set up and are now refining and expanding.
Among the many challenges an invading army will face is the inhospitable terrain, Fowler said, which is so hot that at times it was difficult to draw breath. A cable published by WikiLeaks from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako described how Malian troops deployed in the north before the coup could only work from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. and spent the sunlight hours in the shade of their vehicles.
Yet Fowler said he saw al-Qaida fighters chant Quranic verses in under the Sahara sun for hours, just one sign of their deep, ideological commitment.
I have never seen a more focused group of young men, said Fowler, who now lives in Ottawa, Ontario. No one is sneaking off for R&R. They have left their wives and children behind. They believe they are on their way to paradise.