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Opinion: Mali, a new haven for Al Qaeda

If Mali doesn't get its act together and combat terrorism, years of good governance could give way to a hotbed of extremism.

A policeman patrols a market in central Timbuktu, Dec. 28, 2009. The fabled city is in the Sahel region of northern Mali. The area has become a stronghold for a franchise of Al Qaeda. (Tim Gaynor/Reuters)

PARIS, France — The Sahel — this vast semi-arid region of North Africa south of the Sahara desert — is viewed by some experts as a “second Afghanistan.” This might be a stretch, but it is true that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is very active in the area, especially in Mali.

Mali enjoys a very good reputation around the world. It boasts a vibrant democracy with a multi-party system, a market economy and a tradition of a moderate Islam. But things might be changing: Since 2001, worrying signs have emerged— for example, the proliferation of Osama bin Laden's photo in stalls at the Bamako market and the exponential increase of radio stations preaching radical Islam.

AQIM has organized numerous kidnappings of Western citizens in the region. Interestingly, kidnapped hostages from all over the region usually end up in northern Mali. AQIM has been using northern Mali (in particular Timbuktu and Kidal) as a sanctuary for three reasons: first, it is a very inhospitable area with a difficult terrain making it tough for nations to monitor it; second, some Arab tribes are located there; and finally, the Malian regime is weak and has almost no financial resources.

AQIM’s charm offensive — which includes distributing antibiotics when children are sick and buying goats for double the going rate — has won the hearts and minds of many locals in the Sahel. AQIM buys off local tribes and forms alliances with them, often through marriage.

To make matters more complicated, the area is home to the Tuaregs, a Berber group composed of 200,000 people, who are motivated by territorial claims and bad blood with the Malian authorities to side with AQIM. 

The first reported example of cooperation between the Tuaregs and AQIM occurred in 2003, when a group of 32 European tourists, mostly Germans, was kidnapped by the GSPC, AQIM’s predecessor. Germany allegedly paid about $7.3 million in ransom to have them freed. The operation mastermind, GSPC's Abderrazak El Para, affirmed that he gave part of that ransom money to one of the mediators involved, who was a Tuareg leader. El Para added that he started investing the ransom money in the area.

The partnership has proven tenuous. It lasted while the ransom money was flowing, but the Tuaregs felt that their reputation was suffering as a result of their association with AQIM. In 2006, the Tuaregs decided to turn on their former allies. They ambushed AQIM operatives, killing the No. 2 of the Sahelian branch.

But, still, AQIM thrives in the area. The situation is ambiguous at best, and, clearly, an alliance remains.