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Mali’s former president has acknowledged, diplomatic cables show, that the country cannot patrol a border twice the length of the one between the United States and Mexico.

‘They live inside the rocks’

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 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 Peter Pham, an adviser to the U.S. military’s Africa Command center, referring to the region of Pakistan where Taliban fighters once dominated. “There’s no containment strategy for the Sahel, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.”

The Islamists in northern Mali had been preparing for battle long before the French announcement, said elected officials and residents in Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. They spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety at the hands of the Islamists, who have accused those who speak to reporters of espionage.

The al Qaeda affiliate, which became part of the terrorist network in 2006, is one of three Islamist groups in northern Mali. The others are the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), based in Gao, and Ansar Dine, based in Kidal.

Analysts agree that there is considerable overlap among the groups, and that all three can be considered sympathizers, even extensions, of al Qaeda.

The Islamic fighters have stolen equipment from construction companies, including more than $11 million worth from a French company called SOGEA-SATOM, according to Elie Arama, who works with the European Development Fund.

The company had been contracted to build a European Union-financed highway in the north between Timbuktu and the village of Goma Coura.

The official from Kidal said his constituents have reported seeing Islamic fighters with construction equipment riding in convoys behind four-wheel-drive pickup trucks draped with their signature black flag.

His contacts among the fighters, including friends from secondary school, have told him they have created two bases, about 120 and 180 miles north of Kidal, in the austere, rocky desert.

The first base is occupied by al Qaeda’s local fighters in the hills of Teghergharte, a region that the official compared to Afghanistan’s Tora Bora.

“The Islamists have dug tunnels, made roads, they’ve brought in generators and solar panels in order to have electricity,” he said. “They live inside the rocks.”

Caves, trenches and gasoline

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