- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 16, 2013

BAMAKO, Mali — Deep inside caves, in remote desert bases, in the escarpments and cliff faces of northern Mali, Islamic extremist fighters have been burrowing into the earth, erecting a formidable set of defenses to protect what essentially has 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, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, analysts say.

Now that intervention is here. On Friday, France deployed 550 troops and launched airstrikes against the Islamists in northern Mali, starting a battle in what is currently the biggest territory in the world held by al Qaeda and its allies.

But the fighting has been harder than expected, and the extremists boast it will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan.

“Al Qaeda never owned Afghanistan,” said former U.N. 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.”

A wide, wide desert

Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Africa — al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — 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.

Last year, the terrorist syndicate and its allies took advantage of political instability in Mali to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over a territory larger than France or Texas — and almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.

The catalyst for the Islamic fighters was a military coup nine months ago by disgruntled soldiers that transformed Mali from a once-stable nation to the failed state it is today.

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 that allowed a mix of rebel groups to move in.

After the international community debated for months over what to do, the U.N. Security Council called for a military intervention on the condition that an exhaustive list of pre-emptive measures be taken, starting with training the Malian military.

All that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south toward the towns of Segou and Mopti. Had either town fallen, many feared, the Islamists would advance toward the capital, Bamako.

Over the weekend, Britain authorized sending several transport planes to bring in French troops. Other African nations have authorized sending troops, and the U.S. has pledged communications and logistical support.

The area under the rule of the Islamist fighters 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 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 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

Farther north, near Boghassa, is the second base, created by fighters from Ansar Dine. They, too, have used seized explosives, bulldozers and sledgehammers to make passages in the hills, the Kidal official said.

In addition to creating defenses, the fighters are amassing supplies, analysts said.

A local who was taken by Islamists into a cave in the region of Kidal described an enormous room where several cars were parked. Along the walls, he counted up to 100 barrels of gasoline, according to the man’s testimony to New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In the regional capital of Gao, a young man told The Associated Press that he and several others were offered about $20 a day by al Qaeda’s local commanders — a rate several times the normal wage — to clear rocks and debris, and dig trenches.

The youth said he saw Caterpillars and earth movers inside an Islamist camp at a former Malian military base four miles from Gao.

The fighters are piling mountains of sand from the ground along the dirt roads to force cars onto the pavement, where they have checkpoints everywhere, he said. In addition, they are modifying their all-terrain vehicles to mount them with arms.

“On the backs of their cars, it looks like they are mounting pipes,” he said, describing a shape he thinks might be a rocket or missile launcher. “They are preparing themselves. Everyone is scared.”

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