Al-Qaeda takes control of northern Mali

Al-Qaeda has made itself a formidable presence in northern Mali, long an unstable region due to a simmering insurgency by Tuareg tribesmen. African affiliates of the terrorist organization now hold sway over an area of Mali as large as Spain.

Analysts warn that al-Qaeda’s presence in Mali has become even more pervasive than it had been in Afghanistan.

“Al-Qaeda never owned Afghanistan. They do own northern Mali,” Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat imprisoned by al-Qaeda operatives in the region for 130 days during 2008 said.

Tuareg rebels and al-Qaeda fighters alike gained access to the arsenal of Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddhafi after he was deposed in 2011 by NATO-backed rebels. The influx of rocket launchers and assault rifles from Gaddhafi’s warehouses may help explain al-Qaeda’s rapid ascendancy in the region, according to a report by CNN’s Jim Clancy.

The volatile situation in Mali has been in evidence in recent months. Indeed, Mitt Romney was widely mocked for referencing what seemed an obscure situation during an Oct. 22 presidential debate.

“Mali has been taken over, the northern part of Mali by al-Qaeda type individuals,” the Republican presidential candidate said while listing problems arising from the Arab Spring.

The problem came to the eyes of the public after French military intervention began in Mali on Jan. 11, 2013, as the rapidly advancing insurgents threatened Mali’s capital city, Bamako.

“We decided that what was at stake was the existence of the state of Mali, and beyond Mali was the stability of all west Africa,” Geraud Araud, French ambassador to the United Nations, said.

The threat al-Qaeda in Mali poses to nearby countries became clear as terrorists seized a gas complex in the deserts of Algeria, taking 650 hostages, including British and American nationals. Algerian Special Forces freed most of the hostages within days, but several are confirmed dead and others missing.

While the war in Afghanistan winds down, al-Qaeda has marked the next battleground in the war on terror. Northern Mali threatens to remain a safe haven for extremists for the foreseeable future.