A vast new sanctuary is emerging for al Qaeda's African followers in the desert wastelands of northern Mali, where Tuareg secessionists, allied with extremist Muslim guerrillas, have shaken off government rule and declared an independent Islamist state.
The haven taking shape in West Africa - more than 250,000 square miles, including the city of Timbuktu - risks turning into an outland much like the remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen where terrorists linked to al Qaeda seek safety from U.S. and other efforts to hunt them down, according to European diplomats, academic experts and
reports from the region.
The self-proclaimed Islamic state in northern Mali provides for the first time a territorial base for al Qaeda in the Islamic North Africa, the northern Africa offshoot of the terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden, said a senior European diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous.
In addition, the would-be Islamist state is home to a Tuareg guerrilla unit allied with al Qaeda that has an unknown number of shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles and other weapons packed in from Libya during the fall of Moammar Khadafy. The possibility of the al Qaeda affiliate getting access to the Russian-made missiles has raised fears of terrorist attacks on French and other civilian airliners that regularly fly over the region, which lies just south of Algeria and borders Mauritania on the west and Niger on the east.
The Tuareg tribes of northern Mali, ethnically different from black Africans, have long sought independence, or at least autonomy, from the black-dominated government in Bamako, the capital far to the south.
The independence movement got a break when the Malian military fell into disarray in March after a bungled coup in Bamako, led by Capt. Amadou Haya Sanago, that left the country leaderless.