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Mali on Brink of Becoming a Terrorist Safe Haven

  • Anne Look

African and world leaders say they will not let Mali become a terrorist safe haven, a failed state, a so-called "Afghanistan" in the Sahel. The U.N. Security Council has backed a regional military deployment to Mali next year to deal with an ongoing political crisis in the capital and help the Malian army retake the north from Islamist militants. Will 2013 be the year that Mali pulls back from the brink? If so, at what cost?

2012 was the year that armed men seized control of Mali. And their grip looks stronger than ever -- both in the north and the south.

Analysts say a military junta pulls the strings in the capital, Bamako. The soldiers, who mutinied and then overthrew the elected president on March 22, closed the year by forcing out the interim prime minister and his government in December.

Meanwhile, al-Qaida-linked Islamist militants have controlled the northern two-thirds of the country since April. Their brutal application of Sharia law has included stonings and amputations. Nearly half a million people have fled. That number could swell by tens, or even hundreds, of thousands during expected fighting next year.

African leaders now have U.N. backing for a phased military intervention to send in 3,300 regional troops to retrain and ultimately fight alongside the Malian army.

African Union ambassador Antonio Tete told the U.N. Security Council the deployment is an integral part of a three-track plan that includes negotiations and reinforcing the political transition in Bamako.

"Any perception of a lack of decisiveness on any of these tracks may send the wrong message to the terrorist and criminal networks, as well as to the armed groups that are not committed to a negotiated solution, while prolonging the suffering of the civilian population and increasing the threat to regional and international peace and security," Tete said.

Impatience is growing in Mali. Ethnic northern militias are training near the front lines. Analysts say the fight to retake the north could descend into civil war and bloody reprisals.

Experts warn that the Malian army is not ready.

The U.N. resolution did not set a timeline for the military offensive. U.N. Special Representative to the Sahel, Romano Prodi, has said it's not possible before September 2013.

"Any military effort in Mali must be undertaken after careful analysis and thorough preparation and that these efforts should be part of an agreed political process that tackles the roots of the conflic," Prodi said.

International Crisis Group West Africa Director, Gilles Yabi, said while months of preparation are needed, it's impossible to know the risk of waiting.

"Will this time give the armed groups -- some of them known terrorists linked to al-Qaida -- more time to recruit and to train people to carry out attacks abroad? Does that mean we should move faster? That's hard to say, but urgency should not justify hasty decisions. Time invested now in negotiations could isolate the hardline terrorists and lead to an intervention strategy that minimizes the risk to civilians," Gilles said.

Foreign Jihadists in northern Mali have threatened terrorist attacks in countries contributing troops. Attempts to oust the Islamists could also push fighters, and fighting, into neighboring countries.