DAKAR, Senegal - Islamist militants appear to be in control of the vast lawless expanse of desert in northern Mali that they captured with other rebel groups in early April. Extremists from Pakistan and Nigeria have reportedly converged on the territory. Some analysts and world leaders say the region could become a haven for terrorist activity.
Is Mali the next Afghanistan?
Analysts say current conditions in northern Mali are hardly a mirror image of Afghanistan in the mid-1990s when the Taliban seized control, creating a terrorist safe haven from which Osama bin Laden plotted his deadly 2001 attack on the United States.
But al-Qaida-friendly Islamist militants in Mali appear to be edging out other rebel groups for control of the north.
"It is not just a talibanization of northern Mali," said Kwesi Aning, the director of research for the Ghana-based Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center, which has tracked the rise of armed groups and extremism in Africa’s Sahel region. "It is actually a radicalization of the Sahelian states of northern Mauritania, northern Mali, parts of northern Burkina Faso and northern Niger," added Aning. "That is why the international community, with ECOWAS, must ensure that Mali must be resolved one way or the other. Because if Mali collapses, the spillover effects and the domino effects of that crisis will be frightening."
Northern Mali is part of the difficult-to-patrol desert that stretches from Mauritania to Chad and has been overrun by traffickers, terrorists and kidnappers for ransom in recent years.
Even before the crisis, Sahelian countries struggled to cooperate and develop a regional strategy against threat.
Mali's neighbors, in particular Mauritania, accused Mali of giving safe haven in the north to criminal elements, including al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb in exchange for the group not attacking Mali.
Tuareg separatists, known as the MNLA, and the Malian Islamist sect Ansar Dine captured the three northern regions of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu in early April during the chaos that followed a March 22 coup in Bamako. Ansar Dine is an offshoot of the Tuareg rebel movement and has ties to al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb, whose leaders have emerged from their desert hideouts and are now being spotted moving reely in the towns.
While the MNLA called for the creation of the long-fabled Tuareg homeland of Azawad as a secular state, Ansar Dine has begun imposing its brand of Islamic law in northern towns.
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou said Monday, after meeting with French President Francois Hollande in Paris, the situation in northern Mali is an "international threat that requires an international answer."
Just days before the meeting, President Issofou told a French broadcaster that jihadists and drug smugglers are now the dominant forces in northern Mali. He says other forces with other objectives are marginal. He said Niger has information that Afghani and Pakistani nationals are in northern Mali training militants recruited from West African countries. He said they also have evidence that members of the Nigerian extremist sect Boko Haram are training recruits in Gao.
West African regional bloc ECOWAS says it is ready to send several-thousand soldiers to Mali. But analysts told VOA that an ECOWAS force will take time and money to create. Even then, analysts say those troops would lack the training and experience in desert warfare needed to present a true threat against the heavily-armed militants entrenched in the north.
Many suspect the ECOWAS force would get bogged down in southern Mali, securing the post-coup government transition in Bamako.
France says it is backing a call from President Issoufou and other African leaders for ECOWAS to seek a U.N. Security Council mandate for military intervention in Mali.
President Issoufou says they will need logistical support from the United States, France and other powers. Analysts say the involvement of neighboring non-ECOWAS nations Mauritania and Algeria would also be key.
The international community has rejected efforts by rebel groups to declare independence or set up an Islamist state in the territory. A pact between the MNLA and Ansar Dine lasted less than a week, and the two groups reportedly came to blows in early June in Kidal.
Malians, in the southern and northern halves of the country, have rejected the occupation or any division of the country. But some doubt the now-disorganized Malian army, already unable to beat back the rebels before the March coup, would be able to mount a meaningful offensive.
Burkina Faso has opened negotiations with the MNLA and there is talk a compromise to be reached on their demands for independence. An ECOWAS spokesman says the regional bloc is losing patience with rebels who it says must relinquish control of the towns or face military action.
But some report Ansar Dine is better armed and less ready to give in.
An Ansar Dine spokesman in Gao, Oumar Ould Amma, says he is 100 percent convinced the Malian army will never beat them. He says maybe if Mali will be supported by France, the United States or ECOWAS. He says Ansar Dine is ready for that. He says they have already dedicated their lives to Allah. He says this fight will not be difficult for them, like swatting a cobweb. He says they are ready to die as martyrs.
As negotiations sputter along and the transitional government in Bamako struggles to find its footing, fears are growing the war over northern Mali is still to come.