CAPITOL HILL — A U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs subcommittee held a hearing on the threat of Islamist terrorists in northern Mali.
Senior U.S. government officials and research institute experts appeared in front of a congressional panel to discuss the situation in northern Mali, where Tuareg nomads launched a rebellion in January against the Bamako government in the south.
Several of the witnesses told the panel that the Tuaregs' struggle for an independent homeland has been hijacked by well-funded Islamists from abroad, who are seeking to create a safe haven in the Sahara that is being compared to Afghanistan and Somalia.
Rudolph Atallah of the Atlantic Council has spent a lot of time in northern Mali, and says the situation there is becoming bleak.
"Mali is becoming a magnet for foreign fighters, who are flocking in to train recruits to use sophisticated weapons, built for and taken from [the late Libyan leader Moammar] Ghadafi's arsenal," said Atallah.
Atallah said Islamists associated with a recently-formed movement, Ansar Dine, and terrorist group al-Qaida in the in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] are recruiting young Tuareg boys with promises of food and money, and teaching them how to use weapons in militarized madrassas.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson was also careful to make a distinction between Tuareg rebels and Islamist terrorists.
"And I do make a very sharp and clear distinction," Carson said. "The Tuareg issue is a political issue; the issue of AQIM and Ansar is a terrorist issue. They need to be handled separately. And we should not in the effort to respond to the Tuareg issue drive them into the hands of Ansar el-Dine or into the hands of the Islamists."
Carson also stressed that any military action should be carefully considered and planned by ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. He also said that regional groups and the United Nations should first focus on securing the capital in the south, before even attempting anything in the north.
"But I do want to underscore that undertaking a military operation in the north of Mali, an area that is the size of France, would require a major effort," Carson added.
Rudolph Atallah of the Atlantic Council agreed, saying that neighboring countries should first seek to cut off terrorists' sources of funding before attempting military action.
"A systematic regional approach, aimed at targeting illegal drug trafficking, tobacco and weapons should be addressed to curb terrorist acts as to money," Atallah noted.
The United Nations Security Council has said that it would be ready to support military intervention by Mali's neighbors to help the country retake the north from militant Islamist control, but would first need to see a detailed plan.