WASHINGTON — The war rages about cities with names such as Goa and Timbuktu, in a sparsely populated, mostly flat, dusty and landlocked country in Northwestern Africa.
The combatants include a nomadic Berber people known as Tuareg, the French Foreign Legion and a coalition of al-Qaida affiliates who identify themselves with the Maghreb, the desert region of Northwestern Africa.
It sounds as if it could be the plot for a new Indiana Jones film. But those who study international terrorism say it would be a mistake for the U.S. to think of this conflict as anything but deadly serious. The war in Mali is the new front in the war on international terrorism.
Some U.S. officials have downplayed the threat, noting in congressional testimony that those involved in Mali don't appear capable of striking outside Western and Northern Africa.
But in some ways, what's happening in Mali reminds experts of events in another little-known, faraway land in the latter half of the 1990s: Afghanistan. Back then, a fledgling al-Qaida, though already a known threat, was using remote terrain to train a generation of elite terrorist fighters. The threat of those fighters was that once trained, they were disappearing to await plans and opportunities to strike at the hated West.
"When we look back at Afghanistan, we wonder if we could have stopped what was to come," said Daniel Byman, a national security and terrorism expert.
J. Peter Pham, a terrorism expert at the Atlantic Council research center, notes that despite the continued focus of much of the resources of America's anti-terrorism efforts on Central Asia, the potential threat in Mali should look familiar.
"Jihadists aren't wedded to any one place over another," he said. "They go to where the fight is. For the past year, Northern Mali has been the place."
The Islamists rolled over their opposition. Mali's U.S.-trained army, which staged a coup in March to protest a lack of government support in the fight to regain control of the North, was almost wholly ineffective. An international force of regional African troops approved by the United Nations — but not funded — existed in resolutions only.
The nomadic Tuareg have been a nationalist group whose goal is an independent homeland. They at first had been aligned with the Mali government in battling al-Qaida, but many have since switched sides to fight with the Islamists.
The regions' terrorist groups are flush with money from years of smuggling and kidnapping. They possess an arsenal of weapons obtained as Moammar Gadhafi's Libya collapsed, and they have a strong, regional core of dedicated and violent jihadists, with more international fighters seeking to enlist in the battle. Not even Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida threatened to control an entire nation.Comment on this story
The belief is that when al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb goes global, the most likely target would be France, the former colonial power in the region. So the French stepped in to help first.
The stakes are high. The U.N. has warned that Mali is in danger of becoming a permanent terrorist training ground and launch pad.
Nora Bensahel, an expert on international terrorism, noted that it's easy to see no direct threat in the current situation.
"But in the longer term, this is an al-Qaida affiliate building capacity, and their philosophy remains to attack the West," she said. "Even in the short term, the United States is directly affected, as France is an ally and treaty partner. And even beyond that, of course, not all Americans or American interests are inside the borders of this country."