Armored vehicles rumbled through the deserted streets of Bamako, Mali, last week, while the rattle of fire from assault rifles could be heard coming from the western part of the capital, especially around the presidential guard's barracks and in the city's slums.
It was the most recent battle between troops loyal to Mali's former government and those who seized power in a March coup. Acting Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra decried this "attempt to destabilize our country" and the "foreign elements" and "dark powers" he says are pulling the strings in the rebellion.
Heads of state from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met last week for an emergency summit, as Mali, long considered a model of democracy in the region, descended into chaos. Two thirds of this desert country are out of government control, and even in Bamako, coup leaders are only keeping their grip with great effort.
Mali is not the only country where tensions are boiling over; the situation is much the same in many parts of the region. Tuareg rebels have declared their own state, Azawad, in the northern part of Mali, which has also been invaded by Ansar Dine, an Islamist group that works closely with an organization known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Entire swaths of land are ruled by gangs who make millions by taking hostages and smuggling drugs and weapons. It's often difficult to tell here exactly who are Tuaregs, who are terrorists or who are merely gangsters.
Algerian Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has called the situation "very, very worrying." Mhand Berkouk, director of the Echaab Center for Strategic Studies, in Algiers, fears an "Afghanization of the entire Sahel region." Berkouk believes Azawad could become a base for terrorists from around the world.
That same fear drove the Malian soldiers who carried out the March 21 coup against the country's president of many years, Amadou Touré. The soldiers, led by Captain Amadou Sanogo, rebelled in the hope of improving their desperate situation in the fight against the Tuareg, accusing President Touré of "incompetence in the fight against Islamic terror."
Thus far, however, coup leaders have achieved precisely the opposite of what they had hoped. Just days after Touré was ousted, Tuareg and Ansar Dine fighters rolled into Gao and Timbuktu, black Islamist flags flying from their all-terrain vehicles, and now control those cities completely. Overnight, the withdrawal of government authority in Mali has rendered ungovernable an area four times the size of France, spread across the Sahara Desert and the Sahel zone. Islamist groups now move nearly unchallenged across a territory that stretches from Tindouf in western Algeria to the border between Libya and Chad in the east, and into the northern part of Nigeria to the south.
These groups move weapons and drugs, take hostages and plan attacks. In February 2011, they attempted to bomb Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz out of their way with over a ton of explosives. They kidnapped two Canadians in Niger and also tried to abduct a German diplomat in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
At the moment, it's impossible to say how the new state of Azawad plans to assert itself, or who exactly will rule there: the al-Qaida supporters, who immediately declared Sharia law to be the legal basis for the state of Azawad? Or the secular Tuareg, who have gathered under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA)? And what of the splinter group known as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which specializes in kidnappings and is currently holding at least 10 hostages?
The chaos in the northern part of the country, the rebels' advance, the ousting of President Touré -- none of this came as a great surprise to Western diplomats and intelligence services. US embassy documents released by Wikileaks in the fall of 2010 revealed just what a hopeless battle Mali's army was fighting within its own country.
Two Pick-Ups and a Minivan
In these documents, American diplomats described an attack by al-Qaida fighters against Malian soldiers on July 4, 2009, which turned into a debacle for the army. Six days after the deadly ambush of Malian military forces by fighters from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), there remains uncertainty concerning the exact number of soldiers involved and casualties sustained by government forces," the Americans reported. Having suffered its greatest casualties since 1991, the Malian military suspended patrols in the area of the battle, temporarily withdrawing its forces to the relative safety of Timbuktu." The enemy was far better equipped and more mobile, the diplomats added.
Soon after, American soldiers visited a military base in northeastern Mali and found "a woeful shortage of basic supplies and logistical support." Around half of the base's soldiers were deployed to fight al-Qaida, the Americans reported, and the remaining half had just "three operational vehicles, including two pick-up trucks and one minivan," while the soldiers' weapons dated "from the 1960s."
The US military sent money and supplies, as well as an elite group of US Army soldiers from Colorado, who spent five weeks training the members of a Malian special forces unit. While there, the American soldiers learned something astonishing: "When the survivors of the July 4 ambush were asked why they had left behind so many vehicles to be captured by AQIM, they said the drivers had been killed and no one else in the unit knew how to drive. When asked why they had not used a heavy machine gun, they answered that the gunner who knew how to operate the weapon had also been killed, and he was the only one who knew what to do."
The Americans' intervention has failed to reverse the course of this disaster in the sand. Morale among the Malian soldiers is wretched, and the Tuareg fighters now have heavy weaponry they were able to obtain during the turmoil of the Libyan civil war last year. This includes missile launchers, armored vehicles and, it is said, anti-aircraft missiles as well.
'Down with Democracy!'
A military defeat in Mali is not the only failure at hand. There is far more at stake. What began in North Africa in late 2010 as the Arab Spring, spurred on by a great deal of support in the West, has created new extremes in many parts of the Muslim world.
In the Sahara especially, the calls for democracy and freedom, and the demands for the people to have a voice in decision-making, have met with resistance. Fundamentalists here have begun to reorganize. They're fighting for influence in southern Libya, and in March, a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a police station in Tamanrasset in southern Algeria, a city that had long been peaceful. Soon after, fundamentalist women took to the streets in Nouakchott, Mauritania, for the first time in that country's history. But the women weren't marching for equality. "Down with democracy!" they chanted. "Introduce Sharia!"
NATO saved Benghazi, Libya, but in exchange lost Timbuktu, Mali, says Gregory Mann, a history professor at Columbia University in New York who is a specialist in the Sahel region.
The government's weakness is one reason for the instability in the region, UN analysts say, and new, profitable lines of business here are another: Where cigarette smugglers once slipped through the desert, now they funnel 50 to 60 metric tons of cocaine, valued at up to $10 billion (€8 billion), through the Sahara each year, bound for Europe.
In one known example, a Boeing 727 landed on a makeshift runway in the middle of the desert north of Gao in November 2009, and mere minutes later, helpers started unloading several tons of cocaine into waiting 4x4 vehicles. They then set fire to the airplane, which had taken off in Venezuela before suddenly disappearing from radar screens.
Impossible to Pinpoint
Kidnapping is the other lucrative trade plied by al-Qaida terrorists and extremists in the region. Currently, a dozen Western hostages and 7 Algerian hostages are being held. These gangs are believed to have taken in over €100 million in ransom so far, and MUJAO kidnappers are now demanding €30 million for the return of one Spanish and one Italian hostage. The kidnappers are familiar with the territory and highly mobile, capable of moving their hostages 1,000 or 2,000 kilometers at a time, at night if necessary. They get their bearings from rocks and dunes, keeping their satellite phones switched off and making it impossible to pinpoint the location of such convoys.
A German civil engineer is also presumed held by al-Qaida, after being abducted from Kano, Nigeria, in late January. Not until late March did his family receive proof that he was alive -- a video in which the exhausted prisoner begged the German government to save his life.
Most of these hostages are believed to be held in the area around Taoudenni, located in Mali's far north near the borders with Mauritania and Algeria. There are few water sources in this rocky desert region, and temperatures can reach 50 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade.
ECOWAS leaders now want to send troops into this Tuareg region, but it would be a suicide mission, with the opponents holding too great an advantage. They know the desert better than almost anyone, and likely possess better weaponry as well. Gregory Mann, the West African history professor, is skeptical about whether it will be possible to save the region. "It will be a long road back -- for the North, for all of Mali, but also for the idea of representative and inclusive government," he says.