Not long ago, this green oasis was a bustling tourist destination. Now it’s the would-be jumping off point for the world’s newest battle against Islamist extremism.
From here, the Niger River flows north, to where al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies have since April maintained unchallenged control over Mali’s vast desert expanse.
Once prosperous fancy hotels lie dark at night, truck stops overflow with refugees and, outside of town, a militia camps out near an abandoned basketball court, waiting for action.
Yet there is no sense here that any move is coming soon to retake the north, despite evidence that extremists rapidly are consolidating control – something that will make what already is seen as a daunting task even more so.
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"I’m losing all hope," said Osman Haile Cisse, the deposed mayor of historic Timbuktu, which is now under AQIM control. Cisse spoke by phone from Timbuktu, where he returned to celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al Adha.
"Those who were opposed at first are now joining (al Qaida). Southerners are arriving to join as well," he said. "They are all being paid good money."
In Mali today, the scale of the crisis belies the snail-like pace of the international response.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met this week with officials in neighboring Algeria in hopes of winning their support for some kind of action. A month ago, Clinton, speaking on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, described Mali as a hub from which "terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”
Libyan leaders have tied the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead to Mali, saying some of the attackers may have infiltrated from here. Some are known to at least have called Mali to boast of their success.
But on the ground here there is little sign of movement. Mali practically quakes from the dissonance between urgent calls for action and the lack of any activity.
Northern Mali is now an open playground for Islamist extremists, smugglers and opportunists. Reports from residents and local journalists who travel in the region suggest the Islamist extremists are moving to cement their control – instituting conservative Islamic Shariah law, collecting ransoms for Western hostages, training new recruits, and inviting others to join.
Known Islamist leaders, such as Omar Ould Hamaha, the military commander of an al Qaida splinter group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, operate in the open, brazenly using easily traceable cellphones to talk to reporters.
"We are inviting them (the U.S.) to come and fight. If they do not come, then our objective has not been attained," Hamaha told McClatchy by phone this week.
J. Peter Pham, a prominent U.S. commentator on African affairs, calls northern Mali a "’Star Wars’ bar" – a land overrun with the region’s miscreants and exiles, like a nightmare jailbreak gone mad.
"Clearly, there is coming and going in the north," said a U.S. diplomat, who was authorized for an interview on condition of anonymity.
U.S. efforts for now are focused on regional diplomacy, a course that is expected to end, eventually, in a Western-backed military intervention similar to an offensive the African Union launched to counter al Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia. Neighboring African states would provide the manpower, the West, intelligence and guidance.
Any such ground operations are at least months away, U.S. officials say. The delayed response is necessary, they argue, to produce a fighting force with regional backing.
That means the undertaking will certainly fall into the next presidential administration, whether that president is the incumbent, Barack Obama, or his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.
Either will find Mali a messy and complex challenge.
Mali has long been Africa’s backwaters – undeveloped, weak, landlocked, with few binding connections to the West – and was not even an afterthought when NATO intervention in Libya helped topple Moammar Gadhafi one year ago.
Gadhafi’s collapse, however, unleashed the events that triggered what has taken place here, as thousands of nomadic Tuareg tribesmen poured back into northern Mali after years of service in Gadhafi’s army, bringing rebellion and uncounted tons of Libyan weapons.
The Tuareg rebels rapidly took control of two-thirds of Mali. The central government in southern Bamako was overthrown in a military coup by frustrated mid-ranking officers, who proved incapable of resisting the rebels. Then, Islamist militants quickly outmaneuvered the secular Tuareg rebels, pushing them aside and seizing an area the size of Texas.
And, just like that, a new extremist-led sub-state was born.
"When you started fighting in Libya, did you think of all the consequences in the region? No," complained a senior Malian security official, who asked not to be named since he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Often described as a no-man’s land, northern Mali’s Saharan dunes may not seem like much of a prize – yet, for al Qaida-affiliated extremists, they are. Northern Mali sits along lucrative ancient trade routes that are today some of the busiest illicit highways for drugs, arms and smugglers. Northern Mali’s amorphous and rough terrain make it a logistical and tactical nightmare for invaders.
Reports abound of extremists using money from hostage ransoms and the drug trade to recruit more and more young men into their ranks in preparations to defend their strongholds. The north’s economy, shattered by the war, is picking back up again as residents return, more willing to accept occupation at home than life as an urban refugee.
At one refugee camp here at the country’s dividing line, no new arrivals could be found from the past two months. The camp had shrunk significantly since the beginning of the crisis in April, said local officials and refugees. Buses are now packed heading north, and almost empty heading south.
The decision is splitting families. Hawa Dicko fled the north at the beginning of the rebellion, but she still returns to visit family – but always leaves again. "I will stay here until the war ends," she vowed, saying she refuses to live under the gender segregation imposed by the Islamists, effectively barring women from public life.
But her twin sister and her sister’s husband have decided to return home, as has another brother-in-law.
"We have to expect that people from the north who have grown up in the north are at some point not going to want to live in refugee camps," said the U.S. diplomat.
Al Qaida-linked groups have long had a presence in northern Mali, but never before have they wielded such territorial control.
Now, AQIM controls Timbuktu and the vast region to its west. The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa controls Gao, the north’s largest town. Ansar Dine, a Tuareg Islamist movement, controls the very north, centered at Kidal.
Although the exact association among the groups is opaque, they often fight side by side. Diplomats express hope that Ansar Dine could be lured to the negotiating table, and possibly some elements in the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, too, before and during a military offensive.
U.S. diplomats and military officials are buzzing to and from West African and European capitals, trying to finalize an intervention plan.
The West African bloc of nations, ECOWAS, has said it is willing to contribute an intervention force, backed by the African Union, and supported financially and logistically by the U.S. and its allies. The United Nations has asked ECOWAS to submit a viable intervention plan for consideration by late November.
The saber-rattling has been loudest from Europe, led by France, which is unnerved by the close geographical proximity of the new extremist haven – a skip and hop through Algeria and across the Mediterranean.
On Oct. 16, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian prompted surprise among diplomats when he said in an interview that an intervention was "weeks, not months," away. The French media later reported that Le Drian had backed away from the comment.
The U.S. has pushed for the more deliberate approach, arguing that northern Mali is a complex mosaic of ethnicities and political interests. The U.S. also wants to see democratic elections lead to a new government, despite the northern crisis.
One major roadblock is the beleaguered Malian military, which is expected to lead any charge north. Yet its command structure is in tatters following the March coup by low-ranking officers, and its reputation is extremely poor after getting chased out of northern Mali with little resistance.
"Quite a lot of training and equipping needs to be done first," said the U.S. diplomat.
That training is expected to take months. Then, planners envision a campaign to retake the north’s major towns, followed by a much more drawn-out battle to slowly drain their presence from the surrounding desert.