Al-Qaida militants and other Islamist fighters are descending on northern Mali in the chaotic aftermath of a military coup, creating a potential haven for terrorists in a part of the Sahara bristling with heavy weapons looted from Libya.
Tuareg rebels declared an independent state in the region on Friday amid a power vacuum in the north created by the president's March 21 ouster. The rapidly unfolding events are turning the area, which the Tuaregs now call the Azawad nation, into a magnet for jihadists, much like Afghanistan was when the Taliban took power 15 years ago.
Witnesses in northern Mali and those who have fled to neighboring Niger say they have seen fighters from Algeria, Mauritania and Nigeria in the past week.
In the late 1990s, terrorism training camps were set up in Afghanistan, where al-Qaida was able to operate openly and plot attacks largely unhindered. Now experts warn that Mali, a vast and impoverished Saharan nation in northwest Africa, could play a similar role.
Witnesses in the northern city of Gao, which fell to rebels on March 31, said fighters include people speaking a Mauritanian dialect of Arabic and English. The English-speakers are Nigerians who are believed to belong to the radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, which bombed the U.N. headquarters in Nigeria's capital last year, killing 25 people.
Earlier this week, a leader of Africa's al-Qaida branch, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was spotted in Gao, according to the Malian Association of Human Rights and a Niger government source who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. Belmokhtar, an Algerian, lost an eye in combat in Afghanistan and is known as "the one-eyed sheik."
From the Islamists point of view, northern Mali is an ideal operational hub, experts say.
"You've got this large territory and extremists can gather there, operate fairly openly, and they're going to have at least several months to dig in," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. "It's going to be that much more costly in terms of arms and lives to dislodge them."
Fighters from a third group, a breakaway branch of al-Qaida called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, also have been seen in Gao, said refugees who fled fighting there and made it to Niger.
The fighters who took Gao and two other key cities belong to a Tuareg rebel group that was formed in January and to Islamist Ansar Dine, another new group.
The alliance between the groups is tense. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or NMLA, seeks an independent secular state for Mali's nomadic Tuaregs. Ansar Dine, also led by a Tuareg, wants a state governed by strict Islamic or Sharia law.
It's unclear which one holds more sway in the stretch of the Sahara taken from the government, whose control was weak to begin with. In Timbuktu, the fabled Islamic intellectual center, which fell Sunday, Ansar Dine gained the upper hand and announced Sharia law.
The NMLA had already hoisted its green, black, red and yellow flags over Timbuktu, but Ansar Dine fighters pulled them down, burned them and replaced them with their black flags.
Timbuktu Mayor Ousmane Halle told The Associated Press that fighters there include people who do not speak local languages, have long beards and wear different clothes _ a description usually associated with al-Qaida militants or other foreign Islamists.
Africa's al-Qaida branch, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, had already forged a foothold in Mali's remote north, kidnapping Westerners and turning much of the area into a no-go zone for foreigners. Its hand now appears strengthened, and it will be easier for its fighters to carry out money-making pursuits like cocaine-trafficking, gun-running and migrant smuggling.
Their presence has attracted special forces trainers from France and the United States, countries jockeying for influence in an area rich in deposits of uranium, oil and gold.
In a meeting last month, NMLA leaders asked Iyad Ag Ghali, the leader of Ansar Dine, to join them in forming a secular state in the north and to distance himself from AQIM. Ag Ghali refused, according to local press reports.
Ag Ghali is known to be an intermediary between hostage-paying European governments and AQIM. He fought in Mali's last two rebellions and, after a 2006 peace agreement, was sent as Mali's consul to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he apparently adopted the most extreme Salafi form of Islam.
Experts warn of an ominous future for a region already awash in heavy weaponry.
"The Tuareg separatists and their Islamist allies will consolidate their hold on the north, potentially serving as a magnet for extremists as well as criminal elements," said The Soufan Group, led by former FBI agent Ali Soufan, who interrogated top al-Qaida operatives and supervised cases like the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Some of the embassy bombers fled to Somalia, which has been a hub for militants and terrorists for the past two decades. The militant group al-Shabab controls a large swath of south-central Somalia, but is slowly being squeezed by African Union troops deployed to the region, as well as U.S. and other Western forces.
That makes a haven in Mali attractive.
The chaos in Mali began in January with a rebellion led by Tuareg separatists, some of whom had worked for the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. The battle-hardened troops reignited a long-simmering rebellion against Mali's government. The Tuaregs' domain stretches across a broad swath of the Sahara encompassing parts of Algeria, Chad, Libya, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali.
Some Niger Tuaregs who fought for Gadhafi have joined their comrades in Mali, raising fears the rebellion could spill over Mali's border.
"The regional implications are extremely serious, starting with Niger," said Robin Poulton, who helped negotiate an end to the 1990s Tuareg rebellion in Niger and Mali. Poulton is now a senior fellow at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research and a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University School of World Studies in Richmond.
Alarmed by the developments, West African military chiefs met Thursday to draft a plan. Ivory Coast's army chief, Gen. Soumaila Bakayoko, said the possible link between the rebels and terrorists is reason enough to intervene militarily.
"The advance of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, associated with terrorist groups like AQIM and Ansar Dine and others, gives sufficient reason to the entire region to be put on notice," he said.
The violence has forced some 200,000 civilians to flee their homes at a time when the entire Sahel region faces a possible famine, worrying aid agencies that already have difficulty reaching nomads in the desert.
The Tuareg, a minority of perhaps 1 million of Mali's 15 million people and about a third of the population of northern Mali, have been fighting for independence or more autonomy since the 1950s, when Tuareg leaders wrote to France's Gen. Charles de Gaulle to argue for a country of their own when Mali became independent in 1960.
They long have felt marginalized and find themselves increasingly in conflict with sedentary tribes as global warming shifts the Sahara slowly south, raising competition for water and arable land.
Rukmini Callimachi in Bamako, Mali, and Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.