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Mali In Danger Of Turning Into Terrorist Safe Haven

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Earlier this hour, we heard about some of the most pressing foreign policy challenges President Obama will face in his second term. Well, now to one more - fears that the African country of Mali could turn into another terrorist safe haven; think Somalia, or Yemen. Northern Mali has been overrun with radical Islamists, after a coup toppled the country's government in March. The U.N. Security Council is now considering an international intervention, led by West African forces. But as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports, that could take awhile.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: A group of West African countries known as ECOWAS, has until the end of this month to report back to the U.N. Security Council on their intervention plans for northern Mali. The U.S. assistant secretary of State for Africa, Johnnie Carson, says the U.S. will help with logistics and intelligence sharing.

JOHNNIE CARSON: We're not on the front line. But the African states are on the front line, and our European partners are on the front line. But it is a concern. We fundamentally want to see the territorial integrity of Mali re-established.

KELEMEN: And no one wants to see al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, have a base to plan and plot attacks. On the diplomatic front, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mali's neighbor Algeria, last week, to get that country more engaged. That's key, says J. Peter Pham, the director of the Ansari Africa Center of the Atlantic Council.

J. PETER PHAM: The Islamist extremists in northern Mali, would not pose the threat they do today were it not for the fact that they were able to run their supply chains back through Algeria. They would have no trucks. They would have no weapons. And they certainly would have no fuel. They'd have to walk everywhere, all over northern Mali - which is an area the size of Texas.

KELEMEN: And so, Pham argues, Algeria could squeeze the extremists by sealing off the long border with northern Mali. Algeria is also playing a negotiating role, trying to peel off the Tuareg separatists - called the Ansar Dine, who started the rebellion in northern Mali - from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other foreign fighters who are also active in the region.

PHAM: It's now, not the flag of Tuareg separatism that flies in the three northern provincial capitals of Mali but rather, the black flag of al-Qaida's regional affiliate.

KELEMEN: Another expert on the region - Anouar Boukhars, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - says it will take many months to prepare for a smart intervention in northern Mali. In the meantime, Boukhars says diplomats need to figure out who's who.

ANOUAR BOUKHARS: They need to sort out who are the actors that are most amenable to a political solution. Probably, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, there is not much you can do with, diplomatically. But Ansar Dine, the eminent power force in northern Mali - I mean, that's an actor that one can negotiate with. We know the Algerians are.

KELEMEN: Just this week, Ansar Dine announced that it would renounce terrorism, and allow in humanitarian aid. Assistant Secretary of State Carson saw that as a hopeful sign, pointing out that unlike other groups dominated by foreign fighters, Ansar Dine is run by a local Tuareg leader.

CARSON: The Tuareg have longstanding political grievances. They have not been hard-line Islamists. If we can pull them back, then that works in our favor.

KELEMEN: But that won't alleviate the need for an international intervention, Carson says. The U.S. has already spent tens of millions of dollars in counterterrorism programs in the region, training and equipping African forces. Carson expects the U.S. will expand that effort, as it continues planning for what he says will be an African-led intervention in Mali.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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