Despite Romney Claims, Mali Is No Afghanistan, Expert Says

Al Qaeda could not operate in West Africa as it has during America's longest war.

Two Islamist policemen, among them Ivorian Ahmed El Guedir (L), patrol in the streets of Gao, northern Mali, on July 16, 2012. Mali, once one of west Africa's most stable democracies, was plunged into turmoil on March 22, 2012 when a band of soldiers seized power in the capital Bamako, saying they were fed up with how the president was handling a Tuareg rebellion in the north. The ensuing chaos created a power vacuum and enabled the Tuareg ethnic rebels and Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist fighters to seize the northern half of the country.
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Many in the West believe the arid Sahel region of north Mali will "become the new Afghanistan," according to an Associated Press report this week.

At the presidential debate on Monday, neither candidate discussed much about America's longest war, aside from stressing the importance of thanking U.S. troops and bringing them home. But Mitt Romney singled out Mali as the new hotspot for al Qaeda activity.

The French have already deployed drones to the West African nation to track down six of their hostages they believe are being held there by an increasingly strong al Qaeda presence, comprised partially of French citizens. This operation began amid ongoing closed-door talks in Paris among Western intelligence powers concerned about what they see as a new hub for al Qaeda.

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But one intelligence expert believes comparing Afghanistan to Mali is incomplete.

"I really don't see the Sahel as being conducive to setting up training camps," says Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical intelligence at Stratfor. "It's a really easy place to surveil."

The Associated Press described the region as "a no-man's-land where extremists can train, impose hardline Islamic law and plot terror attacks abroad."

A photo taken on September 21, 2012 shows a group of armed Islamists gathered in Gao, the biggest city in northern Mali now under the control of armed Islamist groups. Perhaps the most startling thing about these fighters along this frontier route is that nearly all of them are from sub-Saharan Africa rather than just the Maghreb. 'Me too, I am surprised,' Nigerien Hicham Bilal, who is leading a Katiba (combat unit) to Gao, admitted to AFP. 'Every day we have new volunteers. They come from Togo, Benin, Niger, Guinea, Senegal, Algeria and elsewhere.'

"This is actually a major threat — to French interests in the region, and to France itself," François Heisbourg, an expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research, told the AP this week. "This is like Afghanistan 1996. This is like when Bin Laden found a place that was larger than France in which he could organize training camps, in which he could provide stable preparations for organizing far-flung terror attacks."

Combating al Qaeda in Afghanistan has proved to be a complicated proposition, with an isolated, porous mountain border with Pakistan that makes it easy for combatants to hide in the geography or among the densely populated areas.

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The Sahel region, by comparison, is open, sparsely populated and flat.

"While there's always been this nagging presence of these jihadis and bandits in the Sahel," Stewart says, "the terrain there is not favorable to them."

"There is not a lot of human terrain or physical terrain to hide in," he says.

Stratfor has reports of U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over Mali along with the French drones, mostly there for surveillance and to "measure what's going on," Stewart says. The organization has classified the situation in northern Mali as unstable, and that it has become evident that "external action will be required to tilt the balance back in favor of Mali's central government," according to a report.

The African Union said Wednesday that an African plan to combat Islamic militants in Mali will be ready within weeks. The bloc on Wednesday reinstated Mali, which had been suspended following a military coup there in March.

The Algerian government on Thursday approved the African-led military intervention into Mali, Reuters reports, provided no troops are stationed on Algerian soil.

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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at pshinkman@usnews.com