In recent months, however, the terror syndicate and its allies have taken advantage of political instability to push into Mali's northern towns, taking over an enormous territory they are using to stock weapons, train forces and prepare for jihad.
The Islamists insist they want to impose Shariah only in northern Mali, though there long have been fears they could push further south. Bamako, the capital, is 435 miles (700 kilometers) from Islamist-held territory.
The retreat by the Malian military raises questions about its ability to participate in a regional intervention.
Late last year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations.
The U.N. Security Council has authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions. Those include training of Mali's military, which has been accused of serious human rights abuses since a military coup last year sent the nation into disarray.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.
Baba Ahmed can be reached at www.twitter.com/Babahmed1