Refugees from the north arrive at the Imbaidou refugee camp near Ayorou, in Niger, where Malian refugees have found shelter. African Union chief Thomas Boni Yayi has called for the creation of a UN-backed force to intervene in Mali, where Islamist militants and Tuareg rebels have declared independence in the north. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

A vast new sanctuary is emerging for al-Qaeda’s African followers in the desert wastelands of northern Mali, where Tuareg secessionists, allied with extremist Muslim guerrillas, have shaken off government rule and declared an independent Islamist state.

The haven taking shape in West Africa — more than 250,000 square miles, including the legendary city of Timbuktu — risks turning into an outland much like the remote areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen where terrorists linked to al-Qaeda seek safety from U.S. and other efforts to hunt them down, according to European diplomats, academic experts and reports from the region.

The self-proclaimed Islamic state in northern Mali provides for the first time a territorial base for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the northern Africa offshoot of the terrorist group founded by Osama bin Laden, said a senior European diplomat, who discussed the situation on the condition of anonymity. “Every week that goes by is important because it gives AQIM more time to implant itself,” he said.

In addition, the would-be Islamist state is home to a Tuareg guerrilla unit allied with AQIM that has an unknown number of shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles and other weapons brought in from Libya during the fall of Moammar Gaddafi. The possibility of AQIM getting access to the Russian-made missiles has raised fears of terrorist attacks on French and other civilian airliners that regularly fly over the region, which lies just south of Algeria and borders Mauritania on the west and Niger on the east.

Last month, the rebels claimed to have shot down a U.S. Predator drone with one of the missiles in Malian territory just south of the Algerian border. But Nicole Dalrymple, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army’s Africa Command, denied that any American aircraft have been lost in the region.

The Tuareg tribes of northern Mali, ethnically different from black Africans, have long sought independence, or at least autonomy, from the black-dominated government in Bamako, the capital far to the south. Popular support for the independence movement has swelled, particularly in the past few years. It got a decisive boost with Gaddafi’s fall in Libya, when Col. Mohammed Ag Najim returned to Mali after years leading a Tuareg regiment that had been paid by Gaddafi to act as a wing of the Libyan army.

The independence movement got a further break when the Malian military fell into disarray in March after a bungled coup in Bamako, led by Capt. Amadou Haya Sanogo, that left the country leaderless. Without real opposition, Najim’s secessionist forces, baptized the Azawad National Liberation Movement, or MNLA per its French initials, took over northern Mali in cooperation with several allied guerrilla forces.

On April 6, they declared independence for the “Islamic State of Azawad,” using the Tuareg name for the region. The declaration was not recognized by Bamako, Algeria, the Economic Community of West African States or any Western government, including the United States. But no nation has done anything to help Bamako restore government authority, and the Malian military remains divided by coup-related politics.

The U.S. military had been training the Malian army in counterterrorism tactics against AQIM, but the program was suspended after the coup. Some U.S. military personnel remained in Bamako, however, and three were killed April 20 in a car accident, according to the Africa Command headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

Split power, common enemy

In the northern secession, Najim’s main Tuareg ally was Iyad Ag Ghali and his Ansar al-Din al-Salafiya, or Salafist Warriors of Religion, an Islamist guerrilla unit supported with money and weapons by AQIM. As a result, when the dust settled, authority in northern Mali was divided among Najim, a secular independence advocate; Ghali, a strict Islamist who is close to AQIM; and the three main branches of AQIM that have long roamed in the far-northern border regions near Algeria.

“They don’t have much in common, but they had the same enemy: the Malian army,” said Mathieu Guidere, a specialist in Islamist and terrorist issues based at the University of Toulouse.

“Now,” he said, “northern Mali, which is bigger than all of France, is totally outside government control.”

Dramatizing the victory, the usually furtive Abu Zeid, an Algerian who heads the most active of the three AQIM branches, allowed himself to be filmed recently moving freely in Timbuktu with several of his warriors, who usually spend their time in carefully hidden campsites on the Algerian border.

In the weeks since then, Ghali has imposed predominance over Najim, who diplomats said ran out of money and lost followers from the ranks.

In rising to leadership, Guidere said, Ghali was strengthened by an AQIM war chest that has been filled to overflowing by years of hostage-taking and trafficking in drugs and cigarettes. Six French citizens and seven Algerian diplomats are among AQIM’s hostages at present.

Sharia rules imposed

The result of Ghali’s ascendancy has been increasingly strict Islamic rule in many of the region’s towns and cities, with gun-toting Ansar al-Din irregulars backed by AQIM allies imposing sharia law, such as veils for women and a ban on liquor.

Some resistance has been reported by the residents, who are mostly Muslim but are used to a flexible interpretation of Islam. The opposition included gun battles in some northern towns, according to reports from Mali. In apparent reaction, AQIM’s Algeria-based supreme leader, Abdelmalik Droukdel, issued a voice recording last week urging his followers to loosen up; provide water, food and electricity; and impose sharia rules “gradually.”

“Imposition of sharia not only should be limited to the just punishment of people,” he said, “but the problem is broader than that. It is an error to impose all the rules of Islam at once.”

In what was seen as another effort to quell popular unrest, Ghali and Najim announced last week that they had merged their groups into “the Transitional Council of the Islamic State of Azawad.” In the announcement, they said their new state would be independent from Bamako, with Islam as “the source of law,” but they did not clarify whether sharia would be imposed everywhere.

Despite the announcement, Najim and Ghali remain divided, by personal rivalry and clashing ideas on how Tuareg independence should play out on the ground, the senior diplomat said.

He added that there is still a chance that, if he received aid from Algeria or other African nations, Najim could rally the Tuaregs to his group and expel AQIM back to the hills near the Algerian border.