“Al-Qaida never owned Afghanistan,” said former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by al-Qaida’s local chapter, whose fighters now control the main cities in the north. “They do own northern Mali.”…

Turbaned fighters now control all the major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares like the Taliban did. Just as in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites.

The area under their rule is mostly desert and sparsely populated, but analysts say that due to its size and the hostile nature of the terrain, rooting out the extremists here could prove even more difficult than it did in Afghanistan. Mali’s former president has acknowledged, diplomatic cables show, that the country cannot patrol a frontier twice the length of the border between the United States and Mexico…

“One could come up with a conceivable containment strategy for the Swat Valley,” said Africa expert Peter Pham, an adviser to the U.S. military’s African command center, referring to the region of Pakistan where the Pakistan Taliban have been based. “There’s no containment strategy for the Sahel, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea.”