Al Qaeda has established a vast mountain stronghold in Mali's lawless north, launching attacks and then melting into the rugged hills, which they vow will become an Afghanistan-style quagmire for North African governments and Western militaries, according to experts.
Like Tora Bora, the mountain labyrinth in Afghanistan where Al Qaeda evaded Western militaries for years under Usama bin Laden, Mali's Tigharghar Mountain chain allows terrorists to strike within the region and then vanish when pursued, according to a new report by Stratfor, a Texas-based intelligence firm. Caves, tunnels and land mines have made the jagged mountains an impenetrable safe haven for the terrorists, who authorities say were behind last month's attack on an Algerian gas plant and yesterday's car bombing that killed six in Kidal, a key city in northern Mali.
The terrorist groups are believed to be behind a month-old insurgency in Mali, which the government is fending off with help from France, which seeks to protect the interests of mining and energy companies in the region. But experts believe the effort is part of a larger bid to destabilize northern Africa, where Al Qaeda is regrouping after fighting American-led Western allies for more than a decade in the Middle East. Extremists vow the mountain refuge will ultimately be worse for their enemies than the decade-long struggle in Afghanistan.
“They made the mountains' terrain even more impassable by using land mines and improvised explosive devices and digging tunnels," the report states. "The militants could already use the extensive network of caves in the mountains, the entrances to which are extremely difficult to spot; in fact, the only way to confirm a cave's location is to observe militants entering and exiting the cave.”
Al Qaeda's affiliate in Africa — Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM — has been a lurking presence for years in Mali, a country decimated by poverty and hunger. But political instability following a military coup last year has emboldened them to take over an enormous territory larger than France or Texas — and almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.
In Tuesday's attack, a bomber exploded his vehicle at a checkpoint near Kidal and killed at least six, according to the Islamic Movement of Azawad (MIA), which is fighting alongside the Malian Army and French troops against Islamic extremists fighting to overthrow the pro-Western government. France deployed 550 troops and launched airstrikes against the Islamists in northern Mali last month, easily reclaiming cities in northern Mali, but their momentum has slowed as the fighting has reached more remote terrain in the mountains, which rise from the southern Sahara.
The mountain chain — which covers roughly 8,500 square miles in northeastern Mali, along the Algerian border — simultaneously provides protection and allows penetration into Algeria’s Hoggar Mountains and Niger’s Air Mountains. The area’s “steep, craggy hills and valleys” is also strewn with riverbeds that are arid most of the year, but still cut a landscape ripe for stealth movement by Al Qaeda fighters or those affiliated with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, the Stratfor report found.
“As part of their offensive in Mali, which faced threats of a foreign intervention long before foreign troops began arriving in January, these militants intended to use the Tigharghar Mountains as their last resort,” the report reads. “They made the mountains' terrain even more impassable by using land mines and improvised explosive devices and digging tunnels. The militants could already use the extensive network of caves in the mountains, the entrances to which are extremely difficult to spot; in fact, the only way to confirm a cave's location is to observe militants entering and exiting the cave.”
Those elaborate tunnels to transport food, fuel and ammunition — some large enough for trucks to navigate — are augmented by surface terrain rough enough to provide cover despite lack of vegetation, making surveillance difficult. Even drones aren't much use in the mountains.
“The broken terrain limits the effectiveness of unmanned aerial vehicles or other aircraft used for observation because the natural elevations create a shadow effect,” the Stratfor report said. “Operating such aircraft at a higher altitude can eliminate this effect but lowers resolution and increases the area observed at one time.”
The low-level mountain range is inhabited by several Tuareg tribes named Kal Adagh, which, according to local vernacular means “those from the mountains.” Roughly 60,000 people live in tiny towns and small settlements throughout the area, with the largest concentration in Kidal in northern Mali.
Smugglers and criminals moved easily in the jagged hills long before the terrorist groups arrived. Drugs from South America have long passed through the Tigharghar Mountains on their way to Niger or Algeria into Libya, and militant extremists have in recent years launch other illegal activities such as kidnapping for ransom from the region.
Raffaello Pantucci, a senior research fellow for Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, told FoxNews.com western military might can chase the insurgents into the hills, but the pursuit too often ends there.
“The French have arrived with superior firepower and they’ve retreated back to the countryside and have gone to places like this," Pantucci said. "They’ve melted back into this part of the territory. In many ways, it’s not really that surprising. A lot of these guys are former smugglers, so they’re used to staying small and mobile.”
In January, Islamist militants seized a remote BP gas plant in Algeria, holding more than 800 workers for several days before Algerian special forces swooped in and killed dozens of militants. Some 39 foreign hostages were killed in the incident. The Algerian government, fearful that the insurgency in Mali could spread to the region, said the raiders had travelled 600 miles through the Sahara desert from Mali.
France has also reportedly deployed special forces to Niger, on Mali's eastern border, to protect a uranium mine owned by French multinational Areva, out of fears Mali-based attacks will spread.
Former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by Al Qaeda in Mali, told The Associated Press the terror group is firmly entrenched in the north.
"Al Qaeda never owned Afghanistan," said Fowler, who was freed in 2009. "They do own northern Mali."
FoxNews.com's Joshua Rhett Miller and The Associated Press contributed to this report.