Many Western governments – including the United States -- now issue strong warnings to their citizens to avoid travel in the arid northern regions of Mali, where the rule of the Malian government is weak. Making conditions worse in the region is the recent downfall of the regime of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who funded, trained, and sheltered numerous Saharan militant groups to use against his neighbors. Many of those groups have now fled into the Sahara and Sahel region, spreading instability into an area that already had enough internal disputes.
A looming food crisis, predicted by the US’s Famine Early Warning System for 2012, is only likely to make matters worse.
While Al Qaeda is showing signs of waning in Afghanistan and Pakistan, following the killing or arrest of much of its leadership, Al Qaeda-related groups continue to make their presence felt across the African Sahel region, where Saharan and mainly Muslim communities come into contact with the more arable regions dominated by Christians further south.
In Nigeria’s northern regions, for instance, a radical Islamist movement called Boko Haram has launched a terrorist assault on the Nigerian government, adopting the suicide bomb methods pioneered by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further north in Niger, Mali, and Mauritania, Al Qaeda-related groups have taken to kidnapping Westerners for ransom money, and the governments of those countries are struggling to counter the challenge.
To deal with the threat in its north, Mali has begun to work more closely with both France and the US military in training Malian troops in counter-terrorism measures. But as a result, Mali has lost millions of dollars in tourism, as historic cities such as Gao and Timbuktu have effectively been cut off to outsiders.