MOPTI, Mali -- Not long ago, this green oasis was a bustling tourist destination. Now it’s the would-be jumping off point for the world’s newest battle against Islamist extremism.
From here, the Niger River flows north, to where al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and its allies have since April maintained unchallenged control over Mali’s vast desert expanse.
Once prosperous fancy hotels lie dark at night, truck stops overflow with refugees and, outside of town, a militia camps out near an abandoned basketball court, waiting for action.
Yet there is no sense here that any move is coming soon to retake the north, despite evidence that extremists rapidly are consolidating control – something that will make what already is seen as a daunting task even more so.
"I’m losing all hope," said Osman Haile Cisse, the deposed mayor of historic Timbuktu, which is now under AQIM control. Cisse spoke by phone from Timbuktu, where he returned to celebrate the Muslim holiday Eid al Adha.
"Those who were opposed at first are now joining (al Qaida). Southerners are arriving to join as well," he said. "They are all being paid good money."
In Mali today, the scale of the crisis belies the snail-like pace of the international response.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met this week with officials in neighboring Algeria in hopes of winning their support for some kind of action. A month ago, Clinton, speaking on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, described Mali as a hub from which "terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions.”
Libyan leaders have tied the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead to Mali, saying some of the attackers may have infiltrated from here. Some are known to at least have called Mali to boast of their success.
But on the ground here there is little sign of movement. Mali practically quakes from the dissonance between urgent calls for action and the lack of any activity.
Northern Mali is now an open playground for Islamist extremists, smugglers and opportunists. Reports from residents and local journalists who travel in the region suggest the Islamist extremists are moving to cement their control – instituting conservative Islamic Shariah law, collecting ransoms for Western hostages, training new recruits, and inviting others to join.
Known Islamist leaders, such as Omar Ould Hamaha, the military commander of an al Qaida splinter group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, operate in the open, brazenly using easily traceable cellphones to talk to reporters.
"We are inviting them (the U.S.) to come and fight. If they do not come, then our objective has not been attained," Hamaha told McClatchy by phone this week.
J. Peter Pham, a prominent U.S. commentator on African affairs, calls northern Mali a "’Star Wars’ bar" – a land overrun with the region’s miscreants and exiles, like a nightmare jailbreak gone mad.
"Clearly, there is coming and going in the north," said a U.S. diplomat, who was authorized for an interview on condition of anonymity.
U.S. efforts for now are focused on regional diplomacy, a course that is expected to end, eventually, in a Western-backed military intervention similar to an offensive the African Union launched to counter al Qaida’s affiliate in Somalia. Neighboring African states would provide the manpower, the West, intelligence and guidance.