BAMAKO, Mali (AP) -- Deep inside caves, in remote desert bases, in the escarpments and cliff faces of northern Mali, Islamic extremist fighters have been burrowing into the earth, erecting a formidable set of defenses to protect what has essentially become al-Qaida's new country.
They have used the bulldozers, earth movers and Caterpillar machines left behind by fleeing construction crews to dig what residents and local officials describe as an elaborate network of tunnels, trenches, shafts and ramparts. In just one case, inside a cave large enough to drive trucks into, they have stored up to 100 drums of gasoline, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, according to experts.
Now that intervention is here. On Friday, France deployed 550 troops and launched air strikes against the Islamists in northern Mali, starting battle in what is currently the biggest territory in the world held by al-Qaida and its allies. But the fighting has been harder than expected, and the extremists boast it will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan.
"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."
Al-Qaida's affiliate in Africa -- al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM-- has been a shadowy presence for years in the forests and deserts of Mali, a country hobbled by poverty and a relentless cycle of hunger. Last year the terror syndicate and its allies took advantage of political instability in Mali to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over an enormous territory larger than France or Texas -- and almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.
The catalyst for the Islamic fighters was a military coup nine months ago by disgruntled soldiers, which transformed Mali from a once-stable nation to the failed state it is today. The fall of the nation's democratically elected government at the hands of junior officers destroyed the military's command-and-control structure, creating the vacuum which allowed a mix of rebel groups to move in.
After the international community debated for months over what to do, the United Nations Security Council called for a military intervention on condition that an exhaustive list of pre-emptive measures be taken, starting with training the Malian military. All that changed in a matter of hours last week, when French intelligence services spotted two rebel convoys heading south toward the towns of Segou and Mopti. Had either town fallen, many feared the Islamists would advance toward the capital, Bamako.
Over the weekend, Britain authorized sending several transport planes to bring in French troops. Other African nations have authorized sending troops, and the U.S. has pledged communications and logistical support.
The area under the rule of the Islamist fighters 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.
AQIM operates not just in Mali, but in a corridor along much of the northern Sahel. This 7,000-kilometer (4,300-mile) long ribbon of land runs across the widest part of Africa, and includes sections of Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad.
"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 Taliban fighters once dominated. "There's no containment strategy for the Sahel, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea."
The Islamists in northern Mali had been preparing for battle long before the French announcement, according to elected officials and residents in Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, including a day laborer hired by al-Qaida's local chapter to clear rocks and debris for one of their defenses. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety at the hands of the Islamists, who have previously accused those who speak to reporters of espionage.
The al-Qaida affiliate, which became part of the terror network in 2006, is one of three Islamist groups in northern Mali. The others are the Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, based in Gao, and Ansar Dine, based in Kidal. Analysts agree that there is considerable overlap among the groups, and that all three can be considered sympathizers, even extensions, of al-Qaida.