MOPTI, Mali // Deep inside caves, in remote desert bases, in the escarpments and cliff faces of northern Mali, militants are burrowing into the earth, erecting a formidable set of defences to protect what has essentially become Al Qaeda's new country.
They have used the bulldozers and earthmoving machinery left behind by fleeing construction workers 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 lorries into, they have stored up to 100 drums of petrol, guaranteeing their fuel supply in the face of a foreign intervention, according to experts.
Northern Mali is now the biggest territory held by Al Qaeda and its allies. And as the world hesitates, delaying a military intervention, the extremists who seized control of the area this year are preparing for a war they boast will be worse than the decade-old struggle in Afghanistan.
"Al Qaeda never owned Afghanistan," said the former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by Al Qaeda's local organisation, whose fighters now control the main cities in the north. "They do own northern Mali."
Al Qaeda's affiliate in Africa 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. In recent months, the insurgents and their allies have taken advantage of political instability within the country to push out of their hiding place and into the towns, taking over an enormous territory which they are using to stock arms, train forces and prepare attacks.
The catalyst for the militants was a military coup nine months ago that transformed Mali from a once-stable nation to the failed state it is today. On March 21, disgruntled soldiers invaded the presidential palace. 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.
With no clear instructions from their superior officers, the humiliated soldiers left to defend those towns tore off their uniforms, piled into lorries and beat a retreat as far as Mopti, roughly in the centre of Mali. They abandoned everything north of this town to the advancing rebels, handing them an area that stretches over more than 620,000 square kilometres. It's a territory larger than Texas or France - and it's almost exactly the size of Afghanistan.
Fighters now control all the major towns in the north, and carry out amputations in public squares just as the Taliban have done in Afghanistan. The Mali insurgents are also flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, and 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 has been 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.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqim) operates not just in Mali, but in a corridor along much of the northern Sahel. This 7,000-kilometre 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 Peter Pham, an adviser to the US military's African command centre, 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."
This year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations. Last month, the Security Council authorised the intervention but imposed certain conditions, including training Mali's military, which is accused of serious human-rights abuses since the coup. Diplomats have said the intervention was unlikely to happen before September.
In the meantime, the Islamists are getting ready, according to elected officials and residents in Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, including a day labourer hired by Al Qaeda's local chapter to clear rocks and debris for one of their defences. 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 the media of espionage.
The Al Qaeda 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 between the groups, and that all three can be considered sympathisers, even extensions, of Al Qaeda.
The Islamic fighters have stolen equipment from construction companies, including more than $11 million worth from the French company SOGEA-SATOM, according to Elie Arama, who works with the European Development Fund. The company had been contracted to build a European Union-financed motorway in the north between Timbuktu and the village of Goma Coura.
The official from Kidal said his constituents have reported seeing militants with construction equipment riding in convoys behind 4-by-4 trucks draped with their signature black flag. His contacts among the fighters, including friends from secondary school, have told him they have created two bases, around 200 to 300 kilometres north of Kidal, in the austere, rocky desert.
"The Islamists have dug tunnels, made roads, they've brought in generators, and solar panels to have electricity," he said. "They live inside the rocks."
Still further north, near Boghassa, is the second base, created by fighters from Ansar Dine. They too have used seized explosives, bulldozers and sledgehammers to make passages in the hills, he said.
In Timbuktu, the fighters are becoming more entrenched with each passing day, warned Ousmane Halle, the mayor.
Earlier in the year, he said, the Islamists left his city in a hurry after France called for an imminent military intervention. They returned when the UN released a report arguing for a more cautious approach.
"At first you could see that they were anxious," said Mr Halle. "The more the date is pushed back, the more reinforcements they are able to get, the more prepared they become."
In the regional capital of Gao, a young man said he and several others were offered 10,000 francs (Dh74) a day by Al Qaeda's local commanders, a rate several times the normal wage, to clear rocks and debris, and dig trenches. He said he saw bulldozers and earth- moving machinery inside an Islamist camp at a former Malian military base 7 kilometres from Gao.
The fighters are piling mountains of sand from the ground along the dirt roads to force cars on to the pavement, where they have checkpoints everywhere, he said. In addition, they are modifying their all-terrain vehicles to mount them with arms.
"On the backs of their cars, it looks like they are mounting pipes," he said, describing a shape he thinks might be a rocket or missile launcher. "They are preparing themselves. Everyone is scared."
In Gao, residents routinely see Moktar Belmoktar, the one-eyed emir of the Al Qaeda-linked cell that grabbed Mr Fowler in 2008. Belmoktar, a native Algerian, travelled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and trained in Osama bin Laden's camp in Jalalabad, according to research by the Jamestown Foundation. His lieutenant Oumar Ould Hamaha, whom Mr Fowler identified as one of his captors, brushed off questions about the tunnels and caves but said the fighters are prepared.
"We consider this land our land. It's an Islamic territory," he said, reached by telephone in an undisclosed location. "Right now our field of operation is Mali. If they bomb us, we are going to hit back everywhere."
He added that the threat of military intervention has helped recruit new fighters, including from western countries.
In December, two US citizens from Alabama were arrested on terrorism charges, accused of planning to fly to Morocco and travel by land to Mali to fight. Two French nationals have also been detained on suspicion of trying to travel to northern Mali to join the Islamists. Hamaha himself said he spent a month in France preaching his fundamentalist version of Islam in Parisian mosques after receiving a visa for all European Union countries in 2001.
Hamaha indicated the Islamists have inherited stores of Russian-made arms from former Malian army bases, as well as from the arsenal of toppled Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, a claim that military experts have confirmed. The militants are believed to have surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down aircraft.
Among the many challenges an invading army will face is the inhospitable terrain, Mr Fowler said, which is so hot that at times "it was difficult to draw breath". A cable published by WikiLeaks from the US Embassy in Bamako described how even the Malian troops deployed in the north before the coup could only work from 4am to 10am, and spent the sunlight hours in the shade of their vehicles.
Yet Mr Fowler said he saw Al Qaeda fighters chant Quranic verses under the Sahara sun for hours, just one sign of their deep, ideological commitment.
"I have never seen a more focused group of young men," said Mr Fowler. "No one is sneaking off for R&R. They have left their wives and children behind. They believe they are on their way to paradise."