While I was working as a translator for a US oil company in the Sahara desert in the early 1980s, I had the chance to visit the legendary city of Timbuktu with a group of colleagues and a Tuareg guide. So it was with some pleasure years later that I came across a text by the 14th-century North African geographer Ibn Battuta, who had been enthralled by the majesty of the Mali Empire of West Africa, which he visited in 1352. "There is complete security in the country," he wrote.
Contrast those days, when Christians and Muslims lived side by side in the Sahel, to the conflict today. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its offshoots - the swarms of fanatics such as Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) - have driven out Christians and others, and desecrated Sufi shrines in Timbuktu and nearby areas in the past month.
The Libyan insurgency was predicted to have a domino effect, empowering both secular and Islamist movements across the region. Hence the Tuareg, a nomadic Berber people who criss-cross the western territories of the Sahel, and who have been repressed by successive governments in the region, decided to unshackle themselves.
Although many Tuareg opposed the Qaddafi regime, hundreds from Libya, Mali and Niger enlisted in the Libyan army. And in September 2011, when it was obvious that the regime would fall, Tuareg fighters in the Libyan forces emptied the arms lockers and crossed borders into Niger and Mali. It was the combination of spoils from Qaddafi's arsenal and well-trained former soldiers that triggered an insurgency in northern Mali, which the Tuareg call Azawad.
In December 2011, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) - an umbrella group of Tuareg tribal militias - launched its campaign to liberate northern Mali, an area the size of France that is rich in oil and uranium. The Malian armed forces, no match to the "liberators" who returned from Libya, suffered a series of setbacks in the field. A subsequent military coup and pressure from other West African states left a power vacuum in Mali's capital Bamako.
The Tuareg have been fighting for independence for almost a century, with five Sahel rebellions starting in 1916. When the MNLA proclaimed independence on April 6, 2012, that history of rebellion partly explained West Africa's refusal to recognise the state. Niger and Mauritania, backed by France, rejected the group's claim for independence; Algeria, which had traditionally reconciled Tuareg groups and regional governments, is now seeking to contain the rebellion.
The MNLA is committed to secular rule, which puts it in clear opposition to AQIM and its splinter groups, including Ansar Eddine. (AQIM was founded in 2006 following the disbanding of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which itself was born from the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria). Despite their differences, the MNLA and Ansar Eddine made a marriage of convenience to capture Timbuktu earlier in the year.
But their fundamental differences led to clashes between the two groups, especially after Islamist militants flattened seven Unesco-listed Sufi mausoleums in the past month. Now Ansar Eddine and MUJAO control all three of the northern region's main cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal.
As a result, Christians have fled the region, with more than 200,000 internally displaced people and refugees according to some NGOs. The MLNA and other northern Malians have set up armed militias to avert further demolition of shrines. "Our nation has existed long before the scramble for Africa," said Nina Wallet Intalou, a political officer in the MLNA. "And now that we have declared our independence, AQIM and its sponsors are posing a threat to our existence and the Tuareg culture."
The International Criminal Court has also initiated a preliminary investigation into alleged atrocities perpetrated in rebel-held territories.
The less well-known MUJAO has set up an atypical position in the Sahel's jihadist firmament, specialising in abductions for ransom, with 13 hostages still being held. In May, the group demanded €30 million (Dh133 million) and a prisoner exchange in return for three European aid workers who were kidnapped last October from a Sahrawi refugee camp in south-west Algeria. The three were released last week, although no details about a ransom were disclosed. For the release of three Algerian diplomats, out of seven who were kidnapped in Gao in April, the MUJAO said it had received €15 million.
The Algerian and European governments deny paying ransoms, but this lucrative kidnapping business - initiated by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in a daring 2003 abduction of 32 European tourists - is believed to have earned tens of millions of euros for AQIM and its affiliates. The Islamist groups are also involved in the transshipment of drugs, which generates $900 million (Dh3.3 billion) a year according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Paradoxically, these narco-traffickers seek to impose Sharia in the territories they control.
While Ansar Eddine and MUJAO militants are tightening their hold on northern Mali, there are reports of foreign fighters, from groups such as Nigeria's Boko Haram, supervising training camps in rebel-held areas. With Bamako having surrendered control in these areas, and with even the MLNA on the back foot, the Tuareg aspiration of Azawad is in real danger of becoming an extremist safe haven.
Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian assistant professor of comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Connecticut