DAKAR - Al Qaeda's affiliate in North Africa is the militant organisation's richest faction and the dominant Islamist force among those controlling northern Mali, the head of the U.S. military's Africa Command (AFRICOM) said on Thursday.
General Carter Ham said the international community and the Malian government now faced a complex challenge to try to deal with the strengthened presence in Mali's largely desert north of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the militant group's North African franchise.
Mali, for a long time seen as a stable nation in an often turbulent West African region, imploded in the space of a few weeks after a March 22 coup sowed confusion and allowed a mix of Tuareg separatists and Islamist rebels to occupy the northern two-thirds of the country.
Over recent weeks, the Islamists, including AQIM fighters, have gained control of the vast area, creating what African and Western leaders are calling a "terrorist haven" that they say threatens both regional and international security.
African leaders and Western governments including the United States and France, the former colonial power in the region, have been discussing the idea of a Western-backed African military intervention force going in to try to expel the rebels from the north and reunite divided Mali.