MOPTI, Mali (AP) — Deep inside caves, in remote desert bases, in the escarpments and cliff faces of northern Mali, Islamic fighters are 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.

Northern Mali is now the biggest territory held by al-Qaida and its allies. And as the world hesitates, delaying a military intervention, the extremists who seized control of the area earlier this year are preparing for a war they boast 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 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 terror syndicate and its 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 for global jihad.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, known as 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.

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