MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block. The country of Mali in western Africa was seen as a beacon of democracy in Africa. Now, after a coup, Mali has spiraled into chaos, with the northern half of the country under the control of rebels and Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaida.
The ancient city of Timbuktu is among those now in the hands of hard line Islamists who are destroying and desecrating the tombs of Sufi Muslim saints. Jennifer Cooke joins me to talk about the forces at play in Mali. She directs the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington.
Jennifer, welcome to the program.
JENNIFER COOKE: Thanks, Melissa.
BLOCK: And why don't we break down some of the armed groups who've taken advantage of a power vacuum and have taken over the north of Mali. First, talk about the Tuareg ethnic group and their separatist intentions.
COOKE: Well, the Tuareg are nomadic people that have worked for a long time in the Sahara. A separatist movement in recent years has demanded greater autonomy, political access, economic access. It's been fairly quiescent in the last couple of years, but with the fall of Gadhafi, a number of Tuareg who had been loyal to Gadhafi and fighting alongside him...
BLOCK: In Libya.
COOKE: ...in Libya returned to Mali with arms, with experience of conflict and kind of infused new energy into the separatist movement.
BLOCK: And they have been in some sort of rough alliance with the Islamist faction that seized control of Timbuktu now, the group called Ansar Dine, which means protectors of the faith.
COOKE: Yes. This is a very uneasy alliance and, in fact, there are signs of serious splits because Ansar Dine is not looking for independence or a secular independent state in northern Mali, as the Tuareg are. It seeks to impose Sharia nationwide in Mali. They said we don't want a separate state. Our goal is in position of Sharia.
BLOCK: What is their vision of Sharia law for Mali?
COOKE: Well, it's a fairly harsh version of Sharia law and they've been fairly ham-handed and rough in the towns that they've seized, particularly in Timbuktu, insisting on head coverings, banning TV. In some instances, women have been beaten and there's a Sharia police that kind of patrols the streets.
And they've been destroying some of the great symbols of Sufi Islam that Timbuktu and Mali are known for - the tombs of the Sufi saints and the famous mosque in Timbuktu.
BLOCK: One question has been, with the rise of the fundamentalist Islamic groups in the north of Mali, does that become a safe haven for terrorists or terrorist camps? What do you think?
COOKE: Well, that's the great fear - A, that these groups become a magnet, and already there's evidence of foreign fighters working alongside them, including from Nigeria, some reports of that.
But almost more dangerous is just simply the vacuum that it's going to create, kind of a seething mess of criminal groups, terrorist groups and others with very little monitoring or security for the local populations.
BLOCK: There have been calls for an African force or a UN force to go in and try to stabilize Mali, go up to the north. Do you think that's at all likely and how would that work?
COOKE: Nobody wants to see the situation stand as it is because it's a huge threat to the region. Neighboring Niger is very fragile. Moritania is very fragile. Both have problems with al-Qaida and Islamic Maghreb. However, the West African force - they're currently contemplating a force of 3,000 - we're not talking about a simple peacekeeping mission here. It would really have to be an interventionist force over an area that is vast, the size of France, and not clear that they have the wherewithal to do that without serious international backing.
BLOCK: And within Mali itself, there's the power vacuum, right? I mean, after the coup, there was an interim government named. The president was attacked by a mob, has been out of the country. It's unclear who's in charge.
COOKE: Exactly. And that interim government is now creating a force to protect the regime. They're getting pressure to form a government of national unity to eventually hold elections and get the democratic process back on track. So you've got multiple crises and you've got a food security crisis happening and refugee flows into the neighboring countries. It's really a pretty bleak picture right now with not a lot of easy answers.
BLOCK: Jennifer Cooke directs the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Jennifer, thank you for coming in.
COOKE: Thank you, Melissa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.