Depending on the model, these missiles can range far enough to bring down planes used by ill-equipped African air forces, he said. However, they will be far less effective against the forces of the West, with their better equipment.
Another factor in the success of military intervention will be the reaction of the people, who, unlike in Afghanistan, have little history of extremism. Malians have long practiced a moderate form of Islam, where women do not wear burqas and few practice the strict form of the religion. The Islamists are imposing a far more severe form of Islam on the towns of the north, carrying out amputations in public squares, flogging women for not covering up and destroying world heritage sites.
The Islamists’ recent advances draw on al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s near decade of experience in Mali’s northern desert, where Fowler and his fellow U.N. colleague were held captive for four months in 2008, an experience he recounts in his recent book, ‘‘A Season in Hell.’’
Originally from Algeria, the fighters fled across the border into Mali in 2003, after kidnapping 32 European tourists. Over the next decade, they used the country’s vast northern desert to hold French, Spanish, Swiss, German, British, Austrian, Italian and Canadian hostages, raising an estimated $89 million in ransom payments, according to Stratfor, a global intelligence company.
During this time, they also established relationships with local clans, nurturing the ties that now protect them. Several commanders have taken local wives, and Hamaha, whose family is from Kidal, confirmed that Belmoktar is married to his niece.
Fowler described being driven for days by jihadists who knew Mali’s featureless terrain by heart, navigating valleys of identical dunes with nothing more than the direction of the sun as their map. He saw them drive up to a thorn tree in the middle of nowhere to find barrels of diesel fuel. Elsewhere, he saw them dig a pit in the sand and bury a bag of boots, marking the spot on a GPS for future use.
In his four-month-long captivity, Fowler never saw his captors refill at a gas station, or shop in a market. Yet they never ran out of gas. And although their diet was meager, they never ran out of food, a testament to the extensive supply network which they set up and are now refining and expanding.
Among the many challenges an invading army will face is the inhospitable terrain, Fowler said, which is so hot that at times ‘‘it was difficult to draw breath.’’ A cable published by WikiLeaks from the U.S. Embassy in Bamako described how even the Malian troops deployed in the north before the coup could only work from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m., and spent the sunlight hours in the shade of their vehicles.
Yet Fowler said he saw al-Qaida 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 Fowler, who now lives in Ottawa, Canada. ‘‘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.’’
Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed contributed to this report from Bamako and Mopti, Mali.
Rukmini Callimachi can be reached at www.twitter.com/rcallimachi
Baba Ahmed can be reached at www.twitter.com/Babahmed1