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An air of provincial ease endures despite the choking traffic and big-city pressures. Farther north the sense of isolation grows, as dirt roads lead to the fabled outpost of Timbuktu before the land opens out into the parched, scrubby Sahel region, a vast empty expanse, and the rolling dunes of the Sahara. Mali makes for an unlikely flashing red light on the geostrategic map of Africa.

But the country finds itself a focus of attention in western and regional capitals, its vast swathe of the Sahel — along with those of neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Algeria — having grown into an intriguing link in the global anti- terrorism chain.

Death from the desert: how the lawless Sahel region fuels jihadist ranks

Last September seven foreigners — five French, a Togolese and a Madagascan — working at a French-owned nuclear facility in Arlit, northern Niger, were taken at gunpoint by a unit of the self-titled al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib Aqim , a group held responsible for kidnapping and killing Europeans in the region. The ripples have been felt far and wide: official French warnings of an increased threat of terrorist attack in Europe have been linked to events in the Sahel and, reflecting a general intensification of diplomatic and military activity, units from western armies have been discreetly dispatched to the region.

It covers an area of more than three million square kilometres, much of it uninhabited desert or grassland, where state authority is nominal and illicit smuggling has been a mainstay of local economies for decades. Twenty years ago it was tobacco and cannabis. Today the Mali-Niger-Mauritania corridor is one of the busiest supply routes for cocaine, arms and illegal migrants heading to Europe.

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Much of the supply originates in South America, whose drug cartels provide a cut to Tuareg tribal leaders in the Sahel to ensure the safe passage of their cargo. Last December the burnt-out wreckage of a Boeing was found abandoned in remote northern Mali having brought a cargo of several tonnes of cocaine from Venezuela undetected. The aircraft is thought to have made the journey many times before a technical fault prevented its crew from taking off.

Into this lawless hinterland came Aqim.

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The Malian government resents the accusation. The security response is one aspect. The Sahelian drama has revealed tensions between regional and western governments, and at times between western capitals themselves. There are acute sensitivities at play between France and its former colonies, for example, and The Irish Times understands that when Paris sought permission to deploy operational units in Mali earlier this year, Bamako flatly refused, forcing the French to station their troops in two neighbouring countries instead.

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Last July a joint Franco-Mauritanian commando raid was carried out near Timbuktu in an attempt to liberate Michel Germaneau, a year-old French hostage. Six Aqim militants were killed, but the soldiers found no trace of Germaneau, whose death was announced several days later. The no-go area now includes Timbuktu and all the most popular tourist destinations. Some foreign analysts suggest that Paris may be trying to cut off the tourist industry to exert political pressure on the Malian government, but others say the new warning was based on firm intelligence that Aqim was looking for hostages farther south.

Debate continues on how great a threat Aqim poses, and how it might be contained. Others see tentative cause for optimism.

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Regional co-operation is improving, and Algeria, the local powerhouse that has awkward relations with many countries, has declared its desire to see the problem resolved. Yet a clear consensus has formed around the belief that Aqim can only be defeated if regional governments, supported by discreet western training and development aid, can commit to a co-ordinated long-haul effort. The subscription details associated with this account need to be updated.

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