AP IMPACT: As world hesitates, al-Qaida carves out own country in Mali, prepares to defend it - 12/31/2012 3:11:26 AM | Newser EXCERPTS: 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. ...... 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. ...... Turbaned fighters now control all the major towns in the north, carrying out amputations in public squares like the Taliban did. Just as in Afghanistan, they are flogging women for not covering up. Since taking control of Timbuktu, they have destroyed seven of the 16 mausoleums listed as world heritage sites. The area under their rule is mostly desert and sparsely populated, but analysts say that due to its size and the hostile nature of the terrain, rooting out the extremists here could prove even more difficult than it did in Afghanistan. Mali's former president has acknowledged, diplomatic cables show, that the country cannot patrol a frontier twice the length of the border between the United States and Mexico. 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. ...... Earlier this year, the 15 nations in West Africa, including Mali, agreed on a proposal for the military to take back the north, and sought backing from the United Nations. Earlier this month, the Security Council authorized the intervention but imposed certain conditions, including training Mali's military, which is accused of serious human rights abuses since the coup. Diplomats say the intervention will likely not happen before September of 2013. In the meantime, the Islamists are getting ready, according to elected officials and residents in Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao, including a day laborer hired by al-Qaida's local chapter to clear rocks and debris for one of their defenses. They spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety at the hands of the Islamists, who have previously accused those who speak to reporters of espionage........ In Gao, residents routinely see Moktar Belmoktar, the one-eyed emir of the al-Qaida-linked cell that grabbed Fowler in 2008. Belmoktar, a native Algerian, traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and trained in Osama bin Laden's camp in Jalalabad, according to research by the Jamestown Foundation. His lieutenant Oumar Ould Hamaha, whom Fowler identified as one of his captors, brushed off questions about the tunnels and caves but said the fighters are prepared. "We consider this land our land. It's an Islamic territory," he said, reached by telephone in an undisclosed location. "Right now our field of operation is Mali. If they bomb us, we are going to hit back everywhere." He added that the threat of military intervention has helped recruit new fighters, including from Western countries. In December, two U.S. citizens from Alabama were arrested on terrorism charges, accused of planning to fly to Morocco and travel by land to Mali to wage jihad, or holy war. Two French nationals have also been detained on suspicion of trying to travel to northern Mali to join the Islamists. ...... Hamaha indicated the Islamists have inherited stores of Russian-made arms from former Malian army bases, as well as from the arsenal of toppled Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, a claim that military experts have confirmed. Those weapons include the SA-7 and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles, according to Hamaha, which can shoot down aircrafts. His claim could not be verified, but Rudolph Atallah, the former counterterrorism director for Africa in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said it makes sense. "Gadhafi bought everything under the sun," said Atallah, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel, who was a defense attache at the U.S. Embassy in Mali. "His weapons depots were packed with all kinds of stuff, so it's plausible that AQIM now has surface-to-air missiles." ...... 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."