Northern Mali is one of the most remote and unforgiving places on earth, a moonscape of mountains, gorges and deserts. It is also emerging as the next battleground in the war on terror.

A powerful Al Qaeda affiliate known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, took control of the region late last year. It imposed harsh Islamic law, lashing unmarried couples and obliterating cultural landmarks in the ancient city of Timbuktu. More alarmingly, AQIM has set up training camps throughout the north and stockpiled huge caches of weapons and ammunition, including shoulder-fired missiles capable of downing Western airliners. The group is providing safe havens for militants from Boko Haram, a terror group using bases in northern Mali to train and the fighters carrying out strikes inside neighboring Nigeria, and working to build ties with Islamist fighters from Somalia, Yemen, and other African countries. They are, in short, working to turn northern Mali into the next Afghanistan.

The big question is what will happen next. France sent troops to push the Al Qaeda fighters out of Timbuktu and other major northern towns, but the militants appear to have merely melted away into the countryside. AQIM has claimed responsibility for a string of suicide bombings and assassinations in ostensibly liberated towns, and it has promised to hit Western targets once the French leave. The Obama administration has made clear that it wants no part of Mali. If AQIM is successful, however, the U.S. may get pulled into the country all the same.

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Yochi Dreazen is a senior writer for Foreign Policy, covering national security and foreign affairs. He is also writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security, where he is...