Dozens of Malian troops rush through the sweltering desert, yell war cries and open fire, spitting hundreds of bullets from rifles and machine guns. It's all part of a training session — run by the United States.
The U.S. is trying to help nations bordering the Sahara and the arid Sahel region to contain a growing threat of terrorism. More than 200 U.S. Special Forces and 500 African troops trained together in May, in the latest of several large military maneuvers over the past few years.
Intelligence officers estimate there are some 400 Al-Qaida extremists based in the vast emptiness north of here, up from about 200 just a year ago. They worry that the militants are teaming up with smugglers carrying cocaine across the desert to Europe and with the restless nomad tribes of the Sahara.
As the extremists get stronger and wealthier, they are attracting more recruits among local youth and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. While Algeria's large military has managed to contain most terror attacks to the hinterland, militants have spread southward through the porous borders of the Sahara to take advantage of weaker African governments like Mali and Niger.
Officials fear the militants could use their safe havens to mount jihadi operations against Europe and the United States.
"You can consider they're only 400 in the desert, but they now dominate a zone half the size of Europe," says a French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his job is to monitor the zone. "It's a threat everybody is taking very, very seriously."
A dust bowl of adobe mud houses surrounded by sand dunes, the small town of Gao lies at the junction between al-Qaida and organized crime. The Tuareg nomads pitch tents on the town's outskirts, along with Arab and Moorish Bedouins. The Peul, a black tribe of cattle herders, live in round, wooden huts right next to a gated hotel compound transformed into a U.S. military camp.
Gao, in northeastern Mali, marks the start of an area twice the size of Texas that has been declared a no-go zone, where al-Qaida is holding hostage two Spaniards and a Frenchman.
The northern halves of Mali and of neighboring Niger, the eastern part of Mauritania and the southern tip of Algeria are now "red zones" banned for travelers by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry, which maintains close ties to the region — a French colony until the 1960s. American and British authorities have also issued strong terrorism warnings.
Malian soldiers trying to patrol the area have lost several men during clashes with drug traffickers, arms smugglers, bandits and al-Qaida.
"The real problem is that it's getting hard to know who's an Islamist and who's just a criminal," said Col. Braihama Tagara, the military commander for Gao region. "They support each other more and more."
The gunmen's weaponry has improved hugely of late, Tagara said. They can open fire with automatic riffles, heavy machine guns and even R-Pgs, and they all have Thuraya satellite phones to share intelligence.
The growth in the terrorist footprint in North Africa dates back to 2006, when a local militant group, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, merged with al-Qaida. The new group took the name of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. It operates much like a franchise from an international firm: AQIM has imported the techniques and "brand" of Osama bin Laden's network, and pays its dues by sending militants to fight U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For now, most of AQIM's violence has taken place outside Mali's borders, apart from the murder of an army colonel last year and a few random desert skirmishes.
The militants openly claim on jihadi websites they want to topple the government in Mauritania to create an Islamic caliphate. A suicide bomber tried to destroy the French embassy in Mauritania's capital, Nouakchott, last summer, and militants frequently clash with the Mauritanian army to Mali's west.
In Niger, to the east, AQIM attacked an army unit last winter, killing several soldiers.
AQIM's potency has also grown to the north, in Algeria, where a tourist guide was arrested this year because he planned to turn his group over to extremists. The vast area between the town of Tamanrasset and the Malian border was declared off limits by the Algerian military this year because of insecurity, and one official said police had thwarted a plan to kidnap tourists even within the town.
The American military presence in Gao and other desert towns has become so frequent that many Malians believe the U.S. wants to establish permanent Sahara bases to track terrorists. American officials deny this, saying they offer Mali training and military gear to help it maintain its own security.
To the north of Gao is al-Qaida's main desert base, set in mountains near Terargar. The fact that AQIM can run a training camp and resupply base in broad daylight highlights how little control local authorities have over northern Mali, Western intelligence officials say.
Many, interviewed on condition of anonymity, suspect there is a sort of "pact of nonaggression" between Mali and AQIM: Malians don't try to dislodge al-Qaida, and in turn the militants avoid directing their attacks on Mali.
Local authorities deny this is taking place.
"The government does what it can, but the challenge is just so huge," says Assarid ag Imbarcaounane, the deputy speaker of Mali's national assembly and a close ally of the country's president.
Some officers might, "on a case-by-case basis," be bribed into ignoring AQIM or the traffickers, Imbarcaounane said. But most troops and police are simply no match for the forces they encounter, said the lawmaker for Gao district. He said there are only a couple of hundred troops and police to monitor all of Gao's administrative district, a barren area the size of Florida.
This is also the hub for a thriving trade in cocaine, flown in from South America. Intelligence officials say the trade has soared to between 50 and 100 metric tons of drug last year, from tiny quantities a decade ago.
Nobody thinks al-Qaida has cornered the Sahara cocaine trade. But most suspect AQIM gets "protection money" for letting the caravans drive by unharmed, or rents out bases like Terargar for resupply. Officials also believe AQIM militants are increasingly "freelancing" as bodyguards hired by the cartels to protect drug shipments from rival traffickers.
Intelligence officials say the militants often get paid in kind — weapons and ammunition — rather than cash.
The militants are organized in "Khatibat," or units, headed by the "Emir of the South," an Algerian man known as Abou Zeid, or Mossab Abdelouadoud. He is viewed as a disciplined radical with close ties to AQIM's overall boss in northern Algeria, Abdelmalek Droukdel.
The south's former chief, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was the first AQIM chief to move into the desert some six years ago. Known as "the one-eyed sheik" because he fought in Afghanistan and lost an eye in combat, Belmokhtar married into the ruling family of the Berebiche, one of the region's nomadic tribes.
Intelligence officials say Belmokhtar essentially built a bridge between AQIM and the underworld, creating a system where various blends of outlaws now support each other and enroll local youth.
The Tuareg are the best armed and disciplined nomads, the overlords of the desert, and they have never been considered close to Islamists. But some Tuareg from the younger generation now work for the drug runners, thus coming in contact with AQIM militants.
Tribal chiefs insist they do everything to prevent the AQIM-drug connection from growing. But the nephew of a prominent Tuareg chief, for instance, has been detained in Algeria with a drug shipment.
A video filmed by the Malian army and viewed by The AP shows the outlaws' power. The footage shows a column of half-a-dozen solid 4-by-4s driving cross country at breakneck speed. Several of the cars are mounted with 12.7 heavy machine guns and all the men on board are heavily armed.
Algeria, the regional powerhouse, has created with its neighbors a joint military command headquarters in Tamanrasset. A key challenge is hostage taking, which has soared since 2003.
"It's triggered a real 'kidnap economy' in areas where there are so few other resources," says Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, Mali's former defense minister and intelligence chief.
Rather than kidnapping people themselves, AQIM militants usually just buy hostages from other gunmen or tribes. Boubeye Maiga and others say militants pay a minimum of 70,000 euro per Western tourist, as long as the hostage isn't taken in Mali — so as not to antagonize their host country.
Austrians, Swiss, Italians, Spaniards and two Canadian envoys from the United Nations have been kidnapped in recent years all across the region, and then held in northern Mali.
Malian and Algerian officials say all were released for millions of dollars in ransom, except a Briton, Edwin Dyer, who was beheaded last June. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the killing "a barbaric act of terrorism" but insisted Great Britain never paid ransoms.
France also says it didn't pay for Pierre Camatte, a Frenchman kidnapped near Gao last year. But his rescue, secured during a trip to Mali by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, came after Malian police released four jailed AQIM militants in February.
Another Frenchman, Michel Germaneau, has since been abducted in Niger. He is held by AQIM in Mali, along with two Spanish aid workers, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, who were taken in Mauritania in November.
The most worrying sign of the militants' rise is that so many tribesmen are now willing to find Westerners for sale, many officials say. Tribal chiefs, often the only real form of local authority in the stateless desert, all say they are bent on preventing their disgruntled followers from helping AQIM. But most Tuareg live on a pittance compared with the tens of thousands of dollars that a single drug shipment or kidnapping can bring.
"The Tuareg have absolutely nothing to do with al-Qaida," says Bajan Ag Hamatou, the Amenokal, or king, of a powerful Tuareg confederation based around Menaka, an area just east of Gao. "But what can chiefs do when the young have no jobs and no camels?"
Hamatou, whose family has ruled with absolute power for centuries, is seeing authority slip through his hands. Though he won't openly admit it, the Amenokal now sees rival power brokers rising in the desert: the men doing business with al-Qaida and with cocaine.
"It's very worrying, because the drug money and the Islamists are polluting everything," Hamatou warned. "When you spend your time making money with al-Qaida, you end up thinking like them.
Like all other Malian officials, Hamatou says the U.S. military has given more than training and gear, sometimes delivering GSP grid coordinates to direct patrols or attacks. Lt. Col. Joseph Duncan, the commander of Special Ops. Task Force 103, which deployed 100 Special Forces to train the Malian army, denies this — or says he's not aware of it.
But Mali still needs more help, says Hamatou, who also sits in Mali's parliament and is the deputy chief of the country's defense commission.
If U.S. and European forces don't help hunt down AQIM, he worries, "it's going to become much, much worse than just a few kidnappings."