TIMBUKTU, MALI — The Saharan sands stretching north from this fabled outpost have long been a trade route and cultural crossroads, and this past year has brought worrying signs that the desert might also help bring a violent brand of Islam to moderate parts of West Africa.
An increase in attacks has included the killing of an American teacher and a suicide bombing in Mauritania, the kidnapping of two Canadian diplomats in Niger, and the executions of a British tourist and a Malian colonel in Mali. All were attributed to an al-Qaeda branch made up mostly of Algerians that has ranged southward to hit in urban Mauritania and establish a rear base in the Malian desert.
Mali remains proudly moderate, and most people here dismiss extremist ideology as too foreign and brutal to be accepted. But Mali in some sense has become a test case as its government has accepted tens of millions of dollars in American aid intended to stave off what U.S. officials say could be a growing threat of radicalism in parts of Africa where Muslims make up the majority.
“It does not find a lot of purchase among local people,” a State Department official said of the extremist group, known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. But, the official said, “the problem has gotten a lot worse in the past three, last one year. . . . It’s one that requires attention.”
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