Erin Burnett OutFront -

Why Mali matters: al Qaeda on the rise

CNN's Erin Burnett reports from the border of Mali on why the northern region of Africa is important.

Why Mali: The rise of al-Qaeda in Africa By Erin Burnett

A quarter million people have fled Mali. That’s twice as many as from Syria. So, why are we here? Islamic militants, linked to al-Qaeda, have taken control.

U.S. authorities fear this country will be the newest haven for terrorists, and we have heard firsthand accounts of just that. Malians have told us horrible stories of militants slashing open people’s stomachs, and worse.

Mali is in the midst of war.

It began after the US and NATO intervened in Libya. When Gaddafi was killed, his weapons were looted. Many were taken by the powerful Tuareg tribe… and Islamic radicals. The Tuareg used them to fight and declared independence from Mali, something they’ve wanted for decades. And the country was split in half.

The Malian government, with only about 7,000 American trained troops, couldn’t stop them. Frustrated by the failure, some commanders staged a coup.

And Mali – one of the most successful democracies in Africa – fell into total disarray. That’s when Islamic radicals seized the moment, sweeping into the North, crushing the Tuareg.

Person after person here has told us of seeing fighters from Libya, Algeria and Afghanistan. The men they defeated told us the Islamists have many more weapons: RPGS, AK-47s, mortars and high-caliber weapons mounted on the back of 4x4s.

The Islamic radicals used those weapons, along with axes and shovels, to destroy historic shrines in Timbuktu. Shrines that date back to the 15th-century because, according to the militants, they offend Sharia law, which is now the rule.

I called the military leader of Ansar al Dine, the major Islamic militia fighting alongside al-Qaeda. We wanted to give them a chance to tell their side of the story. But they wouldn’t take my call because I am a woman.

The Tuareg want to defeat the Islamists. And they want help because the consequences, they say, are dire.

People in the villages are terrified.

Al-Qaeda-linked militants have established a network of informants, even paying villagers to join their cause. I was told villagers have been given satellite phones to report any sightings of westerners.

This is the reason so many have fled, walking for two weeks, to camps like the one I’m at tonight.