What You Need to Know About Mali

A a French Rafale jetfighter landing after a mission to Mali in N'Djamena, Chad. (AP Photo/Adj Nicolas-Nelson Richard, ECPAD) (National Journal)

Northern Mali could become a failed state and a hotbed for militants, similar to what Afghanistan was when the Taliban took power during the 1990s.

On Monday, France carried out a fourth day of attacks on the Islamic rebels who control the region, as they made a push south toward Mali's capital, churning up a conflict that could engulf the region.

While the United States is hesitant to get involved in this conflict, supporting France on a logistical basis, the turmoil in the region poses dangers. Here is what you need to know about the conflict taking place in Mali:

Natural Divides: For decades, there has been a divide between the northern and southern regions of Mali, both geographic and cultural. The north, which is at the center of the conflict, holds part of the Saharan Desert and is home to the ancient city of Timbuktu. The Tuareg people, who inhabit the area and have repeatedly called for independence from the south, are primarily nomadic, and some have been known to smuggle narcotics from South America and cigarettes to Europe. The southern part of the country is more agricultural, with the Niger and Senegal rivers flowing through it. It is also where the capital, Bamako, is located.

The Libya Connection: After the fall of Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Tuareg, who fought for him, went south to Niger and Mali. When they arrived in Northern Mali, the heavily armed fighters reinvigorated the Tuareg rebellion against the country's government, pushing for independence. Overwhelmed by this new effort and upset by the lack of support from the government, Malian junior officers overthrew the government in Bamako in March 2012. The government is still seen as illegitimate by many Western nations. The remaining Malian soldiers in the north fled, and the Tuareg took over the region.

A Magnet for Militants: With the government gone, drug traffickers and Islamic extremists groups with links to al-Qaida moved in and sidelined the Tuareg separatist movement. This allowed such groups as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, Ansar Dine, and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb to move in and take the strategic cities in the north such as Timbuktu and Gao. Since taking over the region, some of the groups have instituted strict sharia law and built up rebel training camps. John Campbell, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says that these groups enjoy some local support, as is true for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Some of the groups, which identify as Salafists, have even destroyed some of the ancient tombs for Muslim saints in Timbuktu.

Why France Got Involved: Last week, Islamic militants went on the offensive, moving south and taking over towns. As they approached the city of Mopti, which sits on the natural divide between Northern and Southern Mali, the rebels crossed a "red line," says Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The Malian government made a direct appeal to France, worrying the capital could fall. While the African Union is working to build up its troops to eventually go after the Islamic groups in Northern Mali, France has carried out bombing missions in the north and deployed hundreds of troops to the capital and surrounding areas. Rebel groups are still advancing, French President Francois Hollande announced to his citizens over the weekend. It remains unclear how long the French will stay involved in the region, although the decision to intervene in Mali could give a political boost to Hollande, who has been struggling with public support over his handling of the economy. Cooke says it's unclear why the rebels advanced south in the first place, but said it could bolster their position at the negotiating table with the Malian government.

Future U.S. Involvement: Although Northern Mali could serve as a hotbed for militant groups that target Western nations, the war-weary United States is loath to get involved in a conflict in the region. Instead, the U.S. is supporting France with logistical and communications assistance, and is considering sending unmanned drones to help with surveillance. The U.S. reluctance to get involved also stems from the fact that the Malian government came to power in a coup in 2012, and Washington would not want to appear to support it. Until African Union forces are able to mobilize enough troops to take over operations, the United States will continue providing surveillance support. In an embarrassment for the United States, the troops that led the coup last March were U.S.-trained, Campbell says.

Why This Is Important: With their stronghold in the northern region of Mali, the militant groups could destabilize the region and harm neighboring countries. The groups could also use the region to launch attacks on the West, just as al-Qaida used Afghanistan as a base for its attacks against the United States and other countries.