RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now a look at who's fighting in Mali and why that far away conflict might affect the United States. Yesterday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered the most basic take on America's interests in Mali - al-Qaida is there.
SECRETARY LEON PANETTA DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE: The fact is, we have made a commitment that al-Qaida is not going to find any place to hide.
MONTAGNE: And that includes Mali.
NPR's counter-terrorism correspondent Dina Temple-Raston joins us now to talk more about this. Welcome.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Now, break down for us, please, the different groups that are fighting in Mali.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, first on one side there's Mali's military. And then on the other side a local independence group called the Tuareg, and a coalition of Islamist militants, including groups with ties to al-Qaida.
If we go over a brief history of the last few years in Mali, basically what's been gone is this. Mali's military has been fighting that Tuareg independence movement in the northern part of the country. And there have been periodic shuffles with the Tuaregs since like 1916. What's different this time is that some of the Tuaregs who are fighting now have more experience.
Tuaregs have been fighting as mercenaries for Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi. And when he fell, they came home to Mali and they brought with them Libyan weapons and fighting experience. And they started winning against Mali's military and taking territory in the North.
MONTAGNE: And at that point joined forces with the Islamists.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, Islamists including al-Qaida. The Tuaregs figured that once they won independence they would ask the Islamists to leave. But they've miscalculated. The Islamists pushed many of the Tuaregs who are more secular out of northern Mali. So now the fight is largely between Mali's government and the al-Qaida-linked groups, like Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
And the Mali military hasn't been very effective. Over the past year they've lost territory the size of Texas .
MONTAGNE: And the government of Mali, it's a new interim government. The government of Mali as been asking for help. And one place that appears to be very happy to get help was from France, which is the former colonial power in Mali - and it has intervened.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Exactly, and the U.S. policy had been to help prop up the civilian government and get a pan-African force to fight the Islamists and al-Qaida in Mali. The U.S. in particular didn't want to feed the perception that this would be just another battle of the West against Islam. And France apparently didn't want to wait for that slow and steady approach.
So the president of France, arguing that thousands of French citizens in Mali were in danger, sent in about 750 troops and French fighter jets. And some U.S. officials say that by going in France may actually have made the problem worse.
MONTAGNE: Now, how would that be? Why worse?
TEMPLE-RASTON: Well, because they will have put a Western face on this conflict - exactly what the U.S. was trying to avoid. You know, over the past year, Mali has become a kind of go-to destination for violent jihadis. The sense is that with France stepping in, this will just make Mali that much more attractive to them. So the idea is that this is a local conflict, even with an al-Qaida presence there, and it could now become a global terrorism problem.
Here's just one example of what could happen. Just last month, two Americans from Alabama were arrested on terrorism charges and the FBI alleges that these two men were boarding flights to go join the fight in Mali.
And now Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, he said yesterday that the U.S. will provided some sort of logistical support to France. But what the U.S. really wants this to be is an African-led initiative. And we're hearing that they're probably going to see a movement back in that direction in the coming weeks. In fact, just overnight the French president said that he wants to hand this problem over to the Africans as quickly as possible.
MONTAGNE: Dina, thanks very much.
TEMPLE-RASTON: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Dina Temple-Raston. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.