Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb may be the big fish in northern Mali, but the African nation is seeing a rising tide of terrorist organizations looking to claim the title of top shark in the waters.

The Heritage Foundation’s Africa analyst Morgan Roach says several factors are making Mali a hub for terrorist activity.

“Following the collapse of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, these well-trained rebels are coming back into the territory, the Sahel,” Roach said. “There’s been a massive influx of weapons in the area. A massive cache of weapons from Libya were completely looted, and we don’t know where these arms are. … We’re talking surface-to-air missiles.”

Another factor Roach cites: Northern Mali has slightly over 1 million people spread across a land area the size of France. The vast empty space provides any group with hundreds of square miles of open territory.

Roach says the power breakdown providing jihadists an opening began with the March military coup.

“The coup opened up an opportunity for Tuareg rebels, the MNLA, to move into the area. They’re mostly a secular group,” Roach said. “However, they joined together with an Islamist group, the Ansar al-Deen. Ansar al-Deen, while it is also a Tuareg group, they’re predominantly Islamist.”

Roach says the Ansar al-Deen succeeded in marginalizing their more secular partners.

“Ansar al-Deen was able to undermine the MNLA and kick them to the curb,” Roach said. “Ansar al-Deen then linked up with another group called the MUJAO.”

MUJAO stands for The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, and Roach says they have teamed up with Boko Haram, the notorious church-bombing group fighting for control of northern Nigeria.

Yet Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is still in the driver’s seat, Roach says, making Mali a volatile hotbed for terrorism.

“AQIM in particular, which is based in Algeria, has also been a very present group in the region,” Roach said. “So most of the north has been occupied by Islamists, and there has been no attempt by the interim government to reoccupy the region.”

Jonathan Racho, Africa specialist for the Christian human rights organization International Christian Concern, agrees, saying that northern Mali has now become even more dangerous than northern Nigeria.

“Mali is more dangerous than northern Nigeria because in northern Mali the radicals have taken complete control of the region,” Racho said. “In northern Nigeria, there are members of Boko Haram fighting to take over the region, but they have not yet succeeded in taking over. The Nigerian government still has presence in the region. ”

Racho warns that Mali’s military is absent from the north, leaving the terror cells to run wild.

Racho also notes that Christian persecution has increased in the north since the jihadist takeover.

“There are specific instances of cruel punishment,” Racho said. “According to the report by the New York Times, in mid-September, the Islamists amputated the hands and feet of four men after accusing them of robbery in the northern Mali town of Gao. And in July, the Isalmists stoned a man and a woman to death after accusing them of adultery.”

The acts of persecution are becoming more graphic, even though Roach says the Christian population in Mali is very small.

“Mali is predominantly a Muslim country. There are a lot of animist tribes there as well,” Roach said. “[Yet] AQIM, occupying the north, has committed violent, atrocious acts against these people. … One couple was stoned to death for allegedly associating with one another outside of marriage. And there have been amputations. Other acts of torture have been alleged.”

Roach says if there is a bright spot to the persecution issue, most northern Malians are not in line with the jihadists.

“Most of the Muslims in northern Mali don’t follow the jihadist ideology. Still we’ve seen small militias forming to defend their territory,” Roach said. “They’re very admirable, but they’re poorly trained and poorly armed. They’re no match for these groups that are occupying their territory.”

News reports say that the MUJAO group executed an Algerian diplomat earlier this month.

This report was followed by another from African Diplomacy that said the Malian crisis is spreading.

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