Is the West African state of Mali, where al Qaeda fighters are well-established in the north, the next Afghanistan?

You might think so, listening to former Canadian ambassador Robert Fowler on NPR this morning. He was held hostage for 130 days by brutes from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2008.

The Obama administration is aware of the threat from the al Qaeda fighters; the French government is openly alarmed. There is talk of “Africanistan” among some West African government officials.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was in Tunisia earlier this week and offered U.S. military help to boost the regional struggle against al Qaeda, which is well-armed in the deserts of northern Mali thanks to the fallout from the Libyan conflict across the border. A coup in the Malian capital Bamako last March allowed AQIM to benefit further from the country’s instability. According to news reports, Panetta urged Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia to come up with counterterrorism efforts to confront AQIM and ensure border security.

Right now that looks like leading from behind. West Africa has always been considered part of France’s backyard in terms of U.S. strategy. France too is looking to the region to take the lead in any crackdown. But that could change, depending on the nature of the strategic threat.

Fowler said that the military option is the only way to deal with AQIM, to help it achieve the martyrdom it craves. “I see no other way of dealing with the threat they pose than helping them die for their cause,” he told NPR.

I know Fowler from his days as U.N. ambassador, and he is not prone to exaggeration. Policymakers should be concerned about this. Fowler pointed out that this is the first time al Qaeda has control of a country, a more or less secure base from which to operate. As such, there is a clear threat to Western interests. While the West is struggling to crack down on terrorist havens in Yemen and Somalia, there is no room for complacency in Mali.