Al-Qaeda Runs Free in Area the Size of Texas

Coons noted that AQIM is reported to be "the best-funded, best-equipped, most potentially lethal A.Q. affiliate in the world" with sophisticated weaponry (including support from Iran) and juicy revenue from drug trafficking and kidnapping. They're also believed to receive support and funding from Algerian expats and AQIM members around the world.

"Can we afford to wait a year for a regional solution?" the senator asked.

"On the other hand, can we afford not to wait to allow the political environment to be more conducive to a successful military intervention, and to allow the process of force generation to proceed, which does take time to train, equip, develop a force before it's employed," Dory responded.

Corrine Dufka of Human Rights Watch told the Senate panel that Malians have suffered at the hands of the Islamists "frequent, often severe beatings, arbitrary arrests against those engaged in haraam or forbidden behavior such as smoking, drinking, watching television, listening to music, or having music on one's cell phone."

"Countless women that I have interviewed have been beaten and detained for failing to adhere to their dress code. The Islamists have also carried out summary executions, including the January execution in Aguelhok of some 70 Malian soldiers, which is to date, the single most serious war crime of this conflict," she said. "Also in Aguelhok the Islamists stoned to death a couple for adultery. A witness I spoke to described seeing the -- the man and the woman crouched, hands bound in a hole as the Islamists hoisted large rocks, shattering the skulls of first the woman, and then the man. As well they have carried out eight -- at least eight limb amputations, as punishment for theft."

Hundreds of child soldiers as young as 11 years old have been recruited into training camps and to carry out Sharia punishments.

Dufka quoted one witness as telling the human rights group, "They have erased our history. They have taken all of the joie de vivre from our lives."

The Algerian-based terror group Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) joined forces with al-Qaeda in 2006 and changed their name the following year -- a "blessed union," as declared by then-No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor who took over al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden's death.

The May 2011 assassination of bin Laden was lauded as the beginning of the end of the terror group by President Obama, and "al-Qaeda is on the run" was a staple of his campaign trail message.

And they have plenty of room to run -- and train, and grow -- in an unstable region of Africa.

UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said this week he expects no military intervention before at least September or October of next year.

"It won't be a peace operation," Ladsous told a conference in Paris. "It will be a war operation and that poses difficulties to the UN's way of thinking."

"If this spreads across boundaries, and if al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb becomes more and more powerful in the neighborhood partners surrounding -- it will be a significant problem not just for the United States, but for all of West Africa," Isakson said.