Efforts to push back rebels in Mali could destabilise the region as the mainly foreign jihadists retreat into neighbouring countries, experts warned today.
Mali expert Dr Marie Rodet said although French military action was proving successful, it could just be moving the problem, rather than solving it, as rebels move out.
Dr Rodet, lecturer in the History of Africa at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS), University of London, said with little state control, it had been easy for potential jihadists to move to Mali.
"Most of these jihadists are coming from Algeria, Mauritania, western Sahara and further," she said.
"You have different groups of fighters on the ground and for the past nine months there was no state control over the region, it was even easier for all the potential jihadist fighters to come from anywhere.
"It has been said that some have come from Pakistan to train there."
Within nine months or so, it had been easy for people to come into an area which was inherently difficult to control because of its vast territory and difficult terrain, she said.
But efforts to push the rebels out could cause other problems in neighbouring countries such as Mauritania, Algeria, and Niger, Dr Rodet added.
"So far they (French forces) have been quite successful because if most of these fighters are coming from outside and they realise that Mali is no longer a safe sanctuary for their terrorist action, they will find another place.
"What is worrying is they move into neighbouring countries so it doesn't solve the problem - Mali will become safer but there's a high risk that it will destabilise all the neighbouring countries.
"That's why all these countries are watching very, very closely what is happening now."
Guy Lankester, veteran traveller to Mali, said rebels were mainly foreign rather than homegrown and France would "easily break" them.
Mr Lankester, who runs travel company From Here 2 Timbuktu, said any jihadist extremism that had come into Mali in the past year was "totally foreign", and as foreign to Malians "as it would be in Wales".
"Whatever jihadist extremism has come into Mali has come in really in the last year and is totally foreign," said Zimbabwe-born Mr Lankester, who organises tailor-made tours for people to discover Africa, including Mali, as well as Cameroon, Mauritania and Morocco.
"There is nothing in the society for it to key into - it is as foreign to them as it would be in Wales!"
Many of the "jihadists" will not be able to fade into the community, Mr Lankester said, because they are foreign, with "foreign tongues, clothes and colours".
He said they were few in number and many were young men who had been conscripted.
"This battle should be quick. France should easily break them," he added, saying he supported what France is doing if it sticks to the "stated mission".
Mr Lankester branded most of the rebels "mafia criminals", dealing in drugs, cigarettes and ransoms for hostages.
And Dr Rodet said the situation was often a vicious circle, where would-be terrorists needed to find ways of funding their actions.
"They are all intertwined processes - to be able to finance terrorist actions you need money and so if you are involved in trafficking you can get that, and so on. It's a vicious circle."