When we hear about the war on terrorism, we usually hear about Afghanistan.
After the 9/11 attacks and more than 10 years of war, it's been front and centre in the fight against Islamic extremism.
But a new front is emerging in a country, that world leaders aren't really talking about - at least not publicly.
That country is Mali - in the heart of West Africa.
Mali is one of Africa's poorest nations. But until this spring, it was also considered an example of democracy and stability.
However, over the past six months or so, that stability has been severely shaken.
In April, there was an army mutiny and coup in the capital, which overthrew the government and left the military in shambles.
Shortly after that, seven militant groups linked to al-Qaida essentially took control of northern Mali.
Since then, as the Washington Post puts it, "it has become the continent's latest failed state."
The militant groups are well-financed, with plans to build a base for Islamic extremism in North and West Africa. Already, they're said to be imposing Shari'a law and setting up committees to oversee local towns.
Not only that, but officials say northern Mali has become a safe haven for organized crime and drug smugglers (especially cocaine) - who are coming and going as they please.
That gives the militant groups money for recruitment and training.
About 400,000 residents have been forced from their homes, banks have pulled out their cash reserves, and militant training camps have opened.
Western officials say military force is needed to retake the north. But any offensive is still months away, according to U.S. officials.
As a French intelligence officer told TIME, "It's not something that will be over in a flash, and it's not something anyone can undertake lightly."
In fact, there's a report today that any foreign-backed offensive will take at least six months to prepare.
One diplomat based in Mali's capital Bamako told Reuters "You won't have boots on the ground in northern Mali until everything is ready to go."
"It is quite conceivable that there will be no military action for up to a year. Any intervention will probably need to be before April or after September," the diplomat said.
That's because of Mali's rainy season, in the middle of the year.
West African leaders have approved a plan to send troops into Mali - up to 4,000 of them - backed by the U.N. and the West.
Soon, they will seek a mandate from the U.N. French President Francois Hollande said today he hopes it will be finalized by the end of the year.
Once it is approved however, Mali's military is still expected to lead any ground offensive in the north. The West African troops would be there to provide back-up.
Problem is, Mali's army is nowhere near ready for war. Diplomats say it will take months of training to rebuild the army, and get it up to fighting levels.
Reuters says it has seen a plan known as the 'Strategic Concept of Operations'.
Apparently, it lays out a three month timetable for West African forces to go into Mali, and retrain and equip the nation's army.
After that, there would be strategic air strikes over the three major towns in the north, to take out key militant leaders.
From there, ground troops would roll in, to retake the area. That's expected to take four months. Another three months will be needed to stabilize things.
Plus, there's the cost - estimated around $300-500 million. No one really knows who's going to pay for it all.
In the meantime, the United States is looking to start talks with the militants - to try and divide them, and win over some warlords without a fight.
"Negotiations need to go on before, during and after" an intervention, said a U.S. diplomat.
"There has to be time given for more moderate elements... to get off the battlefield. That has to play out," another diplomat said.
In fact, some of the militant groups don't get along. And today, the first real cracks emerged as two of the groups attacked each other.
Still, as time passes, there are fears the militants are digging in, preparing for war and potentially planning attacks in Africa, but also against Europe.
Residents and local officials say the Islamist groups are growing as they recruit Malians and foreigners.
Sadou Diallo, the ousted mayor of Gao, the north's largest city, told TIME "The longer this goes on, the more and more are arriving."
According to Reuters, the African battle plan estimates there are 2,500-3,000 core fighters for the militants - coming from Africa, Europe and Asia.
The U.S. puts the number somewhere between 800 and 1,200.
Either way, Europe is concerned, particularly France - which once colonized Mali. As TIME points out, Northern Mali is "barely a hop and skip across the Mediterranean."
Plus, France has a large Malian population - some of whom are "younger people who've become radicalized and who feel they need training and exposure to real fighting," said a French counterterrorism official.
The European Union has said it would send 200 troops to Mali to help with training. But it's not interested in a combat role. Neither is France or the U.S.