The world is watching closely as French and African troops square off against Islamist rebels in northern Mali, with some predicting the conflict could develop into full blown war if the militants' advance isn't stopped quickly.

John Thompson, a senior terrorism expert with the Mackenzie Institute, sat down with CTV News to explain more about the conflict, and its implications for the region and the world.

Mali was once a model of democracy and stability in Africa. What went wrong?

Tensions have been building in Mali in recent years as militants, some linked to the terrorist group al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, established a foothold in the country's north. AQIM is one of al Qaeda's oldest franchises, and has recently been accessing weapons, ammunition and perhaps most importantly, experience, from the conflict in Libya, Thompson said.

Libya’s former dictator Moammar Gadhafi recruited fighters from across North Africa to fight under his flag in the dying days of his dictatorship, including many from Mali. When those fighters returned home in 2011, they were well-trained and equipped to launch an insurgency. Those efforts gained steam after a military coup brought down the democratic government in March 2012, creating a leadership vacuum in the country which the militants capitalized on.

While the military was distracted with the coup, rebel militia groups were able to take over the three northern regions of Mali, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee to southern Mali and neighbouring countries such as Mauritania and Senegal. They've been destroying cultural sites in the region, including shrines in the famed city of Timbuktu, similar to the destruction Taliban carried out in Afghanistan.

Who are the key players?

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has been around since the 1990s when it was formed in Algeria to fight that country's secular government -- at the time the militant group was called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, before the name was changed in 2007.

The group is now considered one of the most dangerous and well-funded of al Qaeda's affiliates, carrying out kidnappings for ransom, training other al Qaeda groups on financial management, and carving out a base in northern Mali for militant training and even for use as a hub to ship narcotics to Europe and weapons to other Islamist groups in Africa. The hardline militants have also imposed Shariah law in the region and hope to enforce it across the entire country.

Mali is currently under a unity government appointed after the coup in March 2012, and is being urged by countries such as Canada to hold democratic elections to establish new leadership. In the meantime, African nations are sending in several thousand troops to help fight the rebels. France is helping, carrying out airstrikes and bringing in ground forces, while several other Western nations, including Canada and Germany, are providing "logistical" help to the effort.

Could African troops handle this on their own?

Troops from the African Union have been growing in confidence and competence in recent years, largely due to their experience fighting Al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. But while they do have boots on the ground, the Africans are lacking high-tech equipment such as spy planes, drones or long-range, self-guided missiles designed to hit small targets at great distances. However, Thompson said those shortfalls could be covered by developed nations, such as Canada, which is taking on a support role while staying out of direct combat.

Does Mali have the potential to become another Afghanistan?

It's unlikely that Mali will become another Afghanistan, Thompson said, largely due to its location and history. Mali has an established record as a democratic country -- a model that has been held up to the rest of Africa as an example of how an African nation can thrive under democracy. As a result, the Malian people aren't inclined to offer widespread support to Islamist militants. Compared with Afghanistan, Mali is also much more supportive of foreign intervention and troops are less likely to face the risk of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices that were a part of everyday life for forces there.

Is Canada contributing enough to help make a difference in Mali?

Canada has sent a C-17 Globemaster transport plane to Mali, along with 35 Canadian Forces troops. However, the plane and troops have only been committed for one week, and are going to Mali under the explicit caveat that they will not participate in combat efforts, but will instead provide a support role to French troops. Thompson said Canada has been investing in Mali in recent years, considering it a beacon of democracy in the region. Now, he suggested, would be a good time to back up that financial investment with more military support. He said a co-ordinated air assault, similar to that launched against Gadhafi in Libya, could quickly put an end to the rebels' advances.