Mali is a ticking time bomb.
Once hailed as a model of democracy in Africa, a coup and an uprising of Islamist militants in the north threatens to create an arc of instability for the continent.
The militants have destroyed ancient shrines, once a major draw for Islamic scholars from around the world. They have banned music.
And reports of human rights abuses grow daily, including the public stoning death of a couple accused of having an affair.
International leaders, concerned that al Qaeda will capitalize on the chaos and set up a haven there, are considering sending troops to Mali soon to reclaim a large portion of the north from extremists.
What's the story behind the instability?
Mali gained independence from France in 1960. The landlocked West African nation went through growing pains after independence, including droughts, rebellions and years of military dictatorship. It held its first democratic elections in 1992, and had a strong democracy for the most part.
That was until March, when a group of soldiers toppled the government, undermining the nation's growing economy and relative social stability.
What led to the coup?
A group of outraged soldiers accused the government of not providing adequate equipment to battle ethnic Tuareg rebels roaming the vast desert in the north.
On March 22, a riot erupted at a military camp a few miles from the presidential palace in the capital of Bamako. Disgruntled soldiers marched to the palace.
A few hours later, a soldier appeared on state television and said the military was in control of the nation. The president was nowhere to be found.
The Tuareg rebels took advantage of the power vacuum and seized some parts of the north. They have always wanted independence, and have staged several rebellions since the 1960s.
After Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi was killed and Libya plunged into chaos, his weapons became available. The Tuareg -- many of whom fought for him -- seized them and took up arms against the Malian government.
How did the north end up in the hands of Islamist militants?
After Tuareg rebels seized it, a power struggle erupted with local Islamist radicals. The Islamist extremists toppled the tribe and seized control of two-thirds of northern Mali, an area the size of France.
Various factions of al Qaeda-linked militants are reportedly in the area, including Ansar Dine.
The international community is also worried that al Qaeda's north African wing is expanding into Mali.
U.S. officials have said that the wing, the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is linked to the deadly Benghazi attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others.
Why does the instability concern the international community?
The international community is concerned that al Qaeda will capitalize on the chaos to set up a haven there. The area is remote and hard to access, making it an appealing location for the militants.
Tuareg rebels have retreated from the well-armed militants, but have vowed to fight back against the Islamists. The Tuareg want their own country in the north, which they call Azawad.
And as the world seeks a solution, the Islamist militants are busy applying their strict interpretation of sharia law.
What are some of the human rights concerns in Mali?
Islamists controlling most of the north have vowed to impose a stricter form of Islamic law, or sharia.