The Malian town of Timbuktu, long considered the epitome of remoteness in the Western imagination, has undergone a dramatic transformation from tourist outpost to terrorism‐haunted site of a UN peacekeeping intervention, in a shift accompanying conflict‐hit Mali's wider relabelling as a ‘danger zone’. Casting an eye on this distressing turn, this article considers the ‘cartopolitics’ of distance and danger from a historical perspective while analysing the machinations of foreign interveners and cartographers. It shows how Mali's insertion into the ‘war on terror’ drew on colonial and precolonial mappings intermixing desire and danger, domination and fear, science and fantasy. Concluding, the article argues that if military strategy was once seen as paralysed by a ‘Vietnam syndrome’, today we see something akin to a ‘Timbuktu syndrome’ as Western powers obsess about controlling perceived dangers emanating from remote sites yet increasingly fear entering these ‘Timbuktus’ of a revived geographic imagination.

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