A picture taken with a mobile phone earlier this month purportedly shows Islamist insurgents in Gao, Mali.
Hours after French troops launched a ground offensive in Mali to quash an Islamist rebellion, militants retaliated by seizing dozens of hostages, reportedly including Americans, in neighboring Algeria — an attack that underscores Western fears of a deteriorating security situation in northwestern Africa.
A group calling itself "the Signatories of Blood" claimed it stormed a remote gas plant in the Sahara and took captives Wednesday because of Algerian support for France's campaign against Malian rebel groups, some with links to al-Qaida.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta described it as a "terrorist attack" and vowed that the U.S. would "take all necessary and proper steps."
The mass kidnapping has raised the stakes in the region and, in particular, in Mali, where radical Islamist groups have consolidated control over the country's vast northern region, and fighters were advancing toward the capital city of Bamako.
Militants And Mercenaries
Mali is no stranger to rebellion. Indigenous Tuareg tribesmen in the north have staged a number of uprisings for independence, first in 1916 against colonial ruler France and later against governments of an independent Mali.
The latest conflict traces its roots to the 2011 civil war in nearby Libya. Moammar Gadhafi, battling to save his ultimately doomed regime, used Tuareg mercenaries to bolster government forces. When Gadhafi fell, the Tuaregs — well-armed and battle-hardened — returned home to renew their cause for independence.
"Until the collapse of Libya under Gadhafi, the Malian Tuaregs were more or less 'managed' in a loose standoff" with the government in Mali, says Mark Schroeder, an Africa analyst with the intelligence firm Stratfor.
Along with money and guns from Libya came a shadowy new ally: Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
"That combination of forces was able to gain control over the whole of northern Mali," Schroeder says. With the entry of AQIM, and the takeover of the north last spring, the situation quickly became "insupportable for the international security community, [raising] the attention level in capitals like Paris and Washington."
The returned mercenaries formed the backbone of the main Tuareg rebel group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA. Hard-line Islamist groups with ties to AQIM were also fighting alongside the Tuaregs.
The Malian army failed to stop the advance, creating divisions within the government and military, and triggering a coup in March that overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure. Months later, the alliance between the Tuaregs and the Islamist groups broke apart. The jihadists seized control of most of the north and imposed a strict form of Sharia law.
A Growing Terrorist Threat?
Northern Mali is now effectively controlled by three Islamist groups: AQIM, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. As of Thursday, extremist fighters were within 250 miles of Bamako, where Toure's successor, Dioncounda Traore, leads an unelected government.
France — whose forces have also conducted airstrikes over Islamist-held territory — and the U.S. have a compelling interest in preventing an Islamist takeover in Mali and in keeping it from becoming a Somalia-style failed state. Either outcome, experts say, could open it up as a haven for international terrorists. Several European hostages, including four French nationals, are currently held in northern Mali by AQIM-linked rebels.
Defense Secretary Panetta has said he is "confident" the U.S. will be able to provide intelligence and logistical support, such as air lifts, for French soldiers. The U.S. has also promised money and logistical support for a Nigerian-led force comprising troops from several African nations to back up the shaky Malian army.
"The top U.S. concern in Africa has been and continues to be terrorism," says Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Washington-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
"Based on what we experienced in Afghanistan, there's recognition that you can't just ignore these ungoverned territories that then can become areas for training and then staging operations," Siegle says. "That represents a security threat not just for that country and that region, but ultimately that can become a global threat."
Many analysts are concerned that AQIM is helping to unite a transnational Islamic terrorist network in North Africa. The Brussels-based European Geopolitical Forum, an independent think tanks, says that since AQIM's formation in 2007, the terrorist threat in North Africa has "taken on an increasingly regional dimension."
A February 2010 report released by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point states: "In the Sahara ... south of Algeria's borders, AQIM factions have been active. This is largely due to the opened, ungoverned spaces throughout northern Niger, northern Mali and eastern Mauritania, an area roughly the size of Australia."
An increase in smuggling and drug trafficking through West Africa in recent years is also likely fueling the conflict. Cocaine from Latin America has been routed through the region to take advantage of porous borders en route to Europe, Siegle says.
"There has been a marrying up of the traffickers and some of these militant groups in Mali, including AQIM, who have profited handsomely from the collaboration," he says. "A key for AQIM's operational capacity in the last few years is that they have had this new source of revenues that they haven't had in the past."
Aside from defeating the rebels, restoring some sense of a stable, democratic government in Mali could prove challenging, Siegle says.
"We need to rehabilitate the Malian military. But also politically, the country is really out to sea without a rudder because of the coup that took place last March. They've really struggled to get back on a constitutional foundation," he says, referring to Traore's unelected government.
"Without a legitimate government in place, it's going to be hard to organize the collective efforts of the Malian people in repairing the state," Siegle says.
Schroeder agrees, saying the best possible outcome for the conflict is "a re-empowerment of the Malian army and the Malian government."
"What's needed is a reintroduction of civilian order in Bamako, and equipping civilian and military authorities to recover control in northern Mali, and to deny that territory to international terrorists," he says.