While hopes have dimmed for an international response to the crisis in Syria, a coordinated intervention in Mali is probable after the US elections, with the aim of reclaiming territories seized by al-Qaeda affiliated militants earlier this year.
Within the next month, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African Union will submit a detailed plan for the intervention to the United Nations Security Council, in accordance with Resolution 2071. France, which is reportedly flying surveillance drones over the country, played a key role in the drafting of the resolution, and will surely provide logistical, intelligence and training support for the mission. The United States has also deployed a number of Predator and Reaper drones in the region, with reports suggesting these could eventually be used for air strikes, and one Algerian source [AR] indicating that the US and France plan to deploy commando units. The Algerians themselves are wavering over whether to come involved.
It is likely that ECOWAS will begin by holding talks with factions willing to negotiate - and equally likely that a significant portion of the militants, who hail predominantly from such groups as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Eddine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), will rebuff any overtures. Indeed, the Islamist presence in Northern Mali is distinctly hardline, earning widespread comparisons to the Taliban when it took over Kabul in 1996.
In response to any intervention, militants have threatened to march on the Malian capital, Bamako. They have begun to mass their forces, with recent reports suggesting that jihadists from other parts of Africa have begun pouring in to Northern Mali. They are also believed to be plotting pre-emptive kidnappings and terrorist attacks in ECOWAS countries, prompting tightened security measures across 14 African states.
So how have al-Qaeda and its allies come to control half of a West African country, posing what western leaders see as an intolerable threat [FR] to Europe's southern flank, and are they resurgent elsewhere?
The chain of extraordinary opportunities for militants in Mali began with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Hundreds of well-armed Tuareg fighters flowed into Mali after the downfall of their sometime Libyan patron, re-igniting a separatist rebellion in the north. Next, on March 22, 2012, a group of low-ranking Malian soldiers toppled the government in Bamako, motivated by, among other things, their exhaustion and disillusionment at fighting the increasingly confident Tuaregs with poor equipment.
With the Malian military focused on the coup d'etat, the Tuareg rebels went on the offensive, seizing vast swathes of territory in the north and declaring an independent state of Azawad in April. Shortly thereafter, the gains made by the secular Tuareg independence movement were apparently violently usurped by an Islamist faction known as Ansar Eddine, linked to AQIM and led by the Salafi Tuareg chieftain, Iyad Ag Ghaly.
Ansar Eddine, together with MUJAO, now controls major northern towns, including Timbuktu, Goundam, Gao and Kidal. Its militants are seeking to impose a puritanical vision of Islam on the local, largely Sufi population. They have destroyed ancient tombs - considered by them to be idolatrous - and implemented a harsh interpretation of Islamic justice, involving stoning to death an unmarried couple, and amputating the hands and feet of suspected thieves using specially fabricated "giant scissors".
AQIM's regional phase
But Ansar Eddine's grizzly impact will not remain confined to Northern Mali for long. Indeed, these newly formed cadres appear to have drawn upon the resources and networks of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has long held a substantial presence in the ungoverned spaces of the Sahel, primarily under the leadership of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. In turn, these affiliated groups in Mali have breathed new life into al-Qaeda's North African branch, which had been on autopilot in an unwinnable war with the Algerian state.
Since its formation in 2007 out of the remnants of the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, AQIM's Algeria-centricism has been its abiding weakness. Dominated by Algerian fighters and narrowly focused on overthrowing the Algerian regime and implementing an Islamic state, the group appeared to be an al-Qaeda affiliate in name only. At times, its criminal preoccupations - mainly smuggling, human trafficking and kidnapping for ransom (which alone has yielded an estimated $130 million) - seemed to be an end in itself.
In July, the Algerian authorities announced that AQIM had been "neutralised" in Algeria. However, whether forced by the Algerian government's tough counter-terrorism campaign or, more likely, chosen as a course of strategy, AQIM has shifted its centre of gravity southwards - inaugurating a new, more regional phase. Recent developments in Mali and in Libya - from where its fighters have no doubt obtained heavy weaponry - have finally provided the group with the prospect of a deeper entrenchment in the region.
A common consciousness
This development coincides with the evolution of a regional-cum-global consciousness among a handful of jihadi groups in Africa. Once obsessively local groups, including Boko Haram in Nigeria and al-Shabab in Somalia, see in combined action a way of shaking off their divisions and their domestic setbacks to reinvent themselves as more faithful, and effective, affiliates of the global al-Qaeda brand.
This shift is ideological. In a long interview in November 2011 [FR], the senior AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar - aka Belouar or Khaled Abu Al-Abbass - articulated AQIM's mission in strikingly Ladenese terms. In Somalia, al-Shabab's nationalist narrative has undeniably shifted so that one of its primary goals in 2012 appears to be waging global jihad. Boko Haram in Nigeria, whose leader Abubaker Shekau now speaks of an American war against Islam, has been declared to be an emerging threat to the United States [PDF].
The shift is also operational, as demonstrated by a surprisingly successful operation by the Algerian security services in August. The Algerian government claims to have foiled a coordination meeting [AR] between AQIM, the Libyan Ansar al-Sharia group, Boko Haram and MUJAO, and possibly some Tunisian representatives, advanced knowledge of which was made available to them through intercepted emails. Hoping to capture the emir of AQIM, Abdulmalek Droukdel, the Algerians had to make-do with the arrest of his deputy [FR], Abu Ishaq Essoufi, as well as three members of the Libyan Ansar al-Sharia. It is believed that the purpose of the meeting was to establish a jihadi shura council for Africa.
Warnings about increased linkages had been coming for months. In January, Niger's foreign minister claimed that Boko Haram received explosives training at AQIM camps in the Sahel. In June, The president of Niger cautioned [FR] that Afghan and Pakistani jihadis were training recruits for Islamist groups in Mali. A few days, later General Carter Ham, head of the US military's Africa Command, stated that AQIM, al-Shabab and Boko Haram are "seeking to coordinate and synchronise" their efforts, sharing funds, training and explosives material. This week brought reports that fighters from Sudan and the Western Sahara have descended upon Northern Mali.
Owing to weapons and fighters from Libya, the advance of al-Qaeda's affiliates in Mali is linked, to a certain extent, to the Arab Awakening. Of course, this reality cannot serve as an argument against the popular uprisings, especially given that the unstable binary opposition between secular strongmen and violent "Islamic" movements long served as an important enabler of jihadism.
The autocratic regimes argued that they were the guarantors of stability and the only bulwark against a jihadi takeover, while the jihadis maintained that the only way to remove those autocracies was through violence. The radicalism which flourished in that prior context is now, in the fragility of transition, announcing itself.
In Libya itself, a trend of small attacks against western targets, including the Red Cross and a British diplomatic convoy, culminated last month with an assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the deaths of four diplomatic staff, including the US Ambassador. New governments in Tunisia and Egypt are likewise dealing with a sharpened extremist threat. Tunisian forces have clashed with armed groups connected to al-Qaeda in Libya and October 26, a Tunisian man was arrested for links to the Benghazi consulate attack.
Over in Egypt, the Sinai is said to have become a "seedbed of al-Qaeda-inspired cadres", with deadly attacks on border guards in August prompting a military offensive from Cairo, and the reported failure of a recent dialogue initiative. Militants have promised a terrorist spectacular soon.
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was able to make significant advances during the 2011 anti-government protests in Yemen, scarcely impeded in its seizure of Abyan province by a military which was paralysed by rivalries between supporters and opponents of President Ali Abdullah Salah. In the summer of 2012, under the new President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, al-Qaeda and its allies were pushed out of Abyan. However, recent reports suggest that AQAP has resurfaced in the al-Mahfad district of Abyan, with plans to soon retake the districts of al-Mahfad, Lawdar and Mudiyah.
In Syria, as the 20-month old political crisis has become a military one, a handful of jihadi groups have undoubtedly gained a foothold, bringing, as they do, battlefield experience, bravery, and a fierce determination to establish themselves on the doorstep of Israel. While Syrian activists criticise the western media for over-cooking the jihadist angle, there can be no doubting the potential for radical groups to consolidate their gains the more intractable, and thus protracted, the conflict becomes.
Across the border in Jordan, the General Intelligence Branch this month claimed to have aborted a major plot, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 2005 Amman Bombings, and involving explosives and munitions brought in from Syria, and possibly Iraq.
In Iraq, events in Syria have undoubtedly re-invigorated al-Qaeda in Iraq, which, albeit away from international news headlines, has wreaked havoc over the course of 2012, killing 116 people in one day alone. Like its ideological cousins in the Sinai, al-Qaeda's Iraqi affiliates have indicated that training is underway for a major operation, in which they hope to take back territory, and which may well involve a massive offensive against Shia targets in order to stoke sectarian tensions and exploit the regional faultlines that have appeared over Syria.
A global threat?
This potential for short-term gains in chaotic, localised contexts, involving a broad range of al-Qaeda inspired actors, will not necessarily translate into a coordinated and coherent global threat in line with Osama bin Laden's objective. Indeed, since bin Laden's demise, the crisis of authority within al-Qaeda has accelerated, resulting in splits and leadership contestation even within local al-Qaeda offshoots.
For example, al-Shabab in Somalia appears riven with schisms between Somali and foreign fighters. The American Commander Omar Hammami in March released a statement declaring that he feared for his life, which he followed up three weeks ago with an "urgent" message on YouTube, imploring al-Qaeda's central leadership to intervene in the dispute.
With regard to AQIM, a letter intercepted last month [AR], and attributed to AQIM Emir Abdulmalek Droukdel, spoke of an "ill" organisation in which foot soldiers no longer listened to their superiors, carrying out random and undisciplined operations, often for personal gain. It is also an open question whether Mokhtar Belmokhtar will bow unreservedly to the authority of Droukdel's newly appointed Emir of the Sahel regions, Djamal Akache. Perhaps the purpose of the October Sahel "coordination" meeting, in which Droukdel's deputy and some Libyans were captured, may have been for various factions to reconcile and settle their differences, rather than to join forces in a superplot.
In the long run, al-Qaeda's fate will ultimately depend on the survival of the critical current within its own ranks, and its ability to maintain focus on hitting western targets. The leaders of AQAP in Yemen recognise this reality, and have devoted a great deal of energy to hitting a major western target, in the hope of reclaiming bin Laden's original mission and moving "jihad" out of the region and into the west. They have also tried to curb fanaticism and show a more moderate face to the Yemeni people, in order to win over the "Muslim masses".
It remains to be seen whether their loose allies in Somalia, Mali, Egypt, Iraq and Syria will reinforce or undermine AQAP in its task of global renewal. Initial indicators are not positive, given the shocking levels of brutality that continue to be meted out to Muslims across the region in al-Qaeda's name.
Still the aim of many of these groups is to capitalise on any power vacuums; to sow and then exploit chaos. It is worth recalling, then, that the victims of terrorism have been predominantly Muslim (82 to 97 percent over the last five years [PDF]) and that, with their violence and their tyrannical definitions of Islamic virtue, al-Qaeda's affiliates currently menace populations across the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa, more than any of us in the west. As such, counter-terrorism policies which privilege military force compound the threat to these already endangered civilians.
After 9/11, much was made of the fact that most of the 19 hijackers came from middle class backgrounds. More than a decade on, al-Qaeda is resurgent in fragile and failing states, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Egyptian Sinai and Mali, which are also afflicted by grave governance problems, resource scarcity, humanitarian crises, absolute poverty and conflict. Military spending alone cannot deal with the realities that make these environments hospitable to al-Qaeda. More creative solutions are needed, involving a more holistic, human-centred approach, which aims at freeing these vulnerable populations from the violent binary of terrorism and counter-terrorism.
Dr Alia Brahimi is a Research Fellow at the London School of Economics. She received her doctorate from the University of Oxford.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.