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French Defeat of Islamist Militants May Be Fleeting

French forces pushing Islamist militants out of their last strongholds in northern Mali have been met with cheers and gratitude. Only there may not be time for much celebration. French officials are already hinting their forces may leave as soon as possible. But analysts say the threat to Mali and all of northern Africa and the Sahel is far from over.

Militant Islamists have been driven by French and Malian forces back into the desert sands.

Just don't expect them to stay hidden for long.

“You can kill them here. You can kill them there. They're going to go someplace else," said Daniel Serwer, who is with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Over the past few years al-Qaida-linked groups like Ansar Dine have been finding the empty, ungoverned spaces across northern Africa and the Sahel ideal places for launching attacks and strengthening their forces.

Now, as Sajjan Gohel with the London-based Asia Pacific Foundation says, they are getting bolder.

“What we're seeing in North Africa is the ascendancy of al-Qaida’s affiliates, especially groups like al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb,” Gohel said.

And there are some stark differences between these affiliates and the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

“Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb has no problem in conducting criminal activity, holding people hostage for ransom, taking part in the illegal distribution of drugs and narcotics. This shows they are able to fund themselves,” Gohel said.

One of the leaders of this criminal element is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a one-eyed Algerian jihadist with extensive ties to northern Mali who has run operations across the Sahel.

It's Belmokhtar who's thought to have planned the assault and hostage-taking at Algeria's Ain Amenas gas complex, which left dozens of foreign workers dead.

Terror analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross warns that attack is part of an emerging strategy that's proving effective.

“Even without carrying out a spectacular attack against the United States, something we obviously have not seen since September the 11th, 2001, it’s possible to do damage to U.S. interests in the region, and that’s precisely what happened in Benghazi this past September,” Gartenstein-Ross said.

Experts say the goal of the al-Qaida affiliates is to put the U.S. on the defensive in as many ways and in as places as possible -- driving up costs -- a sneaky way of hitting at the U.S. economy.

That may mean more cooperation, like what took place in Mali, where the U.S. provided support but the French took the lead.

Serwer cautions that, when the U.S. does respond, it will also have to be very careful.

“What you don’t want to get into in this situation you have in Yemen where it appears that we are perhaps creating as many terrorists as we’re killing with drone strikes,” Serwer said.

Analysts warn too many missteps risk radicalizing communities in the Maghreb and Sahel and even North African immigrants in Europe.