Within the past few days, French combat forces have deployed to the West African state of Mali to halt the advance of militant Islamist fighters toward the capital and to help the Malian army begin to reclaim towns previously occupied by the militants. After intense airstrikes against rebel strongholds, French ground forces are moving north to try to dislodge the fighters.
Mali is one of the poorest countries in Africa, a vast and sparsely populated land that is largely desert. But events there are being watched with growing anxiety throughout West Africa, in European capitals and in Washington. Why?
1) Location, location, location
Mali is hardly a regional powerhouse and is "marginal" to the world economy. It does not sit on lakes of oil; it is landlocked and desperately poor. But it is very big -- nearly twice the size of France -- with seven neighbors whose long, poorly guarded borders provide militants with supply (and escape) routes.
Many of these countries - from Algeria in the north to Ivory Coast in the south -- have themselves seen violence, extremism and instability and are ill-equipped to deal with the fallout from Mali imploding.
To the west, Mauritania has its own problems with Islamist militants associated with al Qaeda. Neighboring Niger to the east has, like Mali, seen frequent rebellions by ethnic Tuareg separatists.
To the north, the Algerian government still has its own al Qaeda problems. In the 1990s an Islamist insurgency and its repression claimed at least 100,000 lives. Militant cells remain active in the eastern mountains and in the desert bordering Mali, where troop convoys have been ambushed on several occasions.
Despite lingering animosity toward France because of colonial rule, Algeria has taken the unprecedented step in the past few days of allowing French military overflights to monitor the extremists' movements. That's because, according to analysts, it sees a growing danger of militant groups coalescing. To try to prevent militants infiltrating, Algeria has closed its border with Mali and deployed some 30,000 troops to border regions. Mauritania has also tried to protect its border.
Mali also sits astride some of the most lucrative smuggling routes from Africa to Europe, routes that militants have turned into a cash machine. At one point, drug traffickers from South America were flying aging jets packed with cocaine into a remote desert airstrip in Mali, for shipment to Europe.
So vast and inhospitable are the deserts of North Africa that groups with local knowledge (and a fleet of 4 x 4 vehicles) can make serious money from trafficking, whether in drugs, people or other contraband.
2) Ungoverned space
In Mali and throughout much of West Africa, the lack of state authority is nirvana to extremist and criminal groups. Across a largely Muslim area stretching from the Mediterranean to northern Nigeria, deprivation and corruption are recruiting sergeants for militant Islamist groups: al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa (MUJAO), Ansar Dine and Boko Haram.
The current crisis has been some time in the making. A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 quoted a senior Algerian official, Abdelmalek Guenaizia, who complained that "the nexus of arms, drug and contraband smuggling in northern Mali created an enabling environment" for terrorists, who would "use any means available to finance their activities, including corruption and hostage-taking."
Guenaizia warned then that AQIM was increasingly capable. They "use the best explosives, have honed their bomb-making expertise and use sophisticated means to deploy explosives against their targets," he said.
AQIM comprises largely Algerians, Mauritanians and Malians. Experts say its total strength is probably in the hundreds rather than any more. But the fall of Gadhafi opened up a black market arms bazaar across North Africa, and western intelligence agencies believe AQIM may have acquired anti-aircraft missiles along with other heavy weapons, as well as plenty of vehicles, essential in a region of few (and dilapidated) roads.
As jihad became more difficult elsewhere -- from southern Yemen to the tribal territories of Pakistan -- foreign fighters also began appearing in Mali. Reports from the northeastern town of Gao in recent months said Pakistani and Saudi militants had been seen there.
There is the risk that global jihad's center of gravity could shift from South Asia to North Africa.
"We have a responsibility to make sure that al Qaeda does not establish a base for operations in North Africa and Mali," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters Monday. "While they might not have any immediate plans for attacks in the United States and in Europe, ultimately that still remains their objective."
The current crisis in Mali began in January last year, when a rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs (helped by weapons brought from Libya as the Gadhafi regime crumbled) erupted. Mid-ranking officers in Mali's army then launched a coup against a civilian government largely seen as weak and corrupt, and in some instances complicit with the militants for its own financial benefit.
Ansar Dine (Defenders of Islam) seized upon the chaos. The group was formed and led by Iyad ag Ghali, a Tuareg who had become radicalized during time in Saudi Arabia. While the main Tuareg rebel group, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (known by its French acronym, MNLA), did much of the early fighting, Ansar Dine took control of cities such as Timbuktu as government forces fled.
By the spring of last year, Northern Mali had become the "largest territory controlled by Islamic extremists in the world", according to U.S. Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Delaware, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa.
A video released last week by al Sahara Media Foundation, which is affiliated with AQIM, showed that militants had deployed heavy weapons around Timbuktu's airport, including truck-mounted machine guns and rocket-launchers.
And then Ansar Dine made a sudden move south, seizing the town of Konna and threatening the more important city of Mopti and its airport.
Just why is unclear. Some analysts believe they were trying to force the government's hand ahead of talks in neighboring Burkina Faso. But the militants had brought together as many as 300 pickup trucks, according to a French source, and smuggled copious amounts of gasoline in from Algeria. A thrust toward the capital, Bamako, was feasible.
France decided to respond immediately.