Today all conflicts have cascading effects, quickly engulfing neighboring states and, if unchecked, entire regions. They cause humanitarian disasters, refugee problems and sometimes ecological decay while abetting the spread of extremism, crime and disorder. The expanding violence in the Saharan region is a perfect example. Tragically, North Africa has joined the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Yemen and Somalia as one of the world's most dangerous places.
All of these conflicts share a pathology: Extremists associated with or inspired by al-Qaida blend with and exacerbate existing tensions based on ethnicity, sect, clan, race or personal patronage, making old conflicts even more deadly. The extremists mobilize armed groups and criminal networks for ideological purposes, turning them against weak governments and security forces. And the malignancy spreads, preying on other grievances, resentments and tensions in countries with exploding populations and limited opportunities.
Until recently, the spread of this phenomenon to Africa drew only limited U.S. attention given the demands of Iraq and Afghanistan. American strategy was primarily based on the U.S. Africa Command's efforts to coordinate regional counterterrorism efforts. Then the downfall of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi provided new resources and motivation for extremists, leading to the collapse of Mali's democratic government and giving al-Qaida-associated groups an opening to seize power in that country. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Sahel-based group that arose out of Algeria's bitterly violent internal conflict in the 1990s, has been at the forefront, using al-Qaida's ideology to attract support, followers and attention. Other anti-government groups jumped on board. As Stephan Chan of the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies points out, there are a number of al-Qaida groups in Africa united by ideology and a broad desire to overthrow the existing order, but with differing objectives and capabilities.