Foreign military intervention in Africa looked impossible - until last week. French launched airstrikes in Mali. Then European and American oil workers got kidnapped in Algeria.
In Mali, French forces are today fighting their way north up the Niger River to face insurgents. In Algeria, the Army is trying to free hostages at a remote gas plant, using helicopters, and with apparent collateral damage.
Increasingly, such battles are emerging as parts of what sometimes seems a single war against North Africa’s Islamist militants.
For Islamist militant groups across the Sahara and Sahel regions, national borders mean little. Yesterday gunmen seized an Algerian gas field in retaliation for France’s intervention against fellow Islamist militants in Mali.
As violence surges, Islamists are promising a regional fight. It remains a question whether governments and their Western allies will prove up to the challenge.
“There’s not a community of purpose,” says Jon Marks, an expert on North Africa and chairman of Cross-Border Information, a British risk analysis firm. “People have been traumatized by Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. There’s no appetite to intervene.”
In Mali, a planned foreign intervention to dislodge Islamist militants who overran the north last year still looked far-off until last week, with Western countries unwilling to commit troops. Algeria, a key regional power, had given only lukewarm backing.
It took a surprise advance south last week by Islamists to spur France to action. Mali’s former colonizer launched rapid air strikes and sent in hundreds of ground troops, and says it plans to hand off as soon as possible to West African troops as per the original intervention plan.
Islamists warned that Western interests would be targeted for retribution. That threat appeared to come true yesterday, when gunmen calling themselves the "Battalion of Blood" seized a gas plant near In Amenas, in eastern Algeria. They demanded an immediate halt to France’s intervention in Mali.