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What are Western and African powers up against in Mali, Algeria?

Leaders around the world are vowing to strike back hard at Islamist militancy that is surging across North Africa. Here are some of the challenges they face.

French soldiers wait for a helicopter in Mali, one of several trouble spots in Africa drawing Western involvement.

Jerome Delay/AP

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Today in Algeria, authorities are scouring a Saharan gas plant for bodies in the wake of a hostage crisis that ended in a shootout between the Army and Islamist kidnappers. Around the world, leaders are vowing to strike back hard at Islamist militancy that is surging across North Africa.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Mali, France is already leading a military intervention to dislodge Islamist fighters who seized the country's north last year. Paris has pledged to keep its troops there until those fighters are defeated and Mali is returned to stability. 

So what are Western governments and their North African partners up against? It's a murky picture, but here are some outlines:

Is this a regional problem?

Yes. North Africa is home to various armed groups, from ideologically driven Islamists to criminal gangs. While their aims and loyalties don’t always overlap, they have shown an increasing inclination to work together. Some have international appeal, with members reportedly hailing from a range of countries. And many operate across national borders, which count for little in the deep Sahara.

Could the problem get worse?

Yes. If unchecked, violence could intensify, at least in North African countries. Hardline Islamist ideology has gathered steam chiefly among poor young men left adrift amid youth unemployment and lack of development. Deepening conflict could also affect oil markets if installations in Algeria or Libya – both major hydrocarbons producers – come under threat.

Where does North African militancy come from?


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