FOUR elements explain the violence in the Sahel, a poor relation among the various theatres of extremism during the past decade. The first is the radical transformation of the region.

Weaponry looted from Libya after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the collapse of central government in Mali and the rebellion by local Tuareg tribesmen who became brief allies of the extremists, combined to turn a harsh environment that restricted the capabilities of the militants into one that favoured them. Suddenly there were arms, anarchy and auxiliaries – everything a jihadi group needs.

This meant that the southern, Mali-based part of the fractured Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), formed out of the remnants of older Algerian groups in January 2007, went from being ”a first-rate criminal organisation and a second- or third-rate terrorist organisation” in the words of Peter Pham, an expert at the Washington-based Atlantic Council think tank, who frequently advises the US and other governments on Africa, to a force that is now, with its allies, taking on the French army.

A second factor was the rivalry between the al Qaeda factions. Relations between the veteran Algerian jihadi probably behind the refinery attack, Mokhtar Belmoktar, and the head of AQIM, Abdelmalek Droukdel, have been bad for almost a decade.

”For many years, Droukdel was being badly squeezed in the north while Belmoktar was getting very rich and very powerful,” a London-based expert on north African militancy, Camille Tawil, said. ”Belmoktar has long had leadership ambitions.”

When the official head of the southern faction of AQIM was killed in a car crash in Mali last year, Belmoktar did not get the job. Humiliated, he announced the formation of his own group, declared his intention to attack the west and its interests locally, and set about planning operations that would upstage those of AQIM.

The third major factor was the new alliance of extremist groups that emerged last year as AQIM’s southern faction co-ordinated operations with two other main local extremist outfits, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

The final factor was local support, or at least acquiescence, in the territories where the extremists now operate. This came through militant leaders’ alliances with elite figures such as tribal heads cemented through marriage or mutually beneficial criminal enterprise. It also came from ordinary people sick of the anarchy that followed the collapse of the government.

But, while it may look like their moment has come, the success of the militants of the Mali-Algeria border region may contain the seeds of their eventual defeat.

The communities of northern Mali have long practised a moderate form of Islam. Now the militant groups are imposing a far more severe regime. A key reason for the failure of al-Qaeda in Iraq were clashes between local tribesmen and foreign militants over issues such as burial rituals and veiling. Iraqi tribal sheikhs were also angered when al-Qaeda leaders appropriated lucrative rackets, depriving them of funds they needed to maintain influence and position.

The same reaction is possible in northern Mali, certainly if the considerable reserves of cash held by the extremists start to run low. Adept though they undoubtedly are at surviving in the desert, they are only a big problem if they can capture and hold towns. Also, the number of individuals who can effect that critical fusion of criminal and jihadi elements with the local elites needed to retain local support, and thus a relatively secure base, is extremely limited.

”There are perhaps 700 to 1000 fighters moving around this space but the number of leaders who make them dangerous and a threat to international security is very small. Without them these groups would simply be a nuisance,” Dr Pham said.

The best-case scenario is that conventional military pressure and the killing of key figures, combined with a loss of local support, sends AQIM and its allies back to its previous status as low-grade desert thieves. The worst-case scenario is that the conflict infects neighbouring countries with existing problems with Islamic extremism, and eventually the entire region. Both involve plenty of blood spilt in the sand.

Guardian News & Media

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.