For more than a decade, the United States has been devoted to the eradication of the terrorist group al Qaeda. There are military offensives taking place in various countries in and around the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Yemen to Somalia.
But now a new base for the Islamist terrorist organization has emerged in the heart of the African Sahel, where no state army has yet been able to contest its presence.
Insurgents of the group Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb have made their presence known in northern Mali, where they recently provoked widespread international condemnation by destroying historical structures in the ancient city of Timbuktu.
Even worse, their presence has led to widespread displacement and increased starvation for hundreds of thousands of people who once led peaceful lives in northern Mali.
A Long Story
The influx of AQIM militants followed on the heels of another invasion into Mali, this one by a stateless ethnic group called the Tuaregs. They hail from the Sahara and the Sahel, the semi-arid belt of land south of the great desert.
For decades, the Tuaregs have engaged in skirmishes with regional governments across the Sahel region, seeking to establish an autonomous homeland of their own. They enjoyed a connection to Libya under Moammar Gadhafi, and more than 1,500 Tuaregs joined the dictator's forces during the Libyan revolution of 2011. Upon the dictator's overthrow, many of those fighters fled Libya and settled back in the Sahel, which crosses northern Mali.
Well-armed with left-over Libyan weapons and unmoored, these Tuaregs mobilized more effectively than ever before -- they made significant inroads into northern Mali beginning in January of this year. This eventually prompted a military coup down south, in Mali's capital city of Bamako.
Defecting troops led by Capt. Amadou Sanogo first seized power from then-President Amadou Toumani Touré on March 22. They voiced disappointment over Touré's apparent weakness in the face of Tuareg rebellions, especially after 160 Malian soldiers in the town of Aguelhok were killed in a January clash.
But a month after seizing the state, Sanogo stepped down in the face of condemnations and heavy sanctions from neighboring countries. Interim President Dioncounda Traoré took office and the sanctions were lifted, but it has become clear that Sanogo and his junta still wield considerable power.
Meanwhile, northern Mali remains under the control of rebel forces. The coup in Mali and resulting chaos in Bamako allowed the rebels to advance still further, and the Tuaregs took possession of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu and declared the sovereignty of a state they call Azawad.
But while the Tuareg offensive first swept the Malian army out of the north, AQIM has since gained a strong foothold.
Setting Up Shop
AQIM was officially formed in 2007, but its origins can be loosely traced further back to the Islamist rebel groups who fought and lost in the bloody Algerian civil war of the 1990s. Today, their fighters are not numerous and the organization has no record of committing violence beyond its immediate region of influence.
Unfortunately for hundreds of thousands of people, northern Mali has lately become an immediate region of influence.
An AQIM splinter group calling itself Ansar Dine swooped in to take advantage of Tuaregs' hold over Mali's northern areas. These rebels were not concerned with independent statehood so much as enforcing sharia law.
The relationship between the jihadists and the Tuaregs has been somewhat inconsistent; there were violent clashes in some places, and alliances in others. Now it seems that AQIM has become the dominating force in Azawad.
Empowered by the munitions left behind by fleeing Malian soldiers -- many of those weapons given to Mali by the U.S. military -- AQIM has set up training and recruitment bases to strengthen its movement.
Their emergence has resulted in the widespread displacement of Malian citizens. On top of existing environmental threats such as drought and soil erosion, this disruption has only worsened an already-dire situation.
The rebels' presence exacerbates the food crises, since it prevents aid organizations from delivering adequate assistance to starving Malians.
Accessing the population is extremely difficult, said Mbacke Niang, regional program manager for Oxfam, to the Telegraph. So far, we have been able to operate, but not to the scale we would want to, because of the security situation. We're not happy with the scale of the aid that we're able to provide; we can provide more aid.
The Telegraph now reports that more than 340,000 Malians have been displaced during the Tuareg/AQIM occupation, and more than 1.6 million people face extreme food insecurity.
For now, there is no immediate solution in sight.
Shortly after coming to his post as the head of the interim government in Mali, Interim President Traoré asserted that he would not hesitate to wage a total and relentless war against rebel fighters. But northern Mali remains outside of Bamako's de facto jurisdiction, leaving residents there with little by way of defense against their occupiers.
The African Union, which is helping to see Mali's transition back to a stable system of governance, may soon intervene in northern Mali. Representatives from the 54 AU member states are in the middle of a week-long summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where the AQIM insurgency will be one at the top of the agenda.
Meanwhile, another group called the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has voiced its own intention to send 3,000 troops into Mali; they submitted their plans to the U.N. Security Council but did not get approval.
And on Wednesday, a separate group of army leaders from Mauritania, Mali, Algeria and Niger gathered in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott to discuss a possible joint military operation against AQIM.
In short, these various groups of international African forces haven't made any solid commitments yet, but may launch an offensive sometime soon. For the time being, they are Mali's best hope to combat the Islamist militants and relieve the worsening humanitarian crisis.