A 78-year-old French aid worker is dead, a 95-day-long hostage crisis may be over, and the governments of Europe and West Africa may have more to fear from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Sahelian franchise that US officials say is in the midst of a recruitment boom.
Top AQIM militant Abdelmalek Droukdel announced Sunday that the group had killed the French engineer, first kidnapped in Niger in April, following a rescue attempt by French and Mauritania soldiers. Six Al Qaeda militants died in the rescue raid, Mr. Droukdel said in an audio recording broadcast by Al-Jazeera.
Reprisals and a growing menace
In authorizing the operation, Mr. Sarkozy "opened up the doors of hell for himself and his people," Droukdel threatened in the tape.
Droukdel's bluster may have an edge of truth to it. AQIM is growing, US officials say, issuing more threats in new places, including some of the world's most peaceful, idyllic countrysides - like Burkina Faso and Mali.
Recruitment is up, and armies like Mali's, not to mention America's, are having to reconsider their commitment to the farther-flung areas of Africa's immense Sahara.
It's the economy, stupid
But you'd be misguided, US officials say, to think that ideological opposition to the former colonial powers like France are guiding the AQIM recruitment boom.
Cocaine, kidnapping, and the love of money, rather than the hatred of foreigners, US Special African Operations Lt. Col. Chris Schmidt says, are the driving factors.
"In the deepest areas of the Sahara, the governments are under-represented and the people are marginalized," the military planner said in a May interview. "I don't think there's too many on their side with ideological reasons. It's a matter of convenience and money making."
As the Monitor reported in several in-depth stories last winter, the US military is expanding its presence throughout the region in order to combat what it says is the rising threat of Al Qaeda activity. The focus is on training local militaries in counterterrorism tactics.