Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the Arabic name for northern Africa, confirmed it has kidnapped five Westerners and killed a sixth in recent days in Mali, where there have long been suspicions the government cooperates with the jihadists.
Jerome Spinoza, head of the French Defense Ministry's Africa bureau, said Thursday that Western policymakers ignored at their peril the security challenges stemming from AQIM's expanding operations across the sub-Saharan Sahel region, which stretches from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.
"Instability is on the rise," he said during a seminar at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, a London think tank better known as Chatham House.
"Without a meaningful policy, the area could constitute a lasting safe haven for jihadists."
Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat and former U.N. special envoy to Niger who was held hostage by AQIM for four months in 2008-09, said his captors were highly disciplined and ideologically motivated.
"They want to turn the Sahel into a new Somalia," he said. "These guys have no needs. They're dressed in rags. They have a bag of rice and a belt of ammunition and that's it.
"I was held in 23 different locations in about 70 days. They're organized. They can break camp in under 4 minutes.
"This was the most focused group of young men I've ever encountered in my life. They're totally committed to jihad."
Fowler warned that the large amounts of advanced weapons plundered from the Libyan regime's armories before it was toppled in a civil war were spreading across the region and posing a threat to southern Europe.
Echoing similar warnings from government leaders and security chiefs across the region, he said that the AQIM, which is centered in Algeria, had acquired large quantities of these weapons.
"They're now equipped with enormous amounts of Libyan weapons and I mean such sophisticated weapons as SA-24 (shoulder-fired surface-to-air) missiles, heavy mortars, heavy artillery and thousands of anti-tank mines," he said.
The Sahel runs for more than 1,000 miles and embraces vast ungoverned spaces in southern Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, southern Algeria, Niger, northern Nigeria, Chad, South Sudan, northern Ethiopia and Eritrea.
U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, which is conducting counter-terrorism training in many of the Sahel countries, says he believes that AQIM may have established links to Boko Haram, an extremist Islamic group in northern Nigeria responsible for recent bombings and killings in the oil-rich West African state.
That's the farthest south that AQIM's tentacles have been reported. And if the links are proven, it would mark a dangerous southward expansion by the jihadists.
There are also reports Boko Haram fighters underwent bomb-making and terrorism training with Al-Shabaab, an Islamist group linked to al-Qaida that operates in Somalia far to the east.
The Sahel is highly vulnerable to insurgent threats because of the weak and ineffective governments in the impoverished region and jihadist alliances with rebellious tribes of nomadic Tuareg.
Many of them fought as mercenaries for Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi before he was killed by rebel forces Oct. 20.
The jihadists' have also developed close links with cocaine smugglers across the semi-arid region, moving narcotics shipped from Latin America to West African coastal states like Guinea-Bissau for transit to Europe.
Spinoza stressed that Western European governments and the United States need to coordinate efforts to counter the jihadist threat in the Sahel and to increase cooperation with regional authorities to undercut AQIM's ability to exploit the weaknesses of regional states.
One reason AQIM is able to fend off counterinsurgency efforts by Algeria and other regional states is that these are torn by long-running political rivalries, such as the dispute between Algeria and Morocco over the mineral-rich Western Sahara.
Algeria, the region's military heavyweight which defeated an Islamist insurgency that raged throughout the 1990s, established a counter-terrorism command center at its Tamanrasset air base deep in the Sahara in 2010 with Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
But Algiers refuses to cooperate with Morocco, a longtime U.S. ally which says it's broken dozens of Islamist cells. Now Mali and Niger complain Algeria is dragging its feet in combating the jihadists.