DAKAR, Senegal, March 8 (UPI) -- North Africa, never the most placid of places, has been plunged into turmoil in recent weeks by groups of heavily armed fighters that have fanned out across the Sahara to destabilize the region known as the Maghreb.
The Feb. 8 capture of town of Tinzawatene on Mali's northern border with Algeria rebel Tuareg tribesmen, who served under Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, vividly illustrates the growing scale of the crisis.
"A year after the eruption of Libya's spontaneous revolution, there are few signs of progress toward establishing internal security or a democratic government," observed the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank that monitors global security.
"The overthrow of the Gadhafi regime has had an enormous impact on Libya's southern neighbors," most notably Mali, Niger and Mauritania, the foundation said.
There are growing fears that the Tuaregs' National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and other armed groups roaming the vast wastelands of the Sahara and the semi-arid Sahel region to the south will join forces with the jihadist al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb that has extended its operations from Algeria to Mauritania, and even as far south as Nigeria.
Algeria, a major energy exporter where AQIM is based, fears an eruption of violence across the entire region and its government has raised its security alert to the highest level.
"Le Pouvoir, the Algerian political-military-business elite that controls most aspects of Algerian life, fears instability above all else and has tried to shut down any effort within Algeria to emulate the revolutionary unrest in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt," Jamestown noted.
Algiers fears the unrest is "intended to pave the way foreign intervention in North Africa but many Algerians worry that the government's inability to extinguish AQIM's low-level insurgency is a means of justifying Le Pouvoir's tight grip on Algerian politics and maintaining high levels of spending in the military and security services."
The MNLA seized Tinzawatene after weeks of fighting the Malian military, which is getting counterinsurgency training from U.S. Special Forces along with the security forces of neighboring states grappling with AQIM.
It's not clear whether the Tuareg fighters, estimated at more than 1,000 strong and armed with missiles and heavy mortars taken from Libya, will be able to hold onto the town against counterattacks by the Malian army.
But if they can, they have access to a network of Saharan smuggling routes running from Algeria that would consolidate links to AQIM's seasoned jihadist fighters as well as provide them with secure supply lines.
The Tuareg, a Berber people, inhabit the deserts across the deserts in north and west Africa.
Their struggle dates back almost a century and their last rebellion, demanding more autonomy and development, ended in 2008 with little to show for it.
But now the MNLA for the first time is seeking outright independence for three northern regions where the Tuareg, who make up 10 percent of Mali's population of 13 million, predominate.
"This has been simmering for a long time," said Jeremy Keenan, a Tuareg specialist at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.
"But this new rebellion would not have happened if all these guys had not come back from Libya."
He said there was little indication that the Tuareg in neighboring Niger, where some of Gadhafi's family has found sanctuary, were going to join their cousins in Mali, as has happened in the past.
But if that happened again, "the situation could get out of control," Keenan cautioned.
Algiers has traditionally mediated between the Mali government and the Tuareg, and its powerful intelligence service, the DRS, is once again seeking to broker a settlement in hopes of containing the current surge in violence.
Politically volatile Algeria has largely avoided the upheavals of the Arab Spring over the last year but its elite are nervous because parliamentary elections are scheduled for May and Islamist parties are expected to make sweeping advances.
However, this time around, the MNLA, flush with heavy weapons acquired in Libya that match them pretty evenly with Mali's 7,500-strong military, don't appear to be in a conciliatory mood.
Indeed, Jamestown's Andrew McGregor said he fears the rekindling of the Tuareg rebellion will infect other militias in northern Mali, "a development that threatens to turn the northern conflict into a more general civil war."