But other Western analysts suspect U.S. neoconservatives are hyping the jihadist threat in North Africa to prod the U.S. administration into a new war against terror in Africa even though that could backfire.
The North African crisis centers on an Islamist alliance that seized control of northern Mali in April after turning on its erstwhile Tuareg allies who sought an independent state.
Regional and Western powers say the Islamists' sanctuary, which analysts likened to al-Qaida's haven in Afghanistan before 2001, is a potential springboard for terrorist attacks across the Mediterranean on Europe.
France, which once controlled a colonial empire in Africa that included Mali and Algeria, was seen as the most likely victim. It's been a target for Algerian militants since the 1990s.
The dominance of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, the jihadist network's North African wing, in Mali spurred by the 2011 Libyan war has worried regional strategists for the last year.
On Jan. 7, several thousand AQIM fighters, heavily armed with weapons plundered from war-torn Libya, thrust southward toward Bamako, Mali's capital. France hastily sent troops and aircraft to counter the unexpected push.
Meanwhile, an AQIM splinter group seized a major natural gas complex in southeastern Algeria and took hundreds of hostages, including some 130 foreigners. The Algerians attacked and regained control of the complex. More than 80 people, including 43 hostages and 32 jihadists, were killed in the worst hostage slaughter in more than a decade.
It wasn't clear whether there was a direct link with the jihadist push in Mali 600 miles away but the fact the jihadists were able to overrun a major energy facility, the product of meticulous planning and inside intelligence, underlined how dangerous this generation of Islamist militants could be.
The fighting in Mali and the bloodbath at the remote facility known as Ain Amenas "has heightened fears that a third generation of al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists is creating a new front in the war with the United States and Western interests in the vast, ungoverned spaces of the Sahel and Saharan region of north and west Africa," observed British analyst Simon Tisdall.
"But the crisis has also focused attention on unsuccessful and at times shambolic American efforts to counter the growing Islamist challenge there, and on the danger that military intervention will only make matters worse."
Americans were among the Ain Ameras casualties, resulting in right-wing pressure on the U.S. administration to take direct action against the jihadists.
Publicly at least, the administration's signaling it doesn't want to get into another shooting war after Iraq and Afghanistan but the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command is operating covertly across the region, including surveillance flights under a classified program known as Creek Sand.
Analysts say the Americans could launch missile strikes against jihadist targets using unmanned aerial vehicles from bases in Morocco, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.
Drone attacks and Special Forces are U.S. President Barack Obama's favored method of waging war on al-Qaida and its offshoots, particularly in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen.
"There is a clear danger that an expanding war in Mali could start a wave of new attacks on 'soft' Western targets similar to that in southern Algeria, and that increased Western intervention in the region will transform extremist groups that had only had local importance into potent transnational threats," Tisdall cautioned.
Britons also were killed at Ain Amenas and British Prime Minister David Cameron joined the chorus for concerted action against the jihadists.
He branded them "an existential threat" and warned the fight against terrorism in North Africa could "last decades."
Reidel, a 30-year CIA veteran and security adviser to four U.S. presidents who's now at the Brookings Institution, outlined the neocons' position.
"While Pentagon lawyers claim al-Qaida is tipping into defeat, in face we're seeing the emergence of the third generation of the terrorist movement," he said.
"Under siege by drones in Pakistan and Yemen, al-Qaida 3.0 has exploited the 'Arab Awakening' to create its largest safe havens and operational bases in more than a decade across the Arab world. This may prove to be the most deadly al-Qaida yet."