The Algeria hostage siege debacle, coming hard on the heels of France's intervention in neighbouring Mali, has heightened fears that a "third generation" of al-Qaida-affiliated jihadis is creating a new front in the war against US and western interests in the vast, ungoverned spaces of the Sahel and Saharan regions of north and west Africa.
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. Fearful of more Algeria-style attacks, US and European officials hold differing views about what to do next, ranging from direct engagement via special forces and drone strikes to enhanced regional diplomacy and alliance building.
Recent experience is chastening. US attempts to build up Mali's military as a bulwark against the extremists, by training army officers and providing equipment including brand-new Land Cruisers and expensive communications equipment, backfired spectacularly last year after a rebellion in the north provoked a coup that unseated the elected government in Bamako.
When push came to shove, a senior officer said the Tuareg commanders of three of the four Malian units fighting in the north defected to the insurrection "at the crucial moment", taking fighters, weapons and equipment with them. They were joined by about 1,600 other defectors from the Malian army, shattering the government's hope of crushing the uprising.
"The aid of the Americans turned out not to be useful," another officer said. "They made the wrong choice," by relying on commanders from a group that had been conducting a 50-year rebellion against the Malian state.
The coup was a particular embarrassment to Washington as it was led by an army officer, Captain Amadou Sanogo, on whom it had lavished special favour. "Sanogo represents something of a US failure," said veteran commentator Walter Pincus.
"He [Sanogo] had participated in the Pentagon's international military education and training programmes, with basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia; English-language training at Lackland air force base, Texas; an intelligence course at Fort Huachuca, Arizona; and study at Quantico, Virginia, with the Marine Corps," Pincus reported. The ungrateful Sanogo used his new skills to wreck years of careful American and European nurturing of Mali's fragile democracy.
The multimillion dollar pre-coup assistance to Mali was part of an ambitious but flawed US regional policy embracing Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and several west African states, intended to strengthen defences against al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and like-minded groups. In 2002, the state department unveiled the so-called Pan-Sahel Initiative "to protect borders ... combat terrorism, and enhance regional cooperation and stability". This was replaced in 2005 by the Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership, overseen by the grandly named but ineffectual US Africa Command.
In recent years the Pentagon and other US agencies have run annual joint military exercises called Operation Flintlock involving Mali, Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Morocco and Nigeria. Imaginary war scenarios involved a terrorist group being chased across national borders from Mauritania all the way east to Chad. The war games proved to be prescient, except now it is the terrorists who are doing the chasing, and in the other direction.
If Americans are confirmed among the Algeria casualties, pressure will grow on the Obama administration to get more directly involved. The Joint Special Operations Command is already operating covert, region-wide surveillance flights under a classified programme know as Creek Sand. Analysts say the next step may be to use existing bases in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and elsewhere to launch drone strikes and targeted assassinations, as in Somalia and Yemen. Since the Mali coup, the US has also upped military assistance to Niger and Mauritania.
Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt reported for the New York Times: "Some Pentagon officials have long taken a more hawkish stance, and they cite intelligence reports that fighters with ties to al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb ... played a role in the deadly attack in September on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. They have pushed for targeted strikes against Islamist leaders in northern Mali, arguing that killing the leadership could permanently cripple the strength of the militants."
At the same time 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 local importance into potent trans-national threats.
"While Pentagon lawyers claim al-Qaida is tipping into defeat, in fact we are seeing the emergence of the third generation of the terrorist movement," said analyst Bruce Riedel. "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."