The arrest of two people at London's Heathrow airport, reportedly headed for Syria to join Islamist paramilitaries fighting Bashar al-Assad's regime, is a sharp illustration of the difficulties Syria's conflict is posing to western governments and security agencies. A proxy war in which Damascus is backed by Iran and the rebels financed by Saudi and Qatari sources, with Turkey (a Nato member-state) close to the frontline and the United States and its European allies caught between a desire for and fear of change, adds up to a nightmarish stalemate.
A lengthy war with terrible human costs is probable, which as it unfolds will act as a magnet to committed Islamists eager to move to Syria to join the fight. American units in Turkey and Jordan are reduced to efforts to ensure that arms go to "good" rather than "bad" rebels, itself an indication of the fact that Syria is emerging as a new "front" in the evolution of the dispersed al-Qaida movement.
This development, in the context of broader tensions in the region, presents western strategists with multiple dilemmas. At the same time, equally significant developments are occurring in west Africa: the extension of radical Islamist control in northern Mali (an area the size of France) and intensifying violence in northern Nigeria as the central government reacts severely to the Boko Haram insurgency.
The Malian imbroglio
After an attempted coup in Bamako in March 2012 failed to dislodge Mali's government, Tuareg militias advanced across the north of the country and appeared to establish control - only themselves to be displaced by two paramilitary groups connected to the shadowy Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
AQIM itself has links with other groups across north Africa, including Ansar al-Sharia in Libya. The latter may have been responsible for the killing of Chris Stevens, Washington's ambassador in Benghazi, on 11 September 2012 (see "Where al-Qaida rules the roost", Economist, 22 September 2012); some analysts, though, point to the involvement of Algerian intelligence agencies in the movement.
Mali remains the most fertile ground of agitation (see "Mali: war, Islamism, and intervention", 6 July 2012). The north is effectively split between two groups, Ansar al-Dine (which controls Timbuktu) and Mujao (which runs the city of Gao). There are clear indications that these groups are sufficiently in charge as to be encouraging commercial links with Mali's south, including Bamako. They currently face few obstacles to their aim of carving out a small caliphate, though it is less clear whether this will provide a safe space for the training of recruits to the al-Qaida cause. The serious human-rights abuses reported by Ivan Simonovic, the United Nations assistant secretary-general for human rights, are already grounds for concern (see "Mali Islamists 'buying child soldiers, imposing Sharia", BBC news, 11 October 2012).
There has been support for external military intervention by troops drawn from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), and there are indications that United States and British special forces have recently been present in and around Bamako.
In reality, serious action from either source is a remote prospect. It might be possible for western forces to intervene on a scale sufficient to take control of northern Mali, but the weak Malian army would be unable to consolidate the hold, thus requiring a long-term foreign military presence with all the risks that entails. After all, Iraq and Afghanistan have severely blunted the western taste for "boots on the ground". Even France, the former colonial power in Mali, will not take the initiative here.
The other option, an Ecowas intervention, is made less plausible by Nigeria's domestic worries. Ecowas without the Nigerians lacks the resources to play a decisive role, but Abuja's own internal-security problems make it unfeasible for them to engage in solving Mali's problems.
The Nigerian trap
The principal focus of these problems is Boko Haram and its activities across parts of northern Nigeria. The movement is a decade old but rose to prominence only in mid-2009 in the wake of the death of its leader, Mohammed Yusuf, in police custody. The rapidity of its spread since then, it was argued in an earlier column in this series, is largely due to the robust and violent response to its campaign from the Nigerian authorities, which may well be proving counter-productive by assisting rather than subduing it (see also Adam Nossiter, "Islamist Group With Possible Qaeda Links Upends Nigeria”, New York Times, 17 August 2011).
A vivid and violent example of the state's security reaction occurred following a bomb-attack on 8 October 2012 which targeted an army convoy in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, and injured two soldiers. In its wake, there were numerous reports of violent retribution; soldiers and police are said to have shot dead more than thirty civilians and injured many more, as well as setting fire to fifty buildings. The military and police Joint Task Force (JTF) denied the killings, but an Associated Press journalist reported counting the bodies (see "Nigerian army 'opens fire on civilians' in Maiduguri", BBC News, 9 October 2012).
Boko Haram has expanded its reach over the past year, and there is no doubt that the tough action taken against it has compounded resentment against the central government among far more than the movement's core supporters. Boko Haram may be rooted in a minority and cleave to a puritanical interpretation of Islam, but wider social factors provide it with sustenance: resentment at the region's deep wealth-poverty divide, the relatively greater development of southern Nigeria, and widespread corruption.
The aforementioned column in this series expressed the situation thus:
"Nigeria's tough and uncompromising official policy can be seen as contributing to rather than curbing Boko Haram's growth. Many western security officials are concerned that it will become a regional phenomenon, and a new link in the wider al-Qaida chain. That may be overplayed, but what the arc of Boko Haram does show is that radical Islamist paramilitary groups can develop unexpectedly and rapidly" (see "Al-Qaida franchise: the Nigerian case", 25 August 2011).
The growth of Boko Haram, and the developments in Mali since the above was written, suggest that such a conclusion was far from overplayed. In combination with the conflict in Syria, they highlight the deep sources of continuing insecurity across different regions of the world.