North African states at risk of being overrun by al-Qaeda
Al-Qaeda is poised to overrun five states in North Africa and the Middle East, creating terrorist safe havens from which the network can launch attack on the West, Europe and the US have been warned.
Mauritania, Mali and Niger have seen a steady escalation of al-Qaeda activity targeting Western aid workers and experts. Somalia, to their east, has disintegrated in the face of Islamist assault. In Yemen, across the Red Sea from Somalia, security forces have been waging a losing battle against resurgent jihadist armies that have claimed the lives of dozens of troops.
Amadou Marou, the President of Niger's National Consultative Council has been in Europe with a grim message for governments. "Somalia got away from us", he said, "and northern Mali is in the process of getting away from us".
Mohamed Abdillahi Mohamed, Somalia's new Prime Minister, has also called on the US and Europe to "step up to the plate". Aid to Somalia, he said, "is not an option, it's a necessity. We are dealing with al-Shabaab, who are extremists and seeking to take their war throughout the world".
Al-Qaeda's regional affiliates have expanded dramatically throughout this belt of states, exploiting the administrative weaknesses and corruption of their governments.
Large swathes of Somalia are already under the control of al-Shabaab, a Somali al-Qaeda affiliate, which is known to have hundreds of US and UK citizens among its ranks. Western intelligence services say they have evidence that those recruits are preparing for attacks on the West.
Last month, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, its north African branch, kidnapped seven people, including five French citizens, from a uranium mine in Niger. AQIM has demanded a ransom of €5.6m and a rollback on France's burka ban for the lives of the hostages Mauritania has been engaged in pitched battles with AQIM, and the country's air force has been bombing jihadist targets in northern Mali the region where British tourist Edwin Dyer was executed by terrorists last year.
Mauritanian jihadists also murdered an American aid worker last year, and earlier attacked Israel's embassy to the country.
Yemen, which is home to another al-Qaeda affiliate called al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has served as hub for several plots targeting the West, often carried out by western citizens inspired by the charismatic Islamist televangelist Anwar al-Awlaki.
"There's obviously a lot that needs doing in countries like Somalia", says Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, an American counter-terrorism expert, "but it isn't obvious how to do what needs doing".
Local efforts to address the problem have had little success. Amisom, the African Union's 7,000-strong peacekeeping force in Somalia, has been unable to restore government control over even the capital, Mogadishu. Peacekeepers received no wages for six months last year. Poor security conditions have made aid work all but impossible.
Experts say aid should be focused not just on upgrading regional counter-terrorism forces, but also addressing the poverty and poor governance that have helped al-Qaeda gain ground in the region.
Britain is a key member of Friends of Yemen, an international consortium that has committed to pumping millions of pounds into the country. But although Yemen has committed to economic reforms and anti-corruption measures, there are still doubts about just how much the aid has achieved on the ground.