Al-Qaida presence in Mali, Yemen and Afghanistan
President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met Friday to discuss bringing down the curtain in the long Afghan war. As U.S. involvement in one war against the terror movement draws down, there's increasing talk about using force to stop al-Qaida affiliates elsewhere in the world, notably in Mali, Yemen and Somalia. A look at the al-Qaida presence in all four countries:
U.S. officials say al-Qaida now has fewer than 100 fighters left in Afghanistan. Instead, the main enemy is the Taliban, the terror movement's Afghan allies who threaten the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. hopes that after 2014, the Afghan government can deal with the Taliban — politically and militarily — while a small American counterterrorism force goes after hardcore al-Qaida remnants. Obama and Karzai must agree on how many Americans will remain as part of the counterterror force and to train and equip Afghan forces. If all that works, U.S. officials believe al-Qaida will be unable to revive its presence in the country.
Mali once enjoyed a reputation as one of West Africa's most stable democracies with more than 90 percent of its 15 million people practicing a moderate form of Islam. That changed in April 2012, when Islamist extremists took over the main cities in the country's north amid disarray following a military coup and began enforcing strict Shariah law.
The extremists include al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups which share al-Qaida's goals. Security experts warn they are carving out their own territory in northern Mali from where they can plot terror attacks in Africa and Europe. The militants, estimated at about 1,000, include recruits from other countries and are well-armed and funded.
Despite training from U.S. and other Western advisers, the Mali army has been ineffective in fighting the militants. The French military arrived in Mali on Friday to help the army, a day after the militants won the strategic town of Konna in central Mali.
In the past few years, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group's branch in Yemen is known, has been bolstering its operations in the Middle East nation after key Saudi operatives fled there following a major crackdown in Saudi Arabia. The franchise has been blamed for directing a string of unsuccessful bomb plots on U.S. soil from its hideouts. Those included a foiled plan to down a U.S.-bound airliner using a new, sophisticated explosive to be hidden in the bomber's underwear, and a plot to send mail bombs on planes to the U.S. hidden in the toner cartridges of computer printers.
In response, the U.S. has stepped up its drone war, carrying out 42 airstrikes last year — four in one week last month — against al-Qaida militants in Yemen, according to statistics gathered by the Long War Journal.
AQAP overran entire towns and villages last year by taking advantage of a security lapse during nationwide protests that eventually ousted the country's longtime ruler. Backed by the U.S. military, Yemen's army was able to regain control of the southern region, but al-Qaida militants continue to launch deadly attacks on security forces that have killed hundreds.
The Islamist extremist rebels of al-Shabab, who are allied to al-Qaida, have lost considerable ground in Somalia. The United Nations-backed government now controls the capital, Mogadishu, and all major cities, although the rebels still carry out terrorist bombings.