France's declaration of war against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) could mark a significant boost in the battle against Islamist militants in North Africa, buttressing a new-found determination by African states in the Sahara-Sahel region to wage a coordinated campaign against jihadists and the criminal gangs with which they cooperate.
However, President Nicolas Sarkozy's action has as much to do with French economic interests in its former African empire as it has with combatting terrorism.
But the gauntlet thrown down by Paris after AQIM fighters murdered a 78-year-old French hostage in late July suggests Paris is prepared to take direct action against terrorists in a region it once ruled and which holds vast mineral wealth it still covets.
"We are at war against Al Qaeda," French Prime Minister Francois Fillon declared on 27 July. His statement followed a joint attack by French and Mauritanian commandos on an AQIM base in the central Mali desert on 22 July, the first counter-terrorism operation in northern Africa in which western forces are known to have participated, signalling a new-found determination by western powers to go after the region's Al Qaeda network.
Six militants were killed in the raid, which appeared to be a bid to rescue Michel Germaneau, a retired engineer kidnapped in northern Niger in April. But he was not found at the jihadist base. Two days after the landmark raid, AQIM announced it had beheaded Germaneau in retaliation for France's participation in the attack.
Paris press reports said the French Special Forces who took part in the operation had been in Mauritania, another former French colony, on an undisclosed mission for several months. France is ideally suited to conduct such counter-terrorism operations in the region because it still maintains military links and bases with its former colonies.
The French government said the 22 July raid was intended to thwart an imminent, but unspecified, AQIM attack against a West African nation, presumably Mauritania, which has taken a hard line against the jihadists.
AQIM, which is dominated by Algerian jihadists once known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), is Al Qaeda's only official African franchise, although the Islamist Al Shebaab movement in Somalia is linked to Osama bin Laden's network.
AQIM has been seeking to expand across the region from Algeria to Mali, Niger, Senegal...