The combination of lucrative kidnapping-for-ransom operations, a steady flow of arms and recruits stemming from the Libya uprising and numerous failed attempts by U.S. regional allies dismantle al Qaeda's Africa cell — known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb (AQIM) — have led to the group's rise to power within the terror organization.
"The international community ... missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak. Now the situation is much more difficult," Gen. Carter Ham, head of Africa Command, told reporters in Senegal on Thursday.
The group already has begun to exert its newfound strength by capturing and holding wide swaths of territory in the northern section of the West African nation of Mali, according to Reuters.
"We believe the most dominant organisation is AQIM. We think they are al Qaeda's best funded, wealthiest affiliate," the four-star general told the news organization.
Exploiting recent political turmoil in the country, including a successful coup in March, AQIM and other radical Islamic factions were able to turn the northern region of Mali into a "terrorist haven", Ham said.
AQIM and other terror groups on the continent have begun to consolidate their forces and expand beyond the localized-type threat each individual group posed to those partner nations.
Al Shabab, the East African faction of al Qaeda, has been carrying out terrorist attacks against African Union forces in and around Somalia since the 1990s. AQIM has been operating mainly in Western Africa since the early 2000's.
Those al Qaeda affiliates recently combined forces with the African-based Islamic fundamentalists group Boko Haram to expand its attacks against government targets along Africa's eastern shores.
Since the Mali coup, the United States has terminated assistance to the country, removed its Peace Corps volunteers and imposed travel sanctions on some 60 people linked to the coup.
However, the State Department has emphatically ruled out any possible U.S. intervention to oust AQIM and others from northern Mali and reunify the country.
That said, the Pentagon is going on the offensive on the continent, but with a strategy based less on bullets and bombs and more on supporting African partner nations' efforts — known as indirect action missions — to quell AQIM and other groups.
"Indirect action engagements are likely to become even more important going forward, as budgets become tighter and the imperative to operate jointly is matched by the growing requirement to work with partners," Jacqueline Davis, executive vice president at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, told House defense lawmakers in July.
Those indirect operations would likely fall to the two major special operations task forces on the continent, known as Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara and Joint Special Operations Task Force-Horn of Africa.
The task forces in country are under the command of Special Operations Command-Africa, which is the special forces wing of Africa Command headquartered in Germany.