We hear a great deal about drones, particularly armed ones, but it is rare to see an analysis of how difficult it is to operate without them. A French report published in the wake of the rescue mission in Mali is illuminating. The operation highlighted the growing role of an al Qaeda affiliate that calls itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM).
The Mahgreb is the vast desert region of Africa stretching south from the Mediterranean. Most of it was once French colonies, and for decades France has helped local governments defend themselves. For example, in the 1980s French forces assisted the government of Chad in repelling a Libyan attack. The Mahgreb is now increasingly important to the world as a source of energy (in Mali AQIM was attacking foreign workers at a BP [formerly British Petroleum] site). Its vast empty spaces may, it is feared, become a refuge for al Qaeda and its friends analogous to Afghanistan before 9/11. Such refuges are generally described in terms of training camps. Possibly the most important point about a refuge is that terrorists working there know who their recruits are. The mere existence of a system of face-to-face identification makes it difficult to infiltrate these groups. Infiltration feeds the natural paranoia of terrorists and is probably the single best way to destroy them.