Canada’s participation in a U.S.-led training exercise to help Niger deal with its extremist Islamic insurgency is a welcome turn of events after Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly rejected a formal request from the head of the African Union to help the government of neighboring Mali.

Though it went unnoticed by many of the government’s critics, the prime minister did leave some wiggle room in terms of future assistance to Mali. It appears that we may provide some kind of logistical support even if we don’t actually put troops on the ground in the form of “direct” military support.

The desperately poor, conflict-wracked countries of West Africa and the Sahel region are under siege. They face insurgencies from their own rebel groups, like the Tuareg, who want to secede. They also now have to deal with the North African branch of al-Qaida, which is a rapidly growing force in the region.

We’ve seen this picture before: al-Qaida gets a foothold in an impoverished country, then mounts terrorist operations abroad to promote to its own brand of jihadi extremism. That was the story in Sudan and Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden. And it’s a problem (and a region) that the West largely ignored until bin Laden launched his attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

That story is playing out again in the countries of the Sahel with this insurgent group, formally known as Al-Qaida in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It had its origins in Algeria’s brutal civil war of 1990s. It benefitted from the massive outflow of arms from Libya after the collapse of the Gadhafi regime, giving it the military strength to threaten some of the weaker governments in the region. French forces, which were hastily mobilized to help Mali’s army and bombed rebel strongholds over the weekend, have expressed surprise at how well-armed the insurgents are.

Why should we be worried? First, the Maghreb branch of al-Qaida poses a threat not just to the poorly-armed and weak governments of Mali and Niger (one of the world’s biggest producers of uranium), but also neighboring countries like Nigeria (Africa’s foremost oil-producing country and a key supplier of crude to the United States) and countries like Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania, Chad and Libya.

There are reports, for example, that some factions of Nigeria’s Salafist jihadi movement, the Boko Haram, are being trained by the AQIM in Mali.

In Mali, rebel groups with ties to the AQIM now control much of the northern region of the country, including the famous city of Timbuktu. Neighboring Niger is battling its own insurgency with ties to the AQIM.

Although the number of terrorist attacks worldwide has been on the decline in recent years, in Africa the number is rising. Terrorists equipped with hand-held surface-to-air missiles also could threaten civil aviation across the Sahara region.

Canada’s interests in the region are not simply security-based. We also have major economic interests. Canadian mining companies, for example, are key players in Niger and Mali. More generally, we recently signed a free trade agreement with Morocco and are returning to do business in Libya.

But there is little appetite around Harper’s cabinet table, and among Canadians at large, to commit Canadian troops to another major military operation overseas after what many saw as a difficult and ultimately inconclusive mission in Afghanistan. There is also little appetite to follow the French lead, even among our NATO allies.

What Mali and its neighbors need are not Western (including Canadian) boots on the ground, but training, material, intelligence, air cover and logistical support. These should be provided not just to the local governments in the region, but also to ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the African Union, which have the manpower but not the know-how to carry out effective counterinsurgency operations against the AQIM.

The problem also requires a broader regional cooperative effort to deal with the AQIM and its criminal partners and networks.

Aid from the West will be crucial in this effort, but a Western miltary presence will be counterproductive if it is overt and heavy-handed.

Post-Iraq and Afghanistan, Western governments have sullied their copybook in much of the Islamic world. Any kind of overt military intervention will only play into the hands of rebel groups and the jihadist ambitions of the AQIM and other extremists.

If Canada does more to assist the embattled regimes of the Maghreb, as it should, it should tread carefully.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.