Violence roiling Libya, Algeria and Mali is raising questions about whether President Obama's cautious strategy for dealing with the unrest in North Africa is enough to restore peace in a region where extremists and terrorist groups are taking root and expanding their reach.
The Obama administration has kept a low profile in the area, concentrating on training local military forces and providing other support. But the abduction and killing of Western hostages in Algeria, the attack on a U.S. consulate in Libya and the ongoing, French-led fight in Mali has some administration officials suggesting a more active American role there.
The escalating violence has underscored the growing strength of al Qaeda-affiliated groups in the region who are helping to destabilize national governments.
"The scale has changed; the threat has the potential to become bigger," said Stephanie Pezard, an African policy and security expert at the RAND Corp. "It's unsettling to have such a large portion of territory escaping government control. Nobody knows how much worse it can get. The French intervention [in Mali] has brought a new urgency to the U.S. decision-making process."
French military forces have taken on Islamist insurgents in Mali, but the United States and other Western nations have limited their roles to providing logistical support.
A more aggressive approach from the Obama administration would carry risks for the president, who in his inaugural address focused on the winding down of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, hoping to keep the focus on an ambitious domestic agenda for his second term.
"We need to keep a light footprint there," said Lawrence Korb, assistant secretary of defense under former President Reagan. "Some people will say that's 'leading from behind,' but it's not a serious threat to U.S. interests. Europeans have as much, if not more, interests there."
The White House has been criticized for getting involved in Libya, where NATO air power helped oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi, but staying away from Syria, where more than 40,000 people have been killed since President Bashar Assad began cracking down on opposition forces.
Both sides of the debate over a heightened U.S. intervention in Africa doubt the possibility of troop deployment to the region. However, Obama has presided over an unprecedented drone campaign in Pakistan -- and some wonder whether those efforts could extend into Africa.
In testimony on Capitol Hill, outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the threat of al Qaeda-affiliated groups in North Africa is mushrooming. And outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently vowed to "go after al Qaeda wherever the hell they're at."
However, the White House remains tight-lipped about its plans moving forward in North Africa.
"[Al-Qaeda in Africa] has not represented a direct threat to the homeland," said White House press secretary Jay Carney. "But you can tell by our support of the mission that the French have undertaken [in Mali] and by our overall efforts to go after, and contain and defeat extremists who would do harm to our interests, that we are very serious about this."