There is a new and troubling trend in the Middle East and Africa: failed and/or nonfunctioning states. In March Anouar Boukhars of the Carnegie Endowment for International peace wrote: “The Western Sahara, a former Spanish territory annexed by Morocco despite Algerian objections, is a critical region that could quickly become part of the criminal and terrorist networks threatening North Africa and the Sahel. The undergoverned areas abutting the territory are becoming major hubs for drug trafficking, contraband smuggling, and weapons circulation. And Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is extending its reach in the region. The potential for destabilization is real.” There is a toxic combination of economic strife; warehoused Western Saharans in Algerian camps run by the militant liberation group the Polisario Front; easy access to weapons; and drug running and human trafficking where terrorists recruit refugees from the camps, foreigners are subject to kidnapping for ransom, and the AQIM becomes further entrenched in the area. Boukhars sums up:

The undergoverned areas abutting the Western Sahara, especially northern Mauritania and the Polisario-administered camps in southwest Algeria, are becoming major hubs for drug trafficking, the smuggling of contraband, and the circulation of weapons. There is growing evidence to suggest dangerous connections between criminal organizations, AQIM, and the Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf. Such links are bound to deepen should the social and political conditions in the camps deteriorate further or if civil unrest plagues the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara.

Furthermore, young Sahrawis in the camps are becoming increasingly disenchanted by the failure of the nationalist agenda and upset by the perceived corruption and clientelism of the Polisario elites. The prospect that the Western Sahara will become even more integrated into the criminal and terrorist networks threatening North Africa and the Sahel is troubling to the United States and its European allies. Already, the Western Sahara conflict has undermined regional security cooperation and assistance. The hostility and distrust between Morocco and Algeria have been so destructive that the whole region has been dragged into a vicious circle of collective suspicion, counterproductive rivalries, and self-defeating policies.

This is not the only troubling situation. J. Peter Pham of the Atlantic Council recently detailed a similar predicament in Mali. In early April Pham wrote: “In less than two weeks, the West African nation of Mali has gone from being a rare oasis of democracy and stability to a near failed state whose troubles threaten to ripple across the Sahel where the security situation, always delicate even in the best of times, is especially stressed in the wake of the flow of refugees, fighters, and arms from the Libyan conflict last year. Moreover, the coup d’état by junior army officers not only overthrew an elected government but also threatened to undo a decade’s worth of patient effort by the United States and its European allies while creating a significant opening for al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate and other extremists.” The president, Amadou Toumani Touré, was ousted in a rebellion by a violent separatist group of Tuareg nomads “who seek to create their own state” from three Mali provinces and other countries. “The rebels’ Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) is composed of longtime Tuareg dissidents reinforced by battle-hardened ethnic kin who returned last year from Libya, bringing with them heavy armaments looted from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals.” Predictably, Islamists capitalized on the situation:

[F]ighters from Ansar e-Dine (“Defenders of the Faith”), a local Islamist militant group with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) led by Iyad ag Ghaly, a Tuareg chieftain whose principal objective is the imposition of shari’a, rather than self-determination—took Gao, capital of the neighboring region and site of the Malian army’s chief garrison in the north. Completing the trifecta on Sunday, Tuareg and Islamist fighters took the historic desert town of Timbuktu after Malian forces apparently abandoned their positions. In effect, Mali has been cut into two parts. And while the MNLA denies that it has connections to any Islamist movements, a number of reports indicate that not only Ansar e-Dine fighters, but also militants from the AQIM splinter group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.

Once again, the lack of functional state with sovereignty over the unstable territory has opened the door to extremists.

Egypt is another variation on the theme (which is also playing out in Libya and Yemen). There, an unstable regime, consumed by violence, political tension and economic failure, has for all intents and purposes lost control of the Sinai. And who should move in? Hamas, which has engaged in violent attacks in Israel, which in turn have resulted in new conflict between Israel and Egypt.

On Tuesday Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu described the Sinai as the “Wild West.” Reuters reports:“The open desert border between Israel and Egypt was relatively quiet for three decades after they signed a peace treaty in 1979. But the Jewish state says that since the fall of Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising last year, Cairo has lost its grip on the desolate Sinai and tensions are rising. Earlier this month, Israel said a rocket fired from the Sinai hit its Red Sea resort of Eilat, causing no injuries. Last August, cross-border infiltrators shot dead eight Israelis, and Israeli soldiers repelling the attack accidentally killed five Egyptian guards.”

I asked Peter Pham what can be done. He said that the Mali events show “you can get some very strange bedfellows” who can quickly alter the situation. He speaks about Mali, but his observations are equally applicable to the Western Sahara and to Egypt. He told me that, given an opportunity, separatists will look to a mix of Islamic groups. Soon the array of violent characters is something “out of the bar scene in Star Wars.” In the case of the Western Sahara, he said you have scores of young men in Polasario camps within Algeria “who have nothing to do and a lack of opportunity and political freedom” who are held in camps, and thereby acting as ready recruits for violent Islamic and/or separatist groups.

He recommends that the United States engage more forcefully to bolster and reform regimes, helping countries to improve governance and economic development. He also said, “We need to stop spending money foolishly.” He points out that the United States is the biggest donor to the U.N. agency that runs the Polisario-controlled camps, which holds its occupants against their will. “We don’t even have an accurate head count,” he noted. We are nevertheless dumping money into camps that contribute to the noxious mix of violence and Islamic extremists. “It’s absolutely ludicrous.”

Today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee will hold a hearing on “instability,” including the influence of AQIM in Africa. Perhaps the committee will explore how we wound up behind the curve, essentially blindsided by the Mali uprising and, more important, what we are doing to promote stability and stave off the dangers that flow from failed states.