"Al Qaeda" is often used as terrorism shorthand to describe a variety of groups operating throughout Africa - some with direct ties to the organization and its leaders, others that support the group's ideology but operate independently.
Each organization is unique, and sometimes understanding the differences between the groups are as important as understanding the links.
The newest player thrust into the international press this week is Ansaru, a splinter group of the Nigeria-based organization, Boko Haram.
The little-known group claimed responsibility for the abduction of seven foreigners in Nigeria Sunday. They may also have been involved in a separate kidnapping Tuesday, in Cameroon near Nigeria's border, although there are more rumours than facts at this point. Reuters reported Thursday that French, Nigerian and Cameroonian officials denied French media reports that the seven seized family members had already been freed.
For an in-depth look at the distinctions between Boko Haram, Ansaru and Mali's Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), follow analyst Andrew Lebovich's blog, al Wasat. Jacob Zenn also writes of the groups in the January edition of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center's publication, Sentinel.
Stratfor Global Intelligence notes in their assessment about Ansaru's rise that the groups "appears to have surpassed Boko Haram in its range of tactics and targets."
Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star's National Security correspondent and author of "Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism's Grey Zone." She is a three-time recepient of Canada's National Newspaper Award. Follow her on Twitter @shephardm