In January 2009, Yaou Mahaman, a Tuareg tour guide from Niger, was coming off a lucrative week. His three-car convoy carrying four European adventurists sped along the Sahara's Mali-Niger border.

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NIAMEY, Niger — In January 2009, Yaou Mahaman, a Tuareg tour guide from Niger, was coming off a lucrative week. His three-car convoy carrying four European adventurists sped along the Sahara’s Mali-Niger border. Suddenly, the first one veered off and pulled a U-turn. The back two, not quick enough to respond, fell into an ambush.

The eight bandits demanded Mahaman’s four clients — two Swiss, a German and a Briton. They were then sold to North Africa’s al-Qaida affiliate as hostages. The Briton was later killed, and the other three eventually released, along with two Canadian diplomats working for the United Nations who had been captured in Niger a month earlier.

The abduction of tourists was not a first, but where it took place was: nearly 300 miles south of Algeria, where an Islamist rebel group had rebranded itself in 2007 as Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The earlier kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats took place even farther south, in Niger.

The al-Qaida branch had moved its operations across the Sahara, the transcontinental desert that throughout history has stopped empires in their tracks.

Embassies fretted. Tourism vanished. Researchers warned of the Africanization of al-Qaida.

The expansion drew the attention of Western powers, with the U.S. increasing to $150 million a year its counterterrorism support to poor governments in the region, most of which are closer to France, the area’s former colonial power.

France, too, took action. In February last year, a senior French diplomat told U.S. officials in Paris that AQIM was now his country’s No. 1 priority on the continent, according to a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks.

AQIM was back under the spotlight this past summer, attempting four suicide bombings over two months in northern Algeria, culminating in a twin suicide blast Aug. 26 that struck Algeria’s premier military academy in Cherchell, killing 18.

And many now fear that the group could get a boost from the war in Libya, which has loosened new weapons from former leader Moammar Gadhafi’s armories, and sent thousands of pro-Gadhafi mercenaries and laborers back to their home countries bordering the Sahara.

Analysts disagree over how serious a threat AQIM is.

With its desert hideaways and shadowy movements, AQIM is one of the world’s least understood and most opaque jihadist organizations.

Jean Pierre Filiu, a French academic in Paris, uses the term “gangster jihadism” to describe the group, saying it mixes traditional al-Qaida goals with revenue-generating illicit activity.

“They are the jihadi organization that has been the farthest in this path. It is very peculiar to AQIM,” Filiu said.

U.S. officials say the ransoms that other Western nations have paid for the release of AQIM’s hostages are its primary source of money. Next in line is income from smuggling, largely moving Latin American cocaine along routes that take it to Europe.

Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, has been the U.S.’ most vocal official proclaiming the AQIM threat.

“We view the threat posed by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb as a very serious threat not only to African people but to us as well,” Ham said in August.

A month later, he said intelligence estimates suggested that al-Qaida’s global affiliates and emulators — including AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Shabab movement in Somalia — may be gaining strength even as the core al-Qaida command is weakening.

On Sunday, the U.S. Embassy in Lagos warned that luxury hotels frequented by foreigners and Nigeria’s elite may be bombed by Boko Haram. Possible targets were identified in Abuja as the Hilton, Nicon Luxury and Sheraton hotels, which draw diplomats, politicians and even reformed oil delta extremists.

While the summer attacks in Algeria showed that the group’s northern wing was still active, it’s the group’s expansion south that most alarms Washington.

The move into what is known as the Sahel — the sparsely vegetated belt squeezed between central Africa’s tropics and the Sahara — was spurred by a mix of desperation and opportunism. A crackdown by Algerian authorities in 2008 severely weakened the group, but the desolate Saharan dunes, porous borders, and weak governments to the south also proved a vast safe haven and valuable money sources.

Now there are worries that the group is strengthening its ties to black Africa, and other like-minded jihadist groups, Nigeria’s Boko Haram in particular. The Aug. 26 blast in Cherchell came just a few hours after a more headline-grabbing suicide attack by Boko Haram against the headquarters of the United Nations in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, that killed 23.

In Washington, Ham said the intent to collaborate was especially strong between AQIM and Boko Haram, which was blamed for a blast Saturday that killed at least 67 people in Nigeria.

That, however, is not a universally held opinion, even within the U.S. government. A State Department official specializing on security in the region downplayed the links, calling the contacts between the two groups “episodic.”

Andrew Lebovich, an analyst at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington research group, said “the public evidence” of collaboration “is too thin to draw that kind of conclusion.”

Boko Haram remains a very Nigerian organization, and AQIM — despite its global jihadist rhetoric — remains largely Algerian-focused, with an Algerian leadership, he noted

Some analysts point out that regional governments have an incentive to play up the terrorist threat — attracting more Western aid.