NIAMEY, Niger — It was January 2009, and Yaou Mahaman, a personable dark-skinned 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 fully shrouded 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'd been snatched in Niger one month earlier.
"We didn't realize fast enough what was happening," Mahaman now recalls, nearly three years after the ambush. "They had never targeted tourists before."
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's affiliate in North Africa, dubbed al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The earlier kidnapping of the Canadian diplomats took place even farther south, in Niger.
Never miss a local story.
The al Qaida branch had accomplished a notable feat, moving its operations across the Sahara, the transcontinental desert that throughout history has halted empires in their tracks and for millennia kept black Africa separated from Eurasia.
Embassies fretted. Tourism vanished. Researchers warned of the Africanization of al Qaida.
The expansion drew the attention of Western powers, with the U.S. ramping up to $150 million a year its counter-terrorism support to poor governments in the region, most of which held closer ties to France, the area's former colonial power.
France, too, wheeled into 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 surged back into the spotlight over the summer, attempting four suicide bombings in a period of two months in northern Algeria, culminating in a twin suicide blast on Aug. 26 that struck Algeria's premier military academy in Cherchell, killing 18 and sending a powerful message to that country's military.
And many now fear the group could experience a boost from the war in Libya, which has loosed new weapons from Gadhafi's stores 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, but in just a few years, what started as a domestic Algerian movement now commands the attention of global powers.
With its desert hideaways and shadowy movements, AQIM is one of the world's least understood and most opaque jihadi organizations. Analysts argue with one another about its commitment to global jihadism, whether it wants to expand outside Algeria, and even whether the group is one based on ideology or just another criminal gang looking for ways to make money.
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 they believe ransoms that other Western nations have paid for the release of AQIM's hostages are its primary source of funds. 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.'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 told a group of Senegalese journalists in late August.
A month later, he told the Defense Writers Group in Washington that 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.
"That's what I see in Africa and that's what concerns me in Africa," said the general.
While this summer's wave of attacks in Algeria showed 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 great 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 pot of funds.
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 killied 23. On Saturday, a blast that killed 67 Nigerians was blamed on Boko Haram.
In Washington, Ham said the intent to collaborate was especially strong between AQIM and Boko Haram, which was being blamed for Saturday's blast that killed 67 people in Nigueria.
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 between the groups, calling the contacts between the two "episodic."
Andrew Lebovich, an analyst at the New America Foundation, a non-partisan Washington think tank, says "the public evidence" of collaboration "is too thin to draw that kind of conclusion."
"The U.S. and other governments seem pretty convinced, but it's pretty difficult to confirm without access to the classified material," he said.
Boko Haram remains a very Nigerian organization, and AQIM — despite its global jihadist rhetoric — remains largely Algerian-focused, with an Algerian leadership, he notes.
Some analysts point out that regional governments have an incentive to play up the terrorist threat in their countries — attracting more Western aid. That effect could have been on display when in September, when the government of Niger took advantage of the rare presence of foreign reporters covering the arrival in Niamey of Moammar Gadhafi's son Saadi to announce a major clash with AQIM forces in northern Niger in which it claimed to have captured 59 recruits.
"That report was not true at all. They were just plain migrants. The drivers were armed for protection," said Col. Maj. Garba Maikido, the governor of Agadez, the region where the clash supposedly took place.
"The central government has definitely been playing the terrorism card very openly in Niamey," said Lebovich.
So far, AQIM has had limited success recruiting fighters outside Algeria.
"They are still a North Africa-centered organization with an Algerian leadership. They are trying to make inroads in the Sahel, and it's not a great fit," said the State Department official.
In northern Niger, the Tuareg community says that the group's radical theology and Arab culture clashes with its own fiercely independent Berber identity, although some members of the community admitted that Tuareg smugglers may have connections.
Still, AQIM may have found an entrepreneurial way of financing its terrorist operations through its criminal networks.
Filiu, the French scholar, said that although AQIM still technically remains an affiliate of the global network, it has not pledged allegiance to al Qaida's current leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, and no longer has active ties with al Qaida's Afghanistan-Pakistan central command.
"They still speak global, but they act more and more local," said Filiu. "They are basically on their own now."
But Filiu warns that conditions can always change, especially with tens of thousands of new refugees forced from Libya.
"Certainly, they will probably keep on trying to target global targets in their local environments, but their capability to strike globally outside of their own environment is very limited, he said. "Even so one has always to stay alert."
(Boswell is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow McClatchy on Twitter.