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.
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.