"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.)
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