What are the group's goals?
Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb is an independent offshoot of al Qaida that's fighting to implement an extremist version of Islamic rule across North Africa. Founded during the bitter Algerian civil war of the 1990s, the organization was once known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. But in the early 2000s, the Algerian government launched a highly effective amnesty program for former insurgents, throwing the outfit into disarray. Deprived of recruits, the group in 2006 boosted its profile by joining Osama bin Laden's global jihad and rebranding itself as al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. (The Maghreb is the arid region that stretches across North Africa from Morocco to Libya). AQIM's ambitions seemed mostly local until last year, but Hillary Clinton recently declared the group "a threat to the entire region and to the world."

What changed? 
The overthrow of Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi destabilized the region. Thousands of nomadic Tuareg tribesmen who had served as mercenaries in the dictator's army returned to northern Mali, bringing rebellion and a vast arsenal of weapons with them. Eager to establish their own ethnic homeland, the former mercenaries drove out the Malian army with the help of AQIM fighters and other radical Islamists from neighboring Algeria. But after that victory, AQIM turned on the mostly secular Tuaregs, chasing them off and seizing an area the size of Texas. "When [the West] started fighting in Libya, did you think of all the consequences in the region? No," said a senior Malian security official. Some 450,000 people have fled northern Mali, amid reports of the implementation of sharia law. Musicians have been threatened with amputation for playing instruments, and unmarried couples have been stoned to death for having sex. 

Why does Mali matter to us? 
Officials in Washington fear that the northern part of the country could soon resemble Afghanistan before 2001 — a wild tribal area where fundamentalist groups are free to train terrorists for operations abroad. Northern Mali is the perfect spot for a violent anti-Western group to set up headquarters. Its inhospitable Saharan dunes host some of the world's busiest drug- and gun-smuggling routes and provide strong natural defenses against any would-be invaders. There are already signs that AQIM is using its new home to spread chaos across North Africa. The head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, has warned that the outfit is training fighters from Nigeria's Boko Haram, an extreme Islamist group that has killed thousands of people in recent years. U.S. intelligence officials are also looking into whether AQIM is linked to the Sept. 11 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. 

Was AQIM involved in Benghazi? 
That's still not entirely clear. U.S. intelligence officials believe that some members of Ansar al-Sharia — the Libyan Islamist group thought to have carried out the assault — have ties to AQIM. In the hours after the deadly raid, American spy agencies intercepted electronic communications from Ansar al-Sharia fighters bragging about their exploits to an AQIM operative. But intelligence officials still have no firm evidence that the attack was actually directed by AQIM, and some experts doubt that the group has the capability to organize such an assault. "AQIM has always been way more talk than action," said a former senior U.S. counterterrorism official.

How has Washington reacted? 
The Obama administration has stepped up military aid to Mali's neighbors, and together with France — Mali's former colonial ruler — has offered to help train and finance an African intervention force. So far, the 15-nation alliance known as the Economic Community of West African States has agreed to provide 3,300 soldiers to bolster Mali's army and confront the Islamists. But no offensive is likely before March, said Anouar Boukhars, a Middle East scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, because it will take months to turn Mali's ragtag army into an effective fighting force. In the meantime, said a senior U.S. counterterrorism official, the White House has begun considering the use of armed drones.

Can drones really help? 
The U.S. is already using them to fly surveillance missions over northern Mali. But experts doubt that missile-armed drones would prove effective against AQIM. From a camera in the sky, it's almost impossible to distinguish friend from foe in the pickup trucks that race along the desert paths of the Sahara. And unlike in Pakistan and Yemen — where U.S. drones have killed hundreds of al Qaida militants — in Mali there is little human intelligence on the ground to confirm targets. "Making that distinction about who is who is something you probably cannot do from 10,000 feet up in the air," said French anti-terrorism consultant François Heisbourg. For now, the West can do nothing but hope that African troops are up to the job of clearing out an increasingly dangerous neighborhood.

The hostage economy
Since 2008, AQIM is estimated to have raised more than $80 million by seizing and ransoming off dozens of Western tourists, aid workers, and employees of multinational companies. But the group won't snatch just any Westerner. The terrorists prefer continental Europeans, said U.S. anti-terrorism official David Cohen, because "they understand that they will not receive ransoms" from the American and British governments. That selective strategy is paying off. Serge Daniel, author of AQIM: The Kidnapping Industry, says that Spain has handed over at least $11.5 million to free its citizens in recent years, while Germany and Austria have together paid up to $10.9 million. Such payments only encourage AQIM to seize more European hostages and demand more for them, said Cohen: The average ransom payment per hostage rose from $4.5 million in 2010 to $5.4 million a year later. Kidnapping for ransom, he said, has become "our most significant terrorist financing threat today."