AQIM in particular has perfected what analysts call a “kidnap economy,” drawing on its refuge in Mali, according to diplomats, hostage negotiators and government officials. In 2003, the group kidnapped and transported 32 mostly German tourists from southern Algeria to Mali, where, according to a member of Mali’s parliament, they struck a deal with local authorities that is still in effect today.

“The agreement was, `You don’t hurt us, we won’t hurt you,'” said the parliament member, formerly involved in hostage negotiations, who asked not to be identified because of the danger involved.

The government of Mali denies these accusations, but officials cited in diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks make the same assertion. The president of neighboring Mauritania, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, told his American counterparts in 2009 that Mali is “at peace with AQIM to avoid attacks on its territory.” Whereas the al-Qaida cell has captured more than 50 foreigners in Algeria, Niger and Mauritania, hardly any of the violence has touched Mali.

The cell has also managed to recruit local fighters, including 60 to 80 Tuaregs, the olive-skinned nomads who live in the Sahara desert, according to a security expert. And villagers say they have seen black-skinned sub-Saharan Africans in the pickups speaking the languages of Mali, Guinea and Nigeria.

“The situation in Mali is they have become locals — they are not foreigners,” said Benotman. “This is really, really very, very difficult to do, and it makes it very hard to get rid of them.”