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AQIM was born in 2006 when al Qaeda adopted a violent group of Islamic insurgents in Algeria called the GSPC. The nucleus of devoted radicals proved ready to recruit and train fighters for Afghanistan and Iraq, and gave Osama Bin Laden’s network a potential forward base to attack Europe.

Today, AQIM is believed to have about 400 fighters active from Niger to Mali and Mauritania, conducts dozens of bombings or ambushes each month in Algeria, holds hostages and increasingly has bonded with drug traffickers, intelligence officials say.

AQIM’s long-term goal is to create an Islamic state stretching beyond North Africa, and it repeatedly has threatened both France and Spain. France has troops in Afghanistan, a colonial history in North Africa and a new law forbidding Islamic face veils. Al Qaeda also says the reconquest of al-Andalus is a priority, referring to the period of Muslim rule of much of Spain in medieval times.

Analysts say AQIM is really a shadowy network of Algerian-based cells, with three particularly eye-catching figures:

Abdelmalek Droukdel, its overall boss in northern Algeria, rose up during the insurgency against Algeria's government.

• Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, known as “the one-eyed sheik” because he fought in Afghanistan and lost an eye in combat, boosted AQIM’s expansion by building a bridge with the criminal underworld, bringing in outlaws and enrolling local youth.

• Abou Zeid, also known as Mosab Abdelouadoud and the “Emir of the South,” appears to have carved out a role for himself as key kidnapper. He held a Frenchman who was released in February, and another who was executed in July. He also has been linked to the execution of a British hostage in 2009.

Other AQIM hostages have hailed from Spain, Austria and Switzerland. No country has ever acknowledged paying a ransom, though such payouts are widely reported.

Spanish media said the government, via intermediaries, arranged payment of as much as $9.7 million for the release of three Spanish aid workers who were abducted in November in Mauritania. On Thursday, the Spanish Foreign Ministry denied — again — that the government paid money to kidnappers or middlemen.

Algeria’s African affairs minister, Abdelkader Messahel, decries ransom payments, calling for the United Nations to intervene to fight them.

“It’s not enough to say that we are against the payment of ransoms to terrorists. European institutions must take measures to criminalize this act,” he said on Algerian radio.

For Algeria, AQIM is a nightmare that authorities had hoped ended after the insurgency in the 1990s that left some 200,000 dead.

Today’s attacks are scattered but regular. On Saturday, a remote-controlled bomb killed five troops on a truck in a convoy in the town of Zekri in the Kabylie region. On Monday, Algerian authorities dismantled a cell of 13 people supporting Islamic militants in the Tlemcen region. Algeria, the regional powerhouse, has created with its neighbors a joint military command headquarters in Tamanrasset in the southern desert.

A greater concern for U.S. and French officials is weaker governments to the south, particularly Mali. A counterterrorism action group created at France’s urging will meet in Mali next week to boost the region’s efforts to fight terrorism.

AQIM is using the same smuggling routes across the Sahara once used for contraband coming from and headed to Europe, said Africa expert Peter Pham, senior vice president at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

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