Over the summer of 2012, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar Dine, another radical Islamist group, took advantage of the instability and an increasingly weak military and captured Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao. The groups briefly allied themselves with the Tuareg rebels, but severed ties and declared the northern part of the country an Islamic state. They implemented and brutally enforced Shariah, or Islamic law. They also destroyed many ancient books and manuscripts and vandalized tombs, saying that worshipping saints violated the tenets of Islam. The Islamists continued to stretch their area of control into the fall, prompting concern that legions of Islamists would gather and train in northern Mali and threaten large swaths of Africa. ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) began planning a military action to reclaim the north from the Islamists. However, by January 2013, the militants had pushed into the southern part of the country, crossing into the area controlled by the government. France sent about 2,150 troops to Mali to push them back. In addition to launching airstrikes on militant strongholds, France also deployed ground troops to combat the stubborn fighters. By the end of January, French troops had pushed the militants out of Gao and Timbuktu, forcing them back to northern Mali. Soldiers from other African nations were also deployed to Mali to aid in the effort and will take a more active role in both combat and training Malian troops once France withdraws from Mali.
On Jan. 16, 2013, Islamic militants entered neighboring Algeria from Mali and took dozens of foreign hostages at the BP-controlled In Amenas gas field. Algerian officials said the militants were members of an offshoot of al-Qaeda called Al Mulathameen and were acting in retaliation for France"s intervention in Mali. On Jan. 17, Algerian troops stormed the complex and attacked the kidnappers. By the end of the standoff on Jan. 20, 29 militants and 37 hostages were killed. Three Americans were among the dead.