|Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): Challenges from North Africa|
|Written by Ronan Farrell (1) Wednesday, 02 May 2012 08:18|
On 11 April 2007, three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside of the Government palace, a police station and a gendarmerie post in Algiers. These terrorist attacks, which killed more than 30 people, were significant for two reasons. Firstly, exactly five years earlier, al-Qaeda carried out is first attack on North African soil with the Ghriba Synagogue bombings in Tunisia. Secondly, the attacks in Algiers happened to be the first attack to be claimed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).(2)
From 2007 onwards, AQIM was thought to be responsible for numerous acts of terrorism, including a suicide bombing on the United Nations (UN) headquarters in Algiers on 11 December 2007, which left 17 people dead, a car bomb outside of a police training centre in Issers on 19 August 2008 that left 48 people dead, and an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) attack on a military convoy which killed 20 soldiers on 29 July 2009. In addition, AQIM has carried out several abductions of local and foreign nationals; most recently on 25 November 2011 when gunmen seized three aid workers on a street in Timbuktu, Mali.
On 12 January 2012, a statement appeared on jihadi websites threatening to harm those hostages should the Governments of Belgium, France, Sweden or the United Kingdom (UK) launch direct military operations to try and rescue them. For a group which has shown no regard for the killing of civilians, the tone of the language used appears somewhat surprising, and especially the message that “the Mujahidin do not wish for such a tragic ending. They are careful to find a peaceful and just solution for a resolution of the affair of the hostages.”(3) This might well appear to show how the position of AQIM has been somewhat reduced from that of one able to dictate in absolute terms.
This paper will provide a current assessment of AQIM, by detailing its emergence, assessing some of the key issues that it faces, and evaluating just how much of a threat AQIM is in the region.
The roots of AQIM
The year 1992 proved to be a pivotal point in time in Algeria. Multi –party elections, the first allowed by the ruling Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), were cancelled by the military when it looked like the conservative Islamic Salvation Front would win.
What came about during the state of emergency that followed was the emergence of a number of armed groups. The two most well known were: the Mouvement Islamique Arme (MIA) and the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA). Both the MIA and the GIA appeared because of their absolute opposition to the ruling party. But the GIA drew most of its support from urban areas in contrast to the MIA, which enjoyed particular backing in rural areas. The GIA, mainly comprising of returned Algerians who had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, had an agenda which included an “aggressive re-Islamisation of Algerian society through coercion and the practice of Takfir,” which would be used to justify attacks on civilians and foreigners as well as the Government and security forces.(4) Differences led to the two groups fighting not just the Government and the security forces, but each other as well. Between 1992 and 1998, a period marked as a ‘black decade’ saw an estimated 170,000 people killed. Massacres attributed to the GIA, including those in Bentalha and Rais, proved to be extremely unpopular and led to significant decline in support. By then, an internal split had occurred within the GIA, with a commander named Hassan Hattab from the mountainous Kabylia region forming the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC). Under his brief leadership, the GSPC continued to target the newly elected Government of Liamine Zeroua, but with the explicit goal of limiting civilian casualties. As the Algerian Civil War drew to a close in 2002, Hattab was removed from his role as emir by more hard line elements who sought to transform the GSPC into a real global entity. Hattab’s successor, Nabil Sahraoui, was killed by the Algerian security forces in 2004 and replaced by Abdelmalek Droukdel. Droukdel aligned the GSPC with al-Qaeda in Iraq by establishing smuggling routes for volunteers to Iraq and then formally cemented the relationship by renaming it AQIM.
Kabiya and the Sahel: The rivalry
Droukdel inherited a militant group that was fragmented. For a start, successful counter-terrorism operations in many urban areas forced AQIM, by now thought to number no more than a couple of hundred militants, to regroup in the relatively isolated areas of Kabiya and the Sahel region in southern Algeria, northern Mali, Mauritania and Niger. From its base in Kabiya, AQIM commanders have been able to carry out a number of attacks against members of the security forces in remote bases along the coastline in Tizi Ouzou province.
In contrast, the Sahel region, being much more remote, does not present an ideal location from which AQIM could attack ‘soft’ targets. It has, however, proven to be extremely beneficial as it offers access to various smuggling routes across North Africa. The abduction of foreign nationals has been undertaken from there by local battalions, or Katibas, and local crime gangs. Furthermore, funds gathered from such activities have provided the leadership, based in Kabiya, with the necessary finances to carry out its operations elsewhere. Inevitably, the importance of this ability to obtain funding has also projected elements in the Sahel into a more central role within AQIM to the great dismay of some key leaders elsewhere.
The huge distance between bases has meant that the different AQIM factions in the Sahel have had to adopt a certain degree of autonomy from each other as well as from the central leadership. The main figure in the Sahel has been Mokhtar Belmokthar, who established his connections with the Tuareg, a nomadic Berber pastoralist people, by marrying the daughter of a local chieftain in the late 1990s, after he had returned from Afghanistan. For a while, relations between Droukdel and Belmokthar were close. But Droukdel began to fear Belmokthar’s growing power base and independence. So, in order to reassert his influence in the Sahel, Droukdel dispatched a faction from AQIM’s fifth zone of operations – Tareq ibn Ziyad – to the area under the leadership of Abdelhamid Abu Zeid.(5) Indications are that a growing spilt has now emerged between Zeid and Droukdel. “Throughout the history of AQIM, leadership rivalries and internal fragmentation have been constant elements of its configuration, but they have also reduced AQIM’s ability to remain a constant threat, as competing factions have constantly sought to gain more money and weapons.”(6)
However, criminal activities have been a source of contention for many Islamic militant groups. In Pakistan, for example, the Quetta Shura has, publicly at least, established strict guidelines that prohibit the Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan from establishing direct links with criminal groups. Similarly some of AQIM’s activities in the Sahel have the potential to draw it away from its religious underpinning. Nevertheless, it would appear that AQIM no longer relies on crime to finance terrorism. Instead terrorism has become used as a cover-up for the crime. The killing of a British hostage in Mali in May 2009 by the Tareq Ibn Ziyad brigade hurt Belmokhtar, who had previously used Mali as a safe haven and release point for ransom hostages.(7) For this reason he had deliberately avoided hostilities there. His importance to AQIM would appear to have influenced the central leadership into making sure similar incidents were avoided.
The national and global issue
In addition to these rivalries, ideological disparities exist in AQIM. “When Droukdel took over the GSPC, he feared the scaling down of the Algerian War and strove to replenish his organisation by plugging into the global realm” (of jihadism).(8) Overtures were made with Ayman al Zaraqwi who commissioned Abu Mus’ab al Zarqawi and the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda to manage the transfer of Algerians, who were too disillusioned to join a purely national jihad. Acceptance of the relationship between the then GSPC and Al-Qaeda in Iraq was sealed with the killing of two Algerian diplomats in Baghdad in July 2005.(9) Droukdel benefited from this relationship because it reduced the likelihood of some of his own fighters laying down their weapons following another Government amnesty and gave him added media exposure. At the outset, AQIM’s global strategy was “based on the triangular dynamic of the Middle East (where Iraq serves as a magnet for potential recruits), North Africa (where the group serves as a regional jihad recruitment hub) and Europe (where it pursued an aggressive propaganda campaign against France and Spain).”(10)
Support for Al-Qaeda in Iraq rapidly diminished when it began a campaign to target Sunni nationalists and this had a knock-on effect for AQIM from 2008. Indeed, an examination of incidents believed to have been committed by AQIM revealed a slight decline in attacks from 2009 and in particular suicide attacks – which used to number in double figures in 2008. Two-thirds of the attacks that have been carried out in Algeria were in the three provinces that encompass the Kabiya mountain range – Boumerdes, Bouira and Tizi Ouzou. An additional trend is the apparent increase in the number of killings of so called ‘repentant’ militants as a deterrent to Government amnesties in Algeria.(11)
AQIM’s global rhetoric has not been matched by activities on the ground. In January 2009, AQIM issued a threat of revenge for Israel’s offensive in Gaza. Similar threats were made against the Chinese community living in Algiers for the repression of Muslim rioters in Xinjiang in July 2009 and against United States (US) nationals following the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011. In December 2011, French authorities evacuated the Eiffel Tower following a phone call purported to be sent from AQIM. However, in each case, the threat was never carried out. In response to the uprisings that began in Tunisia and Libya in early 2011, AQIM issued videos calling for the removal of Governments there. But it never had the political initiative, and its role in both uprisings was restrained. Additional calls were made for an uprising in Algeria to follow those happening elsewhere, but apart from a few demonstrations in Algiers, the appetite for agitation from a people still bearing the scars of conflict in the 1990s appears limited.
AQIM has also failed in its attempt to transform itself into a North African-wide organisation. Albeit some integration of nationals from Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger into some local brigades, the leadership of AQIM continues to remain predominantly made up of Algerians. “In addition, the association with al-Qaeda would appear to be largely rhetorical, tactical and strategic, as AQIM has adopted the jargon, techniques and long-term goals of Bin Laden’s organisation without there being much evidence of a logistical or financial relationship between the two, consistently with al-Qaeda’s modus operandi.”(12) Therefore we see other Islamist groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group merging into al-Qaeda central rather than AQIM, while the Moroccan and Tunisian networks kept operating on an independent basis.(13) More recently, the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa has emerged as a breakaway from AQIM with the professed aim of becoming its own regional Islamic militant group.
Aside from AQIM’s own failings, national and regional Government strategies have had a profound effect. In Algeria, Government amnesties in 1999 and 2006 proved to be successful in that they encouraged many militants to cease fighting. The 2006 amnesty was complemented at the same time by effective counter-terrorism strategies, the aims of which were to ‘mop up’ AQIM activism outside of its traditional strongholds and the arrest of a number of its senior commanders. The security forces in France, Spain and the UK – after 2005 – dismantled a number of local based cells, which were believed to responsible for sending volunteers to Iraq and to training camps in Algeria.
Moreover, a number of agreements between the different countries in northern Africa have facilitated closer co-operation between the various armed forces. The US established Pan Sahel Initiative in 2002 and the Trans Sahara Counter terrorism partnership in 2005 with Chad, Mali and Mauritania. In turn, keen to exert its status as the regional power and limit the influence of third party actors, Algeria agreed to provide arms and logistical support for Mauritania and Mali in combating terrorism, kidnapping and smuggling in exchange for a promise by both countries to expand their own military capabilities under the 2010 Tamanrasset Plan. As the main leadership for the Sahel relocated from southern Algeria to northern Mali and Mauritania, the security forces in both countries became proactive in conducting numerous operations to target the militants. The most recent of these was an airstrike on a reported AQIM convoy, 65 kilometres from Timbuktu on 11 March 2012.(14) Given AQIM’s perceived change in operations strategy towards that of a low level insurgency – termed creeping normalcy – which focuses less on direct contact but rather on the physiological aspect of the conflict, it has no doubt been influenced to adopt this approach to some degree by effective security operations which have reduced its operational abilities.
In light of the political vacuum that has engulfed Libya and now Mali, more favourable conditions would appear to provide AQIM with an opportunity to reinvigorate itself. Indeed in March 2012, it was reported that Belmouktaer had moved from southern Algeria into Libya and acquired additional weaponry. This would suggest that his brigade has both the means and capabilities to continue to sustain a prolonged campaign and that AQIM has been developing links with militants in other parts of the region.
In addition, despite the efforts of the security forces to locate them, AQIM continues to hold a number of foreign hostages. On 23 March, AQIM issued a statement demanding the exchange of a Turkish-born woman detained by the German authorities, for aiding terrorism, for that of a German citizen it has held in captivity since March 2010. Given that AQIM has executed hostages before, the possibility that AQIM would carry out further killings remains ever-present.
However, these recent developments may well be an indicator once again that AQIM continues to face serious internal and external challenges. In this case, the decision to relocate from Algeria to Libya was one that was imposed by a need to avoid direct confrontation with Abu Zeid and by successful efforts by various regional counter-terrorism operations between Algeria and Mali. And the appearance of Droukdel on the 23 March 2012 video may well be an attempt to remind his audience – both external and internal – that he is still in control. Perhaps, in retrospect, the GSPC’s affiliation to Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda and its re-branding as AQIM may well have been a survival tactic rather than a sign of strength. If so, might it be due another rebranding?
(1) Contact Ronan Farrell through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Conflict and Terrorism Unit (