A steady pattern of kidnappings and attacks on local and foreign targets across a sizeable portion of western North Africa have demonstrated the dangerous presence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in recent years. However, while AQIM are certainly a growing source of concern – as the failed assassination attempt on Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika that was attributed to the group indicates - one questions the limit of their regional reach. In particular, commentators have been asking whether they are capable of carrying out attacks on foreign soil, while their seemingly limited support from a withering (or likely phantom) (2) al-Qaeda central command raises questions as to whether they intend to hit targets in North Africa as well as those of ‘the West’.
This newsletter looks at the shifting nature of AQIM’s operations and discusses the feasibility of the group’s movement and influence from regional to global.
A Shift in AQIM’s MO?
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos recently verified an audio tape sent to media group Al Jazeera by AQIM as authentic. On the tape, the North African al-Qaeda takes responsibility for kidnapping three Spanish aid workers in Mauritania on 29 November 2009. Sources report that they were moved to Mali where they are currently being held along with a French hostage, Pierre Camette, whom they kidnapped in Mali on 25 November. AQIM claims that they are treating their prisoners “in accordance with Islamic law,” which has been interpreted as an indication that they are being treated well.
Since their invocation into al-Qaeda in January 2007, AQIM has claimed responsibility for kidnapping two UN staff members in December 2008, four European tourists a month later, and two Austrian tourists vacationing in Tunisia in February 2009. AQIM have also claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack near the French Embassy in Mauritania's capital on 8 August 2009, killing the attacker, a Mauritanian youth, and injuring two French gendarmes and a Mauritanian woman. In June 2009, an American social worker was shot and killed in broad daylight on the streets of Mauritania. Briton Edwin Dyer was kidnapped on 31 May 2009, and was later executed. Dyer’s comrades, along with other European captives, were released for monetary exchange, though their respective Governments deny any confirmation of this charge. These are but a few instances of kidnap and murder in a long list of AQIM attacks and atrocities.
The French hostage Pierre Camatte frequented Mali, where he worked as an aid worker. Following the kidnapping, the French Government issued a statement for all French nationals to leave the Kidal, Gao and Tombouctou regions immediately.
Spaniards Albert Vilalta, Alicia Gamez, and Roque Pascual who were riding in the last car of an envoy en route to Nouadhibou, Mauritania’s commercial centre, transporting humanitarian aid were abducted on the highway that connects Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital, with Nouadhibou, located in the country’s northern region. Spanish Press reports quoting Al-Andalus, AQIM’s media arm, stated that the group is willing to make an exchange: they propose the return of the Spanish aid workers for AQIM prisoners who are currently being held in Spanish jails.
Dyer’s murder in particular is significant. While AQIM have usually released prisoners with no concessions, or for forfeiture of ransom, this marks the first time the Islamist group have executed a kidnapped foreigner. Their recent demand for swapping Spanish nationals for al-Qaeda operatives is also unprecedented to the North African chapter’s modus operandi, perhaps signalling a deviation or new development in their policies and procedures.
A History of AQIM (3)
AQIM is the result of a merger between the Algerian Salafist group for preaching and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat), or GSPC, and al-Qaeda. The GSPC was formed in 1998 from the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) whose popularity declined in the fallout of a series of massacres in which the group killed thousands of Algerian civilians. The merger occurred just three years after Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi pledged the support and allegiance of his organisation, Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, to Osama bin Laden. The GSPC’s merger was a process akin to Zarqawi’s, in that AQIM had to prove themselves worthy of al-Qaeda status:
“On September 11, 2006, Zawahiri celebrated the fifth anniversary of the attacks against New York and Washington by announcing the approval of the [GSPC]’s affiliation: “this blessed union will be a thorn in the throat of the American and French crusaders. Drukdal [the then leader of the GSPC] pledged public allegiance to Bin Laden and escalated his propaganda against the foreign “infidels” and the local “apostates.” His next target was carefully chosen as “global:” on December 11, 2006, the [GSPC] attacked near Algiers a bus carrying foreign employees of Brown, Root and Condor, an American contractor linked to the powerful Halliburton consortium. The Algerian driver was killed, while four Britons, one American, and one Canadian were wounded. One month later, the [GSPC] was fully integrated into the global jihad and became al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).” (4)
AQIM pledged allegiance to Bin Laden in 2006 and the group was incorporated into the al-Qaeda franchise officially in 2007. Since then, they have carried out terror, kidnapping and murder campaigns across a number of countries in the Maghreb, pointing to a possible support network spanning Algeria (their primary base), Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Tunis.
The Algerian Abdelhamid Abou Zeid is one of the “emirs” who runs operations in the south of the Maghreb, along with Mokhtar Ben Mokhtar. The ideological roots of the group span from Algeria’s post-colonial struggle for independence against France and builds upon experiences from, and relationships forged between, al-Qaeda members of the Afghan struggle against the Soviet Union, and later the US, whose inclusion spans an array of African, Arab, South East Asian and Central Asian populations. The Algerian “Afghans” were among the most numerous of the Arab contingents of the Afghan resistance to the Red Army, estimated at 1,000 recruits in 1980.
Though bountiful in numbers, the Algerian contingent produced a paucity of leaders to rise in al-Qaeda’s ranks throughout the years. It was predominantly Saudis and Egyptians who controlled positions of leadership, with Bin Laden and Zawahiri “co-opting their respective countrymen, probably out of safety concerns more than chauvinistic nepotism” (5) (the Algerian circles were reputedly frequently infiltrated by the Algerian military intelligence). The Algerians, among other “Arab Afghans,” remained and trained in Pakistan until Soviet military withdrawal in February 1989, at which time they celebrated the victory of their professed jihad, although in actuality they did not contribute much to the liberation of Afghanistan, having trained for the most part in Pakistan. Despite this, “a narrative was forged in which the jihadi forces, gathered from all over the world, had triumphed against the Red Army.” (6) These Algerians thus returned to their communities with little combat experience, but a with a hardened credo nonetheless.
New generations of Algerian jihadi youth were born with the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan; the divisiveness between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’ undoubtedly widening following the proclamation of the “war on terror”. There is clearly a market for militancy in North Africa, based out of Algiers – and a successful one at that. One must question, however, the technical and operational savvy that accompanies the Algerian operational command relative to Saudi, Egyptian, Afghani, or Iraqi capabilities. How the Algerian and other North African commanders are perceived within AQIM, but more importantly within higher echelons of al-Qaeda’s leadership, will perhaps determine their funding as well as their wider support. This, of course, begs the question: where does AQIM fit between the local and global jihad?
AQIM: Between ‘Local’ and ‘Global’ Jihad
AQIM poses a considerable threat to the Maghreb, but apparently it has little or no international following outside the region (other than an Internet following) and appears incapable of escalating its attacks outside of North Africa, though its rhetoric certainly follows from global aspirations. Moreover, in 2007-08, the overwhelming majority of the victims of AQIM terror in Algeria remained Algerians. The change in request and tactics evidenced by the demand for an exchange of kidnapped Spaniard nationals for al-Qaeda operatives being held in Spanish prisons, and the execution of a US national in AQIM custody, may signal a change in pace, condition, or context in AQIM affairs.
Jeanne Pierre Filiu, a professor of the Paris Institute for Political Studies surmises that, if in decline, the power vacuum could be filled by al-Qaeda proper. Writing for the Carengie Endowment for International Peace, Filiu notes: “The security paradox posed by AQIM is that its inability to project its ‘global’ terror beyond Africa intensifies the pressures from al-Qaeda central to achieve such a breakthrough and to force the Algerian jihadi leadership to live up to this commitment.” (7)
Filiu indicates that AQIM is stuck between the confines of regional capability and aspirations and rhetoric for global campaigning – essentially between ‘local’ and ‘global’ jihad. An intensification of violence in North Africa in lieu of more grandiose and global campaigns and capabilities may appease al-Qaeda central in the short run, but what of the Western Governments whose nationals are put in peril for travel desires or humanitarian efforts?
The unorthodox request for a return of al-Qaeda operatives is an attempt at a direct line of conversation between AQIM and Spain that has yet to play out. If Spain complies it will undoubtedly motivate further kidnappings. Greater exposure and the casting of a wider terror net, the AQIM could raise the proud brow of its patron, and with that receive greater support from al-Qaeda proper. The Spanish response carries weight for future precedent.
That a collective NATO or EU response is not more immediate and pronounced is disconcerting for all involved, especially given the state’s responsibility to protect its citizens. So far the Spanish Government has given no sign as to what extent it will participate. As noted, previous kidnappings entailed the release of prisoners for ransom where states may have been complicit in arranging a transfer, but they never owned up to their involvement. How many attacks, kidnappings and killings need to take place before a more concerted and concentrated response takes place? How many more before the AQIM is perceived as a rising stock for al-Qaeda’s interests, a terror cell worthy of greater investment?
(1) Matthew Gordner is an External Consultant with Consultancy Africa Intelligence
(3) The mainstay of the factual support, as well as all of the quotations of this section, refers to Jean-Pierre Filiu. “The Local and global Jihad of al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghrib.” Middle East Journal, Volume 63, No. 2 (Spring, 2009), pp. 213 – 226.