Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – ruthless idiots or clever opportunists? – Alta Grobbelaar and Hussein Solomon
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – ruthless idiots or clever opportunists?
By Alta Grobbelaar and Hussein Solomon
RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 10 (May 2013)
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is one of the fastest growing terrorist organisations in the world. Not only has this group been able to recruit members from all over the northern African region – but it is also one of the wealthiest terrorists groups in Africa. With regards to becoming one of the most successful terrorists groups, the question can be posed: Does this group achieve these macabre heights through brutal combat and killings or is it the work of clever opportunists who know how to fend for themselves amidst local conflict and international intervention?
The evolution of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
In April 1999 about 700 Salafists broke away from the Group Islamique Arme (GIA) and formed the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC). Since July 2004 Abdel-Malek Drukdal was the emir of the GSPC. In a video released on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on America, Al Qaeda’s then second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri (later appointed as their leader), acted on command from Osama bin Laden and announced that the GSPC and Al-Qaeda has decided to join forces. The Egyptian terrorist-leader called this move a “blessed union” and said that it would become a source of frustration and sadness for the apostates of the regime in Algeria, who were referred to as the “sons” of the previous colonial power; France. In late January 2007 the Algerian Salafist group, GSPC, announced that they will undergo a name-change. From thereon they will be Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Not long afterwards it was proven that it was not only a name-change, but the start of a new, more aggressive era in the north western-Africa region. In April 2007 this group planted two car-bombs in Algeria, one of which detonated close to the prime minister’s office in the capital, Algiers. More than 30 victims died on that day, with more than 150 injured.
The security paradox posted by AQIM is the inability to project global fear outside the borders of Africa in spite of a variety of terrorist attacks in different African states and regions. This leads to growing pressure from the Al-Qaeda main cell; because it is believed that projecting a global fear is crucial to the success of the Jihad. The Jihad-threat should therefore be taken into serious account when analysing the motivations and actions of AQIM. Another factor to be taken into account is the use of symbolism by Al-Qaeda and the sub-organisations. Every attack is based on a symbolic date, and targeted at a symbolic victim. Most attacks coincide with the organisations’ internal ideology. 
When considering possible policy options regarding the restriction and minimizing of AQIM activities the influence and contributions of other military groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab should not be overlooked. The extent of these groups’ relationship and interactions serve as a clear indication of the growing influence of AQIM within the north western-Africa region.
The Maghreb-states, an ideal breeding ground for terrorists?
In the past decade there have been 1 288 terrorist bombings, murders and kidnappings against international and local targets in Algeria, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Tunisia. More than 2 000 victims lost their lives, and a further 6 000 victims have been affected by these attacks.
Apart from the above mentioned attacks, many African countries suffer under political pressure as a result of local terrorism; these pressures include horrible living circumstances, and have a direct effect on stability and development. The threat of terrorism in Africa is fuelled by the fact that large parts of Africa are in a continuous struggle against war, famine and poverty. In several ways these struggles contribute to the development of terrorism in particular resulting in providing a safe haven for terrorist groups in the struggling countries. The lack of an effective local government does not only enable terrorist groups to easily operate with external actors, but also offers no protection or resistance against terrorist activities in the local communities. Another contributing factor is the widespread presence of conflict and poverty: this results in a feeling of exclusion and will play a deciding factor in the individual’s decision to join a terrorist group.
The contexts wherein terrorism in Africa is being addressed, on both local and transnational levels have changed considerably in the recent decades. Policy makers are giving an increasing amount of attention to the fact that some African governments lack the sophisticated means of resistance with regards to local terrorism threats with transnational aspects. In the past decade an assortment of books, articles and reports focusing in the security challenges in “weak” and “vulnerable” states in Africa have been published. The term “weak states” are used to express the weak capacity of the government and government institutions in a particular state. These weak states are often described as states that consist of ungoverned spaces, or where lawless areas exist within their territorial borders.
AQIM and the underrated threat of related terrorist groups
Together with AQIM there are a few other actors that have increased their presence within the terrorist activities in the North-west African region. These groups include Ansar al-Dine, founded by Iyad Ag Ghali in November 2011, The Movement for Monotheism and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and al-Muwaqun Bi-Dina, founded by previous AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar in December 2012. Other groups to be taken into consideration when analysing terrorism in Northern Africa is the Nigerian group Boko Haram and the Somali Islamic group, al-Shabaab. According to the previous General of the US-Africa Command (AFRICOM), General Carter Ham, it can be said that AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab coordinate their attacks to be in accordance to certain shared goals.
In 2012, Moktar Belmokhtar, one of the founders of AQIM allegedly broke away from the terrorist group and founded his own organisation, known as the “Signed-Blood-Battalion”. It is this terrorist organisation that is believed to have been at the forefront of the hostage situation at the Amenas gas facility in eastern Algeria in January 2013.
One of the local Malian groups, Ansar al-Dine is led by the founder and Tuareg rebel leader, Iyad Ag Ghali. This groups’ objective is similar to AQIM’s main objective which is the implementation of Sharia law across Mali. The groups’ full name is Harakat Ansar al-Dine, which means the “Movement of the Protectors of the Faith”. While relations between AQIM and Ansar al-Dine during the Tuareg rebellion in Mali in January 2012 were unclear, there are analysts who believe that these two groups have been cooperating since the founding of Ansar al-Dine. Ansar al-Dine accumulated a number of fighters early in 2012, including AQIM-fighters under the leadership of Ag Ghali’s cousin, AQIM-commander Hamada Ag Hama. It is also believed that AQIM actively took part in the fight in the first few months of the rebellion.
Another Islamic terrorist group is MUJAO, an AQIM splinter group formed in mid-2011. The objective of this group is to spread jihad to West Africa rather than confining its activities to the Sahel and Maghreb regions – which is the main focus of AQIM. MUJAO’s first major operation was in Algeria in October 2011, when the group kidnapped Spanish and Italian aid workers in the town of Tindouf. The hostages were freed in July 2012, reportedly after a ransom was paid. Kidnapping for ransom (KFR) is also one of AQIM most successful tactics, now adopted by most terrorist groups in the region. Although it has many Malian Tuaregs within its ranks, MUJAO is believed to be led by a Mauritanian, Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou. Before France launched a military offensive on 11 January 2013 to drive out the militants, MUJAO’s sphere of influence was mainly in north-eastern Mali, where it controlled key towns such as Kidal and Gao.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) is ethnically driven, fighting mostly for the tights of Mali’s minority Tuareg community. The group was formed by Malian Tuaregs in 2011, as a successor to previous rebel groups. During Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, many Malian Tuareg joined his army, a move that was welcomed by the Malian government to help end the conflict within its borders. After Colonel Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, the Tuareg rebels returned to Mali, reinforcing the MNLA’s numbers and leading the uprising against the Malian army. The Tuareg who were in Libya also brought with them weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, the enforcement that came with this supply of weapons became known as an “arms bazaar”. Whilst the MNLA had formed a tactical alliance with the Islamists, these were eventually ejected by Ansar Din and its AQIM partners.
NATO – powerful intervention or unintended AQIM support?
On 19 March 2011, a multi-state coalition launched a military intervention in Libya in an attempt to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, a reaction to events during the Libyan civil war. The official names for the interventions by the coalition members were Operation Harmattan by France; Operation Ellamy by the United Kingdom; Operation Mobile for the Canadian participation and Operation Odyssey Dawn for the United States. From the beginning of the intervention, the initial coalition of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Qatar, Spain, UK and US expanded to nineteen states, with newer states mostly enforcing the no-fly zone and naval blockade or providing military logistical assistance. The effort was initially largely led by France and the United Kingdom, with command shared with the United States. NATO took control of the arms embargo on 23 March, named Operation Unified Protector.
Fighting in Libya ended in late October following the death of Muammar Gaddafi, and NATO stated it would end operations over Libya on 31 October 2011. Libya’s new government requested that its mission be extended to the end of the year, but on 27 October, the UNSC voted to end NATO’s mandate for military action on 31 October. What was not mentioned were the significant help and assistance not only received from the coalition states, but from local groups, and more specific, AQIM and its affillates.
Western policy makers admit that NATO’s operation in Libya has played a primary role in strengthening AQIM. It can be said that thanks to NATO’s intervention in Libya, AQIM is now heavily armed and AQIM’s base in Mali serves as a staging ground for terrorist activities across the region.
AQIM, like their Libyan counterparts, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) are both listed by the US State Department as terrorist organizations. Also, the UK Home Office and the UN recognize these groups as terrorists. In spite of this, military intervention in Libya was pursued and funded by the West and supported by the UN, with full knowledge that the militants leading the so-called “pro-democracy uprisings” were not only local gunslingers, but led by none other than AQIM and other Al-Qaeda affiliates. This support led to the transformation of local activists simply waving placards, into battle-hardened militants, heavily armed, and joining in the nationwide battle against Gaddafi. The covert support of the West to fund the pro-democracy activities had led to an overspill into militant groups across the region.
In August 2011, Bruce Reidel of the Brookings Institution, wrote that Algeria will be next to fall. Reidel predicted that the success in Libya would embolden radical elements in Algeria, in particular AQIM. With the extremist violence and the prospect of French airstrikes Reidel ironically noted that Algeria has expressed particular concern that the unrest in Libya could lead to the development of a major safe haven and sanctuary for Al-Qaeda and other extremist jihadis. And thanks to NATO, that is exactly what Libya has turned into: a Western sponsored sanctuary for Al-Qaeda.
LIFG, with the help of French arms, cash and diplomatic support is now invading Syria on behalf of NATO’s attempted regime change there. The LIFG formally merged with Al-Qaeda in 2007. AQIM and LIFG not only share ideological goals and beliefs, but strategic objectives. The weapons LIFG received most definitely made their way to AQIM through the porous borders of the Sahara Desert and into northern Mali.
AQIM successes amid growing global awareness of terrorism
Even though AQIM’s roots lie in the brutal Algerian war of the 1990’s, this terrorist organisation have developed and evolved to focus more on an international Islamist agenda. Their area of influence has spread across the Sahel-region of the Sahara desert, and this led to the recruitment of new members across Mauritania, Morocco, Niger and Senegal. There also exists a growing interest from potential members in Mali, who together with other Islamists are fighting the French. During the recent Mali-crisis members of this group made use of the opportunity to dramatically raise their active profile. In turn, this led to the expansion of their goal to spread and implement Islamic law and jihad in the western Africa region. AQIM’s influence on other Islamic groups can be attributed to the groups’ wealth. Thanks to different kidnappings for ransom, drug- and cigarette smuggling across the Sahara the group can be described as one of the best armed groups in the region. This also leads to their increased influence over various other Islamist groups in the region.
AQIM’s successes can be attributed to taking advantage of the lack of effective security in states like Algeria and further along the Sahel. This process is called “Sahelisation”. More specifically, AQIM was successful in completing a number of high-profile operations, like the kidnapping of European and North American tourists and workers in the area, while at the same time profit is being made from the smuggling business. The security threat that this group poses by successfully expanding throughout the Sahel and Maghreb regions cannot be under estimated. It once again highlights the groups’ ability to resist military pressure.
With reference to AQIM’s ability to strengthen itself amidst local conflict, ample evidence is available during the Libyan imbroglio once again. In fact, ABC News reported in their article, “Al Qaeda Terror Group: We ‘Benefit From’ Libyan Weapons” that a leading member of an Al Qaeda terror groups indicated that the organisation may have acquired some of the thousands of powerful weapons that went missing during the chaos of the Libyan uprising. According to Mokhtar Belmokthar their benefiting from the Libyan weapons is a natural thing during those kinds of circumstances. It is no coincidence that as the Libyan conflict was drawing to an end conflict erupted in northern Mali. It can be seen as part of a premeditated geopolitical reordering that began with toppling Libya, and since then, being used as a starting point for spreading the jihad to other targeted nations, including Mali and Algeria with heavily armed, terrorists. Indeed, there are indications that AQIM is also planning to exploit the ongoing turmoil in Tunisia.
Can something be done?
Even though the French intervention may have delayed Jihadi control over strategic parts of northern Mali and North Africa, chances are that AQIM and their allied forces will recover and, being as opportunistic as they are, will strengthen again given the structural conditions existing in the region as was alluded to earlier. Whilst a developmental agenda is needed to resolve ongoing socio-economic issues like poverty, a more robust security response is needed as well. This would entail greater collaboration between neighbouring countries in the region, strengthening border controls, and ensuring that the phenomenon of ungoverned spaces ceases to exist. Of course, this is easier said than done: consider here the ongoing tensions between Algeria and Morocco around the issue of the Saharawi question and the fact that Morocco is not a member of the African Union or its local Regional Economic Community which is the building bloc of the AU’s Peace and Security Architecture. In this context, the United States which is a close ally of both Algeria and Morocco can and should play a more assertive role in bridging the divide between these countries in the security interests of both countries and the region as a whole.
The practice of paying ransom to AQIM for the release of their kidnapped citizens by some European countries has to stop if there is any chance to defeat AQIM. Limiting AQIM’s financial resources is also a key to reducing their operational effectiveness and reach. In similar fashion, their involvement in criminal activities like narco-trafficking and cigarette smuggling has to be curbed by increased vigilance on the part of police and customs officers. On this issue, two points need special emphasis. First, the corruption within the security services in the states in the region has to be rooted out. Second, the region is vast and both the US and the EU can assist with the provision of satellite imaging, motion detectors and the like to assist law enforcement agencies in the region.
We have already witnessed the morphing of Al Shabab in Somalia from a sub-state terrorism entity to a regional threat and a global menace, the world cannot afford a similar development to occur with AQIM.
 Alta Grobbelaar is a postgraduate student in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State, South Africa. The focus of her research is on Islamist militancy on the African continent. Hussein Solomon lectures in the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of the Free State and is a Senior Research Associate of RIMA.
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