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The Scramble between France, AQIM and Other Regional Terrorist Groups: It’s All about Sibling Rivalry – Alta Grobbelaar

May 31, 2013


The Scramble between France, AQIM and Other Regional Terrorist Groups: It’s All about Sibling Rivalry

by Alta Grobbelaar[1]

RIMA Policy Papers, Volume 1 (2013), Number 3 (May 2013)

Islamic; Islamism; Jihad; Terrorism; Intervention. These are just a few terms that have become part of the daily routine since the sharp increase in political uprisings in North African countries. Since January 2011 these uprisings began to seriously affect authoritarian regimes in countries such as Tunisia and Libya. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – the main source of terrorist threats in the area – was seen as well on their way to creating a truly regional Jihadist organisation. This objective was only partially fulfilled. Much like AQIM’s predecessor, the Algerian-based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), between 2007 and 2010 AQIM remained an entity with a largely Algerian leadership, membership and agenda. Even within Algeria, counterterrorist action confined AQIM’s activities to certain regions and reduced its overall operational capabilities. In spite of these restrictions, in the form of military intervention and international involvement, AQIM can never be described a terrorist organisation without an arsenal – literally and figuratively – of resources, allies and means.

The French involvement – for the good of the world?

While there are strong elements of continuity regarding French military interventions in Africa, the justifications for entering into combat in the region have radically changed and continue to be questioned. French president Francois Hollande has made several statements depicting France as having no other interests in Mali than rescuing a friendly state with “family-like” ties and no other objective than fighting terrorism throughout North-western Africa. The unmentioned fact that Niger is a significant producer of the uranium used in France’s power plants, however, is cause for several raised eyebrows. France’s official communication regarding the military intervention in Mali has been following an outward-oriented strategy aimed towards portraying France as a faithful servant to the international community. This “good global citizen” dimension is underlined with references to France’s continued commitment to the fight against terrorism since the tragic attacks of 9/11. The success of this strategy is also seen in the unconditional support France has received from African regional organisations, the UN, the European Union, and the UK and the US.[2] The intervention is described as legitimate in the strictest sense of international law. Along with UN Security Council resolutions 2056, 2071 and 2084, it is particularly the request issued by Mali’s interim president, DioncoudaTraoré, in which he asked France for military support, that provides the legal basis for Operation Serval.[3]

Although France and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) member countries began preparing for war in Mali, and an international resolution from the UNSC were acquired, the early course of military action was a surprise to everyone, and came seven months earlier than the time decided for intervention – September 2013. The readying for war was accompanied by regional and international calls for a political solution, regarding war only as a final option. But the armed Islamist groups that negotiated through Ansar al Din became convinced that the Malian government and its French backers were more eager to prepare for war than seek a viable political solution. With warnings of war and in anticipation of Franco-African plans for military intervention these groups rushed to take the initiative. They thus decided to engage French and African forces prematurely, before the French’s plans had been ready to take immediate effect.[4]

On 11 January 2013, the French military began operations against the Islamists. Forces from other African Union states were deployed shortly after. By 8 February, the Islamist-held territory had been re-taken by the Malian military, with help from the international coalition. Tuareg separatists have continued to fight the Islamists as well, although the MNLA has also been accused of carrying out attacks against the Malian military.[5] The uncertainty of some of the involved parties’ objectives and alliances led to further confusion in the international sphere as to who to trust, and who to attack.

Terrorists from AQIM, Ansar al Din and MUJAO fled to the Ifoghas Mountains after being pushed out of the town in northern Mali by French troops.[6] Not only is Mali grateful to France, a member of the UNSC with the military potential to accomplish a task the Malian army has been unable to handle alone, but it has specifically welcomed the help of its former colonial power. But not everyone welcomes France’s protective stance on the African continent. The Algerian newspaper Liberté, commented on France’s intervention in Mali with the following statement: “The French military intervention has been code-named Serval. For those who don’t know, the “serval” is an African cat of prey that has the peculiar trait of urinating thirty times an hour to mark its territory. Spot on!”[7][8]There have been a number of similar responses from the local citizens in Mali regarding the French intervention – these responses include a vast amount of gratitude from some, and dismissive and even mocking rage from others.

In spite of local opinions France and its allied troops have led an amount of successful insurgencies and attacks. One of the most recent and revered of these attacks was the elimination of the “ruthless commander”, the trusted lieutenant of AQIM’s elusive leader Abdelamalek Droukdel, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid at the end of February 2013. This marked a major victory in France’s nine-week-old campaign to drive Al-Qaeda linked Islamists from Mali’s desert north.[9] Accordingly this victory led to a temporary confusion regarding the leadership roles in AQIM, but as can be expected from AQIM – the terrorist organisation never misses a stride when it comes to choosing and promoting leaders.

Abou Zeid – Droukdel’s favourite

AQIM’s leadership were clear about the organisation’s goals with regards to northern Mali: to build the fabled Islamic state, ruled in accordance to salafist interpretations of the Sharia-law. A territorial and functional division of tasks were adopted between AQIM and some of their allies including Ansar al Din and the MUJAO. AQIM called on its partners to avoid unnecessary clashes with the local people and to adopt a progressive, soft approach to applying the Sharia-law.[10] This alleged “soft approach” can be seen as an ironic description of AQIM’s objective, considering the field leader at the time has been described as one of AQIM’s “most violent and radical” leaders.

The group’s leader, or emir, since 2004 has been Abdelmalek Droukdel, also known as Abou Abdelwadoud, a trained engineer and explosives expert who has fought in Afghanistan. It is under Droukdel’s leadership that AQIM declared France as its main target. One of AQIM’s “most violent and radical” leaders was Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. Abou Zeid was linked to several kidnappings and executions of Europeans in the region.[11]Abou Zeid was considered one of the most prominent leaders of the GSPC that emanated from the Armed Islamic Group in Algeria (GIA). The groups waged fierce war against the Algerian regime in what was known as the bloody decade. Abou Zeid later made his way to the desert where he established the Tariq ibn Ziyad battalion, described as the bloodiest in the history of Al-Qaeda. Abou Zeid was known for his cruelty, bloodthirstiness and brutality. A number of reports have been published over the past year stating that he slaughtered about 30 young Mauritanians after merely doubting their loyalty. Abou Zeid, an Algerian national, also masterminded multiple kidnappings targeting foreigners. His last media appearance was at the end of 2012.[12]Abou Zeid was killed during combat led by the French military in the Ifoghas Mountains in northern Mali. Hollande described Abou Zeid’s death as “a milestone in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel.”[13]

As with all things regarding international intervention and terrorism, a range of opinions and new concerns were raised after the confirmation of Abou Zeid’s death. Since this brutal leader was responsible for several kidnappings and executions of Europeans, it raises questions about the fate of several French hostages still believed to be held by Abou Zeid’s branch of AQIM. While the French-led offensive has successfully pushed Islamists out of the northern towns and mountain bases, militants have retaliated with several suicide bombings in government-held areas. According to Reuters, a spokesman for AQIM has said that it had beheaded a French hostage in retaliation for Paris’ intervention.[14] This adds fuel to the already worrying situation regarding 14 French hostages still held in West Africa. While the French president was adamant in repeatedly confirming the death of the brutal terrorist leader, no official statements were made regarding the French hostages. This can be perceived as a public lack of concern regarding France’s own citizens and leads one to wonder about the credibility of being the African continent’s “big brother” in terms of protecting the continent against terrorist bullies.

Brothers in the Jihad – fighting for the Islamic state, or attention?

According to terrorism expert Syed Ahmed Ould Abdel Kader the death of Abou Zeid is like losing a box with precious secrets. “Abou Zeid is difficult to replace in Al-Qaeda, due to his bravery, cruelty and experience in the Sahara. These qualities made AQIM’s emir, Droukdel, bring him closer and give him more responsibility at the expense of Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The latter became angry and founded a new Emirate.”[15]

The behaviour of some individuals of this terrorist organisation can be described as similar to that of competing and jealous siblings. A case in point calls reference to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who can be described as the “problem-child” of AQIM.  The one-eyed war veteran nicknamed “Mr Marlboro” and described as “uncatchable”, achieved international notoriety for ordering the deadly attack on an internationally-run Algerian gas plant in January 2013. In accordance to being the problem-child of AQIM, after 15 years of being one of AQIM’s top commanders, it became clear that he just is not the team player he was required to be. In a lengthy letter recently discovered by the Associated Press in Mali, dated 3 October 2012, AQIM’s leadership made it clear how exasperated they had become by Belmokhtar’s constant insubordination. This led to him becoming his own boss and leading some of the most spectacular attacks in the region. The 10-page letter gives insight into the internal workings, conflicts, and politics of the highly structured terrorist organisation. It reveals that the breakaway militant stayed loyal to AQIM until last year, and traces the history of their difficult relationship.[16] In December, shortly after receiving the letter, the militant declared in a recorded message that he was leaving AQIM to form his own group, called the Signed-in-Blood Battalion.

According to Stephen Ellis, an academic at the African Studies Centre in Leiden in The Netherlands, Belmokhtar is one of the best known warlords of the Sahara. He became known as “Mr Marlboro” because of his role in cigarette-smuggling across the Sahel region to finance his jihad, which he has recently waged under the banner of the Signed-in-Blood Battalion.[17] It has also been claimed that he masterminded the twin bombings at a military base and a French uranium mine in Niger in May 2013. After the scathing letter from AQIM, the attack in January at the In Amenas gas facility, and the twin bombings in Niger can be seen as Mokhtar’s reply, not necessarily his own way of promoting the Jihad, but in a sense just saying: “watch me” to his former bosses. Armed forces in Chad have repeatedly told various media outlets that Belmokhtar was killed in a raid in northern Mali on 2 March 2013, although there was no confirmation and his death has been declared many times before.[18]

The Niger attacks

With more than 20 people killed in twin suicide bombings in central Niger confusion was once again caused as to who exactly were responsible for this act. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of AQIM’s known allies claimed responsibility for the attacks. Spokesperson for MUJAO claimed that thanks to Allah they were able to carry out two operations against the enemies of Islam in Niger. He also mentioned that they had attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against the Sharia law.[19] Even though it is clear that MUJAO, AQIM and Belmokhtar’s group all have the same ideal – implementing the Sharia-law and creating the Islamic state – it once again points in the direction of sibling rivalry amongst regional groups. In spite of MUJAO claiming the attack, and amidst rumours of Belmokhtar’s death, spokesman for the one-eyed terrorist later told the media that the commander supervised the bombings himself, with MUJAO lending a helping hand, of course.

MUJAO and AQIM have pledged to strike at French interests across the region after Paris launched the ground and air campaign in January that broke their 10-month grip over Mali’s desert north. In spite of these pledges and promises the harsh Sharia-law imposed by MUJAO in the northern city of Gao seemed to have caused relatively little damage. But, the impact of the twin bombings in Niger can be interpreted reflecting the type of actions expected from Belmokhtar – whether he is dead or alive. Belmokhtar has links with MUJWA, having spent time in GAO when it was controlled by the Islamist group last year.[20]

As big brother to the region, France reacted swiftly to the attacks in Niger. French president Francois Hollande pledges to help Niger destroy the fighters and French Special Forces were involved in efforts to end the assault. About 30 minutes after the first attack, a car bomb struck at the Somair uranium mine operated and run by French nuclear group, Areva. The mine, which produced 3 065 tonnes of uranium in 2012, makes up 30 percent of the group’s uranium production globally. [21] With the French a known enemy and target of AQIM, these attacks sparked fears that the conflict in Mali, could, and may already be spreading to neighbouring countries. According to Yvan Giuchaoua, an expert on Niger at the University of East Anglia, this attack is part of the shockwave from the war in Mali.[22] From a realist perspective there should be no confusion or surprise in the fact that the attack took place in Niger, firstly; because all military effective groups are fleeing Mali, and secondly; France, who has been the thorn in the side of the extremist terrorists for quite a while now, have significant economic interests in Niger.


The successes of the international and more specifically the French intervention in Mali and neighbouring countries are clear and well-known. But with the French acting as the protector of its former colonies, no doubt questions are raised about the motivations for this protecting stance. With France already having one foot in the door by being the former colonial power, and the capability to immediate and effective action, attention has visibly moved from involvement from the rest of the international community to the relentless and unconditional help of the French. For this reason, ECOWAS needs to take the lead with the French playing a secondary role. The regional problem of AQIM needs to be owned by the sub-region itself – hence ECOWAS ownership. This would also result in counter-terrorism gaining more credibility in the eyes of governments and citizens in the region.

A nearly forgotten fact regarding the help of the French is the nature of these interventions – always military. A range of in depth studies can still be done regarding other means of intervention; the literacy rate in Niger is less than 30 percent. How can sustainable development be achieved without competent professionals in the country? Furthermore, large parts of North and West Africa are rented to foreign businesses. With the ever present international scramble for African resources, smaller and fewer parts of the countries are available for local agricultural and production developments. There are a wide range of socioeconomic factors to be taken into account when analysing terrorist groups and activities in the region, a field which can be accurately described as understudied.  With regards to AQIM and their allies; a more critical approach should be taken by policy-makers and military personnel. AQIM should no longer be dehumanised as an untouchable terrorist threat, but rather studied as a collective of individuals fighting for a religious extreme, and also scrambling for territory and attention, from their “brothers”, the media and international community. At the same time AQIM as a criminal entity must also not be ignored – especially where this bisects with corrupt elements within the state of the region.

[1] The author is a postgraduate student in the Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of the Free State, South Africa.

[2]Benedict Erforth, George Deffner. Old Wine in New Bottles? Justifying France’s Military Intervention in Mali, Think Africa Press. (18 March 2013) [online]


[4]Al Jazeera. French Intervention in Mali: Causes and Consequences, Al Jazeera Center for Studies. (11 February 2013) [online]

[5]Al Jazeera. French and Malian troops push northward, Al Jazeera online. (23 January 2013) [online]

[6]Bill Rogio. France confirms death of senior AQIM commander Abou Zeid,  The Long war journal. (23 March 2013) [online]

[7]B Mounir. Le Servalet le Fennec, Liberte Algerie. (13 January 2013) [online]

[8]Erforth and Deffner. Think Africa Press. Old Wine in New Bottles?

[9]Lionel Laurent and Elizabeth Pineau. France confirms death of al Qaeda’s Abou Zeid in Mali, Reuters. (23 March 2013) [online]

[10] Fernando Reinares.  AQIM’s existing –and disrupted– plans in –and from– the Sahel, Real Instituto El Cano. (16 May 2013) [online]

[11]Johnathan Masters. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Council on Foreign Relations. (24 January 2013) [online]

[12]Jemal Oumar.  AQIM names new field leader,  Magharebia.  (25 March 2013) [online]

[13]Laurent and Pineau. Reuters. France confirms death of al Qaeda’s Abou Zeid


[15]Oumar. Magharebia. AQIM names new field leader.

[16]The Guardian. The al-Qaida terrorist who was told he must do better, The Guardian online. (29 May 2013) [online]

[17]BBC News. Profile: Mokhtar Belmokhtar, BBC News Africa. (3 March 2013)[online]

[18]BBC News. Mokhtar Belmokhtar ‘masterminded’ Niger suicide bombs, BBC News Africa. (24 May 2013) [online]

[19]Al Jazeera.  Armed group claims Niger suicide attacks,  Al Jazeera online. (24 May 2013) [online]

[20]Abdoulaye Massalatchi. French, Niger troops kill Islamists holding out at Niger base, Reuters. (24 May 2013) [online]

[21]Al Jazeera.  Armed group claims Niger suicide attacks At least 20 people killed in simultaneous blasts, but group responsible is said to have been “neutralised”, Al Jazeera online.  (24 May 2013) [online]

[22]Massalatchi. Reuters. French, Niger troops kill Islamists holding out at Niger base

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