On March 10, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a statement to jihadi forums claiming the abduction of two Austrian tourists on Tunisian soil (al-Jazeera, March 10). Though it is uncertain whether the two were actually still in Tunisia at the time of their abduction, other reports claim that a gang led by Yahyia Abu Ammar took the Austrians through Libya and Algeria to an AQIM base in Mali (Le Temps [Tunis], March 21; Annahar [Algiers], March 21).
While this ongoing affair has generated a groundswell of global media attention—much of it focused on AQIM’s ability to operate within Tunisia—this event cannot be viewed in isolation. Rather it is the most recent and widely publicized event in a surge of AQIM activity outside of Algeria, mostly within neighboring Mauritania. While AQIM’s predecessors were also known to operate abroad, the recent surge in activity outside Algeria demonstrates a new trend in North African security and is indicative of the organization’s return to a regional scope of operations and an ideological shift from a nationalist to a transnational agenda.
Dating back to the earliest days of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), Algerian jihadist groups have conducted a range of operations outside Algeria. The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in particular operated extensively outside Algeria for everything from procuring weapons in Mali to conducting the well-known kidnapping by Amari Saifi—also known as Abd al-Razzak, “le Para”—of 32 European tourists in the summer of 2003. In fact the GSPC’s regional scope was a major factor in the group’s ability to sustain itself in the face of damaging government counter-terrorism efforts.
However, following the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda in September 2006, the organization as a whole appeared to be focusing the majority of its efforts within Algeria. This period was marked by instability within the group’s ranks, largely as a result of internal disputes over the group’s merger with al-Qaeda and the use of suicide bombers. All of this suggested that the group would be less capable to mount sustained operations outside of Algeria.
This situation changed in late fall 2007 when State Security Services in northern Nigeria broke up two networks they claimed had trained in AQIM camps in Algeria and were plotting to attack Western interests in the country (This Day [Lagos], October 31, 2007; Radio Nigeria, November 23, 2007). Not long thereafter, AQIM was linked with the killing of four French tourists and an assault on a military barracks in Mauritania. The latter attack was reminiscent of one conducted by the GSPC at the Lemgheity military barracks in Mauritania in June 2005. Additionally, AQIM issued a statement threatening the Dakar Rally, forcing the cancellation of that event in December (see Terrorism Focus, January 8). Then in February 2008, AQIM claimed an attack on the Israeli embassy in Mauritania in protest to a blockade of Gaza imposed by Israel (Al-Fajr Media Center, February 2).
The most recent kidnapping in Tunisia has demonstrated AQIM’s determination to operate within Algeria’s eastern neighbor. Algerian groups have long been associated with jihadis in Tunisia, and in the past year, local authorities have dismantled networks linked with AQIM plotting to attack tourist destinations, national institutions and foreign embassies in Tunis.
In the aggregate, it appears that AQIM is making a concerted shift toward projecting force outside of Algeria as an attempt to shed its nationalist character. In particular, the group has shown a determination to operate within Mauritania and Tunisia. Moreover, AQIM’s target selection since the merger with al-Qaeda is indicative of the organization’s overall ideological shift, embodied in the group’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Mauritania. Thus it seems that despite rumors of instability and factionalism within AQIM’s ranks (see Terrorism Monitor, September 13, 2007), the group appears to have succeeded in projecting a semblance of force beyond the national borders of Algeria.