Leadership Decapitation Unlikely to Undermine AQIM in the Long Run

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 2

On January 20, Tunisian security forces killed Bilel al-Kobi, an Algerian terrorist affiliated with the Tunisian offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Oqba bin Nafaa (OBN). Al-Kobi was considered to be one of the closest aides of Abdelmalek Drukdel, the emir of AQIM. In the same operation, Tunisian forces also killed Bechir Ben Neji, the leader of the OBN Semmama katiba, and one of the historical points of liaison between the organization, AQIM and other regional groups linked to AQIM (En Bref, Jan 25). According to the Tunisian press, al-Kobi had been tasked with reorganizing the group after its recent losses (EspaceManager, January 22; Shems FM [Tunis], January 21). Indeed, these killings followed the death of Mourad Chaieb, the alleged leader of OBN, who was killed in August 2017 (Mosaique FM [Tunis], August 9, 2017).

A few days later, on January 30, another senior leader of AQIM was killed, this time by the Algerian security forces. Algiers announced it had killed two terrorists in an operation in the area of Mechtat Mohcine, not far from Jijel, about 400 kilometres east of Algiers. The two persons killed were later identified as Boufligha Tourki (a.k.a. Abderrahim Haroun) and Adel Seghiri (a.k.a. Abu Rawaha al-Qusantini or Hichem Abou Rouaha), the head of AQIM’s al-Andalus Media Foundation. Both joined the group back in the 1990s when it was still called the Islamic Armed Group (GIA – Groupe Islamique Armé). Al-Qusantini, however, accepted surrender in 1999 under the reconciliation law promulgated by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika shortly after he was elected. However, he returned to the movement in 2003, and after he lost one leg, he started working specifically in the area of media and propaganda (La Nueva Tribuna, February 3). After the arrest of Salaheddine Gasmi in 2012, al-Qusantini took over as head of the media operation of the group. Al-Qusantini’s death was confirmed by al-Qaeda through a statement celebrating his martyrdom on its Telegram channel (North Africa Post, February 6; SITE, February 2).

These operations come at a time of operational revival in regional jihadism. The Algerian authorities announced the arrests of a number of militants in a raid in several provinces, while Tunisian authorities have launched new operations after arresting 480 militants in 2017. Still, on February 14, five Algerian soldiers were killed in Tébessa, northeastern Algeria (HuffPost Maghreb, February 14). Four days later, AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack through its social media channels (SITE, February 18). Both Tunisia and Algeria remain particularly concerned regarding the presence of terrorist cells in their border areas (Maghreb Emergent, February 13; AtlasInfo, February 13; HuffPost Maghreb, March 24, 2016),  and both countries continue to focus on decapitating the leadership of the organizations operating on their territory. Although this strategy has a clear impact in the short-term, in the long run, it is unlikely to bring any structural change, especially since al-Qaeda has shown itself to be resilient in the face of leadership decapitation.