After more than two months of the French-led operation against Islamic militants in northern Mali, there are signs that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is starting to feel the heat. AQIM has not only suffered heavy losses among its top leaders in Mali, but also seems to be suffering from a shortage of North African jihadi recruits, many of whom appear to prefer to fight their jihad in Syria instead of joining AQIM ranks in their own Maghreb region.
What makes the problem even direr for AQIM is the fact that the organization’s amir, Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud (a.k.a. Abd al-Malik Droukdel), is fighting a distant war in Mali. While Abu Musab seems to be stuck in northern Algeria, his fighters are hundreds of miles away, cornered by French and Chadian troops in northern Mali. Abu Musab also seems to be absent when his leadership is most needed; he has neither spoken publicly since the French started their Operation Serval on January 11, nor has he commented on the deadly attack against the In Aménas gas facility in Algeria which was launched by a commander he had just demoted.
The AQIM leader was last heard from in a November 15, 2012 video released by al-Andalus, AQIM’s media branch.  Abu Musab issued the recording in anticipation of a French military operation in Mali after the UN Security Council gave a green light for a campaign to help the Malian government restore its authority over the northern part of the country. AQIM was not the only player in northern Mali; various groups operated there, such as the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), Ansar al-Din and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). However, AQIM had a major stake in that part of the world, which had generated as much as 100 million dollars in ransom money and provided the militants with a safe haven in which to train recruits from around the world (BBC, February 8).
AQIM’s Sahara branch, led by the late Nabil Makhloufi (a.k.a. Abu al-Kama), operated in no less than four brigades: al-Mulathamin (Mokhtar Belmokhtar), Tariq bin Ziad (Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid), al-Furqan (Yahya Abu al-Hamam), and al-Ansar (Abd-al–Karim al-Tarqi, a local Tuareg militant) (al-Hayat, March 2; al-Jazeera, May 1, 2012). Abu Musab must have realized that a French attack in Mali would threaten not only the constant flow of ransom money, but could also jeopardize the safe haven that allowed training on weapons obtained from Libyan arsenals after the fall of Mu’ammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Sensing that the French were preparing an attack, Abu Musab directed his words to the French president, François Hollande, telling him: “If you want war, we are more than ready.” He promised that if the French dared to intervene in northern Mali, AQIM would try to drag them into a long war of attrition, reminding the French president that the Algerian jihadists had fought their government for 20 years with light weapons, whereas today they have “a large arsenal of weapons, ammunition and men.” Abu Musab promised the French leader that: “The greater Sahara will be a brave for your soldiers.” 
Almost two months after Abu Musab’s threat, the French started their Mali operation, named Serval (“Wildcat”). By the end of January 2013, all the major towns in northern Mali had fallen into the hands of the French and their allies, mainly Malian and Chadian soldiers. AQIM fighters were forced to withdraw further north, where they seem to have been cornered in the Ifoghas mountains near the Algerian border. Dozens of these fighters are reported to have been killed, including Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid and Mokhtar Belmokhtar, though only the death of the former is reported to have been confirmed by AQIM so far (al-Jazeera, March 3; al-Hayat, March 5; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 8).
If Abu Zeid has indeed been killed, AQIM has surely suffered a major setback. At the time of his reported death, Abu Zeid was not only the leader of the Tariq bin Ziad brigade; he had become the deputy leader of the amir of the whole Sahara region, Yahya Abu al-Hammam (a.k.a. Jamal Akasha), who had succeeded Nabil Makhloufi (a.k.a. Abu al-Kama) after his sudden death in a car accident in Mali in September 2012 (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, October 4; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 18, 2012). Abu Zeid was also seen as a major generator of ransom money for AQIM, although it is not clear how much, if any, of that money was sent to the leadership in northern Algeria, where Abu Musab is believed to be based.
In fact, Abu Zeid is reported to have been very strict with the money he was getting from ransom. According to people who have known him, Abu Zeid buried part of the money he was getting – the last payment alone is alleged to have totaled 16 million Euros – in secret places in the vast desert. Only Abu Zeid, equipped with a GPS device, would be able to find the money hidden in the Saharan sands (MarsadPress.net, March 2).
However, if Abu Musab was saddened by the loss of Abu Zeid, his feelings are not totally clear regarding the possibility that Mokhtar Belmokhtar was another casualty of the French and Chadian operations in Mali. It was Belmokhtar who claimed to have launched the first reaction to French operations in Mali: on January 16 he sent a group of his men to attack the In Aménas gas facility in south-eastern Algeria, resulting in the death of dozens of foreign hostages, as well as most of the attackers (more than 30 in total).
The significance of that attack was not only limited to the high number of foreign casualties. It was also seen as a kind of challenge to Abu Musab’s authority, specifically because the latter had already relieved Belmokhtar of his command of an AQIM battalion in the Sahel (the Katibat al-Mulathamin, or “Veiled Brigade”). Belmokhtar’s response to Abu Musab’s snub was swift: in December 2012 he created his own group, al-Muwaqqi’un bil-Dima (“Those Who Sign in Blood”) and was the first to retaliate against the French operation in Mali. In the absence of a response from Abu Musab, it is not clear whether or not he saw Belmokhtar’s action as a challenge to his authority. If the former was the case, then the reported death of Belmokhtar in Mali may have meant the removal of a possible challenger. Abu Musab’s continued silence could be explained if he is hiding somewhere inside Algeria and is unable to communicate with the outside world for security reasons. It could also be that he is preparing for retaliation against the French operation, as well as avenging the death of his men in Mali.
However, a March 17 AQIM statement shows that the organization is indeed feeling the heat as a result of Mali’s war. The statement was meant as a “direction” for North Africans (especially Tunisians) who want to participate in jihad. AQIM’s message to those individuals was simple: work with the jihadist cells operating in your own countries, and if you want to fight, do so in the Maghreb and the Sahel, regions that need you more than other countries. This message clearly targeted those North African youths – mainly Tunisians – who are flocking to fight in Syria, as they did a few years ago in Iraq. The AQIM statement plainly says that joining the jihad in North Africa and the Sahel is better than going to fight abroad, an indication that AQIM may be suffering from battlefield losses and a declining number of recruits, a situation exacerbated by the appeal of Syria to potential jihadists.
Will this statement persuade Tunisian jihadists to join AQIM’s ranks? The call may be too late for those who have already traveled to fight in Syria, but others who may be contemplating jihad could be swayed. At least some of those may decide to stay and join existing Salafi-Jihadist cells in their own countries or even join the fight in Mali or Algeria. There are already reports that the Tunisian borders with Algeria are seeing an increased level of activity by Islamic militants smuggling weapons and men, an indication that AQIM is preparing to renew operations in northern Algeria.
2. The Sahara branch of AQIM is officially led by Dawoud Abu Mousa, but his deputy Nabil Makhloufi was considered its effective leader before his death in September, 2012.
3. The full video can be accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_HLTzpc44M