The Algerian-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) organization is facing new challenges to its leadership and its mission as a result of Algerian counterterrorist measures. The loss of a number of AQIM’s commanders to defections or arrest during security sweeps is beginning to have a major impact on the future direction of al-Qaeda activities in North Africa.
Attrition of the AQIM Leadership
One of the most important AQIM senior leaders, Abou el-Abbes (a.k.a. Athmane Touati), surrendered on May 25 after Algerian security forces captured him during a security sweep in Boumerdès Province. On that same day another major jihadi operative, Grig-Ahsine Abdelhalim (a.k.a. Abdelkader), also surrendered to the Algerian security forces (L’Expression, June 1; AFP, June 1).
El Abbes was a high-profile personality within the organization. He was among the oldest and most important members of the group. As a member of AQIM’s Majlis al-Ayan (Council of Notables) he was considered to be among those members closest to Abdelmalek Droukdel, the current leader of the organization. Originally from the town of Bordj Menaiel in the province of Boumerdès, El-Abbes led terrorist operations in Boumerdès as well as in the area of Tizi-Ouzou and Bouira. He joined the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) in 1993. El Abbes was among the supporters of Hassan Hattab in his split with the GIA over the group’s tactic of killing civilians, a tactic that was increasingly viewed as unacceptable by many members of the organization. The split led to the creation of the new Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC), which in turn became AQIM after it received the al-Qaeda “brand” from Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri in 2006. Grig-Ahsine Abdelhalim joined the jihad in 1994 after escaping from a jail in the Batna Province city of Tazoult and became a member of the Kabilya based Ain el-Hammam cell (Le Courrier d’Algérie, June 1).
These are only the two latest detentions to affect the organization in the past few months. The former emir of the “El Farouk” brigade, Mansouri Ahmed (a.k.a. Abdeldjebbar), surrendered on April 16 and two days later, Mokadem Lounis (a.k.a. Abou Naamane), a member of the GSPC’s Central Zone command and former head of the medical committee, made the same decision (La Tribune, June 1). According to officials from Algerian security services, the two have given important information since then on the structure of the organization and its cells (Le Soir D’Algérie, June 1). El-Abbes is also reported to have provided important information. He was quoted as saying that many AQIM members are considering surrender because of an increasing lack of public support as well as a shortage of recruits. El Abbes also claimed that AQIM is trying to recruit mercenaries for its activities (Echourouk [Algiers], June 1). According to a local newspaper, the first operation made on the basis of this new information led to the killing of three alleged terrorists in the city center of Draâ El Mizan in the province of Tizi Ouzou (Al-Watan [Algiers], June 1).
A response to these operations was recently given by AQIM. On June 9, a terrorist attack was carried out against a police station in the area of Ammal, where a Hyundai truck driven by a suicide bomber exploded in front of the facility. The attack caused six deaths (including three gendarmes) and left several injured. This attack represents the first response of the organization to the recent arrests of some of its main and oldest members. It is also an effort to strengthen the morale of the group at a difficult time, when pressure from the Algerian government as well as regional and international players is increasing steadily (Le Temps d’Algérie, June 11). A few days later there was retaliation from the Algerian security forces, which killed two persons alleged to be involved in the attack (Le Temps d’Algérie, June 16).
The Regionalization of a Weakened and Transformed Organization
There are many examples of surrenders in the recent history of Algerian counterterrorism, but in many cases a blanket of opacity has obscured their true nature. The cases of three main leaders of GSPC/AQIM – Hassan Hattab, Amari Saifi Abdelrazzak (a.k.a. “El Para”) and Mokhtar Belmokhtar – are entangled in contradictory and often false announcements of surrenders, convictions in absentia, calls for reconciliation, and long periods of silence from the terrorist leaders, leading to a latent sense of public uncertainty about their fates. A deliberate attempt to obscure the line between reality and fiction may be an element of psychological warfare deliberately pursued by the Algerian security forces.
Regardless of these considerations, it is clear that the recent arrests and surrenders represent a major blow for the organization. Even though there is always the suspicion that the reality is not as positive as that described by the Algerian security forces, it is certain that the detention and the arrest of these major AQIM leaders will weaken the organization. The fact that the security forces have been able to capture these leaders shows how they have been able to infiltrate the organization. These successful attempts to weaken the organization arrive at a time when AQIM is already facing an internal struggle for power between its different “internal souls,” characterized by the alleged split between Amir Abdelmalek Droukdel and Mebarek Yazid (a.k.a. Abou Obeida Youcef). Yazid accuses Droukdel and the AQIM leadership of being ineffective in carrying out operations and of being too close to core al-Qaeda.
Speculation has emerged regarding the possible overthrow of Droukdel. These rumors claim that he could be replaced by Yazid (Ennahar [Algiers], March 9). In this sense, the recent surrenders could further weaken Droukdel’s position, since some of them involved a number of his closest allies. The surrenders have also become a major element of Algerian government propaganda efforts – they are used as an example to the Islamist activists of the benefits of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, implemented in 2006 after a referendum.
Such a situation of weakness, within a wider context of pressure on al-Qaeda globally, seems to be leading the organization to change its inner nature. From being a group focused on an insurgency based on political as well as religious elements, it is shifting toward a more criminal type organization that uses Islamism in a superficial sense, on the model of the Philippine based organization Abu Sayyaf (see Terrorism Monitor, June 18).
AQIM – Algerian or Regional Organization?
These recent and intensified Algerian efforts to deal with AQIM are likely connected to wider regional geopolitical developments. The U.S.-led North African counterterrorist exercises (“Operation Flintlock”) as well as the diplomatic and military meetings on regional threats linked to terrorism held in Algeria in the past few months clearly demonstrate the importance that the issue has for both the regional chessboard and for the interests of external actors in the area such as the United States or the European Union. Algeria’s strategy is to rapidly become a leader in the struggle against terrorism in the area. In spite of its “regionalization,” AQIM remains a group whose soul is still rooted in Algerian dynamics. Although AQIM is progressively losing credibility as the main security threat for Algeria, the other governments of the Sahel-Sahara region are increasingly concerned about the threat that AQIM could represent for the stability of their own countries, which are largely characterized by porous borders, low levels of statehood and chronic social, economic, and political instability (see Terrorism Monitor, April 23).
Algeria wants to use its considerable economic and military weight and its intimate knowledge of the Salafist threat to increase its overall regional status. Such a campaign could help Algeria improve its relationship with the United States, a constant aim of Algerian foreign policy for the past few years. Many times, the terrorist threat card has been played by Algiers to get the attention of Washington, even though the United States has always been cautious in providing full military assistance because of Israeli concerns. Moreover, improving its regional status will clearly better serve Algerian interests in the latent geopolitical confrontation with the other Maghreb “great power,” Morocco. Although Morocco is a country concerned with the “regionalization” of AQIM, it was not invited to regional security meetings held in Algiers in March and April. Rabat protested vigorously against this exclusion (Agence Maghreb Arab Press, March 16).
On a domestic scale, the latest arrests and surrenders have shown how the Algerian government seems to be able to tame internal terrorist threats. Although there is always a certain degree of opacity surrounding these surrenders, confessions, and public redemptions, the efforts of Algeria’s security forces seem to be relatively successful and they are effectively weakening AQIM in the country. Moreover, the internal conflicting dynamics of the group contribute to such a weakening. AQIM looks more like a normal criminal organization, involved in trafficking and other illegal activities. As such, it is emerging as a regional threat for the governments of the Sahel and Sahara regions. There is a shared interest of these governments to keep the focus on the “Islamist nature” of such a threat in order to get greater attention from those actors concerned with the global spread of jihadism, primarily the United States. Moreover, these internal successes can project a stronger image of Algeria as a leader in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel-Sahara region, thereby increasing its overall regional and international status.