AQIM’s Resurgence: Responding to Islamic State
Jacob Zenn and Dario Cristiani
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allied militant groups have undergone something of an operational revival since late 2015, expanding their area of operations and mounting high-profile attacks in Burkina Faso and Mali. Local and regional concerns play a role in these, but a more significant factor is the growing rivalry with Islamic State in northwest Africa and further afield.
Ouagadougou and Bamako Hotel Attacks
Recent high-profile attacks by AQIM and their affiliates in Burkina Faso and have shifted the threat level in the Sahel region to bear more similarities with the security situation in littoral West Africa. On January 15, 2016, at least three heavily armed gunmen stormed the Cappuccino Cafe and Splendid Hotel in the heart of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, killing around 30 people, most of whom were foreigners. Burkinabe and international security forces finally intervened to end the siege, freeing about 176 hostages. Just two days later, on January 17, AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack and released a list of those involved, one of whom was named Ahmed al-Fulani. The fighter’s name suggests he comes from West Africa’s most transnational ethnic group, the Fulani, a group AQIM has been courting in order to expand its influence across the region. (Sidwaya [Ouagadougou], January 16, 2016, Jeune Afrique, January 19). A few weeks later, AQIM also claimed responsibility for an attack against the UN MISMUNA forces in Timbuktu. On February, 5, militants launched an attack against the old La Palmeraie Hotel, located between the airport and the administrative area of the city in the south, which is home to Nigerian policemen working with MINUSMA (Studio Tamani, February 7).
Two months prior to these attacks, on November 20, 2015, gunmen stormed the Radisson Blu Hotel in the Malian capital, Bamako. As with the Ouagadougou attack, the operation was carried out by a relatively small group – just three gunmen armed with assault rifles and grenades. The attackers broke through a security barrier at dawn and opened fire, shouting Allahu Akbar (Jeune Afrique, November 20, 2015; Reuters, November 20, 2015). The attack reportedly killed 27 people. The target, the Radisson Blu Hotel, was considered one of the safest places in Bamako. Indeed, the Malian capital as a whole had been considered safe from the types of attacks that have struck the country’s north (Timbuktu and Kidal), and other West African cities in Niger (Arlit and Agadez), Nigeria (Kano and Abuja), and Chad (N’djamena).
Bolstering Local Alliances
Malian authorities have highlighted the role played in the Bamako attack by local accomplices (Journal Du Mali, November 24, 2015), raising fears that sleeper cells remain present in the Malian capital (Jeune Afrique, November 20, 2015). Al-Mourabitun – the group supposedly led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, though his status following an air strike last year remains unclear (see Militant Leadership Monitor’s August 2015 issue) – claimed responsibility for the Bamako attack on November 22. It also condemned France for its role in the region.
Two weeks later on December 4, AQIM leader Abdel Malek Droukdel also claimed the Bamako attack, calling it the first “joint act” between al-Mourabitun and AQIM. A second statement from al-Mourabitun later that day day confirmed the group was “united” with AQIM, an unexpected claim as Belmokhtar had previously feuded with Droukdel (Al-Akhbar, [Nouakchott], November 20); however, possible evidence that the al-Mourabitun leader was indeed killed in an airstrike in Libya.
The AQIM-Sahara Branch, the Fulani-led Macina Liberation Front (FLM), and Ansar Dine also all claimed the Bamako attack, suggesting multiple allied local groups are integrated within AQIM. Further, when AQIM named the three militants “martyred” in the attack, the list included two brothers with the name “al-Fulani,” just like the Ouagadogou attacker.
In August 2015, a smaller-scale hotel attack in Mali, saw militants target the Byblos hotel in Sévaré, central Mali. Twelve people (five soldiers, five militants, and two foreigners) were killed after Malian troops intervened (AFP, August 11, 2015). Although the targets, which were UN personnel staying at the hotel, are more consistent with AQIM-Sahara Branch and Ansar Dine operations, al-Mourabitun claimed responsibility, saying the attack’s “executor” was from the Songhai tribe of southern Mali. The Malian government, however, believed the FLM was behind the attack (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], August 13, 2015).
Earlier still, in March 2015 in the first major terrorist attack in Bamako, militants killed five people at a nightclub, including two foreigners. Nine other people were wounded in the attack, which was claimed by al-Mourabitun. Again, the network behind the operation appears to have been made up of AQIM and AQIM-Sahara Branch, al-Mourabitun, and more local elements, such as Ansar Dine and FLM.
Wider Strategic Imperatives
The AQIM affiliates behind the recent wave of attacks in West Africa likely have multiple motivations ranging from the local to the global, but the incidents come at a time of high-profile Islamic State attacks on several cities around the world, both of sophisticated (Paris in November 2015) and unsophisticated (Jakarta and Istanbul in January 2016) nature.
The Radisson Blu attack in Bamako, for example, came just 10 days after the Islamic State attack in Paris and, whether intended or not, shifted the focus from Paris back to the threat of AQIM in northwest Africa and the Francophone space; Air France staff at the Radisson Blu were reportedly among the attackers’ primary targets (ICG, November 20). In addition, the attack on the Radisson Blu coincided with an ongoing and regionally supported peace process between the Malian government and the secular Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which Ansar Dine leader Ag Ghaly labeled a “platter of shame” in a October 29, 2015, video. Other local-level operations carried out by AQIM include the killing of tribal leaders labeled “traitors” by the group for cooperating with Malian security forces. AQIM has also released videos of its militants intervening in tribal meetings near Timbuktu to encourage opposition to France.
Similarly, the attack at the Cappuccino Cafe and Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou on January 15, 2016, coincided with the end of a “tacit peace” that the regime of Burkina Faso’s deposed president Blaise Compaoré had achieved with AQIM (Limes [Rome] January 20). It also occurred two days after the Islamic State attack in Jakarta and thereby stole the media limelight away from the group’s first ever attack in southeast Asia.
It is unlikely that AQIM’s attacks in Bamako and Ouagadogou are timed to respond directly to the Islamic State’s attacks in Paris and Jakarta, especially considering the amount of preparation AQIM would have needed to execute the operations. However, AQIM and other al-Qaeda affiliates are conscious that Islamic State intentionally carries out attention-grabbing attacks in multiple regions of the world. This prompts al-Qaeda affiliates to match Islamic State with high-profile attacks of their own, as seen in Bamako and Ougadougou.
This ideological and political rivalry with Islamic State is an important influence on the recent AQIM attacks in northwest Africa, a region characterized by weak states incapable of adequately tackling the security challenges they face. The targeting of luxury hotels and restaurants frequented by foreigners – as well as the targeting of the foreigners – damages the economies of the countries in the region, reducing tourism and spooking potential investors.
Rivalry with Islamic State
In recent months AQIM-Sahara Branch released videos of two hostages, a South African and a Swedish citizen kidnapped in 2012, while AQIM and al-Mourabitun announced the kidnappings in Timbuktu of a Swiss citizen and an Australian couple (both in January 2016), as well as a Romanian laborer (kidnapped in April 2015) in northern Burkina Faso (20min.ch [Zurich], January 10, ABC, January 17, Jurnalul [Bucharest], August 30, 2015). These kidnappings are unlike AQIM’s past abductions, however. The group is moving southwards in search of operations that score propaganda victories. The value of such kidnappings is in the additional international attention they provide to AQIM in its rivalry with Islamic State, as opposed to the millions of dollars earned through earlier operations.
The shift comes as a result of AQIM’s relatively newfound competion against a powerful brand. An affiliation with Islamic State can benefit local, smaller groups such as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), in search of jihadist legitimacy. MUJAO’s leaders, Walid Abou Adnan Sahraoui and Hamadou Kehiry, pledged allegiance to Islamic State leader Abubakr al-Baghdadi last year (Al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], May 13; Jeune Afrique, May 14). Similarly, Abubakr Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram (now Islamic State in West Africa Province), pledged his allegiance to al-Baghdadi in March 2015 to much fanfare from Islamic State supporters in Africa and the Middle East. This move by militant groups towards Islamic State loyalty has impacted regional recruitment dynamics. AQIM and allied militants fear a rising and unfettered Islamic State can attract more young militants via the ideological pull of al-Baghdadi’s announcement of the Caliphate and the Islamic State social media recruitment campaign that comes with it.
Another development worth noting is AQIM’s adoption of themes and stylistic features popular in Islamic State videos that had been previously absent from AQIM’s past propaganda material. This includes AQIM-Sahara Branch’s newfound focus on conquering Rome, the casting of a British-accented “Jihadi John”-style militant in videos, and the use of distinctive Islamic State production techniques, such as the nasheed (Islamic chants) overlaying its films (Le Monde [Paris], January 18). However, Islamic State also follows AQIM’s operations and propaganda in Northwest Africa. Following the attacks in Bamako and Ougadougou, Islamic State heavily promoted its own video series focusing on the Maghreb region and calling on Muslims in the area to join the organization’s ranks.
Organizational differences remain between the two groups. Consistent with its vertical organizational structure, key decisions by Islamic State affiliates are directed from Raqqa by Islamic State’s “core” that dictates strategic priorities. In contrast, al-Qaeda is organized more horizontally, allowing its affiliates like AQIM and AQIM-Sahara Branch, allies such as al-Mourabitun, and local franchises such as Ansar Dine and FLM considerable freedom to set their own agendas. Islamic State meanwhile avoids relying on local fighters to guide its operations, but encourages militants to migrate to Syria and Iraq; Libya and, to a lesser extent, Nigeria, now also feature as “migration” destinations in Islamic State propaganda. Islamic State also appoints emirs from the Middle East to oversee local operations in West Africa – among them, the unnamed Libyan emir for Boko Haram who Abdulbakar Shekau, the local Boko Haram leader, refers to only as the wali, or governor. (See Militant Leadership Monitor’s December 2015 issue). All things considered, the two strains of militancy maintain significant cultural and ideological influences and similar long-term strategic aims.
AQIM’s process of adapting and responding to Islamic State should be seen as a “normalization" of AQIM of sorts. Since the rise of Islamic State, AQIM has become more sensitive to what happens on the global stage. This indicates a significant change, as AQIM had been peculiarly localized in its priorities, even after its 2007 rebranding as a part of al-Qaeda.
AQIM’s recent operational revival comes in response to a number of factors. While local priorities play a role, increasing competition with Islamic State is the key driver behind AQIM’s adapted rhetoric and operations and the group has consequently translated its strategic communications and resources into high-profile attacks on international targets in cities where it had previously lain dormant.
Jacob Zenn is a Fellow on African and Eurasian Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation. Dario Cristiani is an adjunct professor in international affairs at Vesalius College in Brussels and a senior analyst at the Global Governance Institute.