Mali and Somalia: al-Qaeda Affiliates Coordinated Claims Point to Coordination with Core AQ
Brian M. Perkins
The release of a video message from al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, on February 5 is the latest in a series of events over the past several months that indicate al-Qaeda has increased coordination among its global affiliates and is still a preeminent global threat (Jihadology, February 5). The video itself is not out of the ordinary as Zawahiri commonly releases similar video and audio messages, but the release comes in the wake of several other notable developments, including the release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) annual Worldwide Threat Assessment. 
The ODNI assessment noted, “Al-Qa‘ida senior leaders are strengthening the network’s global command structure and continuing to encourage attacks against the West.” The assessment also noted the strength of al-Qaeda groups in East and North Africa, the Sahel, and Yemen. The coordination between al-Qaeda affiliates and core al-Qaeda leaders was again made evident in late January.
On January 15, al-Shabaab conducted an attack in Nairobi just five days before the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin—JNIM) launched an attack on a UN base in Aguelhok in northern Mali (Standard Digital, January 16; Malijet, January 20). The attacks were carried out by different al-Qaeda affiliates thousands of miles away and were not tactically similar: al-Shabaab targeted a civilian hotel and business complex popular with Westerners while JNIM targeted the Chadian contingent of UN peacekeepers. The two attacks, however, had more in common than was immediately apparent, as evidenced by both group’s claims of responsibility.
Al-Shabaab released an official statement on January 16 claiming responsibility for the attack, which the group dubbed “Al-Qudsu Lan Tuhawwad (Jerusalem will never be Judaized)” (Jihadology, January 16). The group also claimed it carried out the attack in accordance with Zawahiri’s guidelines to target Western and Zionist interests in support of their Muslim brothers in Palestine.
Similarly, JNIM released an official statement on January 20 titled “Al-Quds Will Never be Judaized – The Aguelhok Battle…Standing in the Face of Normalization” (Jihadology, January 20). In the statement, JNIM also claimed to have carried out the attack in response to Zawahiri’s guidelines and as revenge for Chadian President Idriss Deby hosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Chad the same week.
The use of the same language in the claims of responsibility as well as the timing of both attacks is in line with the assessment that core al-Qaeda is increasing its command structure over its affiliates. While core al-Qaeda might not have a hand in the day to day operations of its affiliates, Zawahiri and other key al-Qaeda leaders are undoubtedly still pulling strings from behind the scenes. It is unclear if core al-Qaeda was involved in target selection, but the attacks and the claims of responsibility indicate that it remains capable of steering attacks and the group’s overarching narrative. Zawahiri’s most recent video also included quotes that were used in both JNIM and al-Shabaab’s claims of responsibility. In the coming year, it is likely that there will be an increase in coordinated attacks such as these, claimed by the more mobile affiliates and those that have managed to expand their reach as of late, such as AQIM, JNIM, and al-Shabaab. Meanwhile, core al-Qaeda is likely to focus more heavily on providing strategic support for its affiliates that are waning due to competition among rival groups or overcrowded battlefields rather than drawing additional focus to them.
 Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) Annual Worldwide Threat Assessment. https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/2018-ATA—Unclassified-SSCI.pdf
 Ibid. See page 10.
Maldives: Threat of Returning Fighters During Political Transition
Brian M. Perkins
The announcement that the United States plans to withdraw its troops from Syria by April has sparked significant concern regarding the return of Islamic State (IS) fighters that have been captured in Syria as well as those that return as IS’ territory shrinks (Reuters, February 8). Media reports have predominantly focused on the threat returning fighters pose to Europe, particularly France as it has the largest contingent of IS fighters in Europe. While the threat these individuals pose to Europe is existential and has been demonstrated by past attacks, most European countries have well-coordinated intelligence agencies and security forces that can help, to a certain extent, track and neutralize returning fighters. Countries such as the Maldives, which lack the infrastructure to do so or that have more volatile political and social climates, face a much more daunting task.
The Maldives, a small predominantly Muslim archipelago in the Indian ocean, has increasingly grappled with radicalization and political upheaval. The Maldives is home to one of the largest per capita contingents of individuals who have traveled to fight alongside IS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) among others in both Iraq and Syria (Jihadology, May 11, 2015; SITE, November 9, 2018). Several hundred Maldivians are believed to be fighting alongside foreign terrorist organizations and several have achieved prominence among their various groups.
Unlike France and more well-developed nations, the Maldives does not have the same level of counter-terrorism expertise. Additionally, intense political turmoil and an increasingly polarized religious environment make the Maldives particularly vulnerable to the threat posed by an influx of well-trained and radicalized fighters. The country’s anti-terrorism laws have primarily been used to crack down on the political opposition and it is unclear how effective they would be in more official cases.
Former president Abdulla Yameen’s appointment in November 2013 marked the return of a conservative fundamentalist view of Islam and the country. The Maldivian government quickly took controversial steps to cement Sunni Islam as the only religion in the Maldives and expanded religious programs and funding. As the country’s ties with Saudi Arabia increased, there was also a notable increase in the number of mosques espousing a more radical Wahabbist ideology. IS and other terrorist groups have also managed to foster strong recruitment networks within the Maldives, both online and offline.
Yameen, however, lost the September 2018 presidential election to opposition leader Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, marking a move way from the contentious policies that helped foment radical Islamic leanings and marginalize opposition groups and secular voices. Solih has still confirmed his commitment to ensuring the Maldives remains Islamic and it is unclear how his policies will address the rise of radical ideologies and the damage that has already been done over the past six years.
On February 7, the EU confirmed its commitment to help the Maldives counter-terrorism within the country, timing that is consistent with renewed concerns over the return of foreign fighters (Maldives Times, February 7). However, the political transition from Yameen to Solih is likely to be rocky as the latter gains his footing at a time when the country is in dire financial straits and the return of foreign fighters grows increasingly likely. Given the growth of radical Islamic teachings and anti-Western views, it is likely that returning fighters will find a permissible recruiting ground and outlets to spread their ideology.