It has been a little over one year since Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the official merger between al-Qaeda and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), and since that time the jihad in the Maghreb has passed through a tumultuous and dynamic period. On the one hand, it has been characterized by an increase in bombings—particularly in public settings—the use of suicide attackers, and the targeting of foreign nationals and assets. Yet, on the other hand, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the successor to the GSPC, has more recently exhibited signs of internal fissures, largely resulting from recruitment issues and the actions of its amir, Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud (Liberte, September 18; Terrorism Monitor, September 13). Recent reports allege that al-Wadoud has been replaced by Ahmad Haroun, a claim refuted on the AQIM website (https://qmagreb.org, October 6; El-Khabar, October 3). Despite the operational successes of the past year and al-Wadoud’s apparent ability to recast the regional jihad, the divisiveness within the organization has made its future somewhat precarious.
The Changing Landscape
In late July, AQIM released a statement noting that it had succeeded in restructuring and reforming the agenda of the Algerian jihad (MEMRI, July 25). The extent of these adjustments encompasses matters from strategy, such as targeting foreigners, to tactics, such as the use of suicide operatives. At the broadest level, this reform has led the Algerian jihad to shift from a nationalist to a regionalist movement, as exhibited in January 2007 when al-Wadoud announced that the GSPC would be changing its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, a name more reflective of the organization’s expanding purview (Terrorism Monitor, February 1).
Operationally, AQIM has recently been linked with numerous activities outside of Algeria. Although the GSPC had been known to conduct operations throughout the Maghreb and into sub-Saharan Africa—notably exhibited in a June 2005 attack on the Lemgheity military barracks in northeastern Mauritania—since the merger there are signs that AQIM has placed greater emphasis on recruiting and perpetrating attacks in each of the states in the Maghreb. A prime example of this is a disrupted plot in Tunisia, which would have initially targeted the U.S. and UK embassies in Tunis around the New Year, followed by smaller attacks on tourist sites throughout the country. Significant information came to the attention of Algerian and Tunisian security officials that the plot was closely linked with the GSPC and included a Mauritanian member of the Algerian group. His involvement in the plot and more recent reports of non-Algerians operating under the AQIM banner are a testament to al-Wadoud’s ability to not only recruit foreigners, but also to deploy them throughout the region (Liberte, August 7; El-Khabar, August 21). Other recent examples of AQIM’s regional operations include the group’s links with a disrupted plot in Morocco, as well as a September report that Egyptian authorities were investigating AQIM’s attempts to procure forged passports for its members traveling to Iraq (MAP, October 20; Elaph, September 4).
Beyond this, efforts in the public relations arena have grown dramatically under al-Wadoud’s leadership. Stretching back to the summer of 2004 when he became amir of the GSPC, al-Wadoud has placed great emphasis on the organization’s information operations (Terrorism Focus, May 15). In an attempt to eliminate the near information blackout his predecessors had cast on the organization—and no doubt heeding al-Zawahiri’s advisement that the jihadi movement must not become isolated from the populace—al-Wadoud began to engage the Algerian people and the outside world through an enhanced information campaign . Though clumsily executed at first, the GSPC/AQIM media apparatus has become comparable to those found in other jihadi venues. AQIM now disseminates regular videos of attacks, such as the “Under the Shadow of the Swords” series, as well as statements from al-Wadoud through a variety of affiliated forums, which is largely due to the inconsistency of the group’s website .
Style of Attack
Militarily, al-Wadoud has gone beyond the minimalist strategies of his predecessors and enacted a multifaceted campaign blending guerrilla attacks in eastern Algeria with publicity grabbing bombings in urban areas. Whereas the GSPC had previously relegated itself to engaging the government in rural, mainly northeastern Algeria, al-Wadoud has chosen to expand the campaign to include increasing urban attacks like the April 11 dual bombings in Algiers.
Fundamental to AQIM’s campaign is target selection, often an important indicator of an organization’s ideological leanings and grand strategy. In the GSPC/AQIM case, this target set is diverse but has remained largely unchanged since 2004, although priorities within this set have clearly been altered. The key themes include a virulent hatred of foreigners alleged to be supporting the “apostate regimes” and pillaging North African resources. France, in particular, has featured prominently in the organization’s rhetoric—famously highlighted in al-Zawahiri’s quote from his September 11, 2006 speech that the GSPC be a “a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders” (Le Monde, September 18; Libération, September 19; Terrorism Focus, August 7). Specifically, AQIM’s leadership has identified France’s cultural influence, which is palpable throughout Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as being a source of corruption within the region. The previous day, AQIM injured two Frenchmen and an Italian in a bombing near Lakhdaria (Echorouk Online, September 21). Al-Zawahiri addressed the issue in a September 20 speech calling for AQIM to purge “the Islamic Maghreb of the French and the Spanish who have returned there” (MEMRI, September 20). Consistent with the jihadi narrative, AQIM has named both the United States and United Kingdom as legitimate targets, whose embassies were targets in the aforementioned Tunis plot. Finally, there are indications that AQIM is looking to target the region’s tourist and energy sectors, arguably the backbone of the Maghrebi economies . Although terrorism has not had a significant impact on regional economies in recent history, there is concern among regional governments that a revived terrorist threat could be a drain on their economies, particularly given the reliance on revenue from these sectors (Dar al-Hayat, April 27).
Al-Wadoud’s efforts to alter both the ideology and strategy of the organization have also manifested in the use of suicide bombers in Algeria, such as the April 11 attacks and the September bombings in Dellys and Batna. Although suicide attacks have previously been committed in the region and Algerians have even perpetrated martyrdom operations in other jihadi venues, this tactic has not been featured in the Algerian context despite the country’s long and brutal civil war. In addition to the obvious tactical benefits that martyrdom operations bring—which are a critical component of the narrative of the Global Salafi-Jihad—they are powerful symbols of the vitality of an organization’s struggle and are also an important legitimizing mechanism for its cause. As seen in the aftermath of the April 11 bombing, each suicide operative is lionized as a hero, his symbolic death effectively declaring the organization’s cause to be worth giving oneself up for. In the case of AQIM—an organization attempting to congeal support while mobilizing and recruiting additional members—martyrdom is a potent addition to the attack repertoire. Although al-Wadoud’s decision to employ suicide operations has brought criticism from within and without his organization, the AQIM amir has received support for his decision from key figures in the global jihadi movement, most notably from Abu Yahya al-Libi (Echorouk Online, August 12; MEMRI, August 17). However, insofar as AQIM can encourage Iraqi veterans to return to the Maghreb and fight or recruit under its banner—and there are signs that this has occurred—the employment of suicide operations will likely increase (El-Watan, September 12).
The Threat to the West
Well before the merger between the GSPC and al-Qaeda, North Africans had weighed heavily on Western European security, as noted by French Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie (Agence France-Presse, September 23). While perpetrating attacks on the continent was arguably not a core objective of the Maghrebi groups, it is now a part of AQIM’s objectives. With this in mind, much of the rhetoric surrounding the merger specifically identified attacking Western countries, particularly France, as central to AQIM’s strategy (Terrorism Focus, September 26, 2006; Terrorism Focus, August 7).
One must also not overlook the implications this may potentially have for North America. Although it must be plainly stated that the perceived threat from AQIM to the United States is low, there are indications that North African groups continue to maintain networks in North America and that there is a potential, albeit remote, for these networks to become operational. This gains credence remembering the case of Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian national and the so called “Millennium Bomber,” who was based in Montreal and who had plans to bomb Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve in 1999 . To make this network operational, al-Wadoud and his organization must find a narrative that sufficiently resonates within this network, an onerous task and one potentially made more difficult with the recent leadership troubles (Terrorism Monitor, September 13).
In sum, while AQIM’s ascent has raised the specter of a revitalized and expansive jihad in North Africa—one which may include coordinated operations throughout the region and the West—the unsteadiness in the group’s leadership among other factors have cast doubt on AQIM’s future prospects. Regardless of his fate as the leader of AQIM, it appears the reformation process al-Wadoud enacted has fundamentally recast the Maghrebi jihad by altering both the character of his Algerian movement and the structure of the regional jihad at large. As evident from the high number of attacks and casualties in September, AQIM is becoming increasingly active and lethal, and the group has demonstrated a willingness to perpetrate large-scale, suicide bombings in urban environments. These attacks and the proliferation of media material over the past year have bolstered AQIM’s relevancy in the regional counter-terrorism discourse and reinserted the North African arena into the conscience of the Global Salafi-Jihad.
1. See Ayman al-Zawahiri, Knights Under the Prophets Banner.
2. The group’s recent website, https://www.qmagreb.org, has been shut down multiple times, but usually reappears a few days later.
3. For an assessment of Morocco’s tourist industry and its capacity to overcome a terrorist attack, see Terrorism Monitor, June 7. Separately, energy targets are a popular theme in the jihadi narrative, and have featured strongly in the writings of Abu Musab al-Suri, Ayman al-Zawahiri and several other strategists linked to the North African arena.
4. For an examination of this network, see Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2004.