After the establishment of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (The Group for Support of Islam and Muslims—JNIM) in March 2017, the geographic shift characterizing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) strategic trajectory became even more visible. The group became primarily focused on the Sahelian space, and its presence in the Maghreb has since been considered almost irrelevant. The latter region serves mainly as a logistic platform to support AQIM’s operations in the Sahel, as in the case of Libya. Yet, the weakening of AQIM’s operational presence in the Maghreb does not mean that the group has been completely wiped off its strategic map (Terrorism Monitor, May 7). It has proved to be somehow resilient. If analyzed in the short-term, AQIM can hardly be considered an existential threat in the Maghreb. Considered through al-Qaeda’s own conception of time, its focus on the so-called ‘long game;’ it’s resilience and capacity to maintain a foot in the area assume a different meaning—it is perceived as essential for the group to redevelop into a more significant threat in the mid-term. AQIM’s threat might be presently residual, but not wholly irrelevant.
The Current Maghrebi Modus Operandi and the Importance of the Context
Against this backdrop, it is essential to highlight a few elements, particularly in relation to Algeria and Tunisia. Observers noted that 2018 was the first year in more than two decades with no major terrorist attacks in Algeria, as the latest “relatively major” attack that hit Algeria occurred on August 31, 2017 (Middle East Monitor, January 29). In that occasion, a suicide bomber killed two police officers in an attack against a police station (Jeune Afrique, August 31, 2017).
However, this assessment is not correct. While it is evident that terrorist threats in Algeria have declined over the past few years, AQIM maintains a capacity to strike. For instance, on February 14, 2018, five Algerian soldiers were killed and three injured in Tébessa, north-eastern Algeria (Akher Saa, February 15, 2018; HuffPost Maghreb, February 14, 2018). A few days later, on February 18, 2018, AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack through its social media channels (Terrorism Monitor, March 8, 2018). If compared to the operational vitality of AQIM predecessors, or AQIM in its early years, this attack might be easily dismissed as irrelevant. However, it is still notable, for a number of reasons. In the new social and political context shaped by the current wave of protests and growing pressure on the security forces, relatively small-scale attacks against them, such as the one in February 2018, can provoke serious harm. Their impact can be amplified by the specific socio-political context in which they happen.
The current phase of uncertainty is straining Algerian security and police forces. Since June 2018, following the wide-ranging reshuffle of the security services initiated by Ahmed Gaïd Salah in the wake of the Oran scandal, pressure has increased on the security forces (Terrorism Monitor, January 25). This dynamic deepened as President Bouteflika was forced to resign and many crucial actors of the security establishment, such as Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene and Athmane “Bachir” Tartag, were forced out (HuffPost Maghreb, May 5).
Besides, they have to deal with the challenge represented by the protest movement. Although it has somehow lost some of its initial intensity, it remains a crucial actor in this current phase of Algerian history (El Watan, June 7). Security forces are inevitably under higher pressure. They have the responsibility to manage these protests and strike a balance between repression and moderation. They must avoid causing or allowing these protests to turn into a violent threat to the state. At the same time, they also must avoid undermining the pillars of Algeria’s post-independence system. The reshuffling of the past few months, the protests, and the ensuing process have all increased the sense of uncertainty in the ranks of the security forces. These factors fuel growing divisions, adding to the generational cleavages that have already emerged over the past years, as the generation who experienced Algeria’s war for independence began to leave the scene.
The implication of this dynamic is that, while the attack mentioned above was not particularly significant if compared historically, the meaning of a similar attack can be very different in the current conditions. In March, AQIM urged the security forces to join the people against the regime, months after it claimed Algeria was undergoing an identity crisis and calling for a revolution (Jihadology, April 18). AQIM does not have the capacity the Algerian Islamist opposition had to dominate the narratives of discontent and organize the opposition to the regime in the late 1980s and its call to security forces will remain unheard. This demonstrates AQIM’s approach and the risks it poses. AQIM attempts to identify and exploit potential cleavages and points of rupture. In the case of the security forces, it offers support that will inevitably be rejected while maintaining them as an operational target. Eventual attacks might have the double goal of undermining their capacity and their morale in a situation of increasing pressure coming from two sides—the military leadership and the protesters. Exploiting contradictions is what AQIM has been doing in Sahelian countries over the past few years. It is now trying to use this model in the Maghreb as well.
The same modus operandi is visible in Tunisia. AQIM’s Tunisian affiliate, Uqba Ibn Nafi (UIN), failed to represent a substantial threat to the more prosperous coastal north, and its role remains confined to the mountainous areas at the border with Algeria. However, UIN continues to be active in these areas. In the past, some of its attacks in remote areas had a significant impact. For instance, the attack in Mount Chaambi in 2014—the most lethal carried out by UIN to date—did not only have a substantial effect on security, but also on broader public opinion (Jeune Afrique, July 17, 2014). The latter element is increasingly crucial as Tunisia is the sole democracy in the region. The killing of security forces in terrorist attacks typically trigger significant criticism against the government and the authorities, contributing to the mounting feeling many have in Tunisia that democracy has harmed national security and the economy. Many of those working in the security forces come from poor and disadvantaged areas, and they often choose this career out of necessity rather than choice. As such, these casualties tend to reignite the latent tension existing between the people of central and southern Tunisia and the authorities. The former feel that they twice pay for this structural marginalization: first, by being forced to work in the security forces to get a salary, and then by being the victims in these attacks. In the documents UIN released in 2018, there was a significant focus on economic issues and corruption, even instrumentally using some of the documents to create a somewhat heated public debate (Business News, April 10, 2018; Espace Manager, May 12, 2018). This tactic is further proof of its ambitions to exploit social cleavages.
These groups are forced to operate in peripherical areas since they have been weakened over the years, as is the case of AQIM in Algeria and UIN, the latter of which never managed to establish any presence beyond these marginal areas. As such, their presence might not represent structural threats to the stability of these countries. They can, however, still create havoc by broadening social and economic cleavages. As these cleavages are set to deepen in the coming years, this peripheral jihadist threat cannot be dismissed as entirely irrelevant. It is residual but still relevant. The group’s strategy is consistent with a major, operational trend that has characterized the broader action of AQIM in North and West Africa in recent years. This trend was linked to the actions and view of Jamal Oukacha, a prominent AQIM leader killed by French forces in February.
Oukacha’s Legacy: ‘Jihad for the Marginals’
The “head of the emirate of Timbuktu,” leader of al-Qaeda in the Sahel and second in command of JNIM was killed in Mali on February 21 by French counterterrorism forces deployed in the Sahel under Operation Barkhane (Le Monde, February 22). While the deaths of prominent jihadist leaders are often difficult to confirm, as the case of Amadou Kouffa has recently shown, AQIM confirmed Oukacha’s death in a communique a few days later. Oukacha played a crucial role in the reorganization of the group following the death of Abou Zeid and the disruption of AQIM’s networks in Northern Mali in 2013 (Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2013; MLM, July 31, 2013). About one year before his death, Oukacha admitted that France was successful in pushing the mujahideen out of major urban centers in Mali. This pressure allowed AQIM to develop differently. The group then worked to spread its call (da’wa) and strengthen relations with other communities—the Fulanis, Tuaregs, Arabs, Bambaras and Songhays—in more marginalized and peripheral areas of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. These groups responded positively to AQIM’s quest for support and worked with them to defend their land and interests (Jihadology, March 17, 2018).
In most cases, this support was not ideological but instrumental. The AQIM-led jihad was viewed as a tool for these communities to protect their interests, not to achieve an ideological goal. However, in al-Qaeda’s plea for relevance, this aspect was secondary. AQIM takes advantage of local grievances, long-standing ethnic and racial divides, and social tensions of various kinds by providing protection and means of support to communities that have not found the same type of support in state structures and local administrations. Meanwhile, by fostering jihad in these communities, AQIM promotes a process of jihadist socialization that, even if it does not bear immediate results, serves the organization’s long-term strategy. In doing so, AQIM put itself at the disposal of communities or social groups and individuals that, in one way or another, feel neglected.
AQIM’s recent strategic trajectory can shed light on the potential, future development of AQIM in the Maghreb as well. Although the socio-cultural features of the region are very different from those of the countries of the Sahel and West Africa, Maghrebi countries also have several significant cleavages that can be used to spread this jihadist message as a tool for the marginalized. Regionalism remains a crucial problem across all the countries of the Maghreb with an important socio-economic dimension. The changes that are starting to emerge as a part of the broader trend of transition affecting the entire region will likely strain several of these cleavages. In addition, there is also a creeping (re)emergence of racism—a problem often neglected—which has the potential to open new fronts of social and economic conflict (Le Monde, February 24; BusinessNews.Tn, August 28, 2018; Le Point (Afrique), June 25, 2017).
This dynamic can create new fractures and openings for AQIM. Since the economic outlook for these countries also look disappointing in the coming years, social tension will increase and new cleavages will emerge. AQIM and its Tunisian offshoot do not have the capacity to monopolize social discontent and organize political opposition, unlike what the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut—FIS) managed in Algeria in the late 1980s and early 1990s or the Islamic Tendency Movement (Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique—MTI) did in Tunisia in the 1980s. AQIM, instead, wants to exploit structural and emerging contradictions in Maghrebi countries, similar to what it has done in the Sahel in recent years. As such, maintaining even a minimal operational presence to guarantee its survival in the Maghreb is functional to its long-term strategy. AQIM might not pose an immediate, crucial threat to the region compared to the intensity of the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé—GIA) in Algeria in the 1990s. However, its ability to maintain a presence in marginal areas and readiness to exploit socio-political cleavages suggest it cannot merely be considered a threat of the past.