Splits Revealed Inside Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 17

Scenes from the April 11 Bombings in Algiers

During an August 14 news conference organized by Algerian authorities for a select group of Algerian reporters, Benmessaoud Abdelkader, a former Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) regional commander, confirmed that there was deep disagreement within the former GSPC over national commander Abdelmalek Droudkel’s decisions first to merge with al-Qaeda in September 2006 and then later to rename the group the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January 2007 (Liberté, August 21). The split appears to have diminished the terrorist group’s logistical capacity and reduced its overall size, but has also made the al-Qaeda affiliate more desperate and determined to demonstrate its continued effectiveness and relevancy. The rift in Algeria has also likely split GSPC/AQIM’s numerous cells in Europe. While this means that there are probably fewer European cells supporting AQIM than previously thought, these cells have likely mutated to embrace a wider range of targets than their GSPC precursors and in that sense represent a heightened risk for European security. Similarly, possibly orphaned GSPC cells could eventually merge with other Islamist terrorist cells, such as the group behind the plot to attack the Frankfurt International Airport and the nearby U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany that was thwarted on September 4.

Splits within AQIM

The current split is due to two related disagreements: should the group try to redefine its struggle as part of a global jihad, or should it remain focused on overthrowing the secular government of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika? Second, is it legitimate to attack civilians, or is the government the only permissible target? Droudkel’s AQIM wants to expand throughout North Africa and join forces in neighboring countries along the Mediterranean coast and in the Sahel. In his worldview, anyone who is not AQIM is against it and therefore a legitimate target. The September 6 attack on a crowd awaiting the arrival of President Bouteflika that resulted in at least 15 civilian deaths is a case in point (Le Quotidien d’Oran, September 6). The GSPC’s grievance was with the government that scuttled an Islamist electoral victory in 1991. It drew a clear distinction between the government and the populace at large.

The GSPC’s evolution has significant ramifications for Droudkel and the AQIM’s continued viability. Benmessaoud was the commander of the GSPC/AQIM’s Zone IX, a long corridor down the middle of the country stretching from the high plateaus in the north to a large swath of Sahara Desert along Algeria’s borders with Mali and Niger. Benmessaoud took over the position after its previous incumbent, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, entered into negotiations with the Algerian government (through interlocutors in Tamanrasset) to surrender and decamp to Mali where his wife and children live (El Watan, June 16). Zone IX has historically been critical for the viability of GSPC/AQIM activities in the north of the country. Through contraband smuggling, drug-running and weapons sales, Belmokhtar and Benmessaoud funneled funds and guns to the group’s northern zones. With Belmokhtar’s resignation and Benmessaoud’s surrender, however, Droudkel is deprived of this key source of money and arms.

Benmessaoud also said that Droudkel responded repressively to a spate of defections following the alliance with al-Qaeda. According to Benmessaoud, Droudkel’s trouble retaining recruits prompted him to forbid new AQIM members from straying out of sight of trusted veteran fighters. In a private conversation, Algerian security chief Ali Tounsi surmised that that the three car bombs used in the April 11 attacks in Algiers were wired with remote detonation devices in addition to the detonation devices triggered by the drivers because Droudkel feared that the bombers would abort their missions. The attempted assassination on August 14 of a former chief of the now defunct Islamic Salvation Front’s (FIS) armed wing, Mustapha Kertali, has intensified new recruits’ fear of being killed themselves should they attempt to abandon the organization and try to return to their civilian lives (Temoust, August 16).

The loss of Zone IX, in conjunction with a tremendously intensified military campaign, has left Droudkel restricted to Zone II, his personal fiefdom in the mountainous Boumerdes region several hundred kilometers to the southeast of Algiers. Deprived of southern smuggling revenue, Droudkel and his supporters have come to depend more heavily on kidnap and ransom operations to generate money. As communications break down between zones and the group is eliminated from certain regions entirely, Droudkel has been compelled to explore new means of maneuvering throughout the country. The latest method is to charter coastal fishing boats to move men and materiel along Algeria’s Mediterranean coastline (El-Chourouk el-Youmi, August 15).

The schism instigated by Droudkel’s decision to ally with al-Qaeda has likely prompted Droudkel to step up attacks in order to dispel any perception that his group has been weakened. AQIM has carried out two deadly attacks in the last week. On September 6, the group tried to assassinate President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Batna, but the bomber was discovered and he blew himself up before the president arrived. The explosion killed more than 20 civilians. Three days later, AQIM drove a truck full of explosives into a Coast Guard base in the eastern city of Dellys, killing 30 Coast Guard members and destroying several of the base’s buildings. It bears mentioning that despite the devastation of the attacks, they both occurred in AQIM’s Zone II, or that zone to which Droudkel is most restricted. It is likely that AQIM will try to sustain its offensive, but its limited room for maneuver as well as its disrupted supply chain may prevent it from doing so.

Implications for Europe

The implications for the former GSPC/AQIM cells in Europe are less obvious, even if they are arguably more troubling to markets and investors than what happens to the group in Algeria. The question is whether the cells remain committed to the GSPC’s Algerian goals or if they have become AQIM satellites in Europe—with all that implies for potential attacks throughout the continent.

The fact that the GSPC has cells in Europe is well known. In fact, the GSPC’s parent organization, the GIA, took credit for the bombing of a Paris Metro station in 1995 and assassinated numerous Algerian intellectuals who had sought refuge in Paris. Yet ties between the GSPC in Europe and al-Qaeda were weak. Those ties that did exist were significantly disrupted with European successes countering al-Qaeda operations, especially after September 11, 2001 and March 11, 2004. Since 2004, most remaining Algerian cells became dormant, having been forced under by tough and effective continental European anti-terror laws. According to Europol, the European Law Enforcement Organization, most people arrested with ties to Islamist terrorism in Europe throughout 2006 were North Africans and the majority of those were Algerians or of Algerian origin (EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report, 2007).

As a result of the organization’s cellular structure, it is likely that remaining European cells have divided themselves along the lines of their Algerian contacts. European cells that support members of the GSPC who have resisted Droudkel’s changes also likely resist the al-Qaeda affiliation. It is likely that they are still committed to trying to destabilize Algeria’s secular government.

European cells that support Droudkel and his efforts to transform the GSPC into AQIM have likely embraced al-Qaeda’s violent “jihadis-versus-Crusaders” mentality. In addition to being hostile to France, AQIM cells may broaden their ire to include any government deemed either non-Islamic or insufficiently Muslim. This includes the U.S. and U.K., historically not high on the GSPC target list, if at all, as well as Morocco and Tunisia.

European cells may provide logistical support to their colleagues in Algeria, but it is not at all clear which side of the strategic and tactical divide the continental cells stand. In Algeria, for example, the fact that French landmines were used in Algerian attacks suggests that European cells may continue to support Droudkel’s AQIM, but for the most part the roadside bomb attacks in Boumerdes target soldiers—or what pre-al-Qaeda GSPC members would view to be legitimate victims. In addition, recently resolved conflicts in Francophone sub-Saharan Africa and the monetization of sub-Saharan arsenals mean that the landmines may not necessarily come from France. It is possible that remnants of Belmokhtar and Benmessaoud’s smuggling networks remain intact and are furthering the objectives of the GSPC Algerianists.

It is likely that Droudkel’s AQIM cells throughout Europe are channeling funds and providing logistical support to non-Algerian jihadi groups in Europe and smuggling North African fighters to Iraq. (It is yet to be seen whether those fighters are making their way back to Algeria and Morocco.) This, however, is something that the GSPC also did in Bosnia and Chechnya prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, so the AQIM’s connection to Iraq cannot necessarily be interpreted as a new group characteristic.

The implication of the GSPC’s evolution into AQIM for Europe is also unclear. French counter-terrorism analysts reacted with alarm to the transformation of the GSPC into AQIM and anticipated an increased risk of terrorist attacks in European countries with large North African—and especially Algerian—populations. For example, while French security services were well attuned to the GSPC’s strategy, tactics and methods, the April 11 attacks in Algiers changed France’s assessment of the danger posed by the evolved GSPC to European targets.

France’s caution appeared to be justified with the May 24 announcement from AQIM that a heretofore unknown Abou Hafs Abdelouadoud has been named head of the Kata’ib el-Mouhadjirine (Emigrants’ Regiments). What made the report especially worrying was that it suggested that Abou Hafs would be in charge of entire regiments or divisions instead of just disparate cells. On closer inspection, however, the announcement’s authenticity is questionable. Abou Hafs’ declaration did not appear on any conventional al-Qaeda associated websites and the declaration itself was riddled with inaccuracies about the operations AQIM had undertaken in Algeria under Droudkel’s leadership (La voix de l’Oranie, May 24).


In spite of inconclusive evidence, it would be prudent to assume that the GSPC/AQIM evolution split in Algeria has been replicated among cells in Europe. On the other hand, it is possible that the GSPC’s European cells did not survive the organization’s mutation into AQIM in Algeria and have been orphaned by the eviscerated GSPC in Algeria. Neither scenario augers well for European security. The first instance would suggest that there are fewer cells in Europe that embrace al-Qaeda’s worldview than had been anticipated after the organization began mutating into AQIM in September 2006, but those cells that do survive pose a greater threat to a broader array of European targets than did the fully constituted network of GSPC cells. The second instance—that of the possibly orphaned, dormant GSPC cells that did not evolve into AQIM cells—is potentially a net positive for European security. Deprived of their raison d’etre, the GSPC cells may dissolve. It is also possible, although less likely, that at some point the isolated GSPC cells become the nuclei of new cells allied with new violent Islamist organizations. This, however, has yet to take place and it remains to be seen whether AQIM could connect with the GSPC remnants or form completely new cells.