Ten Years of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Evolution and Prospects

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 9

AQIM militants (Source FT)

In the past few months, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) hit the headlines again as it carried out a massive attack in Gao, northern Mali, killing 77 people and injuring dozens more. Al-Mourabitoun, the group of Mokhtar Belmokhtar — so far, the “most-killed” terrorist in the world, having been proclaimed dead several times since the ‘90s — claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was punishment for Malians working with France (Jeune Afrique, January 18; see MLM, August 2015 ).

From a strictly operational perspective, the attack is significant as it signals a return to large-scale terrorist operations in an area where AQIM has historically been well established. Although there has been no return to large-scale attacks in Algeria, the initial core target of AQIM operations, at the same time it signals AQIM’s greater capacity for operations in an area where it has been progressively dislocated by the French military operations “Serval” and “Barkhane.”

In addition, a few weeks later, AQIM announced a merger of a number of local jihadist groups into a new alliance, Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM). This partnership includes: the Islamist Tuareg organization Ansar Al-Dine; al-Mourabitoun, the group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar; AQIM’s Sahara division; and the Katiba Macina Liberation Front of Ansar al-Dine. This new alliance will be led by Iyad ag Ghali, the historical leader of Ansar al-dine. These developments are significant since, as Islamic State (IS) loses ground in Iraq and Syria and its regional offshoots weaken, al-Qaeda’s groups are trying to capitalize on the situation. For AQIM itself, these developments have occurred as the organization marks 10 years since its official creation (Jeune Afrique, March 10; L’Economiste Maghrébin, March 6).

Local Strikes, Global Resonance

These developments alone are significant, but they are even more relevant as the group marks 10 years since it officially joined al-Qaeda and rebranded itself. Previously it was the Salafist Group for Preachment and Combatant, mostly known as GSPC (Groupe Salafiste  pour  la  Prédication  et  le  Combat), itself an offshoot of the GIA, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé), the most influential terrorist organization that fought in the Algerian civil war of the 1990s.

This shift was not only a change of brand — although the symbolic dimension and the impact of publicly using the name al-Qaeda played a major role in this decision — it was a broadening of the priorities of the former GSPC, which had suffered a number of setbacks and was on a declining path, operationally and in terms of its local popularity.

This trend had already started by the end of the 1990s, and the GSPC itself was an attempt to address it. The GSPC’s founders wanted to distance themselves from the GIA, whose indiscriminate killings had alienated many Algerians who had been sympathetic at the beginning of the Algerian civil war. However, the GSPC did not manage to reverse this trend, and the emergence of Abdelmalek Droukdel as its leader — instead of Hassan Hattab, the leader who had orchestrated the split — engendered a return to the targeting of civilians.

The GSPC’s localized agenda was one of the most significant issues in negotiations between the group and al-Qaeda. It took more than two years of negotiations between Droukdel and al-Qaeda leaders Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to bring GSPC into AQIM, with al-Qaeda leaders concerned the merger would be incompatible their wider strategic goals. For al-Qaeda, its primary targets were the “far enemies” of the United States, Europe and Israel, rather than the governments of the territories in which its offshoots were operating, the so-called “near enemies.”

Algerian extremists likewise feared external influences, concerned that foreign groups would impose their own agenda over local priorities. Indeed, even after it joined al-Qaeda, the group continued to operate primarily in Algeria, but imported tactics deployed in other theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan. While it employed a rising rhetorical focus on the far enemies, its operational center remained Algeria. Thus the core interest of the organization was somehow safeguarded, despite its internationalization and affiliation with the al-Qaeda franchise. This helps explain the skepticism with which Droukdel, Belmokhtar and the entire AQIM command-chain have approached the emergence of Islamic State (IS). Although global in its ambition, the IS agenda is very much characterized by the dominance of the organization’s interests in the Syrian-Iraqi theatre and a more vertical and less flexible approach — compared to that of al-Qaeda — to local offshoots.

The merger between al-Qaeda central and the Algerian terrorists in 2006 and 2007 and the progressive convergence of interests was very much the result of al-Qaeda’s increasing weakness. It was considered a way for the al-Qaeda to gain leverage in an area of strategic importance, at the doors of Europe, while for the GSPC the merger was aimed at strengthening its jihadist appeal, bolstering its legitimacy and reversing the declining that had characterized the organisation since the end of the 1990s.

Losing Algeria: The Rise of the Southern Katibas

Despite its ambition to maintain its primary operational focus on Algeria, changing strategic circumstances forced AQIM to shift its geographical core progressively southward. Over the past ten years, this gradual geographic shift of AQIM has represented one of the most significant developments in the organization’s evolution. Algerian jihadism has always had a presence in the Sahel/Sahara region, both before and after the Algerian civil war. However, the area was never a center of its activities but more a geographical appendix.

Back in 2003, when AQIM was still the GSPC, the spectacular kidnapping of 32 European tourists represented the first visible sign of the increasing importance of this area for the group. Since then, the focus on the Saharan/Sahelian area has increased exponentially, and after the end of the first period of Qaedist adaptation in 2007/2008, it started to represent the main center of AQIM’s operations.

The rising focus of the organization on the Sahara/Sahel was not the product of a particular strategic choice — for instance of targeting local governments for their international alliance or internal ethno-confessional balances — nor was it the result of its al-Qaeda membership. It was the tactical outcome of the changing geostrategic circumstances that characterized the local operational environment, which reduced AQIM’s freedom of action in Algeria while presenting a number of significant jihadist “business opportunities” in these territories. As such, it was more of an utilitarian and pragmatic move dictated by circumstance.

The strengthening of Algeria’s counter-terrorism capacity and its speedy adaptation to the AQIM’s imported tactics in 2007/2008, as well as rising oil prices that gave additional financial resources to the Algerian state and the loss of public support for jihadists, made Algeria an increasingly challenging environment in which to operate.

In addition, the internal balance within the organization was changing. Belmokhtar’s Katiba al-Moulathimin was growing increasingly independent, reflecting the substantial freedom of action that he was enjoying and Belmokhtar’s characteristic resentment of tight hierarchical control.

As local militants became better financed, they grew operationally more independent and the chain of command around Droukdel progressively weakened. The emergence of a local Katiba headed by a close ally of Droukdel, Abou Zeid — a type of “smuggler turned Jihadist” whose original task was to keep Belmokhtar in check — also contributed to shifting the geographic focus of the organization(see Militant Leadership Monitor, October 2011 ).

From the Sahel to West Africa

As the group moved southward, its ranks also swelled as local Sahelian militants joined the organization. However, despite this ethnic diversification, the chain of command remained firmly in the hands of Algerian militants and did not reflect the increasing diversity of the group.

This created a number of tensions, and in addition, the new militants were more focused on spreading jihad in other parts of West Africa. This led to the creation of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) in 2011, a splinter group of AQIM that nevertheless remained in the orbit of the organization.

Later, having been dismissed as head of his katiba following an internal re-organization of AQIM, Belmokhtar also left the group, and with the support of Abderrahmane Ould el-Amar (aka Ahmed al-Tilemsi), one of the key leaders of MOJWA, he created al-Mourabitoun.

The name of this new group was a sort of political manifesto, recalling the dynasty of the Almoravides who ruled in the 11th and 12th century over a unified Sahelian-Maghrebi empire stretching all the way to Andalusia (modern day southern Spain). As such, the ambition was to unify the groups and the peoples of the region, as the Almoravides had done (see Terrorism Monitor, October 17, 2013). Despite the split, Belmokhtar also remained in the orbit of AQIM, and enjoyed a rather fluid relationship with the organization, before re-joining formally in December 2015.

That was also the period in which AQIM became an increasingly hybrid organization, as the diversification of its activities became more significant. Its focus on minor jihad — armed attacks against those perceived as infidels — was balanced by the presence of more mundane illicit activities, such as kidnappings, smuggling and so forth.

The local environment was conducive to these opportunities. The Sahara has been historically home to traffickers of all kinds, and the leaders of the southern katibas had a comparative advantage given their in-depth knowledge of the territory. As a consequence, kidnappings flourished as European tourists visiting the Sahara were considered easy targets, while the increasing centrality of Africa in the global narco-trafficking routes provided new opportunities to make money. AQIM’s presence in northern Mali favored this dynamic (see Terrorism Monitor, January 28, 2010).

This hybridization, however, should not be seen in rigid terms. These illicit activities were still consistent with AQIM’s jihadist ambitions — kidnapping Westerners and eventually killing them or receiving a ransom, or inundating the European markets with drugs, were just other ways to harm the heathen Western countries. In addition, these activities provided greater revenues and strengthened ties with the local population. This was seen as part of a long-term strategy to co-opt local groups. Indeed, these activities all still enabled AQIM to further its core aim of waging jihad.

Exploiting the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring had a number of unintended consequences, and AQIM’s increased local presence put the group in a good position to exploit the chaos that struck the region in its wake.

The collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya created the conditions for the spread of Tuareg fighters and weapons in in the region (see Terrorism Monitor, April 14, 2011). Many of these fighters moved to Northern Mali where they encountered the local grievances of Tuaregs there who felt discriminated and marginalized by the government in Bamako. The constellation of local radical jihadist organizations — formed by AQIM, Bemolkhtar’s katiba, MOJWA and the Malian Ansar al-Dine soon allied with the secular Tuareg of the National Liberation of the Azawad and took control of territory in Northern Mali, with the ambition to create an Islamic state and use it as a platform to move southwards.

Only when these groups were heading toward Bamako did external countries intervene. The French military operation “Serval” disbanded the proto-Salafi state created in Northern Mali and disrupted the networks that the organizations had set up (MaliActu.Net, August 7, 2015).

However, the Libyan chaos also allowed AQIM to deepen its presence in the country, and many fighters started using Libya as a new logistic platform. This also enabled AQIM to finally carry out a new powerful attack in Algeria — the attack in InAmenas, allegedly organized by Bemolkhtar. This attack, which targeted international oil companies and their employees, was a return to AQIM’s focus on striking locally with a global impact.

The IS Challenge 

The InAmenas attack was nevertheless an exception, as the new operational trends of the organization were increasingly focused on West Africa. Indeed, between the end of 2015 and early 2016, the group carried out massive terrorist attacks targeting hotels and holiday resorts in Bamako (Mali), Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast (Abidjan.net, March 14, 2016;  Sidwaya [Ouagadougou], January 16; Jeune Afrique, November 20, 2015). This further Africanization of the operational profile of AQIM and its affiliate is the result of its emerging rivalry with IS.

The emergence of IS in the wider jihadist world was another unintended consequence of the Arab Spring. The group evolved from an off-shoot of the al-Qaeda presence in Syria. Members of this group severed their ties with al-Qaeda Central and created a group characterized by a further radicalization and an even more violent approach to jihad.

IS immediately showed its ambition to build up a Salafi state, intended as a catalyst for the creation of a new caliphate. While for AQIM the ultimate goal (in keeping with al-Qaeda’s philosophy) was to eventually revive the caliphate, the group’s methodology was different. The al-Qaeda view is that (re-)building a Caliphate is a long-term process.

IS also represented a threat to AQIM in operational terms, including the recruitment of the youth from the region — Tunisians and Moroccans accounted for a very significant part of the foreign fighters ranks of IS — and its presence in a number of strategic regional theatres, such as Libya and Tunisia. It also became a magnet for local, minor leaders who saw a pledge of loyalty to IS as a way to boost their status, something that created a number of problems for Belmokhtar’s organization. Finally, IS’ aggressive use of the media and a powerful brand fueled a sort of competition, forcing AQIM to adapt some of its media strategies to those of its jihadist rival.

Prospects for the Years to Come

Ten years on, AQIM is a very different organization from what it was in early 2007. Although its leadership remains Algerian, Algeria no longer represents AQIM’s main focus.

While this does not mean that the organization will not mount attacks in Algeria, it is no longer the systemic threat that the GIA represented in the 1990s and AQIM itself posed in the first months after its rebranding.

The group is now more of a regional franchise. It is the center of gravity for a number of local groups, and itself part of the wider al-Qaeda global project. Moreover, it represents a regional counterbalance to IS, and the rivalry between the two organizations has been a significant feature of the regional geostrategic environment.

However, as IS declines, it is possible that many IS fighters will move closer to al-Qaeda-linked groups once again. In addition, as IS weakens, AQIM is likely to return to many regional theatres, among them Libya.

In Mali, the establishment of JNIM shows that AQIM intends to capitalize on IS’ increasing weakness and bring together in a systemic way those organization that have gravitated to it over the last few years. While many previously collaborated on a tactical level with AQIM, they did not always follow its directives and priorities. AQIM’s operational return to Northern Mali now shows the group intends to reassert itself in those territories where it had an established presence prior to the French-led military operation in 2013.

That said, while AQIM does not appear to have the capacity to establish a salafi-jihadist state in the region, it will continue to represent a significant asymmetrical and hybrid threat, mixing minor jihadist operations with criminal activities to bolster its finances and further its ultimate goals of fighting near enemies such as regional governments and actors such as Libya’s General Haftar, and its traditional far enemies in the West.