The Reconstituted Al-Qaeda Threat in the Maghreb

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 2

In the first week of January 2007, the Moroccan government announced the dismantling of an alleged 62-person terrorist cell (Gulf Times, January 5). According to statements made by the government, this cell had “ideological links with and financial and logistical support for international terrorist groups” including al-Qaeda and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC). Although details are still emerging about the cell and its connections with the GSPC and al-Qaeda, its alleged activities are emblematic of the new paradigm in the Maghreb. As a result of two mergers, one among the various Maghrebi groups and the other between the GSPC and al-Qaeda, the terrorist threat to the region has become an increasingly unified system that provides substantial support to the Iraqi jihad and which will increasingly challenge local security services as mujahideen return from Iraq.

The Mergers

On September 11, 2006, as the world’s thoughts were on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda deputy leader Ayman al-Zawahiri issued a statement announcing the merger of his group and the GSPC. Previously, the GSPC had declared its support for al-Qaeda in 2003 under the leadership of Nabil Sahraoui; however, this marks the first time that the two groups formally merged. The importance of this momentous event was underlined by the fact that the merger was first announced not by the GSPC, but by al-Zawahiri. Demonstrating the significance of this merger to the Algerian jihad, local security services have already remarked that al-Qaeda’s support appears to have bolstered the GSPC’s morale, and the December 10, 2006 roadside bomb attack on Halliburton subsidiary Brown & Root-Condor in Algeria carried many al-Qaeda hallmarks.

As a curious side note, GSPC leader Abu Mus’ab al-Wadoud issued a statement in October 2006 in which he declared that his group “joined the real Islamist organization under the leadership of our brother and supreme chief Ayman al-Zawahri” (El-Khabar, October 8, 2006). Although Osama bin Laden featured prominently on the GSPC website ( prior to its removal, it was not until January 8 that al-Wadoud made specific, public reference to the al-Qaeda leader. In this statement, al-Wadoud named bin Laden as the group’s amir and said he was awaiting bin Laden’s instructions for the next phase (al-Bawaba, January 8). Considering al-Zawahiri’s August 5, 2006 announcement of al-Qaeda’s merger with the Egyptian al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (EIG), this indicates that al-Zawahiri may be the one responsible for al-Qaeda’s recent unification efforts.

Prior to the September merger, however, reports surfaced that al-Qaeda had made inroads in forming a pan-Maghreb group along the lines of the now infamous Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (The al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers) (Asharq al-Awsat, December 8, 2005). Reportedly, this new group, dubbed “Qaedat al-Jihad in the Arab Maghreb Countries,” was to be led by the GSPC and would bring together jihadi groups from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. In support of this, a Spanish intelligence report, quoted by local media in late November 2006, claimed the group would also include the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). By January 26, 2007, al-Wadoud officially declared that the new name for his organization would be “The al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb,” a name which is strikingly reminiscent of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq (al-Jazeera, January 26).

Considering these two mergers together, the result is a broad network falling under the regional leadership of the GSPC, which in turn is aligned under al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda has clearly taken a renewed interest in reconstituting its Maghrebi affiliates with the dual intent of supporting the Iraqi jihad and bolstering its operational assets around the region. In effect, by consolidating its affiliated groups in the Arab Maghreb, al-Qaeda has established a North African extension with assets that reach not only into Iraq, but also well into Europe. As veteran fighters begin emigrating from the Iraq theater, these mergers effectively establish a conduit and structure for these individuals to continue their jihad in other venues.

The Path To and From Iraq

As part of these reports, it has become apparent that al-Qaeda has a number of strategic intentions for its North African network. Integral to these plans is the formation of an extensive training cycle, which in essence provides the means by which al-Qaeda can move fighters between Iraq and the Maghreb. This training cycle, which first came to light from sources in Morocco, begins with regional fighters participating in training provided by the GSPC, presumably at one of the group’s mobile training camps in the Sahara desert. Following completion of this phase of their training, fighters will move on to fight alongside the GSPC against the Algerian government. In this phase, jihadis gain operational experience, which will serve them well in the next stage of the cycle: the Iraq jihad. Once they have been smuggled in through one of Iraq’s neighboring countries (likely Syria), fighters will participate in terrorist and insurgent activities and potentially conduct martyrdom operations. For those select few who complete this stage and survive, they are to return to the Maghreb to await operational orders from al-Qaeda (Asharq al-Awsat, December 8, 2005).

Aside from providing GSPC operatives with mission critical training, the GSPC’s mobile training camps have functioned as the primary catalyst in forming and strengthening the organizational bonds among the Maghrebi groups. These training camps arguably constitute the backbone of the GSPC’s networking efforts in North Africa. Indicative of this, according to General Kip Ward of U.S. EUCOM, the group has succeeded in assembling “militants from as far afield as Nigeria, Tunisia or Morocco” (Sudan Tribune, October 16, 2006).

As the groups in the Maghreb coalesce, the role of the GSPC’s mobile training apparatus will be of vital importance in coordination and inter-group cooperation. As seen with the training camps in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the experiences shared by mujahideen in the camps can have a lasting impact through the establishment of an esprit de corps, which subsequently leads to high levels of trust and a willingness to cooperate. These camps will also be vital in feeding the flow of mujahideen traveling to Iraq to participate in the insurgency there. Although there are training facilities in Iraq for foreign fighters, efforts to prepare fighters prior to their departure for Iraq will alleviate some of the burden placed on the Iraqi jihadi training system.

The Result

Although it is still too early to accurately assess the cumulative affects of this reconstituted threat, there are indications of the means by which it will impact the threat environments of both the Maghreb and Europe. Bearing in mind the criticality of the aforementioned training cycle—both in terms of raising operational proficiency and in facilitating the flow of fighters between the Maghreb and the Iraqi jihad—this organizational restructuring provides al-Qaeda and its constituents with the means to perpetuate the jihad against North African governments and the West. For those jihadis who participate in and survive the training program (including the Iraqi phase), they will return with extensive operational experience to a reconstituted Maghrebi network that extends well into the West and has the capability of raising requisite operational resources for large-scale attacks. Providing such a structure prior to the injection of these jihadis is vital to ensuring the smooth and rapid transition from fighting in Iraq to executing attacks in the western Mediterranean region.

Considering the Maghreb’s proximity to Europe and also bearing in mind Spain’s African enclaves—Ceuta and Melilla—the reconstituted Maghrebi threat has direct implications for Europe. In early December 2006, Spanish police interrupted a plot targeting a trade fair and an explosives depot in Ceuta (El Pais, December 13, 2006). During the investigation, the Spanish press released details of an intelligence report compiled by four European Union countries: Spain, France, Germany and the United Kingdom (El Pais, December 17, 2006). Although the number of Europeans who have participated in the Iraq insurgency is thought to be few, this report lists roughly 200 individuals residing in Europe who have undergone training and who have fought in Iraq. The majority of those listed are of North African origin. Although this alone does not conclusively indicate a role of North African groups, it does demonstrate the need for the al-Qaeda network to establish an organizational link between the Iraqi theater and Europe.

Operationally, this network has already exhibited a number of alterations that demonstrate the influence of both al-Qaeda and Iraqi veterans. As shown with the high profile attack on Halliburton subsidiary Brown & Root-Condor in early December 2006, this network, led by the GSPC, has shifted its targeting tendencies to focus on assets symbolic of foreign, primarily Western, influence. This was demonstrated in a video of the attack released by the GSPC on January 22, in which al-Wadoud clearly identifies Halliburton as the target of the operation. As an indication that this trend is likely to continue, the GSPC’s amir, al-Wadoud, issued a vitriolic statement in early January in which he specifically vilified France and the United States for their activities in the Maghreb and for stealing the oil and natural gas of the ummah.

Tactically, Maghrebi operations will likely shift to conform with al-Qaeda hallmarks, and during the past year there have been indications that this shift is already occurring. Maghrebi groups have previously conducted suicide operations, yet this tactic has not featured prominently in regional campaigns. In his January 8 statement, al-Wadoud specifically notes the willingness of his cadres to perpetrate martyrdom operations.

By consolidating the Maghrebi groups, al-Qaeda has, in effect, created the conduit through which jihadis can migrate among Iraq, North Africa and potentially Europe, while also establishing the organizational structure in the Maghreb to pursue the global jihad. Reorganizing the Islamist groups in the Maghreb provides al-Qaeda the means not only to perpetuate the Iraqi jihad while leveraging its gains from that conflict, but also to undermine regional regimes and promote attacks on their Western supporters.