Consolidating fast: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on its way to growth

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was officially created in 2007 when the Algeria based Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat changed its name to Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, after having claimed publicly its linkage to Al Qaeda the year before.

However, GSPC had been gradually enhancing its relations with the Al Qaeda for years before. One of its first attacks under the new name was against the United Nations buildings in Algeria, killing at least 41 people.

Al Qaeda’s ties with Algeria date back yet even longer-to the time when Osama bin Laden sent an emissary to Algeria to offer assistance to the leadership of the Groupe Islamique Armé. GIA served as an umbrella group for several Islamist movements fighting against the Algerian military in control in the beginning of 1990s.

Considered as one of the most violent and radical groups, it was in this environment of these savage extremists that the GSPC emerged.

Originally, the group’s (GSPC) chore leadership, including Hassan Hattab and Amari Saifi, separated from the GIA due to opposing its policy of attacking civilians.

Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda publicly recognized the group when GSPC vowed to concentrate on attacks merely on security forces. It was then when the group started to embrace gradually its ideology of global jihad.  

While in view of the current Mali insurgency and the threats by the group to “strike in the heart of France” have awaken discussion of its threat to Europe, it was already right after the group had officially changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb when it announced France as there number one enemy and called upon fighting against the “Western” enemy, specifically France and the United States.

Abdelmalek Droukdel has also threatened to target Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves in Morocco to use them to stage attacks on Spain.

Even if not all these threats can be taken severely, with these claims it became evident that the group had moved further away from its initial aim to overthrow Algerian government and had started to seek a more global “recognition” instead.

Therefore new goals including expansion of its activities were established. Along with introducing new means for fundraising, such as contraband trafficking and ransom demands.

New militant groups

In order to estimate the current role and impact of AQIM, we should start by giving a quick look at new violent militant groups that have emerged recently in the Sahara-Sahel region in Northern Africa.

Ansar al Dine is one of the groups that emerged in the international scene with the current Mali insurgency, when in May 2012 it claimed control over vast parts of territory in Northern Mali, including the cities of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, along with the National Movement for the Liberalization of Azawad.

Its main leader is Iyag ag Ghali, who belongs to Ifigha tribal group and was first known as a prominent leader of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. The group led by him today also claims to hold many Tuareg fighters. However, its main goals appear not to be related to Tuaregs and their freedom, as it has announced them to be imposing Sharia law instead.

While official links between Ansar Dine and AQIM have been widely disputed, both the United States and the United Nations have stated the group has received significant militant and also financial support from AQIM.  This was also the reason why both recently designated the group as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

Additionally, Iyad ag Ghali is the cousin of one of the sub-commanders of AQIM, Hamada Ag Hama, which has given further ground for hints regarding the ties between the two groups.

Among other evidences there is a letter found in Timbuktu in the beginning of this year-allegedly left behind by Al Qaeda fighters-in which Abdelmalek Droukdel has given proofs that Ansar Dine was to be the local face of the jihadist movement, while AQIM established training camps for external jihadist operations, in order to use the country to wage a global jihad.

Right beside Ansar Dine in Mali is fighting a group called Movement for the Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO): another group advocating Islamic law and who also participated in the invasion of Northern Mali towns last spring.

It first announced its existence in 2011 with claiming responsibility for kidnapping 3 aid workers working in Western Sahara, in the Algerian city of Tindouf. Last year, slightly before the insurgency in Mali, the group publicly declared war on France, claiming it to be hostile for the interests of Islam.

Led by Mohamed Kheirou, who is of Mauritanian origin, the group also holds (former) AQIM high-ranking commanders. In addition to Tuareg fighters the group has incorporated numerous fighters from other ethnic groups, including those who have historically been opposed to Tuaregs.

Considered as a breakaway group of AQIM, Kheirou has justified the split with an argument relating to its strict commitment with Islam. However, details as naming three out of its four battalions after commanders of AQIM (including naming one Osama bin Laden Batallion) are to refer to its either direct or indirect linkage to the group.

Even if originating in Algeria, the group is now believed to be based in Northern Mali and continues to operate on both sides of the border. Its attack in March last year on Tamanrasset-a highly militarized city home to one of the Algerian Army’s divisions-demonstrated its strong operational capacity.  

In regards of one of the biggest international hostage crisis of last years, that took place in the Algerian gas field in the beginning of this year, another heavily armed Islamist group, named Signed in Blood Batallion (also known as the Masked Brigade) has emerged.

The group’s leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar is (or was, as rumored to have been killed recently) a former senior commander of the AQIM and a key person in the group already from the times of GIA and GSPC.

It was announced last year that due to his rebels inside the group, he was freed from his duties in AQIM. Even though all the named groups operate independently to a greater or lesser extent, it has become clear that there are or have been important links between them and AQIM.

These links do not need to be central to have an impact on AQIM’s influence in the region. Especially in view of the fact that AQIM has been the “offset” for all these groups offering also training and equipment in some cases.

Islamic extremists

It cannot be left unnoticed that despite of often identifying themselves as groups of Tuareg identity, a large number of Al Qaeda linked jihadists fighting in Northern Mali come from West African countries, such as Togo, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Guinea and Senegal, but there are also fighters from Egypt and Pakistan.

At the same time, while these foreign jihadists are fighting for global Islamic extremist ideologies, they have often interfered in ethnic rebels.

A good example of this would be that when seizing control over Northern Mali they first sought alliance with the (secular) separatist group MNLA (the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad) – to later confront them and drive away from the territory.

Analysts have also considered the probability of kidnapping occurred in Tindouf (and claimed by MUJAO) was organized in cooperation with Polisario-a separatist movement acting in Western Sahara.

Last year CNA Strategic reports showed evidence that AQIM has infiltrated the Sahrawi refugee camp in Tindouf. At the same time there were indications that Sahrawi from the camps have joined terrorist groups based in Mali.

However, it is essential to notice that the extension of AQIM does not limit with Algeria, Mali and not even with the inclusion of foreign jihadists among its fighters but go further beyond.

While there have been allegations about AQIM offering training to the most well-known and violent Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram, it is considered that Ansaru, an off-shoot of Boko Haram, who has taken responsibility for several attacks on foreigners, coordinates its operations with AQIM (and MUJAO). At the same time, the prime minister of Niger has claimed that Nigerian militants are training with AQIM in Niger.

Other than Algeria, the largest number of AQIM recruits are believed to come from Mauritania. Even though until now the Mauritanian forces have showed high efficiency in discovering cells in the country, there have occurred several kidnapping cases recently and the threat is considered to be growing.

Even though no attack has yet been registered in the Chadian territory, however, the organization is believed to be linked with drugs and arms trafficking in this country. Its expansive drugs and arms business involves largely also other parts of Western Africa, specially Senegal and Guinea Bissau.

When posing a question of how has AQIM managed to infiltrate that smoothly into regions where it originally had no ties and establish cooperation with groups who act for very different goals than theirs, there are several things to consider.

One important fact to hold in mind is that Sahel is one of the poorest regions in the world. The lack of education and employment opportunities for young people, firstly contribute to tensions, mistrust to their government and general dissatisfaction. Yet more importantly, AQIM, who can boast a broad financial scheme and extensive resources, offers important income and financial opportunities.

Kidnapping has been a lucrative funding stream for AQIM and they have managed to set up a huge business of kidnapping westerners, acquiring tens of millions of dollars this way. Most of AQIM’s activities in the Sahara have been kidnap operations targeted at aid workers, diplomats, tourists and expatriate employees of multinational corporations.

This way of achieving revenues and the habit of releasing the hostages after the payment of a ransom has made the organization profile more characteristic to a criminal enterprise aiming for profit, rather than a terrorist group seeking for means to finance its ideology.

Financial means

Intelligence reports have indicated that AQIM has established links with Latino cartels for ‘drugs-for-arms’ smuggling into Europe through terrorist-trafficking networks in the Sahel (including members of Polisario group).

It is considered the cocaine trade through Western African coastal states and Sahara into Algeria, Morocco and Libya (and then Europe) exploded about five years ago when the Latino cartels started to look for new markets after US saturation.  

The scope of drug business first became visible with the “Air Cocaine” incident in 2009, when the burnt-out carcass of a Boeing 727 believed to have been transporting up to 10 tons of cocaine was found in the desert north of Gao.

AQIM, along with Boko Haram and also Hezbollah, is considered to be largely involved in this trafficking route and in 2010 the DEA charged three AQIM members with acts of narco-terrorism along with support for a foreign terrorist organisation.

Security analysts have warned that profits made in account of drug trafficking can transform the group into a major threat in the region.

The influx of drug cash into such a poor region has definitely managed to further harm security and government of already vulnerable states, (where the national budgets of some countries often amount to just some tons of cocaine), as these extensive sums of money have bought up police and also politicians and soldiers in the region.

AQIM’s other primary sources for financing include illicit trafficking of other contraband goods such as arms, vehicles and also humans that have also contributed to weakening of the state structures involved and corruption expansion.

Regarding this many-sided financial scheme, as well as its proven capability to cooperate and coordinate attacks with other local terrorist groups, including mixing with ethnic rebels, AQIM has unquestionably managed to establish a strong foothold in the Sahel region.

In view of the fact that AQIM has been quick to use the situations of uncertainty and insecurity as an advantage for its expansion and emergence, it poses a considerable threat to the whole region and possibly beyond.

Thus, the Abyei security crisis in Sudan, conflict situation in Casamance, Senegal, as well as the new insurgency in Central African Republic can all offer new playgrounds for AQIM activities.

As do weak or obscure central government in other West African countries where AQIM has already established contacts for funding purposes, including Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Guinea and Burkina Faso.

Uncertainty and demonstrations produced in North African coast have also proven to be profitable for the organization and increasing the instability in the whole region is certainly among its interests.

While there have been concerns about AQIM’s presence in Libya and its involvement in Benghazi attack in 2012, it has been reported that Belmokhtar, when still a member of AQIM, was the main beneficiary of Libya weapons that went “missing” after the end of revolution in 2011. Experts have said Libya had enough weapons in its caches to turn the entire northern half of Africa into a “no-fly” zone.

Even though evidence of close connection between other major terrorist groups of the region, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, is still limited there have been suggestions about their joint trainings, as well as some evidence of their attempt to coordinate their activities across North Africa and Sahel region.

What is clear is that its further cooperation with these groups offers AQIM an ideal opportunity to further expand its operations, augmenting in this manner what analysts have named the Arc of instability, and taking it thus to unimaginable measures.

At the same time it is important to understand that AQIM does not exist in any unified form of an Islamist threat, but should be rather seen as a network of criminal syndicates acting under slogan of global jihad.