TSG IntelBrief: An Al-Qaeda Resurgence in Africa
March 22, 2016

An Al-Qaeda Resurgence in Africa

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• While the focus in recent weeks has remained on the threat posed by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have also been active, especially in Africa

• A succession of attacks in West Africa have reasserted the regional presence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and shown its expanding reach

• AQIM has used the attacks to challenge the influence of the Islamic State; to demonstrate and build its local support; and to show that it is united after earlier damaging divisions

• Inevitably, the attacks have mostly affected locals, but foreign interests will undoubtedly remain an important AQIM target.

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Since November 2015, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has launched four attacks in four African countries, killing up to 70 people, spreading fear, and disrupting local economies. The attack on March 13 in Grand Bassam, a popular seaside town in the Ivory Coast not far from the capital Abidjan, which killed around 19 people, was reminiscent of the attack in Sousse, Tunisia, in June last year, which killed 38, and of the Lido Beach attack in Mogadishu, Somalia in January this year by the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab, which killed 20.

Al-Qaeda’s preference for soft targets where foreigners might be present was also exemplified by the November 2015 attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, which killed 20, and by the assault on the Cappuccino Café and the nearby Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in January, in which 30 died. These attacks, guaranteed to cause civilian deaths and attract publicity, have not only advertised that al-Qaeda remains active and determined, but also that it is expanding its reach. Until the Grand Bassam attack, the Ivory Coast considered itself well outside the operational range of AQIM.

The latest confirmed AQIM attack occurred on March 18, when AQIM fighters fired two rocket-propelled grenades into the Krechba gas facility in central Algeria, killing no one, but providing a reminder of the attack on the Algerian In Amenas gas field in 2013 that left 37 dead, and prompted the withdrawal of some staff. In addition, there are reports that suspected al-Qaeda militants killed three policemen in Niger near the border with Burkina Faso on March 17, and an attack on a European Union office in Bamako, Mali on March 21.

AQIM has long attempted to justify its attacks by claiming that it targets foreigners and foreign interests, particularly the French, who have been conducting an anti-terrorist operation in Mali since January 2013, and currently have 3,500 troops in the region. In fact, only AQIM’s latest attack could begin to merit such a claim. The Krechba gas field is operated by foreign companies in partnership with the Algerian government, and has roused local opposition because of its likely adverse impact on the local environment, in particular on the water table. Al-Qaeda has attempted to exploit such local issues to recruit more members and gain more support. While in other attacks the gunmen have ostensibly searched out foreigners, the impact of the attacks has primarily been on tourism and foreign investment and, as usual, it is local businesses that have suffered, and local citizens who have died.

In reality, al-Qaeda has other objectives in mounting these attacks. In West Africa it has found one area of the world where it can beat back the competing influence of the so-called Islamic State. Al-Qaeda activities in West Africa gain the group publicity that helps it maintain influence elsewhere, whether in the adjoining areas of North Africa—where al-Qaeda leadership struggles to maintain the loyalty of younger extremists—or in East Africa, where al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab fears that it could lose many of its foot soldiers if the Islamic State were to establish a strong foothold there. A recent announcement by the Islamic State accused al-Shabaab of killing and arresting hundreds of its supporters, and al-Shabaab has recently mounted a military campaign to eradicate the last remnants of a breakaway group that declared allegiance to the Islamic State in the semi-autonomous Puntland region.

AQIM has sent another key message through its attacks in West Africa: that it is a united body. Earlier splits resulting from disagreements between the leader of AQIM in Northern Algeria, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and his unruly lieutenant in the Sahara, Mokhtar Belmokhtar—who set up his own rival al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Mourabitoun, in 2013—weakened the movement. However, AQIM announced that the two groups had reunited while claiming credit for the Radisson Blu attack, and the groups have made joint claims of responsibility for subsequent operations. With a ready supply of local recruits and plenty of weapons from looted Libyan stockpiles, it is likely that AQIM will continue its resurgence until local forces—with international support—find a way to beat it back.

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