TSG IntelBrief: AQIM: The Threat to Western Interests in Africa and Beyond
October 10, 2012
As of early October 2012, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is expanding its operational presence from North Africa across the Sahel. Among intelligence officials in Europe and the United States, there is
concern that AQIM will increasingly pose a threat of attacks — both in terms of kidnapping and mass-casualty strikes — against Western interests over the coming years not only in this volatile region of the African continent, but also against targets in the West. An examination of the organization’s ideological and operational trajectories offer useful insights, and reasonable forecasts, of how this threat scenario is likely to evolve.
AQIM is a product of Algeria’s civil war that raged during the 1990s. In its previous formation, the group was called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), and its objectives centered around the overthrow of the Algerian government in support of its larger goal of establishing an Islamist state. But successful Algerian counterterrorism operations — coupled with a loss of domestic prestige among recruits and chronic financial difficulties — persuaded the group’s leadership to seek affiliation with the al-Qaeda network. In 2006, al-Qaeda’s then deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, agreed to the merger between the two factions. The group has since renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Subsequently, there was a substantial shift in the group’s attack pattern as its leaders adopted an increasingly global ideology. AQIM has shown willingness to mount mass casualty suicide attacks, including those against
Western interests; most notably, this includes an attack against the United Nations in Algiers in
2007, which killed 26 people. These mass-casualty incidents were, however, comparatively infrequent in comparison to those carried out by other affiliates. For its part, AQIM’s operations primarily involved small bomb attacks directed against security forces in Algeria, along with kidnappings staged for ransom. As such, it was widely acknowledged among terrorism analysts that AQIM was the weakest of the affiliates, with a threat that primarily manifested in Algeria. Over the past year, however, the threat emanating from these entities has increased significantly as they broadened their operational stronghold and diversified their attack pattern, and AQIM has followed suit.
AQIM’s operational expansion has occurred as governments across North Africa and the Sahel have experienced significant regime weakness. In Mail, AQIM has taken advantage of the military coups and the government
’s subsequent lingering instability in Mali to seize more than 300,000 square miles of the country’s northern region. According to reliable sources, it has used this territory to set up training camps, which continue to operate with impunity. Over
the past year, AQIM has also extended its presence into neighboring countries, including Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Libya. In each of these countries, there has been a notable uptick in terrorist
attacks since then, including those that have targeted Western interests.
Presently, it is not yet clear as to what extent AQIM’s leadership is coordinating strategy and tactics with other affiliate groups. What is better known based on the available evidence is that its senior commander is Abdelmalek Droukdal, also known as Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud, and that Droukdal and his subordinate leaders remain in their strongholds in the mountains east of Algiers. While Droukdal appears
to maintain operational control, many of the factions — particularly those operating in Mali and other Sahel countries — operate with a degree of latitude that reflects a focus on local interests, although ideologically supporting the global Salafist message. This assessment is certainly plausible given AQIM’s acquisition of territory in Mali and elsewhere appears to contradict al-Qaeda central’s guidelines that its affiliates conduct further attacks
against the West.
AQIM’s expansion has elevated the group’s threat and accelerated a number of existing trends. First, there is a notable trend of increased threats to Western diplomatic staff. On
January 5th, 2011, a Tunisian who had reportedly received training in an AQIM camp detonated a bomb that targeted the French Embassy in Bamako, Mali’s capitol city. In July of the same year, three AQIM attempts to attack the French Embassy in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, were foiled by the military. In Libya — although the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the incident is ongoing — the U.S. Secretary of State has linked AQIM to last month’s attack against the
U.S. consulate in Benghazi that killed the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. Suspected AQIM-affiliated terrorists also targeted the British Ambassador to Libya.
Based on the group’s stated
threats, further attacks are likely to take place over the coming months. After the death of the ambassador, the group issued a communiqué that called upon Muslims to “continue to demonstrate and
escalate their protests…and to kill their ambassadors and representatives.” The group has also threatened to extend its attacks against Western targets beyond government representatives and facilities.
Meanwhile, for many years, AQIM has frequently employed kidnappings for ransom as a tactic designed primarily to raise funds for the purchase of new weapons. The group often targets Westerners, not as much for political reasons as for the undeniable reality that they can bring a much higher ransom. AQIM has extended its use of this tactic over recent months, particularly across North Africa and The Sahel, with some evidence that it is also involved in recent kidnappings in Nigeria. Indeed, according to David
Cohen, the U.S. Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial intelligence, kidnap for ransom has “become perhaps the fastest-growing technique that terrorist organizations, particularly the affiliates of al-Qaeda in North Africa and Yemen, have used to fund themselves.” Available evidence suggests this practice will very likely expand further over the near- to medium-term. An Algerian intelligence report, for example, suggested that AQIM’s kidnapping threat now extends to parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.
AQIM also appears to pose a threat of conducting attacks in Europe and the U.S. over the longer-term. Although it has yet to conduct such an attack, there is evidence that indicates AQIM has, at least, established a
recruitment presence in Europe. Last December, French police arrested eight suspected AQIM members for sending logistics and equipment to Algeria to plot an attack against Western interests. Reports indicate the French authorities have dismantled at least six AQIM-connected cells over recent years. Meanwhile, French intelligence services are adamant that the group’s leadership had the intent to conduct attacks within the country. Augmenting this are the many reports that Europeans have travelled to AQIM training camps. The long-term risk is that they will return to their home countries and use the skills obtained at these training camps to conduct lone-wolf or partially guided attacks.
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