AQIM’s Objectives in North Africa

Feb 01, 2011

During the course of 2010, al-Qa`ida in  the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has become highly active, striking numerous times in the Sahara desert across multiple borders and threatening to attack targets in Europe. In July 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy heightened awareness of AQIM in policy circles by declaring war on the group, and AQIM reciprocated by declaring war on France. At the same time, AQIM’s activities have dwindled in the historic heart of its operation in the Boumerdes Mountains in the Tizi Ouzou region of Algeria. The shift in the primary area of operations, the seeming diminishing importance of its historic leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, and the rise of new leaders in the Sahara merits a deeper exploration of its ideology. Understanding what AQIM’s Saharan leaders intend and what they want ultimately leads to more effective ways to combat the group.

The group’s media arm, al-Andalus, regularly releases statements claiming responsibility for attacks and employs the vocabulary and symbolism of Salafi-jihadi thought. Likewise, individual groups associated with AQIM occasionally publicize videos in which they expound on their ideology and the group’s goals. The ideology conveyed in these sources is a rudimentary appropriation of Salafi-jihadi thought with a clear North African overtone harkening back to the days of the early Islamic conquest of the Maghreb and the southern portion of the Iberian Peninsula, or to the 11th century when Berbers launched an Islamist revivalism in the Sahara and marched northward to conquer the North African coast and most of what is now Spain.

It is challenging to derive from this ideology what the group wants beyond a rough sketch—to rid North Africa of insufficiently Islamic governments and to cleanse North Africa and the Sahara of foreigners, in particular the French and the Americans. Since other violent Islamist groups have sophisticated ideologies that are drawn from an idealized reading of Islamic history and woven into a complex strategy to attain their objectives, it is tempting to think that AQIM is adhering to a more nuanced agenda than it conveys publicly. This does not appear to be the case, however. The group’s actual appeal among its recruits is complicated as is how it continues to function in the Sahara (or why it no longer operates fluidly in northern Algeria), but what the group says it wants is very plain.

AQIM’s Shift to the South
In 2010, AQIM intensified the pace of its activities in the Sahara and Sahel, and it has become a predominantly Saharan-based organization. Activities along Algeria’s Mediterranean coast have virtually ceased. Some analysts have speculated that Saharan groups within AQIM have stepped up activities to demonstrate to al-Qa`ida’s core leadership that they are the true carriers of the AQIM mantle, opposed to AQIM’s leader Abdelmalek Droukdel in northern Algeria.[1] Others have created the perception that the U.S., French and Algerian governments are attempting to define the threat in the south as a way to extend their influence to the Sahara, but this interpretation relies on conjecture and supposition.[2] Likewise, divining what the faster pace of Saharan operations says about relations among AQIM leaders and between AQIM and al-Qa`ida itself is fraught with speculation. What can be said with greater confidence is why AQIM operations in the Sahara have outpaced those of AQIM in northern Algeria.

In late 2010, the Algerian military undertook a series of campaigns against AQIM in the Tizi Ouzou region.[3] In part, these campaigns were due to the resolution of conflicts among Algerian decision makers that had hindered a coordinated response to AQIM since its emergence in 2007. The campaigns were also due to a shift in attitude among the Tizi Ouzou population toward the Algerian military. While the Tizi Ouzou population had historically viewed the military with suspicion due to its heavy handed tactics quashing Kabyle populism during the Black Spring of 2001, local sources say that the population has become more welcoming of the military’s effort to curtail AQIM because the latter had resorted to extorting the local population and to kidnap and ransom.[4] The military campaigns have restricted AQIM’s movement in the Tizi Ouzou region and have hampered its ability to carry out attacks in Tizi Ouzou, let alone in Algiers or elsewhere in northern Algeria.

In the Sahara, however, south of Algeria’s borders, AQIM factions have been active. This is largely due to the opened, ungoverned spaces throughout northern Niger, northern Mali and eastern Mauritania, an area roughly the size of Australia. It is also at least in part due to the failed attempts by regional governments to mount a coordinated counterterrorism effort. Despite the formation of a transnational counterterrorism center in Tamanrasset in Algeria, the governments in Nouakchott, Bamako, Niamey, and Algiers at times appear to be working at cross purposes in combating AQIM in the Sahara and Sahel and this has created an opening for the group’s different factions to carry out operations.

A Kidnap and Ransom Threat
Most of AQIM’s activities in the Sahara have been kidnap operations targeted at aid workers, diplomats, tourists and expatriate employees of multinational corporations. Some of these have resulted in the ransom of the hostages, some in the hostages’ death, and others in prisoner swaps. On February 23, 2010, the French citizen Pierre Camatte was released by AQIM.[5] In April, another French citizen, Michel Germaneau, was kidnapped in Mali and subsequently died—either at the hands of AQIM or due to poor health—sometime between May and July. On August 23, two Spanish aid workers who had been kidnapped in Mauritania in 2009 were released by AQIM possibly in exchange for the release of an Islamist held in Mauritanian custody as well as the possible payment of a ransom. AQIM also claimed credit for the kidnapping on September 16 of seven people (five French citizens, a Togolese, and Malagasy) from an Areva uranium facility in Arlit in northern Niger. AQIM has more recently claimed responsibility for the January 7, 2011 kidnappings (and subsequent deaths) of two French citizens in Niamey. Even more recently, on February 2, an Italian tourist was kidnapped by a group of unidentified militants (although some reports suggest that the kidnappers said that they were AQIM) south of the Algerian town of Djanet.

There has also been one instance of a direct attack on a Mauritanian military facility in Nema on August 25, 2010, which resulted in the death of a suicide bomber who was driving an explosives-laden vehicle. This appears to have been in retaliation for a July 2010 raid by French and Mauritanian troops in an attempt to free Germaneau.

The kidnap operations have the triple benefit of raising revenue through ransoming hostages, functioning as collateral for prisoner exchanges and generally discouraging further foreign presence in the Sahel. Some of the hostages have been ransomed for significant sums. The revenue generated by kidnap operations—which could amount to tens of millions—has reportedly augmented the capabilities of different factions within AQIM.[6] A source in Algiers disclosed that AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar has used his new revenue to procure a more lethal arsenal, including DSHK (Dushka) .50 caliber anti-aircraft heavy machine guns.[7] Another AQIM leader in the Sahara, Mohamed Ghadir (alias Abdelhamid Abu Zeid), was the first within AQIM to try to leverage hostages for the release of imprisoned Islamists rather than simply raise ransoms. In 2009, he demanded the release of Abu Qatada from prison in the United Kingdom in exchange for the release of the kidnapped Edwin Dyer. Abu Qatada was not released, and AQIM claimed that it killed Dyer in retaliation.[8] Pierre Camatte’s release was also contingent on a “prisoner swap,” in this case the release of four Islamists held in Mali. More recently, in a video released by AQIM’s media arm in October 2010, Abdallah Chinguetti, a local leader of AQIM in eastern Mauritania, called for the release of prisoners.[9]

AQIM members have also targeted employees of European and American multinational corporations in the region to ostensibly exert pressure on European countries and the United States to change their foreign policies elsewhere around the world. The September 16, 2010 kidnapping of Areva employees at Arlit is the clearest example of this tactic. AQIM has demanded that France withdraw from Afghanistan and that it cease military operations in the Sahara and Sahel before it will release the kidnap victims. A speaker in a video about the kidnap operation released by al-Andalus said that the Areva facility was targeted because of its strategic importance to France.

AQIM Messaging: Salafi-Jihadi with a Saharan Backdrop
What has this newly assertive southern AQIM said about its ideology and what it wants? The bulk of AQIM’s messages, the speeches and statements, consist of the broad strands of Salafi-jihadi rhetoric, with frequent references to fitna (disorder),  jahiliyya (pre-Islamic ignorance), fasad (corruption), and the importance of fighting for the return of the proper way of life.

The contemporary targets of this timeless vocabulary are the governments of Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, which are described as kuffar (unbelievers). Ultimately, according to AQIM, these states should be replaced with proper Shari`a states. For example, in a video from August 2010, Abdallah Chinguetti declared the need to topple corrupt and unbeliever governments throughout the Maghreb and Sahel and the need to establish Shari`a states.[10] A rare written statement that claims credit for the August 25 attack on the Nema military base levels criticism specifically at Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz, calling him a varmint and an unbeliever who has corrupted the people of his country.[11]

The letter directed toward Abdelaziz also invokes another theme common to AQIM messaging and one that is intended to have more local resonance than the universal Salafi-jihadi rhetoric. In the letter, the driver of the car bomb in the Nema attack is identified as Yusuf ibn Tashfin. Ibn Tashfin was the 11th century leader of the Almoravid (al-Murabitun) dynasty. This is an important theme recurring throughout much of the Saharan AQIM’s messaging.

References to the Almoravids abound in AQIM messaging, mostly through noms de guerre and the names of AQIM’s Saharan battalions. The Almoravids arose from two tribes in what is presently Mauritania, the Sanhaja and the Lamtuna. Their territory stretched from the Senegal River (now the border between Mauritania and Senegal) to Niger. Men from the Sanhaja and Lamtuna veiled themselves (as opposed to the women, who did not) and the practice is now the name of AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s unit, Katiba al-Mulathimin, or “The Battalion of Veiled Men.” Under the banner of the Almoravids, veiled men from the Sanhaja and Lamtuna struck northwards with a message of religious reform and asceticism aimed at toppling the lax and irreligious Idrissids, the ruling dynasty in what is now Morocco. The Almoravids stressed personal moral comportment and the responsibility of the individual for the Islamicness of the whole community—a notion echoed eight centuries later by Sayyid Qutb.[12]

At their peak, the Almoravids controlled large parts of the Sahel, Sahara and Maghreb as well as half of the Iberian Peninsula—or al-Andalus. Yusuf ibn Tashfin was responsible for the conquest of what is now Algeria and the establishment of the learned center of Tlemcen. Ibn Tashfin went on to conquer al-Andalus, which is the name of AQIM’s media arm.

Ghadir, also known as Abu Zeid, the leader of the other Saharan AQIM branch that has claimed responsibility for numerous kidnappings, makes reference to an earlier period in Islamic history, but one that is equally “local.” His unit is the Katiba Tariq ibn Ziyad, named after the eighth century Berber general who led the first Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The historical Ibn Ziyad likely came from northeastern Algeria. Ghadir himself is rumored to come from the region of Debdeb in Algeria, along the Tunisian border. The names of other battalions in the Sahara are less ideologically significant. For example, a Malian national Abou Abdelkrim Targui allegedly headed Katiba al-Ansar, or simply the “The Battalion of the Victors.”

These strong Almoravid overtones, as well as references to Tariq ibn Ziyad, are in line with Salafi-jihadi narratives of restoring a caliphate and returning Islamic authority to lands that it once ruled. Part of this broader Salafi-jihadi narrative is the objective of attacking the “far enemy,” which implies attacks on France and Spain. AQIM’s messages directly target the governments that support the so-called un-Islamic governments of the Maghreb and Sahara. The primary thrust of this is France. For example, in November 2010 Abdelmalek Droukdel, the head of AQIM itself, demanded that France negotiate for the release of the hostages taken from Arlit directly with Usama bin Ladin and that France withdraw its troops from Afghanistan.[13] In another instance, Khadim Ould Semman, who allegedly led a Mauritanian group sympathetic to AQIM until his arrest, said from prison that AQIM would directly target French “crusaders” in retaliation for the raid against AQIM in August that resulted in the reported deaths of six AQIM fighters.[14]

Rarely does rhetoric about attacking the far enemy translate into real action. The closest AQIM’s Saharan groups have come may have been on January 5, 2011 when a Tunisian man who is suspected of having links to AQIM blew up an explosive device in front of the French Embassy in Bamako, Mali. The reason for this shortcoming is likely a lack of capabilities, rather than prioritization of other targets. AQIM in the Sahara simply seems unable to carry out sophisticated attacks in the urban locales where important “crusader” targets are located. This is even more true of the Saharan AQIM’s ability to actually carry out attacks in French or Spanish territory. It is not for lack of desire, but lack of ability.

One reality that has heretofore limited AQIM’s impact in the Sahara has been the target poor environment. There are simply too few targets for AQIM to strike. This remains true, and the travel warnings from European governments and the restrictions on movement of Europeans in the Sahel and Sahara means that the target environment is going to become scarcer and more challenging. In this sense, it is possible that AQIM’s Saharan units will achieve part of their goal of ridding the Sahara and Sahel of foreigners. Tourists will stop attending music festivals, diplomats’ movements will be curtailed, and aid groups will no longer send representatives. This will not, however, pose a serious challenge to the viability of the governments in Bamako, Niamey, Nouakchott and Algiers. It will also deprive AQIM of whatever meager leverage kidnapping afforded it with Paris and Washington.

Threats to foreign direct investment will not jeopardize the Algerian, Malian, Mauritanian, or Nigerien governments. European and American investment will continue to flow into the region regardless of AQIM’s presence and tactics. Attacks on multinational corporation facilities like the Arlit attack may make foreign investors pause, but they will ultimately proceed, albeit with a stronger and more robust security profile. Part of that profile will be deeper suspicion of the local population, who will be excluded to a greater degree from the economic benefits that industrial investment can bring. To the contrary, the states themselves will be direct beneficiaries of foreign direct investment, through collecting revenue, royalties and taxes.

Due to the diminishing soft targets (expatriates and tourists) and the hardening of others, AQIM may soon face a paucity of targets and will struggle to maintain the momentum it built over the course of 2010 and remain relevant. This may necessitate a change in strategy, albeit in a way that is consistent with its messages and ideology.

Despite rhetoric that stridently criticizes the corruption and illegitimacy of governments in the Maghreb and Sahara, AQIM’s Saharan units have stopped short of attacking government targets directly. There has been only one instance in 2010 of a direct AQIM attack on a government installation in the Sahara, the August 25 attack at Nema in Mauritania. On February 2, 2011, there was a second attack in Mauritanian territory, which involved possibly three trucks of AQIM fighters. The attack was disrupted outside the capital Nouakchott and its intended target is still unclear. This, however, was arguably in retaliation for a Mauritanian and French raid on AQIM itself and was not a proactive part of AQIM’s strategy in the Sahara and Sahel. Likewise, AQIM’s ideology makes frequent reference to “crusaders” and enemies in Europe, which is a standard element of Salafi-jihadi rhetoric, but unlike AQIM’s counterparts in the Arabian Peninsula or in Pakistan, it has not been able to carry out an operation that targets Europe or the United States.

For AQIM, this means that to maintain the relevancy that it has managed to establish in 2010, it will have to shift to directly targeting local security services and redouble its efforts to hit targets outside the Sahara and Sahel. This will be the true test of AQIM’s messaging. The Almoravids became the Almoravids not just because they staged a rebellion south of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, but because they went on to conquer Marrakech and beyond to al-Andalus.

Dr. Geoff D. Porter is a political risk and security consultant, specializing in North Africa and the Sahara.

[1] Olivier Guitta, “Turmoil and Dissent in North Africa’s Al Qaeda,” The National, December 27, 2010.

[2] “France’s Military Intervention in the Sahel,” MENAS Associates, August 2, 2010.

[3] “La région est devenue une sorte de djihadistan,” El-Watan, December 12, 2010.

[4] “Victime d’un faux barrage, un entrepreneur succombe à ses blessures Kabylie, en finir avec les kidnappings,” El-Watan, November 20, 2010.

[5] “Paris espère la prochaine libération de Pierre Camatte,” Le Monde, February 23, 2010.

[6] According to an al-Jazira report, kidnapping and ransom generated more than $60 million for AQIM between 2005 and 2010. See “Al-Qaeda Displays French Hostages,” al-Jazira, September 30, 2010.

[7] The source of the weapons is unclear; however, it is likely that they originate in West Africa where the resolution of armed conflicts in recent years has brought a surfeit of arms to the market.

[8] Matthew Weaver, “British Hostage Edwin Dyer ‘Killed by al-Qaida,’” Guardian, June 3, 2009.

[9] See, August 28, 2010.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “A Letter to the Varmint Mauritanian President,”, August 30, 2010.

[12] Vincent Cornell, “Understanding is the Mother of Ability: Responsibility and Action in the Doctrine of Ibn Tumart,” Studia Islamica 66 (1987): pp. 71-103.

[13] “Aqmi exige que Paris négocie avec Ben Laden pour la libération des otages,” Agence France-Presse, November 19, 2010.

[14] “Un djihadiste menace la France,” Le Figaro, October 20, 2010.