AQIM’s Playbook in Mali

Mar 27, 2013

An internal document recovered by the Associated Press in Timbuktu in January 2013 sheds new light on al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) strategy in northern Mali.[1] The document was purportedly part of a confidential letter from Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Mus`ab `Abd al-Wadud), the amir of AQIM, to his lieutenants in the Sahara and to the Islamist militant group Ansar Eddine’s[2] leader, Iyad ag Ghaly (also known as Shaykh Abu Fadl).[3] The document was not dated, but several references indicate that Droukdel may have authored the letter in early July 2012.[4]

The letter revealed a deep strategic fracture between AQIM’s leadership and its lieutenants on the ground, as Droukdel saw a military intervention as all but inevitable and therefore wanted to focus the group’s strategy on outliving it. The letter further highlighted major internal dysfunction between AQIM’s leadership and its subordinates in the Sahara. Finally, it showed a deep commitment to success and a worrisome plan for the future.

Strategic Disagreement
Droukdel’s letter revealed a fundamental strategic disagreement both with his own operators and with Ansar Eddine in northern Mali. For Droukdel, AQIM must strive to retain its base and freedom of operation in northern Mali, or, as he wrote, to “gain a region under control and a people fighting for us and a refuge for our members that allows us to move forward with our program”[5] even though it is “very probable, perhaps certain, that a military intervention will occur, whether directly or indirectly.”[6]

Droukdel believed that AQIM’s primary concern should be to outlive a Western-backed intervention by cultivating enough local support so that it could blossom again after the military operation concluded. “If we can achieve this positive thing even in limited amount, then, even if the project fails later it will be just enough that we will have planted the first, good seeds, in a fertile soil and put pesticides and fertilizer on it, so that the tree will grow more quickly,” he wrote.[7]

On the basis of his strategic assessment, Droukdel contended that the tactics developed and implemented by his lieutenants in northern Mali—Nabil Makhloufi (amir of the Sahara region), Abu Zeid (amir of the Brigades of Tariq Ibn Ziyad), and Mokhtar Belmokhtar (amir of the Veiled Brigades)—and the policies pursued by Ansar Eddine were wrong and would lead to failure. He strongly criticized every major decision his lieutenants have made since taking over northern Mali. He argued that:

1. The declaration of an “Islamic State of Azawad” was premature because “establishing a just Islamic regime ruling people by the Shari`a of the People’s Lord is [a] very big duty that exceeds the capabilities of any organization or movement [now operating in Azawad].”[8]

2. The “extreme speed with which you applied Shari`a Law…in an environment ignorant of religion” was “wrong,” because “our previous experience[9] proved that applying Shari`a this way, without taking into account the environment into consideration will lead to people rejecting religion and engender hatred toward the mujahidin.”[10]

3. The destruction of the Timbuktu shrines[11] will lead to “negative repercussions” because “internally we are not strong and there is a potential for an external intervention.”[12]

4. The application of “the hadd (religious punishment)…and the fact that you prevented women from getting out and children from playing, and searched the houses of the population…[are] contradictory to the policy of Salaf (our forebearers).”[13]

5. “The decision to go to war with the MNLA [National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad],[14] after becoming close and almost completing a deal with them, which we thought would be positive, is a major mistake.”[15]

Organizational Dysfunction
It was not the first time that Droukdel argued for a “gentler, kinder” AQIM. He made similar statements in a short audio message released on May 23, 2012. In that speech, he boasted that Mali offered a “historic opportunity” to establish an Islamic state, but also warned that such opportunity might be wasted if the wrong policies were implemented.[16] He then advised his lieutenants to “gradually introduce Shari`a laws, not hasten to punish people, provide security and services, and consult elders and leaders amongst the people.”[17]

Droukdel’s lieutenants and allies in the Sahara must not have felt bound by his advice, and instead acted in contradiction with their hierarchy’s wishes. On May 26, 2012, the MNLA and Ansar Eddine announced the breakaway Islamic State of Azawad.[18] A week later, fighting began between the MNLA and Islamist factions allied with Ansar Eddine. Shari`a tribunals were quickly established and began dispensing harsh punishments such as amputating limbs for crimes of theft.[19] Finally, in late June and early July, the Islamists destroyed ancient Islamic Sufi shrines in Timbuktu because they depicted “false idols.”[20]

Droukdel did not conceal his frustration when he castigated his subordinates for providing unconvincing explanations through media channels, rather than through internal channels, for these actions. He wrote: “And with all the reasons our brother gave via their statements through the media (we have not until now received any clarification from you despite how perilous the operation was!), we can see that all these reasons are not good enough to declare a war [against the MNLA].”[21] It is unclear whether Droukdel was angry because his subordinates were not heeding his advice or because of the technical difficulties in communicating effectively between northern Mali and Kabylia, the mountainous region to the east of Algiers where he is believed to be based, due to security forces’ surveillance efforts. Both issues could be factors.

Relations have always been difficult between Droukdel, whose operational base is in Kabylia, and the amirs operating in the Algerian south and the Sahel who have been fairly independent. In August 2012, for example, Droukdel mandated Necib Tayeb, head of AQIM’s judicial committee, to conduct a reconciliation mission between the three AQIM leaders in the Sahara at the time: Abu Zeid, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Nabil Makhloufi.[22] According to the Algerian Press Service, his mission was to “unite the amirs of AQMI [AQIM] in the Sahel…to end the differences and conflicts that have opposed the southern branches to the northern branches.”[23] His mission failed, however, as the Algerian police intercepted Tayeb in Ghardaïa on his way to Mali.[24] After the failed mission, Droukdel reportedly dismissed Mokhtar Belmokhtar from his position.[25] At the time, AQIM sources cited in the Mauritanian press indicated that Belmokhtar had been fired for not abiding by the leadership’s decisions and recommendations.[26] Although neither Belmokhtar nor Droukdel have publicly tied his dismissal specifically to the strategic disagreements over Mali, those concerns possibly weighed on Droukdel’s decision.[27]

Proposed Alternative Policy
In addition to his stern criticisms and disapproval of the current strategy pursued by his lieutenants and allies, Droukdel reiterated his call for a different vision and policy. To make the most of this historic opportunity, Droukdel recommended the time-tested al-Qa`ida strategy of co-opting local grievances and advised his subordinates to adopt a flexible strategy of alliances. Throughout his letter, Droukdel wrote about the value of “lessons learned” and extolled the virtues of adapting to local circumstances. In the Mali context, showing flexibility translated into seeking an alliance with all of the organizations that represent Azawad society, including Ansar Eddine and the MNLA.  It is time, he wrote,

“to extend bridges to the various sectors and parts of Azawad society—Arab and Tuaregs and Zingiya (Blacks)—to end the situation of political and social and intellectual separation between the mujahidin and these sectors, particularly the big tribes, and the main rebel movements with their various ideologies, and the elite of Azawad society, its clerics, its groupings, its individuals, and its noble forces.”[28]

Droukdel suggested an alliance of convenience to combine forces to gain widespread support as well as share the risk with partners. He explained that

“this will have three fundamental benefits. First, we would not alone bear the fault of the possible failure and the expected blockade. Rather if it happens—God forbid though it is very probable—all the main parties would bear responsibility before the people and everyone will consider the matter objectively and responsibility. Second, administration of the region and standing up to the international, foreign, and regional challenge is a large duty that exceeds our military and financial and structural capability for the time being. So it is wise then for us not to bear the burden alone in this phase.”[29]

He further preached a policy of moderation and accommodation designed to win over the people. “And a wise policy in this stage is not to push people away and make sure to integrate everybody,” he said.[30] Practically, Droukdel recommended proceeding cautiously with the following policies:

1. Put aside rivalries with other movements, including Ansar Eddine and the MNLA and work toward a peace deal with the MNLA.[31]

2. Seek full integration of AQIM’s fighters into Azawad’s civil (tribes) and political (movements) society.[32]

3. Proselytize al-Qa`ida’s version of Islam to local populations.[33]

4. Adopt a moderate rhetoric that reassures and calms and avoid provocations and repeated threats.[34]

5. Downplay the al-Qa`idist, jihadist nature while playing up the local nature of the movement.[35]

6. Stay away from declaring or enforcing takfir (excommunicating Muslims).[36]

These policies are designed to advance AQIM’s goals in pursuit of the global jihad. Droukdel readily admitted that the creation of an Islamic state in Azawad posed a “true dilemma,” changed the nature of AQIM’s activity in Azawad, and required the establishment of a “new framework regulating the organizations’ relationship,” in particular between AQIM and Ansar Eddine.[37] He showed flexibility in the way he envisioned relations with Ansar Eddine. Droukdel proposed two organizational frameworks, one in which AQIM’s operations in northern Mali would be under Ansar Eddine’s command-and-control and another in which AQIM would “loan” fighters to Ansar Eddine for its operations in northern Mali.[38] These fighters would be under the command of Ansar Eddine and gain citizenship in the country of Azawad.[39]

Droukdel’s proposal, however, made it clear that of the radical Islamist organizations operating in Mali, AQIM was the one in charge of international operations. Under both scenarios, Ansar Eddine would be confined to operations in northern Mali, whereas AQIM would operate internationally.[40] Droukdel was the artisan of the rapprochement between the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and al-Qa`ida in 2006, which resulted in the creation of AQIM in 2007. He is the one who successfully transformed the GSPC from an Algerian movement focused on local grievances into a global movement ideologically and doctrinally aligned with al-Qa`ida, dedicated to establishing a worldwide Islamic caliphate and focused on attacking the far enemy (e.g., the West).[41] These two scenarios indicate that AQIM is more interested in pursuing the global jihad than ruling Azawad. They also show, however, that AQIM’s leadership is also willing and capable of adapting to new circumstances and exploiting them for the mutual benefit of both organizations.

As the French-led military forces retake northern Mali, Droukdel’s eight month old letter should resonate as an ominous warning as it points to a long-term strategic plan to outlive the intervention and sets the stage for a potentially successful return. Clearly, under Droukdel’s leadership, AQIM has no intention of relinquishing northern Mali.

The French-led intervention and its immediate aftermath appear to validate at least part of Droukdel’s analysis. The MNLA turned  against its former allies and picked up arms to fight alongside the intervening force, while scenes of popular elation in Gao and Timbuktu showed that the jihadists’ harsh rule antagonized many.[42] Yet there are two reasons why AQIM might get a second chance at implementing its plan for the country.

First, the disruption of AQIM’s networks in the Sahara, including the confirmed death of Abu Zeid and the uncertain fate of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, might give Droukdel an opening to reshape the regional leadership with more obedient commanders who might implement his policies.[43]

Second, if the international community is unable to address the deep grievances that led to the rebellion in 2012, resentment may allow for the return of AQIM-linked fighters.

Pascale Combelles Siegel runs Insight Through Analysis, a consultancy firm specializing in strategic influence in support of peace, stabilization, and counterterrorism operations. She monitors political unrest in the Middle East, North and West Africa, with a focus on al-Qa`ida. Before that, she analyzed local perceptions of social, political, and military issues in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ms. Siegel also analyzed Iraqi insurgent propaganda for the U.S. Army, where she participated in the design of a “Divide and Prosper” communication campaign concept for the U.S. government.

[1] For the original document in Arabic with the Associated Press’ English translation, see “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook,” Associated Press, undated, available at Also see Rukmini Callimachi, “In Timbuktu, Al-Qaida Left Behind a Manifesto,” Associated Press, February 14, 2013.

[2] Ansar Eddine, which means “Defenders of the Faith,” is a homegrown Islamist movement led by renowned Tuareg rebel leader Iyad ag Ghaly. The group seeks to impose a stringent version of Shari`a across Mali and does not purport to have global jihadist ambitions.

[3] Professor Matthieu Guidère, an AQIM specialist at the University of Toulouse in France, authenticated the document. Based on the language used and the reference system included in the material, he assessed the document to be legitimate.

[4] The letter referred to the destruction of the Timbuktu shrines, which took place on June 30 and July 1, 2012. It also referred to Ansar Eddine’s decision to go to war with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which took place in June 2012. Lastly, it mentioned the fighting between the MNLA and Ansar Eddine in the present tense, yet by July 17, 2012, the MNLA had fled all major cities, thereby indicating that the letter was probably written before July 17.

[5] “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook.”

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Ibid., p. 4.

[8] Ibid., p. 9.

[9] It is unclear to which “previous experience” Droukdel was referring. He may have been referring to the experience of the Algerian civil war (1992-2002) where the Islamists’ violent excesses fueled popular discontent against them and enabled the Algerian government to significantly degrade their capabilities. He also may have been referring to the experience of al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) between 2003 and 2008, where the group’s tactics led Sunni Arab leaders to distance themselves from AQI and cooperate with the United States to curb the group’s power.

[10] “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook,” p. 5.

[11] In early July 2012, Ansar Eddine began the destruction of several 15th century mausoleums and shrines, including the tombs of Sidi Mahmoud, Sidi Moctar, and Alpha Moya in Timbuktu. The shrines are part of the UNESCO world heritage sites. Their destruction provoked international outrage. See Ishaan Tharoor, “Timbuktu’s Destruction: Why Islamists are Wrecking Mali’s Cultural Heritage,” Time, July 2, 2012.

[12] “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook,” p. 5.

[13] Ibid.

[14] The MNLA is a Tuareg nationalist-secular politico-military movement located in northern Mali, seeking the independence of northern Mali (Azawad). Tuaregs have long been disgruntled with the government of Bamako and have regularly rebelled against the central government. The latest offensive, initiated by the MNLA in January 2012, led to the overthrow of the Bamako government in March 2012.

[15] “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook,” p. 8.

[16] “AQIM Congratulates Ansar al-Din for Conquests in Azawad, Cautions it to Avoid Clashes with the MNLA,” Sahara Media, May 21, 2012.

[17] Ibid.

[18] “Islamic State Declared in Northern Mali,” Associated Press, May 26, 2012.

[19] “Crimes de guerre au Nord-Mali,” L’Association Malienne des Droits de l’Homme, July 2012.

[20] Tharoor.

[21] “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook,” p. 8.

[22] “Algérie: Un émir d’AQMI, Necib Tayeb, a été arrêté près de Ghardaïa,” Jeune Afrique, August 21, 2012.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] “Pro-Droudkel et Pro-Hattab face-à-face,” Le Temps d’Algérie, October 20, 2012.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mokhtar Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for the January 17, 2013, brazen attack against the BP gas complex at In Amenas in eastern Algeria. In a video communiqué signed by “Those Who Sign With Blood,” the brigade that Belmokhtar created in December 2012 after being fired by Droukdel, he claimed responsibility for the operation in the name of al-Qa`ida central: “We, at al-Qa`ida, are responsible for this blessed operation.” He made no reference to Droukdel or AQIM, positioning himself as a rival to AQIM. See “Belouar dans un nouvel enregistrement: ‘Nous sommes prêtes à négocier avec l’Algérie et l’Occident à condition que cesse la guerre au Mali,’” Sahara Media, January 20, 2013.

[28] “Mali-Al-Qaida’s Sahara Playbook,” p. 3.

[29] Ibid., p. 4.

[30] Ibid., p. 10.

[31] Ibid., p. 7.

[32] Ibid., p. 4.

[33] Ibid., p. 5.

[34] Ibid., p. 9.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., p. 10.

[37] Ibid., p. 6.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Liess Boukra, “Du Groupe salafiste Pour le Combat (GSPC) à la Qaida au Maghreb Islamique (AQMI),” African Journal for the Prevention and Combating of Terrorism, June 2010, p. 51.

[42] “Mali MNLA Tuareg Rebels say Control Kidal, Islamists Gone,” Reuters, January 28, 2013; “Mali: Thousands Celebrate Liberation of Gao,” Channel 4, January 27, 2013.

[43] “France Confirms the Death of a Qaeda Leader in Mali,” New York Times, March 23, 2013; “Belmokhtar Death Unconfirmed,” Magharebia, March 4, 2013.