AQIM’s Threat to Western Interests in the Sahel
April 28, 2014
Already one of the most volatile and impoverished regions of the world, Africa’s Sahel has been on the forefront of U.S. foreign policy following the coup d’état in Mali in 2012. The subsequent French military intervention, Operation Serval, served to disorganize extremists and stabilize the region, including the neighboring countries of Niger, Algeria, Nigeria, and Mauritania. Yet in a region with vast open land, weak central governments, and porous borders, terrorist groups are able to operate transnationally with few restraints.
Although the Sahel region has been viewed by some policymakers as lacking significant Western political and economic interests, there has been moderate oil and gas drilling over the last decade along with mining operations, including for gold and uranium. As is commonplace in post-colonial Francophone Africa, a sense of hostility still exists toward French nationals, thus contributing to the difficulties of conducting business or residing in the region as a Westerner. Nevertheless, the Sahel has a sizeable presence of Western aid workers, extractive industry employees, faith-based personnel, and, to a lesser extent, diplomats and tourists.
Since the rebranding from a domestic Algerian Salafist group to al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in early 2007, a number of offshoots and other terrorist organizations have formed in the region, including Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s katibat (battalion) al-Murabitun (Those Who Remain Steadfast), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Boko Haram, and its splinter group, Ansaru. While each of these groups has a unique context and dynamic, it is widely recognized that, in recent years, they have—at the very least—communicated with one another. Less clear, however, is the extent of inter-group collaboration and the subsequent threat increase to Western interests. The possibility of continued or increased collaboration in the near future makes it important to examine two typologies of motivation—criminal kidnap-for-ransom and politically-motivated terrorism—insofar as they highlight an analytical distinction between attacks. Since the start of Operation Serval, several larger terrorist attacks have occurred in the Sahel, underscoring cooperation between groups and indicating a potential shift from the former to the latter.
With an emphasis on the private sector, this article explores four central findings. First, it highlights the linkages between AQIM, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun brigade, Boko Haram, and Ansaru. Second, it finds a notable (and possibly temporary) shift from criminality to politically-motivated terrorism. Third, it finds that among the most threatened interests in the Sahel are extractive companies operating near border regions. Lastly, it finds that the adaptability of Belmokhtar makes him one of the region’s greatest near-term threats to Western interests.
Although collaboration was once questioned, it is now widely indicated that AQIM has linkages to al-Murabitun, MUJAO, and the Nigerian terrorist groups Boko Haram and Ansaru. To understand this relationship, however, it is important to examine the historical context.
AQIM was formed in January 2007, formally rebranding from its previous name, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The official affiliation with al-Qa`ida—beginning several months prior—was largely seen as an effort to maintain relevancy as an extremist group on the global stage, but the group’s interest was still strictly regional in nature. The GSPC, formed in 1998, was itself a derivative of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). While much of the overarching ideology—a leading tenet of which is a Salafist Qur’anic interpretation—remains static, smaller philosophical and personal disagreements ultimately led to numerous spinoffs and splinter cells. In the wake of a personality dispute with AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel and other subordinate leaders in northern Mali, Belmokhtar split from the group and formed the katibat al-Mulathamin (The Veiled Ones). Belmokhtar’s group merged with MUJAO in August 2013 to create al-Murabitun. Notwithstanding whether any of these groups continue to work with AQIM and its leader Droukdel, it is widely understood that the various units under Belmokhtar’s control claim allegiance to al-Qa`ida core, led by Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The study of Sahelian terrorism must also consider the Nigerian violent extremist groups Boko Haram and its 2012 splinter Ansaru. The linkages between these two groups and AQIM are less clear. When Boko Haram first transitioned into a jihadist group after 2009, most scholars and policymakers dismissed its affiliation with AQIM and al-Qa`ida core as only rhetoric. The idea that an inexperienced domestic insurgency from northeast Nigeria would be embraced by the broader transnational jihadist community was rebuked as aspirational at best. Yet, by the summer of 2009, evidence suggested that Boko Haram members were training with AQIM. In 2010, AQIM leader Droukdel declared that AQIM would provide Boko Haram with weapons, support, and training. This collaboration between Boko Haram and AQIM is supported by public statements from both groups, as well as clear indications that Boko Haram’s suicide attack on the United Nations office in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2011 employed tactics that were strikingly similar to bombings by AQIM.
This again revealed that terrorist groups in the Sahel are adaptive. Differences in ideology are not mutually exclusive in group membership, funding, and coordination. On the contrary, splinters of AQIM, such as al-Murabitun and the AQIM ally in northern Mali, Ansar al-Din, collaborate at least marginally. There is even some evidence that Boko Haram and its splinter group Ansaru have both trained and coordinated with AQIM, al-Qa`ida core, and even Somalia’s al-Shabab.
Sahelian terrorist organizations appear willing to change their names and sacrifice personal and ideological variances. The merger of al-Mulathamin and MUJAO in August 2013 (themselves splinters of AQIM) created a larger and better coordinated group, al-Murabitun, which is asserting its prominence in the region. A statement sent to Nouakchott Information Agency in January 2014 reiterated Belmokhtar’s desire to continue attacks against “France and her allies” in the Sahel. Keeping in mind the limitations of forecasting, it is clear that al-Murabitun’s intent, capability, and access throughout the region are likely a continued threat to Western interests. Against the backdrop of Boko Haram’s legacy of domestic insurgency in Nigeria, Ansaru and even some actors within Boko Haram have demonstrated a capability and desire to continue executing attacks against Western interests. A video statement by Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in February 2014 reiterated the group’s aspirational intent to harm Western interests throughout Nigeria (including the oil-rich delta region) and into neighboring Cameroon and Niger.
Belmokhtar’s legacy of kidnapping spans more than a decade. A seasoned Islamist militant with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early 1990s, he returned to Algeria in 1993 and rose through the ranks of the GIA and, later, the GSPC. Belmokhtar’s successes at making money through smuggling cigarettes, narcotics, and possibly humans foreshadowed his alleged political motivation with al-Murabitun. Belmokhtar was not simply raising money to fund jihad and insurgencies in Africa. On the contrary, while a portion of the profits surely financed the operational overhead costs of the group, a sizeable minority also benefited him and his associates personally. Belmokhtar is able to ensure his leadership role and prominence in the region by controlling financial opportunities for his associates and followers.
In April 2003, the GSPC—of which Belmokhtar was an active member—took 32 Europeans hostage in northern Mali in his first major kidnapping operation. The group subsequently released all but one hostage (who died in the desert) in return for a ransom payment of more than $6 million. Dozens of small-scale kidnappings of Western tourists, diplomats, aid workers, and extractive industry personnel since that time have netted Belmokhtar an estimated $50 million in ransom payments. AQIM as a group is estimated to have made more than $90 million in total ransom profits from 2003 to 2013.
A major shift in Belmokhtar’s tactics and procedures occurred at the end of 2012 following his split from AQIM. In the days following France’s Operation Serval in northern Mali in January 2013, Belmokhtar instructed several dozen followers to attack a gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria—within 50 miles of the Libyan border—taking nearly 800 hostages. At least 39 foreign workers, including three Americans, were killed in the attack and ensuing Algerian military rescue operation. In his claim of responsibility, Belmokhtar stated that the attack was in response to the Algerian government granting airspace access to France, and he threatened to kill dozens of more captives if France did not put an end to its military operation in northern Mali.
His justification for the attack was questionable for two reasons. First, the scale of the attack took precision and preparation that would likely have taken weeks, if not longer, to coordinate. Procuring an arsenal of weaponry and explosives for several dozen militants in less than a week is not likely. Second, his alleged motivation for the attack is inconsistent with nearly two decades of Belmokhtar’s patterns and priorities. To be sure, Belmokhtar is known for his ability to adapt, even managing to escape arrest and capture reportedly seven times. This was not the first time he had justified his actions with political ideology, but it had previously been peripheral to his criminality. The magnitude of the attack at In Amenas, however, indicated a more coherent motivation that resonated with Salafi-jihadis worldwide. Nevertheless, significant indications point toward the overt justification of political ideology to shadow what was likely an attempt to obtain a hefty ransom payment.
This suggested shift in motivation was again seen in Niger in May 2013. Two simultaneous attacks were conducted by MUJAO and al-Mulathamin, targeting a French uranium mine not far from the Algerian border and a military camp housing French forces in central Niger. These attacks employed similar tactics and weaponry as the Algerian gas facility siege but included the use of suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (SVBIEDs). Belmokhtar’s spokesman immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, stating they were in response to the government in Niger cooperating with the French.
The work of Belmokhtar and AQIM after 2012 must be examined in the context of both political terrorism and criminal kidnap-for-ransom. When analyzing the attacks through a lens of criminality, it appears that Belmokhtar is a savvy businessman who manipulatively leverages purported jihadist ideology to inspire supporters and solicit ransom payments by governments and private organizations. Whether his political motivation may be insincere is largely peripheral to mitigating the threat of kidnapping in the Sahel. Nevertheless, it underscores that Belmokhtar is a businessman who is willing to adapt as necessary to engage in kidnap-for-ransom.
When examined through a lens of political ideology, Belmokhtar’s Salafi-jihadi tendencies are a result of his decades-long affiliation with al-Qa`ida core in Afghanistan and Pakistan and his role as a respected Islamist figure in North and West Africa. As a former leader of AQIM and a supporter of various related factions such as MUJAO, Boko Haram and Ansaru, Belmokhtar is viewed as an amir of Salafi-jihadism in a region that is predominantly Muslim. The French intervention in Mali may have reinforced his belief that Western governments are attacking Islam to exert political and economic influence in Mali.
Indeed, as both typologies are feasible within the context of Belmokhtar’s activity, a third explanation may exist. Insofar as evidence points to Belmokhtar as a businessman and a radical amir, it is quite likely that his actions are motivated by both money and ideology. More debatable is the balance between these motivations, which is far from confirmed and remains fluid. As the UN Security Council continues to push governments and private sector organizations to cease paying ransoms, the notion of political terrorism vis-à-vis criminality becomes a more beneficial way to instill fear in Westerners while still producing funds through soliciting ransoms.
The international community recognizes this transitive move by violent extremist organizations in the Sahel. Resolutions 1904 and 2133, passed by the United Nations Security Council in 2009 and 2014, respectively, forbid the payment of ransoms to groups affiliated with al-Qa`ida. While the U.S. and UK governments categorically follow this policy, European states have been slower to follow suit. The lack of any real enforcement mechanism inhibits the motivation for governments, and even private sector organizations, to stop paying ransoms, leading to off-the-record deals with kidnappers and hefty payments to AQIM and its affiliates, averaging $5.4 million per ransom in 2011—an increase of nearly $1 million from the year prior. Multinational kidnap-for-ransom insurance, consulting, and negotiating firms charge premiums to lone businessmen and large corporations alike, creating an insurance and consulting market worth roughly $500 million in 2011. The primary advice given by most kidnap consulting and negotiation firms is to not contact the U.S. or host-country governments, but rather communicate solely with the firm.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power stated in relation to al-Qa`ida, “We know that hostage takers looking for ransoms distinguish between those governments that pay ransoms and those that do not—and that they make a point of not taking hostages from those countries that refuse to make concessions.” There is even a credible belief among policy experts that U.S. and British citizens are less likely to be kidnapped but more likely to be killed as a result of the U.S. and UK governments’ categorical refusal to pay ransoms. One such instance was the 2009 kidnapping of a British citizen in Niger, who was subsequently held and killed in Mali. On the contrary, French and other European hostages have historically been released in exchange for ransom payments.
Greatest Near-Term Threat to the West
The U.S. Department of State continues to warn against the threats posed by violent extremist groups in Africa’s Sahel. In response to attacks and kidnappings that specifically targeted private sector organizations in Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and elsewhere in the region, the U.S. government declared AQIM, Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun (al-Mulathamin), and separately Ansaru and Boko Haram as Foreign Terrorist Organizations. Additionally, the State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program has offered rewards of up to $5 million and $7 million on Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, respectively.
Two trends are evident when analyzing the attacks and kidnappings conducted in the Sahel during the last five years. First, Western private sector groups—non-governmental organizations (NGOs), corporations and even tourists—are the targets of choice for AQIM, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and Ansaru. Second, patterns of target and location have appeared. At most risk are the extractive industries (mining, oil and energy, and construction) operating near border regions. Evidenced through the work of Ansaru in 2012 and al-Mulathamin/MUJAO in 2013, there have been at least seven separate incidents affecting the extractive sector since 2010, all within 250 miles from a border. While the most fatal was the January 2013 attack near In Amenas, Algeria, numerous smaller incidents occurred in Niger and northern Nigeria. Indeed, companies in the extractive industry are likely to retain kidnap-for-ransom insurance and have a set precedent for paying ransoms, compared with NGOs and private citizens who may lack financial resources. Conducting attacks near borders often allows militants and kidnappers to cross into a neighboring country undetected.
As France’s Operation Serval begins to draw down in northern Mali and successful Western and Sahelian counterterrorism operations continue to rid the region of senior terrorists, the Sahel is still a critical area to monitor during the coming years. The combination of weak central governments, porous borders, and vast open land allows terrorist groups such as AQIM and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun to operate with few restraints.
These terrorist groups have collaborated with Boko Haram and its splinter group Ansaru in Nigeria, highlighting the linkages between various actors—even those with marginally different ideologies and objectives—and the adaptivity of terrorism in the Sahel. While the January 2013 French military incursion in Mali motivated terrorists in the region to justify hostage taking and armed assaults, it is clear that kidnap-for-ransom still plays a largely financial and criminal role in the operations of Belmokhtar and his associates. When taking into account recent terrorism incidents in the Sahel and statements by Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, a pattern emerges, revealing that extractive companies operating near borders face the most risk. With increasing counterterrorism resources devoted to the Sahel in recent years, it is clear that extremist actors in the region remain a significant threat to Western interests.
Samuel L. Aronson is the West Africa analyst at the U.S. Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC). His research background lies in counterterrorism partnerships and capacity building in Africa. He holds an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, is fluent in Swahili, and conversational in Somali.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.
 “Sahel: Backgrounder on the Sahel, West Africa’s Poorest Region,” Integrated Regional Information Networks, June 2, 2008.
 John Campbell and J. Peter Pham, “Does Washington Have a Stake in the Sahel?” Council on Foreign Relations, January 14, 2014; Franklin Charles Graham IV, “Abductions, Kidnappings and Killings in the Sahel and Sahara,” Review of African Political Economy 38:130 (2011).
 Carlos Echeverria Jesús, “Kidnappings as a Terrorist Instrument of AQIM and the MUJAO,” Paix et sécurité internationales: revue maroco-espagnole de droit international et relations internationales, 2013.
 These groups have been covered extensively within both academic and policy literature. For more background, see previous issues of the CTC Sentinel or The National Counterterrorism Center’s (NCTC) “2014 Counterterrorism Calendar: Terrorist Groups,” available at www.nctc.gov/site/groups/.
 “LRA, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, AQIM and Other Sources of Instability in Africa,” testimony by the coordinator for counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, April 25, 2012.
 Paul Cruickshank, “Algeria Gas Facility Attack Fuels Jihadist Rivalry,” CNN, January 30, 2013; Jacob Zenn, “Cooperation or Competition: Boko Haram and Ansaru After the Mali Intervention,” CTC Sentinel 6:3 (2013).
 “AQIM Leaders Belmokhtar and Abdelmalek Droukdel Split,” Militant Leadership Monitor 3:12 (2012).
 “2014 Counterterrorism Calendar: Terrorist Groups.”
 Eric Ouellet et al., “The Institutionalization of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),” Terrorism and Political Violence, 2014; personal interview, anonymous, U.S. Embassy, Niamey, Niger, January 21, 2014.
 Boko Haram “…has gained recent notoriety because of its transition from being a local radical Salafist group, which until 2009 had a largely quietest nature, to a Salafi-jihadi group that has demonstrated the capacity to carry out major operations…” See David Cook, “The Rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria,” CTC Sentinel 4:9 (2011).
 “Boko Haram: Growing Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, September 13, 2013.
 Marc-Antoine Perouse de Montclos, “Boko Haram: Islamism, Politics, Security and the State in Nigeria,” West African Politics and Society Series 2 (2014); personal interview, anonymous, U.S. Embassy, Abuja, Nigeria, January 17, 2014.
 The alliance between AQIM and Ansar al-Din is detailed in the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Terrorist Organization designation, March 21, 2013, available at www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2013/03/206493.htm.
 “LRA, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, AQIM and Other Sources of Instability in Africa.”
 Seth G. Jones, “The Extremist Threat to the U.S. Homeland,” House Committee on Homeland Security, January, 15, 2014; General David M. Rodriguez, “Posture Hearing,” Senate Armed Services Committee, March 6, 2014.
 “Terror Group Threatens France over Mali,” Associated Press, January 6, 2014; “Les Mourabitoune de l’Azawad menacent de s’en prendre a la France et ses allies,” Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 4, 2014.
 “Nigeria’s Boko Haram Threatens Oil Refineries, Muslim Clerics,” Voice of America, February 20, 2014.
 The likelihood of a Boko Haram attack in Nigeria’s Delta is currently deemed as low, although the implications of an attempted suicide bombing or armed assault would be much greater.
 “Profile: Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” BBC, June 4, 2013.
 Andrew Black, “Mokhtar Belmokhtar: The Algerian Jihad’s Southern Amir,” Terrorism Monitor 7:12 (2009).
 Belmokhtar was reportedly forced out of AQIM for, in the words of one Malian official, “straying from the right path.” Some members of AQIM questioned his devotion to Salafi-jihadism and believed his interests lied in criminality and smuggling. Also see ibid.; personal interview, anonymous, U.S. Embassy, Niamey, Niger, January 21, 2014.
 “Les disparus du Sahara seraient les otages d’un groupe terroriste islamiste,” Le Monde, April 17, 2003. The exact role of Belmokhtar in this operation is not entirely agreed on by policy experts. The public leader of the GSPC operation, however, was Amari Saifi (also known as El Para).
 “Statement on Reported Killing of Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, March 2, 2013.
 “Millions in Ransoms Fuel Militants’ Clout in West Africa,” New York Times, December 12, 2012.
 “Timeline of the In Amenas Siege,” Guardian, January 25, 2013.
 “New Video Message from Katibat al-Mulathamin’s Khalid Abu al ‘Abbas (Mukhtar bin Muhammad Bilmukhtar): Claiming Responsibility for the In Aménas Operation,” Jihadology, January 22, 2013.
 “‘This is the Eighth Time’ — Caution Greets Reports of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Death,” Independent, March 3, 2013; personal interview, Jeremy Keenan, University of London, February 2014.
 “Regional Security Lessons from the Attack on Algeria’s In Amenas Gas Plant,” U.S. Institute of Peace, January 23, 2013.
 “Suicide Bombings in Niger Kill Dozens in Dual Strikes,” New York Times, May 23, 2013.
 SVBIEDs were rarely used by AQIM and Mokhtar Belmokhtar prior to this attack.
 “Statement in Belmokhtar’s Name Claims Role in Niger Attacks,” Financial Times, May 24, 2013.
 William Thornberry and Jaclyn Levy, “Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 1, 2011.
 “Ransom Business: Blood Money,” Economist, November 6, 2013; “U.N. Security Council Urges End to Ransom Payments to Extremists,” Reuters, January 27, 2014.
 “Remarks of Under Secretary David Cohen at Chatham House on ‘Kidnapping for Ransom: The Growing Terrorist Financing Challenge,’” U.S. Department of the Treasury, October 5, 2012.
 “Kidnap and Ransom Insurance. I’m a Client…Get me Out of Here,” Economist, June 27, 2013.
 This notion has been reiterated numerous times during interviews between this author and private sector corporate executives, NGOs, and security vendors.
 “Statement by Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, on the Adoption of UNSCR 2133 on Kidnapping for Ransom,” United States Mission to the United Nations, January 27, 2014.
 “Al-Qaeda Kills British Hostage,” al-Jazira, June 4, 2009.
 “No More Ransoms Paid for French Hostages, Hollande Tells Families,” Radio France Internationale, March 19, 2013.
 See list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Counterterrorism, available at www.state.gov/j/ct/list.
 “Rewards for Justice Program: Mokhtar Belmokhtar (2014),” U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, available at www.rewardsforjustice.net/index.cfm?page=belmokhtar&language=english.
 “Rewards for Justice Program: Abubakar Shekau (2014),” U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, available at www.rewardsforjustice.net/index.cfm?page=shekau&language=english.
 This statement is not necessarily true for Boko Haram. It is believed that Boko Haram operates primarily as a domestic insurgency—confined to a region of Nigeria with few Westerners—rather than a transnational jihadist organization, although this article makes clear its relationship with al-Qa`ida and its affiliates.
 To be sure, the relationship between the target and location is not necessarily causal; there may be additional variables that are not yet evident to this author. Regardless, the history of attacks affecting extractive companies near borders in the Sahel is worth noting.
 Personal interview, anonymous, U.S. Embassy, Niamey, Niger, January 21, 2014; Jesús.
 This claim is evidenced by many articles in major media publications during 2013.
 See the statement by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield on October 30, 2013.