The Impact of Bin Ladin’s Death on AQIM in North Africa

May 01, 2011

Al-Qa`ida’s North Africa affiliate, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has always had a tenuous relationship with al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. As a result, Usama bin Ladin’s death presents little downside for the organization. To the contrary, his death and the pending change in al-Qa`ida’s leadership could present AQIM with an opportunity to strengthen its ties with its “parent” organization and potentially resolve suspected leadership disputes within AQIM.

Bin Ladin’s death, and the likely ascension of Ayman al-Zawahiri to lead al-Qa`ida, is unlikely to cause significant changes in AQIM’s strategy of targeting both the near and far enemies. It is also unlikely that AQIM would revert to being a strictly “Algerianist” organization like its predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), because the reasons for the GSPC’s dissolution and its transformation into AQIM persist.

The Merger of the GSPC with Al-Qa`ida
Efforts to link the Algerian Salafi-jihadi movement with al-Qa`ida began in 2004, when Abdelmalek Droukdel (also known as Abu Mus`ab al-Wadud) took over leadership of the dispirited GSPC. Bin Ladin was initially reluctant to recognize and ally with the GSPC, which had a strong “Algerianist” orientation. Droukdel established contact with Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and was then steered to Ayman al-Zawahiri.[1] There was no formal al-Qa`ida acknowledgement of the GSPC until the June 2005 GSPC raid on a Mauritanian military outpost, which Bin Ladin acknowledged approvingly. This, however, did not equate with full al-Qa`ida recognition, which only occurred on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks when al-Zawahiri announced the formal incorporation of the GSPC into al-Qa`ida. According to Droukdel, Bin Ladin was initially wary of renaming the GSPC as an al-Qa`ida affiliate, but eventually acquiesced, perhaps being convinced by the GSPC’s attack on a bus carrying employees of the Sonatrach-KBR joint venture, Brown and Root-Condor, in December 2006. Bin Ladin’s approval cleared the way for the GSPC to change its name to al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb in January 2007. From 2007 onward, AQIM carried out spectacular attacks in Algiers, including against the parliament building, the United Nations headquarters, and the Constitutional Court, as well as against military installations.

Despite ideological affinities, AQIM’s relations with al-Qa`ida’s central leadership are similar to those of al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) and al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in that they do not seem to reach the operational level. AQIM appears to carry out its operations without the guidance of al-Qa`ida’s central leadership; instead, it pursues al-Qa`ida’s modus operandi and target set. Moreover, in recent years there is no evidence of Algerian fighters traveling to train in al-Qa`ida camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan and then returning to fight in the Maghreb.[2] It does not appear that al-Qa`ida’s central leadership has provided AQIM with financial support, but given AQIM’s successful kidnap-for-ransom campaign since 2009, it has not needed any outside funding.

From 2008-2010, the ties between Bin Ladin and AQIM appeared to weaken. This may have been due to a fevered debate among jihadists about the types of attacks that al-Qa`ida and its affiliates were carrying out, the emergence of AQAP as the leading al-Qa`ida franchise, and transitions within AQIM itself. During this time period, AQIM was challenged by a reinvigorated Algerian counterterrorism campaign in northern Algeria and it was forced to reorient itself geographically. It also faced internal competition among different units in the Sahara as well as potential contestation of Droukdel’s ongoing leadership.

Following the capture of seven employees of French mining giant Areva in September 2010, Droukdel tried to reinforce the linkages between AQIM and al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. In November 2010, two months after the Areva hostages were abducted, Droukdel said that “any form of negotiations on the hostages in the future will be conducted with nobody except our Shaykh Usama bin Ladin and according to his terms.” This was the first time AQIM made such a statement. While this could be interpreted as a sign of AQIM and al-Qa`ida’s central leadership moving closer, it could also be an indication of Droukdel’s attempts to revive a faltering relationship. Subsequent messages related to the fate of the Areva hostages focused on France’s involvement in Afghanistan, reinforcing the linkage between AQIM and al-Qa`ida’s own struggles.

Will Al-Zawahiri Improve Ties with AQIM?
If Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeds Usama bin Ladin as the new head of al-Qa`ida, it is possible that ties between AQIM and al-Qa`ida will strengthen. AQIM appears to have always had more interaction with al-Zawahiri than Bin Ladin. Al-Zawahiri handled the GSPC’s incorporation into al-Qa`ida, which fit with his strategy of widening the scope of jihad around the world. In addition, AQIM’s hostility toward France dovetailed with al-Zawahiri’s own grievances against France. As Jean-Pierre Filiu noted, al-Zawahiri went on a virulent anti-French tirade in 2009 that was followed three days later by an unsuccessful AQIM attack against the French Embassy in Mauritania.[3] Since then, AQIM’s hostility toward France has only deepened, with France declaring war on AQIM and vice versa in July 2010.

Al-Zawahiri may also reach out to AQIM to contribute financially to a-Qa`ida’s core leadership. Al-Zawahiri has historically been a fundraiser for al-Qa`ida, and he may tap AQIM to contribute funds to al-Qa`ida now that Bin Ladin is dead. AQIM reportedly earned tens of millions of dollars through its lucrative (although slowing) kidnap-for-ransom operations.

Al-Zawahiri’s ascension in al-Qa`ida could have implications for the leadership of AQIM itself. Droukdel’s leadership has reportedly been challenged intermittently since he announced the alliance with al-Qa`ida. There has been occasional chatter on Algerian blogs and chat rooms, such as Forum Algérie Bladi-dz, that Droukdel has been replaced as head of AQIM or has been killed. There is also a lively debate about the degree to which leaders of AQIM units in the Sahara are committed to Droukdel’s leadership (particularly Katiba al-Mulathimin, headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar) and there has been speculation that the leader of another Saharan unit, Abdelhamid Abu Zeid of the Katiba Tariq ibn Ziyad, has sought to usurp Droukdel’s leadership. If al-Zawahiri takes command of al-Qa`ida and Droukdel strengthens ties with al-Qa`ida’s new leadership, it could bolster Droukdel’s power within AQIM itself. It is important to note, however, that many analysts and those in the intelligence community have argued that there are, in fact, no leadership disputes within AQIM.

There is also the possibility that al-Zawahiri’s leadership will exacerbate tensions within AQIM, especially if speculation that Abu Zeid is trying to usurp power from Droukdel is true. For example, in March 2011 al-Zawahiri called on al-Qa`ida’s affiliates and sympathizers to attack NATO forces in Libya. Al-Zawahiri’s announcement was followed in mid-April by a video released via AQIM’s media arm showing still photographs of four French hostages captured by AQIM in September 2010. In the video, the captives are coerced to read statements demanding France’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Yet al-Zawahiri’s incitement to attack NATO targets in Libya is ignored.[4] It is possible that this reflects a disconnect between al-Zawahiri and AQIM or at least the faction within AQIM led by Abu Zeid, who is presumably holding the hostages. The oversight could also have reflected a desire by the kidnappers, led by Abu Zeid, to curry favor with Bin Ladin himself instead of al-Zawahiri, who has been Droukdel’s contact within al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. This could prove to be a miscalculation now that Bin Ladin is dead.

AQIM Likely to Continue Present Strategy
Apart from the political implications of Bin Ladin’s death for AQIM, the North African group’s strategy will likely remain the same. AQIM will continue to adhere to the jihadist ideological imperative to attack both the near and far enemies. This means that it will continue to try to attack European and U.S. targets within its reach. It will also aim to build capacity to both protect itself from U.S. and European counterterrorism efforts as well as to expand its reach beyond the Sahara, which would ostensibly include more populated regions of the Maghreb and targets within Europe. AQIM was already at pains in the beginning of 2011 to maintain the momentum it had generated in 2010. The overall perception that the al-Qa`ida “brand” is weakened by Bin Ladin’s death only underscores the need for AQIM to undertake a “spectacular” attack that will demonstrate that both it and the al-Qa`ida agenda for global jihad are still relevant.

Significantly, AQIM denied any involvement in the April 28 attack in Marrakech that killed 17 people.[5] Why AQIM denied involvement in the deadliest single terrorist attack in North Africa in more than three years is still an open question. There is speculation, however, that negotiations between France and AQIM regarding the release of the four French hostages from the Areva attack are close to concluding and they would be entirely derailed were AQIM to have carried out an attack that caused eight French casualties. AQIM has reportedly demanded more than $100 million in ransom for the hostages. At this juncture, it appears that AQIM is more concerned with collecting the ransom money than proving its Salafi-jihadi credentials.

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

[1] Souad Mekhennet et al., “Ragtag Insurgency Gains a Lifeline from Al Qaeda,” New York Times, July 1, 2008.

[2] There are, however, reports from Algerian newspapers that fighters who had trained in GSPC/AQIM camps went to Iraq to fight with Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi. Also, some GSPC fighters, who then became AQIM fighters, did have prior experience fighting in Afghanistan.

[3] Jean-Pierre Filiu, “Zawahiri, France and Napoleon,” Jihadica.com, September 10, 2009.

[4] While it is possible that the video was taped before al-Zawahiri’s statement on Libya, the hostages cite dates between April 11 and 13.

[5] “Suspect in Moroccan Cafe Bombing Leads Police through Crime Scene Reenactment,” Associated Press, May 10, 2011.