Maghrebian Militant Maneuvers: AQIM as a Strategic Challenge

Even as Libyan rebels seize Tripoli and Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s repressive regime crumbles, the potential for violence stemming from North Africa may be growing. The Libyan conflict and the larger “Arab Spring” may represent a boon for one of al Qaeda’s most seasoned affiliates, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). As the world’s attention has been focused on Libya and the conflict there, AQIM’s recent flurry of activity has gone largely unnoticed. AQIM has been quietly maneuvering itself for a greater strategic role in the Sahel, taking advantage of the chaos in the region to expand its influence and capabilities. Given the group’s increased propagation of al Qaeda’s narrative—that the West is at war with Islam and must be violently combated—these developments should be of great concern to all those interested in countering the spread of terrorism.

Formed in 2006, AQIM emerged from the remnants of the radical Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (SGPC). Led by Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM was formally recognized by al Qaeda senior leadership as their North African arm the following year. Originally based in Algeria, AQIM has evolved into a transnational movement, branching out into the Maghreb and Sahel regions of North Africa. It has also worked to attract and strengthen a number of violent jihadi groups in the region, such as the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. AQIM has also launched a campaign of terror against Westerners, kidnapping European tourists and attacking targets such as the UN offices in Algiers.

Algerian, French, and U.S. pressure on Maghrebian governments to confront AQIM’s violent actions has led to a lull in the group’s terrorist activities in the last two years. However, the threat of AQIM remains and, in the medium and long term, could destabilize the region even more. Why? AQIM has recently made two strategic changes. First, it is working to exploit the current unrest and lawlessness created by the Arab Spring, in general, and post-Qaddafi Libya in particular. Second, forced to relocate to the Sahel desert due to counterterrorism pressure brought by Maghrebian governments, it is now expanding southwest toward Nigeria. Indeed, both situations will reinforce AQIM’s operational capabilities.

The Arab Spring and Libyan chaos represent a major opportunity for AQIM. Just as these events shocked the rest of the world, they were likely a surprise for AQIM also. However, the group appears to have recovered quickly and is now well-positioned to benefit from these developments. AQIM is working diligently to present itself as an alternative force to populations frustrated by poor government. By working to attract sympathizers from Arab Spring populations who rejected dictatorships, AQIM is hoping to recruit new followers and gain control of new territory. If recent democratic movements in the region do not deliver on their promises, AQIM could experience a significant recruitment boom.

In addition, AQIM is already taking advantage of the Libyan chaos to acquire sophisticated weapons that were once under Libyan military control. Reports indicate that, in April and June of this year, convoys of pickups were caught in Niger loaded with high-quality heavy weapons, including antiaircraft artillery, SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, detonators, and explosives. A large portion of weapons pillaged from Libyan caches may find their way into AQIM’s arsenal. In addition to allowing AQIM access to dangerous weapons, a post-Qaddafi Libya may also provide the group a ready safe haven: Libyan security structures are in shambles, and many questions about the composition and ideological affinity of the rebel movement still remain.

Nigeria could provide another safe haven and more recruitment possibilities for AQIM, increasing the group’s potency. As it expands into Nigeria, AQIM will likely benefit from increased ties with Boko Haram—a violent Nigerian lslamist movement, labelled the “Nigerian Taliban.” Boko Haram has praised the ideology and government of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and its near-daily violence is becoming more sophisticated and anti-Western. Most recently, the group is believed to be responsible for an August 26 suicide bombing of the UN compound in Abuja that killed 20. In January 2010, Droukdel, AQIM’s emir, declared unconditional support for Boko Haram, stating that AQIM would provide the group with training, weapons, equipment, and men. Though there is presently no evidence of operational linkage between the two groups, the improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings used by Boko Haram bear AQIM trademarks. The alliance is natural and one we should expect to evolve. Coordination with AQIM could fuel Boko Haram’s expansion and trigger an increase in violence, making Nigerian energy infrastructure and Western interests more vulnerable.

Further, if AQIM enjoys a foothold on Africa’s West Coast, it will open the door to new funding sources beyond the basic kidnap-ransom method. In other words, access to the region may be an entrée into one of the three corners of the international narcotrafficking triangle: South America, the Gulf of Guinea, and Europe. AQIM is already involved in drug trafficking, controlling smuggling routes through the Sahara and Sahel. Last month, the Algerian newspaper El Khabar reported that Spanish authorities and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency suspected two Algerians and a Moroccan linked to AQIM of having ties with nine international gangs specializing in smuggling drugs to Europe through Western Africa and the Sahel. If AQIM were to gain access to Africa’s West Coast, the resulting financial gains would likely increase the group’s capacity for violence significantly.

Once battered by regional counterterrorism pressure, AQIM is no longer playing a defensive game. The organization seems to have a very clear and defined strategy and is rearming and expanding its operational capabilities beyond its Algerian base. AQIM’s recent maneuvers, aided by the chaos in Libya and the rest of the region, could provide the group with sophisticated arms, a steady source of income with which to purchase them, the recruits needed to use them, and a safe haven in which to operate. If AQIM can take advantage of these developments, the group may represent a new threat to regional, and perhaps international, stability.

Felipe Pathé Duarte is a visiting fellow in the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a fellow in the Institute for Political Studies at Portuguese Catholic University in Lisbon.

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Felipe Pathé Duarte