Chapter 1 - Understanding the regional strategy of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Terrorist groups can arise in response to the corruption and clientelism of the state. Algeria’s cancellation of elections in 1991 led to the creation of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which spread extremism and criminality to Algeria’s neighbours across the Sahel. Mali’s neglect of its north created an opening for terrorist groups emulating the GSPC. To take advantage of territory, terrorist groups need money and local brokers, hence Al-Qaeda’s strategy of marrying into families of local elites and enabling trafficking. French intervention temporarily compensated for the weakness of the Malian government, but the conditions stoking the insurgency have remained fundamentally the same.

Trying to understand the evolution of armed Islamist groups operating in Africa requires challenging some of the ideological assumptions we hold about the nature of the relationship between citizens and the state. In particular, these groups make us rethink the core premises of politics enshrined in the principle of state sovereignty, and the relationship between religion and state governance. We live in a world in which the state is the primary territorial organisation that the international community has agreed should wield the legitimate monopoly over the use of violent coercion. Groups that espouse radical forms and visions of Islam, seeking to enact violence as a way to achieve alternative systems of governance, present a direct challenge to how modern states conceive of politics.

This is especially important for any analysis of jihadist groups operating in northern Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel. We cannot understand groups like Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)Footnote 3 without understanding the way that these groups have practiced violence against the regional states—Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. Indeed, it was the violent coercion of an extremely militarised and oil-wealthy Algerian state and security apparatus that cancelled the results of democratic elections in Algeria in the early 1990s, sparking a violent civil war, and the creation of several armed groups that later infiltrated northern Mali and Niger—groups like the Armed Islamic Group (GIA)Footnote 4, and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPCFootnote 5). Once in Mali, these Algerian groups found a fertile space in which to pursue recruitment, economic enrichment through criminal activities, and to develop strong social links with local Malian populations, precisely because of the clientelistic practices and general neglect of the Malian state for its northern territories and populations. Understanding armed Islamist groups, their identities, alliances, ruptures and practices requires assessing their nexus to the state and appreciating how violence is governed.

In addition to premising relations of violence between state and non-state actors, understanding the evolution of jihadist groups in the Sahel also requires placing local and regional contexts at the centre of analysis. Mali’s north, for example, was never governed by the state in any Western sense of the word. Controlling territory at such a distance from Bamako was never considered possible, or a major priority. Revenue-generating activities for the state are concentrated in the country’s southern agricultural and mining heartland. Nor has the Malian state ever developed significant infrastructure to furnish the north with social or market goods, leaving the populations of the north to ‘get by’ on their own, socially and economically. As a result, northern populations have relied on historical practices of regional exchange and the transmission-belt qualities of the Sahara itself to their distinct advantage. In other words, they have developed forms of governance at arm’s length from Malian state institutions.

Mali's north was never governed by the state in any Western sense of the word.

Contrary to common security assumptions, these insights indicate that it makes little sense to attribute the north of Mali as an ‘ungoverned space’ for this very reason. Embedded in such a term is the assumption (most often erroneous) that groups living in these spaces are not connected to postcolonial centralised states, and are instead likely to engage in violent and illicit activities which are threatening to state institutions. What this view ignores is that instead of directly controlling state territory, many postcolonial states in Africa have governed sparsely populated territories through clientelistic forms of patronage via local power brokers and elites. In the case of northern Mali, local elites close to centres of power in Bamako received various support from government and military officials that ranged from tacit to direct, facilitating conditions that enabled illicit activities and the sidelining of competitors, even through violence. Such a governance dynamic lent itself to the implantation of armed Islamist groups in the Sahel, who developed social and economic links to local communities through limited forms of governance, alms giving, market interactions and by the demonstration of Islamic piety. Thus, the north of Mali was never a lawless zone of crime, terrorism and the like—it was and remains a zone in which laws and governance are enacted through a competing set of para-sovereigns, who blur the lines between state and non-state categories, and where social and economic practices erase the distinction between public and private actors.

Armed Islamist group implantation and socio-economic connections in northern Mali

AQIM’s presence in the Sahel is the result of the group’s ability to leverage its regional ties and to make and keep durable socio-economic connections. Although most accounts of the implantation of GSPC/AQIM elements in northern Mali mark 2003 as the definitive year, it is more likely that by 1999 Algerian jihadists began interacting with populations in the Timbuktu and Kidal regions, from whom they received water or bought goods like phones or gasoline. Other rumours regarding the presence of Algerian Islamists date from the onset of the Algerian war in 1992, when they reportedly established contact with Malian rebel groups like the Arab Islamic Front of Azawad (FIAA)Footnote 6, fighting against the Malian state.

Since 1999, AQIM and other jihadist groups have relied on their legitimacy as religiously-motivated actors to gain and leverage local support, and to recruit from religious communities in northern Mali. The focus of recruitment seems to have been within communities where Islamic knowledge has been prominent, especially among northern Mali’s Tuareg, Arab and Peul communities. Nevertheless, the fact that jihadist groups seek to demonstrate and enhance their religious credibility does not make knowledge of Islam the silver bullet. It is only when combined with financial support and the ability to provide protection, as well as through the support of key local brokers that ‘vet’ armed Islamist groups that local populations have supported, or even joined themselves to armed jihadist groups. For example, prior to the 2012 rebellion in northern Mali, katibats led by Abou Zeid and Yahya Abou el-Hammam were successful in weaving social ties with notable Tuareg communities, especially the influential Ifoghas families that had served as key intermediaries under French colonial rule, and with the Malian state since 1960. AQIM also stretched its recruitment efforts through the Timbuktu region and into Mauritania, especially within Arab communities.

The infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar also provides an important example. Hailing from the Saharan trading town of Ghardaia in Algeria, Belmokhtar was adept at regional travel, through which he forged socio-economic connections with communities in northern Mali, linking those established further afield in Algeria and Libya. Having gained experience as a member of the GIA early in the Algerian civil war (leaving the organisation for the GSPC in 1998), he used his networks to amass funds and to avoid the significant military presence in southern Algeria at the civil war’s end. Such connections allowed Belmokhtar to root himself into local populations, especially through the strategy of pursuing marriage to local elite families. He instructed fighters loyal to him to do the same. His marriage ties to a prominent northern Malian Arab tribe, the Kounta—the traditional religious elites who claim significant experience in Islamic education abroad—extended his informal power beyond northern Mali to Mauritania and southern Morocco, thereby enlarging his audience for recruitment.

By cultivating himself as an important node within the northern Malian Arab communities in Timbuktu, Belmokhtar then deepened his networks beyond this prominent group – notably through violence and illicit economic activities. These include various forms of smuggling (especially in cigarettes and weapons), and crucially in the kidnapping-for-ransom industry developing at the time in the Sahelo-Saharan band. Through these activities, Belmokhtar would develop extensive ties with Arab economic players based in the Tilemsi Valley (many of which are involved in drug trafficking) and the Tuareg elite clans of the Kidal region. Elites from these two groups, like the former mayor of Tarkint, Baba Ould Cheikh, and infamous Tuareg Ifoghas rebel turned Islamist Iyad Aghaly were themselves enmeshed in the severely clientelistic relations of the Malian state, acting as hostage negotiators for Belmokhtar and others AQIM leaders.

In 2011, AQIM began to fragment, leading to the creation of the MUJAO. In October 2011, three European aid workers were kidnapped near the Polisario-controlled refugee camps in southern Algeria—an act MUJAO claimed shortly thereafter. While accounts differ, many experts explain the fragmentation of AQIM by MUJAO as the result of frustrations of non-Algerian AQIM members (like Hamada Ould Kheirou) regarding AQIM’s leadership strategies and competing geopolitical visions. MUJAO leadership sought to expand its combat to include more regionalised sites while using northern Mali as a base of operations. As such, the group conducted suicide bombings in 2012 in southern Algeria. They also kidnapped seven Algerian diplomats in Gao during the rebel takeover of the north (killing one and eventually releasing the others). The group cunningly utilised ransom payments from the European hostages (reportedly €8 million), and began recruiting potential fighters in the Ménaka, Gao and Tillabéry borderlands, notably from the Peul and Arab Lamhar communities. Many youth in Gao were given large amounts of dispersed cash, usually euros, to exchange for West African francs in neighbouring Niger—for which they were paid a commission. However, the strategy of supporting communities in Gao extended beyond cash payments. MUJAO fighters established protection circuits in the city in order to stop Tuareg nationalist rebels from ransacking local businesses and potentially raping women. This culminated in June 2012, when MUJAO fighters forced the National Liberation Movement of Azawad (MNLA)Footnote 7 fighters out of the city, and subsequently from the neighbouring Ménaka area.

MUJAO consistently balanced its local flavour with regionalised symbols of religiosity by liaising with borderland communities in Gao. Along with Belmokhtar, MUJAO leaders met with the Gao region’s religious elites, notably from the Peul and Songhai communities, petitioning the latter to assist in the establishment of Sharia law. This practice helped to boost the number of their supporters and fighters, and advanced their credibility as ‘borderless’ jihadists who purportedly paid no respect to the origin of their fighters (notwithstanding the fact that punishments for Islamic infractions were carried out exclusively on black individuals in Gao, but never on Arabs and Tuaregs). MUJAO’s practices demonstrate the trend of seeking to develop local socio-economic connections, which then are followed by an outward orientation towards communities where religious knowledge is prominent, and which are distanced from or neglected by the Malian state.

The occupation of Timbuktu by AQIM (although nominally by Ansar Dine’s Iyad Aghaly) and Gao by MUJAO was an experiment in governance. The administration of the towns was assigned to fighters with histories of strong relations with respective local populations. Inhabitants initially supported these new Islamist governors, MUJAO, for example, having eliminated taxes and customs duties, subsidising the cost of food, liaising with Islamic associations and NGOs in Bamako for the delivery of humanitarian aid, and even repairing generators, wells and other public goods and equipment. Most importantly is the support these groups received for having drastically reduced armed banditry and other forms of petty criminality, like motorcycle theft. As punishments for infractions intensified, notably in Gao, AQIM and MUJAO rule provoked public protests, and calls for a return to ‘normal life’. Nevertheless, to this day, most accounts of these group’s governance of the north is understood as a time of relative calm, especially in contrast to the subsequent rocky return of the Malian state and military, or the constant insecurity characterised by the post-Algiers accord fighting between armed group signatories concentrated in the Kidal region.

Effects of international military interventions

The French military intervention severely fragmented armed Islamist groups in the north of Mali. At the same time, pressure from Mali’s neighbouring military forces along its borders drove some Islamists to renounce affiliation to Islamist organisations. As a result, armed Islamist groups operating in the Sahelo-Saharan band are undergoing processes of simultaneous fracture and reconfiguration.

Operation Serval was extremely efficient. It is estimated that from roughly 3000 armed AQIM or MUJAO militants, only 500 to 800 remained by mid-2013. Several key leaders were killed, including Abou Zeid and Ould Hamaha. In 2015, French forces killed MUJAO co-founder Ahmed al-Tilemsi (Ahmed Ould Amer), as well as close Ansar Dine adviser Ibrahim Ag Inawalen (Ibrahim Bana) and the former head of AQIM’s katibat al-Ansar, Abdelkrim el-Targui. Sanda Bouamana even turned himself in to Algerian authorities in 2013, and was subsequently extradited to Mauritania, but has since been released.

Others, like Belmokhtar and Ould Kheirou, however, have demonstrated their resilience in the face of international military intervention. In January 2013, Belmokhtar’s Katibatal-Mulathimeen, aided by fighters from a southern Algerian armed group, the Movement of the Sons of the Sahara for Justice (MFSJFootnote 8), mounted the In Amenas gas facility attacks, killing 37 people, mostly foreign workers. In May 2013, Belmokhtar’s group struck the military base of Agadez and the French-operated Arlit uranium mine, both in Niger. Both sites feature a substantial international presence, as both American and French special forces are based in Agadez. Later that year, the Agence Noukchott d’Information news outlet announced that Belmokhtar’s katibat and MUJAO had merged to create a new armed Islamist group, Al-Mourabitoun (later relabelled as Al-Qaeda in West Africa, pledging allegiance to Al-Qaeda Core’s Ayman al-Zawahiri’s leadership).

The establishment of Al-Mourabitoun should not necessarily be viewed as Belmokhtar’s separation from AQIM, however. Doubtless, the In Amenas and northern Niger attacks illustrated the group’s even more sophisticated planning capabilities and the success of the attacks resulted in a considerable increase in Belmokhtar’s jihadist credibility and notoriety. These attacks, nevertheless, highlight his previous actions as a katibat commander for AQIM, notably the large-scale attacks perpetrated in Algeria in the mid-2000s under his command, and his ability to include fighters from diverse populations across his geographical range of influence—in other words his local and regional social connections. While his rival, the late Abou Zeid, was never able to leverage social connections as successfully as Belmokhtar, the combined weight and pertinence of these local and regional connections among groups living at arm’s length from the state is originally what enabled the implantation and spread of AQIM across the Sahelo-Saharan band. Thus, while constituting loose organisations, often with well-delineated (albeit informal) rules, responsibilities and practices, these groups are nevertheless fragmentary, network-like and organisationally fluid. At any given time, individual participants in these groups share affinities and loyalties to multiple sources of social connection, all of which are subject to change during times of violent conflict.

At any given time, individual participants in these groups share affinities and loyalties to multiple sources of social connection, all of which are subject to change during times of violent conflict.

In 2015, Al-Mourabitoun claimed credit for several attacks against foreign targets within Mali: an attack on a hotel in Sévaré that regularly welcomes UN contractors; La Terrasse nightclub in Bamako; and finally the deadly and notorious attack on Bamako’s Radisson Blu hotel in November 2015. The Radisson attack demonstrates the reconfiguration of Islamist armed groups placed under international pressure, as it was jointly conducted with AQIM fighters. Shortly thereafter, al-Mourabitoun announced its merger with AQIM. Furthermore, al-Mourabitoun’s attacks across West Africa (in Burkina Faso in January 2016, in Grand Bassam Côte d’Ivoire two months later, and potentially in Niger in October) have complemented AQIM’s selected attacks on international forces in northern Mali, as well as on any individual or group in the north that appears to have collaborated with international forces, resulting in a stark increase in insecurity in the post-Operation Serval period.

Central Mali and the Tillabéry region of Niger have also been targets to newly formed jihadist groups. A local Peul imam named Amadou Kouffa leads the group now known as Ansar Dine Macina. Kouffa’s forces, supported by his friend and patron, Iyad Aghaly, led the Islamist advance in late 2012 towards Mopti, triggering the French intervention. Since 2015, Ansar Dine Macina has conducted attacks across central Mali near Mopti, Sévaré, Tenenkou and Nampala. Ansar Dine Macina is reported to have capitalised on the recruitment of Peul fighters, many of whom fought under the leadership of Belmokhtar and Ould Kheirou in the Gao region in 2012. As noted, adherence to an armed Islamist group is multi-faceted. Fighters within Ansar Dine Macina have based their calls for jihad on the need to defend Peul communities (especially herders) from the reprisals and cattle theft perpetrated by returning Malian military units, a strategy best served through the extension of sharia. Once again, the activities of this group demonstrate the violent contestation against the Malian state, as it is formed by arguably the most vulnerable and marginalised population of the country: the Peul community. Ansar Dine Macina’s limited efforts of governance and protection, however, have also been accompanied by significant intra-communal violence against those local Peul imams and village leaders that have historically been closely associated to Malian state clientelistic networks.

Since mid-2014, France has regionalised its space of intervention in order to further seek out and eliminate dispersed elements of these jihadist groups (especially AQIM and MUJAO). The latter have proven extremely resilient precisely because of their ability to form socio-economic nodes, responding inclusively to populations that have regularly been distanced from the patronage networks of the Malian state. AQIM commanders have been exceptionally well placed to provide economic and social goods, market opportunities and protection to mobile populations across the Sahel. These activities are underpinned by their religious credibility, which is recognised by communities that have adopted similar religious interpretations over the span of the last twenty years. Despite the rivalries that mark armed Islamist groups in the Sahel-Sahara region, they have nevertheless been able to serve as the interface between local populations across the region. While partially successful in their governance efforts throughout 2012, they still faced complex local political struggles, which put them at odds with notables who hold dominant sway in the north, especially in the Kidal region. While undergoing a period of reconfiguration, these groups have still undertaken successful operations and have since found a new safe haven in southern Libya, beyond Operation Barkhane’s mandate, proving their adaptability and the enduring nature of their connections.

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