Chapter 3 - Will Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb continue to prosper?

Following the French military operations in the Sahel from 2013 on, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) altered its strategy, submerging its identity in existing anti-government forces and ethnic groups. These measures permitted AQIM to increase its tempo of attacks, while becoming indispensable to regional rebels and traffickers. Attempts by Daesh to implant itself locally have been frustrated as AQIM dominates jihadist activity in the region. But AQIM’s only sure geographic sanctuary is northern Mali.

Resurgence of AQIM in the Sahel

Opinions diverge on the threat posed in the Sahel by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The French military considers Operations Serval and Barkhane to have been effective, based on the high number of fighters killed and the fairly successful disruption of this terrorist group’s communication lines between Mali and Libya. However, this assessment ought to be tempered by a more realistic view of the situation.

Although several major French operations were carried out in Niger in 2013 and 2014 against the convoys of Al-Murabitoun and Ansar Dine, the presence of Operation Barkhane in Madama, Niger, failed to sever the ties of operational cooperation between the jihad zones in Mali and Libya, which use Niger as a transit corridor. Algeria, the other corridor, is also being used by militants, making it impossible for the French to intervene without a “right of pursuit” into Algerian territory.

In terms of attacks committed, AQIM is a greater threat than ever. Despite declining significantly before the start of 2014, the number of attacks involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide attacks is now at a record high. The number of IED attacks in the first half of 2016 was twice as high as during the same period in 2015.

AQIM’s resurgence reflects its success in overcoming the two main challenges it has faced since 2013: the launch of Operation Serval in January 2013, and the influence of DaeshFootnote 12 in the Sahel. In response, AQIM has intensified its attacks, modernised its communication network, and gathered all of the smaller terrorist groups (Ansar Dine, Al-Murabitoun) under the AQIM label.

The fight against AQIM, which is being led primarily by France, seems to be hampered by the classic constraints of asymmetrical warfare. Even though several hundred fighters for AQIM, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAOFootnote 13) and Ansar Dine have been “neutralised” since 2013, the projection capability of these groups has nevertheless grown continuously over that same period, both within Mali and more broadly across West Africa. In addition to the 2013 attacks in Agadez and Niamey, Niger, the nebulous AQIM has also claimed responsibility for attacks in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and Grand‑Bassam, Côte d’Ivoire. In Mali, the organisation has extended its capability for action south, with the attacks on the Radisson Blu hotel and in the Sikasso region (Misseni and Fakola) in 2015. Its powers have not been affected by the loss of katiba leaders (Abou Zeid, Omar Ould Hamaha, Ahmed el Tilemsi, Abdelkrim al-Targui). At most, these losses may have played a role in uniting the various groups under AQIM.

Losing control over the cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, where AQIM had installed an administration, in no way diminished this terrorist organisation’s influence or capability for action, contrary to what has been seen in other theatres of conflict: in Yemen with the withdrawal of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) from Mukalla in April 2016; in Somalia with the retaking of Kismayo; and in northern Nigeria with the withdrawal of Boko Haram from major Borno towns. In Mali, the various terrorist organisations have adapted their methods of operation to the French presence by drastically reinforcing operational security; increasing suicide attacks and now complex attacks (tactical operations combined with suicide attacks), which require planning capabilities and knowledge of the territory that would be impossible without support from the local population; and propagating jihad locally to make inroads with local residents.

What is the future of AQIM in the Sahel?

The deepening local character of jihad

Jihad has easily taken root in the region since 2013, primarily because it is striking a chord with the population. The trend continues and may intensify. This dynamic is making the fight against the terrorist organisation much more complex by blurring the lines between nomads, rebel fights and jihadists.

A steadily increasing number of locals have gone to swell the ranks of the terrorist organisation since 2013 as huge numbers of foreigners (particularly Tunisians and Algerians) have left northern Mali for Libya. This is part of a strategy that was established (and designed by Al-Qaeda) to entrust the AQIM project to its local groups, via two Tuareg katibas (Youssef Ibn Tachfin and Al-Ansar), and that now revolves around Ansar Dine, a local organisation whose organic link with AQIM is known but not emphasised. The same is true for Al-Shabaab, which has always maintained a certain distance from Al-Qaeda, and more recently for Jabhat Al-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, which split organically from Al-Qaeda in order to boost local recruitment. These forms of autonomy have been personally endorsed by Ayman al-Zawahiri.

This dynamic has had grave results in Mali. Entire territories in northern Mali are under the control of certain tribal factions operating on behalf of AQIM. A particularly clear example is the Al-Wasra Arab tribe in the Taoudeni region. Though it originally had no influence within the Arab community, this tribe has grown extremely prominent thanks to the power conferred on it by AQIM. Local entrenchment is significantly affecting the Fulani community in the Gao and Mopti regions, which are known to be overrepresented among AQIM’s ranks.

The reasons for this entrenchment can be found by looking to the governments. Radicalisation works by feeding off endogenous dynamics: widespread injustice, suppression of Islam, marginalisation of certain Islamic sects, unemployment, and development of activities deemed forbidden, etc. These factors are rarely, if ever, seen in any Sahara-Sahel societies. This means that AQIM has the ability to penetrate these areas, but its staying power will largely depend on the level of control exerted by the governments. This variable broadly explains why AQIM has never been able to truly take root in Niger, where the nomadic networks, including fighters, remain attached to the central government.

In the event of a profound territorial crisis, as may occur in Côte d’ivoire in 2020, AQIM could attempt to seek sanctuary by exploiting the governmental void and conflict dynamics. As long as governments remain essentially in control of their territories, AQIM’s influence will be limited to clandestine cells capable of carrying out attacks against governmental or Western targets.

Closer ties with armed groups

The West will be present in the Sahel for years to come. Jihadist groups are experiencing a corresponding long-term effect on their freedom of movement, forcing them to rely on more mobile partners. As soon as a distinction is established between signatory armed groups and jihadist armed groups, since the former are essentially shielded from any international armed intervention, it is in the interest of the latter to hide behind them. This trend will therefore continue. In the worst-case scenario, there could be a recurrence of a rebellion in which the rebels and jihadists are so intermingled that it would be futile for the West to intervene, as in January 2013.

As long as governments remain essentially in control of their territories, AQIM's influence will be limited to clandestine cells capable of carrying out attacks against governmental or Western targets.

However, it is important to understand the motivations driving armed groups to ally with jihadist groups. First of all, the armed groups need to deal with the dominant power. For them, it is a condition for holding onto the territory they need to control trafficking routes. Second, given the extremely high tensions between platform groups and the Coordination of Movements for Azawad (CMA), it is essential to be under the protection of jihadist groups. Lastly, the jihadist groups are so deeply entrenched in northern Mali that it would be suicidal for an armed group to take on a jihadist group, even if the armed group has the support of international forces to do so. This situation is not expected to change in the short or medium term. The only factor that could alter this dynamic of collusion would be an inversion in the balance of military power between the rebel and jihadist armed groups.

In any case, alliances are widespread. The two branches of the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAAFootnote 14) based in the Ber area operate as AQIM subcontractors, providing supply logistics and carrying out operational missions. The MAA supporting the Platform of Self-Defence MovementsFootnote 15 in the Tilemsi has integral, organic ties to Al-Murabitoun. The same goes for the Fulani front in central Mali. Some Fulani fighters are working for Ansar Dine via the new Macinakatiba, but the rallying of ANSIPRJFootnote 16 (non-jihadist) to this Fulani front has diluted the jihadist dimension of the movement. That is how the attack on Nampala in July 2016 should be understood, as ANSIPRJ claimed responsibility even though the actual perpetrators were Ansar Dine fighters. Lastly, the dual membership of young Ifoghas fighters in the High Council for the Azawad (HCUAFootnote 17) and in Ansar Dine is beyond question.

How can the threat be reduced?

More pressure on neighbouring nations

Part of AQIM’s strength lies in the role played by the governments of the nations adjacent to Mali, particularly Algeria and Mauritania. In the interests of their own domestic security, these two governments are hosting, sponsoring and protecting Malian rebels or jihadists, who in return promise to spare the territories of their host countries.

The case of Iyad Ag Ghaly, a militant under Algerian protection, leaves no room for doubt. Although Algeria has, under international pressure, promised to “give up” Iyad Ag Ghaly, as reported by well-informed Western sources, it apparently has yet to do so. In view of the numerous interests that the Algerians have in holding onto Iyad Ag Ghaly—if only as a bargaining chip for negotiations with France—there is reason to doubt that this will ever occur without a major French concession in return. At the very least, greater pressure jointly exerted by France and the United States should weaken the position of the Algerian networks that continue to rely on Iyad Ag Ghaly.

The situation is slightly different in Mauritania. While the Mauritanian government is not sheltering jihadist elements, it maintains close ties with Malian rebels whose proximity to AQIM is common knowledge. This proximity gives the rebels a rear base and political protection, thus indirectly strengthening AQIM, particularly with regard to supply logistics.

The consequences of this transboundary support are far from negligible. Besides providing a sanctuary or even a safe haven from threats, as Algeria is providing to Iyad Ag Ghaly, the territories of Mauritania and Algeria are vital to the supply networks of the terrorist groups in northern Mali. Niger is in a similar situation, as it is also a transit corridor. An effective regional antiterrorism policy requires a disruption of the supply lines conveying food, fuel, weapon components or weapons.

Expansion of military efforts in northern Mali

At the same time as increased pressure is placed on the governments of Mali’s neighbours, it would be wise to expand military efforts in northern Mali in order to dissuade both local residents and armed groups from collaborating with AQIM.

The regionalisation of the fight against terrorism—which began with Operation Barkhane and is now led by the five African nations that make up the Sahel G5Footnote 18—is justified because of the permeability of borders in the Sahel, but it should not come at the expense of military efforts in Mali. Northern (and now central) Mali is the only place in the Sahel-Sahara region where AQIM can truly claim sanctuary. The Adrar region of Mauritania and northern Niger are more or less under the control of the national governments, while in southern Libya, the strength of the Toubou and Tuareg militias is considerably reducing AQIM’s ability to penetrate the social fabric, even though AQIM has some cells there and is relatively free to move around.
Expanding efforts in northern Mali would make it possible to oust AQIM from its only sanctuary and thus significantly reduce the subregional threat level. It is worth bearing in mind that the attacks in Agadez-Arlit in 2013 and in Grand‑Bassam and Ouagadougou in 2016 were all planned and orchestrated from Mali.

Uprooting AQIM

AQIM’s strength continues to lie in its entrenchment among local residents in northern Mali. Far from being affected by the occupation, as was reported by the media, AQIM’s roots only deepened. During AQIM’s occupation and administration of the towns, insecurity plummeted, impartial Islamic justice was restored, and common consumer goods became cheaper (and were sometimes given away for free), particularly in Timbuktu and Gao. Since then, many individuals have begun to view jihadist groups in both northern and central Mali as a means of restoring a more impartial justice than the government is capable of providing, including through jihad, and as a way to break free of the bonds of society or custom (particularly among certain communities in central Mali) and thus improve their situation.

In this context, it will be impossible to eradicate AQIM through military intervention alone. Military intervention is undoubtedly indispensable, as we have seen, but it is not sufficient on its own. Fighting AQIM also requires helping local, traditional or national authorities reinforce their control over their territory in a firm yet positive manner (through their ability to restore impartial justice, deliver fundamental services, and effectively combat insecurity). Helping the government return to northern Mali in a gradual and negotiated way is therefore a key mission, but it must be done in a collaborative manner, not imposed.

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