A Picture of Threat: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

CTU Homeland Security Degree - Al Qaeda ImageThe French military intervention in Mali in late January 2013 against Islamist militants and their allies succeeded, for the present, in preventing these groups from overrunning the capital, Bamako. The French military subsequently drove them out of most of the north of the country including the cities of Timbuktu and Gao. Conflicts in the African continent are, of course, not new and most of them do not result in foreign military intervention.

What’s different about the conflict in Mali is that Islamist militants led, at least in part, by Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), were able to establish control over northern Mali and use it as a base of operations to carry out attacks in neighboring Algeria. This led to concern in Europe and the United States that Al Qaeda and like-minded groups could exploit this territory as a base of operations for destabilizing governments in the region. There was additional concern that the group would plan and launch attacks in the West using Mali as a base, as northern and northwestern Africa are geographically close to Europe.

Exploiting territory as a base of operations from which to launch attacks was the way Afghanistan was used by Al Qaeda before 9/11, and the way in which it and its affiliates have used parts of Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia more recently. Moreover, AQIM has links with two other major Islamist militant organizations that operate in the African continent: Boko Haram and Al Shabaab. Boko Haram is a Nigerian extremist group responsible for a wide range of terrorist attacks in Nigeria. The other, Al Shabaab, is a Somali extremist group that has, at times, controlled large swaths of southern Somalia and carried out terrorist attacks in Kenya and elsewhere.

AQIM has its origins in the civil war in neighboring Algeria during the 1990s. That war, which resulted in anywhere between 90,000 and 400,000 deaths (estimates vary widely) lasted between 1992 and 2002. The Algerian civil war pitted the secularist military against Islamist rebel groups including the Armed Islamic Group, the Islamic Salvation Army and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). In 2006, the GSPC aligned itself with Al Qaeda and changed its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb  –‘Maghreb’ being the Arabic term for north Africa west of Egypt. AQIM has since been active in the western Sahel and has been able to create a foothold for itself through a mix of criminal activity and terrorism.

Northern Mali lies within the Sahara Desert, but Mali's major cities lie further south in a belt of territory, known as the Sahel, which stretches from west to east across the African continent. The western part of the Sahel crosses the territory of Mali, Algeria, Mauritania, Niger and Chad, but all of these countries have limited control, at best, over their border regions. Many of these countries struggle to control territory beyond their major cities. Consequently AQIM, like its sister Al Qaeda organizations in Yemen, the tribal areas of Pakistan, Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, has been able to grow in marginal areas with little or no governance.

Like core Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan, AQIM personnel have married into local tribes and provided services to local populations, thus earning their support. One example of this process has been AQIM’s exploitation of the Tuareg rebellion in Mali. The Tuareg were originally a nomadic people, though many today live in towns and cities. This Muslim group lives in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Burkina-Faso.

The Tuareg rebelled many times during their modern history due to political marginalization and economic disaffection. More recently, the Tuareg in Mali have been fighting for independence as part of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. The insurgency was bolstered by the arrival of Tuareg fighters who had served as mercenaries in the Libyan army under Libya’s former dictator, Moammar Kadafi, who was overthrown in late 2011.

When the Libyan regime collapsed, many Tuareg fighters returned to Mali and brought with them weapons from Libya’s extensive arsenal. These included small arms, machine guns and some surface-to-air missiles. AQIM was able to forge ties with Tuareg rebels, thus strengthening its position in northern Mali and across the larger Tuareg region.

Overall, U.S. strategy since 9/11 has been to work to deny Al Qaeda and its affiliates the ability to use any part of the planet as a safe haven from which to train, plan and execute terrorist attacks against the United States or its allies. In some areas, the United States engages directly, as in Afghanistan or with respect to drone operations in the border regions of Pakistan. In other parts, such as Yemen, it operates via training, arming and otherwise supporting local military forces.

In Mali, due to the ineffectiveness of the Malian military, the U.S. has provided support to French and neighboring African military forces. Ultimately, any area of the world that is ungoverned can provide fertile breeding grounds for extremist forces. Consequently, even after the United States completes its pullout from Afghanistan in 2014, U.S. forces can be expected to continue to be engaged around the world in trying to mitigate the Al Qaeda threat.

Image credit: Flickr/Abode of Chaos