More joint intelligence-gathering, a crackdown on organized crime and a coordinated approach to kidnapping demands are needed to tackle Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) growing power, say analysts.
Though the southern Sahelian branches of AQIM are estimated to have only 400-800 members, growing organized crime and commercial networks have increased their financial and political muscle, says Alain Antil, head of the sub-Saharan Africa programme at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
“Not much systematic information-exchange goes on between affected Sahelian countries… and it is not timely or coordinated,” said Antil. “You cannot fight AQIM with national policies – you need at least minimum cooperation between neighbours… though this cooperation is improving, we have not yet seen positive returns from it.”
Some call AQIM a “hybrid” terrorist organization – that is as concerned with contraband trafficking and ransom demands, as it is with the global Al Qaeda cause.
In 2003 AQIM split off from the Salafist Group of Call and Combat (GSPC), which since 1996 had been attacking government, military and sometimes civilian targets in Algeria, aiming to overthrow the secular military regime and establish a theocracy based on Islamic law.
The shift to represent Al Qaeda – becoming a “local group with global objectives” as academic Stephen Harmon put it - led the group to shift its activities from armed assaults, to more terror-oriented operations such as bombings and kidnappings; while its rhetoric centred more on anti-Western government proclamations and global Jihad, than regime change in Algeria. The US invasion of Iraq provided an ideal recruiting tool for Al Qaeda from north Africa to Iraq, says Harmon.
Commercial versus ideological goals
Nasser Weddady, civil rights outreach director at the American Islamic Congress, says at the national level, AQIM wishes to establish an Islamic Emirate in the northern Azaouade region of Mali, eventually expanding this into Mauritania.
AQIM sees both countries as a means to recruit new members and as a base from which destabilize the Mauritanian state and army in order to gain a foothold against Western governments, he told IRIN.
But the group runs few training camps and few maddrassas set up from which to recruit, says Harmon in a recent paper: ‘From GSPC to AQIM: The Evolution of an Algerian Islamist Terrorist Group into an Al-Qaida affiliate.'
And its political aims are vague, says Antil: “The groups’ political messages are not very clear – they talk of a fight against western countries, and leaders but tend to stop there, and do not specify what kind of regime they might put in place were they do attain power.”
Some recruitment does take place. Richard Barrett, , a member of the UN Security Council Committee monitoring Al-Qaeda, estimates half of one AQIM branch – others say 70 percent - comes from Mauritania, which he says is partly due to a growing pool of disaffected, unemployed youths in towns, drawn to the possibility either of an ideological fight, or commercial gain and prestige.
While AQIM has made inroads into the social fabric in the Azaouad region of Mali, marrying into Tuareg tribes, not all believe the goal is national political ascension. Such social intermixing could however, explain why the Malian military has not yet been attacked, says Weddady.
A diplomat who asked to remain unnamed, told IRIN the relatively tolerant, moderate form of Islam practiced by Tuaregs in northern Mali largely inoculates them from joining a radical Jihadi cause.
Tuareg groups in Mali are more likely to interface with AQIM on a commercial basis says Antil – given both groups are implicated in smuggling goods - mainly cigarettes, cocaine, heroin and to an extent small arms – as well as people across the largely unmonitored Sahara.
It is these actions that are weakening already-fragile states says Antil, and that risk corrupting officials in power. “Terrorists are just one of the operators of trafficking in these regions – there are many others too and they protect their interests by developing circles close to power,” he told IRIN.
AQIM turns profits from trafficking, as well as from an increasingly lucrative kidnapping trade, into weapons and training, says Barrett. Weddady estimates AQIM has netted EU 50 million (US$69 million) through ransom payments since its inception; while Barrett, a member of the UN Security Council Committee monitoring Al-Qaeda, estimates “millions of Euros” have been paid to release hostages in recent years.
Photo: OCHA VMU
In mid-September, AQIM took hostage five French nationals, a Togolese and a Madagascan, from northern Niger, and is believed to be holding them in northern Mali.
Tackling AQIM from commercial and security angles rather than seeking a political solution, is where the most impact will be found, says Mehdi Taje, a researcher at NGO, the Sahel and West Africa Club.
IFRI’s Antil believes trafficking is the priority: “To fight trafficking should be the priority of all priorities. It is a much stronger threat than terrorism in the Sahel. Yes, terrorist activities can have a huge impact with the attacks that take place, but these do not necessarily erode the foundations of these states in the same way organized crime can.”
Sahelian countries concerned about increasing lawlessness have told the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that criminal justice reform, anti-corruption laws, better border management and small arms trade controls are their priorities.
On the commercial front, Barrett says freezing bank accounts of individual AQIM members, as recommended by the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee monitoring Al-Qaeda, can have some impact.
On the security side, coordinated, regional intelligence-gathering on terrorist and criminal networks needs to be stepped up across the Sahel, stressed all interviewees.
While individual countries – such as Algeria – have strong intelligence mechanisms, it does not necessarily share this information with its neighbours.
Intelligence-sharing has been hampered by long-standing regional rivalries in the past, with discord between Mauritania and Algeria, Algeria and Mali, and Morocco and Algeria. But cooperation is improving: a joint military base was set up by Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger in Tamanrasset, Algeria in April 2010; army chiefs from the four governments met to discuss a joint response to AQIM last week, followed by a meeting of intelligence chiefs on 30 September.
Algeria must share the lessons it has learned from fighting the GSPC over the past 14 years, says Weddady “They have the intelligence, the hardware and the experience – there has to be a mechanism that involves them in this fight.”
And Mali must be convinced to “step up its game”, he said. Mali has weak capacity to secure its northern region and only recently emerged from a Tuareg rebellion, making it reluctant to take any action that could stir up anger in the north.
The French and US governments should continue low-level, low-profile support to the Malian and Mauritanian militaries, says Weddady. “Air support, serious training on a large scale and logistical and electronic intelligence-sharing mechanisms need to be part of international support.”
The US government has stepped up its engagement in recent years through AFRICOM, which aims to deploy troops to trouble spots as needed; train counterinsurgency and contraband interception units; and implement State Department development objectives; its Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Initiative, to help governments better ward off terrorist threats; and through Operation Flintlock, an annual counter-terrorism exercise to prepare militaries for potential threats.
Some question whether the terror threat posed by AQIM was sufficient to warrant the funding and deployment of these initiatives, or whether the US exaggerated the seriousness of the threat to justify deeper involvement in the Sahel. African security analyst Daniel Volman says this interest is tied to opening new fronts on the global war on terror and gaining access to Africa’s energy supplies.
A Sahel analyst who asked to remain unnamed told IRIN: “The US does not want a large military footprint in the Sahel, contrary to the many rumours spread in the press.”
Stop ransom payments
Unless Western governments stop shelling out hefty ransom payments to rescue their kidnapped citizens, any efforts to reduce AQIM’s reach will be marginalized, says Weddady. “Time and time again the kidnappers are rewarded… governments must never negotiate. In 2005 we were looking at 10 to 15 people getting killed; now, the numbers are just increasing… It is a moral dilemma but these incidents should not get in the way of governments looking at the bigger picture.”
Barrett did not take a stance on ransom payments, but did tell IRIN “There is more we can do to sensitize people as to the negative consequences of payments to these groups…the Security Council can discuss these issues with member states and find out where the consensus lies.”
If not contained regionally, the AQIM threat could spread, he warns. “There are possibilities to recruit from Niger, and to link up with Boko Haram [Nigerian militant Islamist group] in Nigeria… there is a risk that AQIM could slip down into Senegal, Burkina Faso and Guinea-Bissau if they are squeezed up north.”
Nobody in the Mauritanian or Malian ministries of interior, defence or information was available to speak to IRIN.