The Cipher Brief sat down with Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, non-resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, to discuss the growing threat of al Qaeda and other jihadist groups in northwest Africa (Sahel region). According to Ghanem-Yazbeck, as evidenced by a spate of recent attacks, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) remains a “regional threat” and will continue to do so as long as “the conditions that make the Sahel a fertile ground for Islamist militancy and jihadist activity persist.”
The Cipher Brief: Where does al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb maintain its primary base in northwestern Africa (Sahel region)?
Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck: It is hard to map jihadist groups in the Sahel region because organizations such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are often comprised of several factions, which are themselves divided into semi-autonomous brigades, battalions and sub-battalions. Furthermore, extremist groups operating in the region, such as AQIM, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar e-dine, adapt depending on countries’ counterterrorism strategies.
In 2012, the three aforementioned groups established a base in northern Mali and proceeded to conquer territory in the country until they nearly reached Mali’s capital Bamako. To stop these gains, the French military intervened in 2013 and pushed these groups north towards Libya and east towards Niger. Porous borders enabled the jihadist groups to move from one country to another and expand their scope of action. MUJAO, for instance, extended its sphere of action into Niger, where it perpetrated several acts of violence, such as an attack on Nigerien military base in 2013 and the more recent attack in Bani Bangou last November.
TCB: Why did the AQIM select this area for its base? What advantages or disadvantages does it provide?
DGY: At first the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the predecessor of AQIM, was pushed by southward by the Algerian military. AQIM’s movement southward also became a matter of conjuncture as it sought to unify all jihadist groups operating in the Sahel region, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. In 2009, AQIM leader Abdel Malek Droudkel decided to open its Sahelian front with several kataib (battalions): Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar served as the emir of the western part, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid of the eastern part, and Yahia Djaoudi of the north.
The Sahel is a vast region that covers between 4 and 5 million square kilometers. The topography of the Sahel region and a history of de facto autonomy in some countries such as Mali, Mauritania and Niger, makes government control hard to exercise. Sovereign functions of the state, such as providing assistance, security and protection, development, and public services, are insufficient and lead to a marginalization of populations that in many cases lack education and employment opportunities. This leads to tensions with the central government and contributes greatly to the radicalization of many youths. Islamist militant and jihadist groups thrive on that.
TCB: What is the level of coordination between al Qaeda and Tuareg nationalists in Northern Mali?
DGY: There are great divisions and fragmentation among rebel groups in Mali. But if we talk about AQIM and some Tuaregs, notably the Islamists, coordination between them is strong, as proven by their military actions in taking northern parts of Mali in 2012. Yet, one has to keep in mind that these relations are fluid and depend on context and opportunities.
In 2012, Ansar Dine leader Iyad Ag Ghali coordinated with AQIM and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) to expel Tuareg secularists from regions in northern Mali such as Ménaka, Tessalit, Aguelhok, Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. By 2013, the Tuaregs were divided between those who stayed loyal to the central government, those who joined the secular opposition force known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, and those associated with Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups such AQIM and MUJAO.
TCB: What is your assessment of the AQIM’s current capabilities? How much of a threat does the group pose to regional and international security?
DGY: As evidenced by recent attacks in Gao, Mali, which lead to the deaths of at least 50 people, and in Southern Algeria, AQIM remains a regional threat. Let us not forget that the group’s lineage goes back to the implosion of the Armed Islamist Group in Algeria in 1998 and the creation of the GSPC, which ultimately became AQIM in 2007. Since then, Algerian authorities have talked about “residual terrorism,” while AQIM has conducted more than 600 attacks against the Algerian government.
In addition, the group has been able to conduct attacks beyond Algeria – its initial enemy – and reach countries as far as Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. The security vacuum left by the fall of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi helped the group extend its networks and refill its stocks of weapons and fighters.
Although AQIM continues to pose a regional threat, the probabilities that the group will perpetrate an attack in the West are thin. AQIM remains very focused on the Sahel and will probably conduct more attacks in Sahelian countries such as Mali, Niger, and Mauritania as well as against Western interests in the region.
TCB: What more can be done to counter the threat posed by AQIM?
DGY: The solution cannot only be a military one; increased efforts and cooperation between Sahelian states is needed. There have been some initiatives, such as the 2010 Joint Staff Operations Committee (CEMOC) located in Tamenrasset, Algeria, which brought together Algerian, Nigerien, Mauritanian and Malian forces to coordinate counterterrorism efforts across the region and facilitate the creation of joint patrols and cross-border operations. There was also the Fusion and Liaison Unit located in Algiers, which aimed to foster intelligence exchanges between national services and the distribution of information to operating armed forces among eight countries in the region including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Nigeria. However, these two bodies are not effective; they are paper tigers that have failed to prevent terrorist activity in the region.
In addition, there is a significant deficiency in terms of financial and logistical resources and security sector reform. Security forces and counterterrorism agencies in the region should focus on the social structure that plays a role in providing pathways and opportunities to friends, siblings, disciples within extended groups to join jihadist networks.
Once more, the solution cannot only be military. As I said earlier, the reasons why AQIM thrives are diverse and multidimensional. The problem is that the conditions that make the Sahel a fertile ground for Islamist militancy and jihadist activity – such as poor socioeconomic and political conditions, bad governance, youth exclusion from decision-making even at the local level, no real development strategies, climate change issues and extreme poverty, lack of state presence, and criminality and marginalization – still persist.
In the short term, we will continue to hear about attacks perpetrated by AQIM and other jihadist groups in the Sahel as long as we continue to have fragile states and societies in which social contracts between populations and leaders are broken. Jihadism offers easy, “grab-and-go” solutions to complex problems; it is an egalitarian employer that offers a brotherly community, a glorious cause, and a thrilling adventure.