Although the United States counterterrorism campaign is focused on key battlegrounds in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, the threat posed by al Qaeda in North Africa remains a concern for U.S. intelligence officials. The U.S. has partnered with France to combat extremist groups in the North African region, with France taking the lead in conducting operations. But despite this military support, many North African countries still lack adequate leadership and social systems that would enable them to address many of the root causes that lead individuals to join al Qaeda and the region’s terrorist movements in the first place. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with David Shedd, former Acting Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to discuss the al Qaeda threat in North Africa as well as how the U.S. can more effectively beat back the group.
The Cipher Brief: In the last few years, we’ve seen al Qaeda’s offshoot in North Africa expand into Mali and more recently into Burkina Faso. How much of a threat does Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) pose in the Sahel region as well as to the U.S.?
David Shedd: First and foremost, ten years after the Islamic Maghreb pledged its allegiance al Qaeda, the North African group (AQIM)and its associates continue to present a significant threat to the stability of the region and to the governments that are in place throughout the region. When you think of AQIM specifically, and the threats they pose inside Mali and across the Maghreb into southern Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and other places, you have, in essence, an established al Qaeda presence that affects a number of things, including the flow of refugees and illegal immigrants into Europe in part because of the instability that these groups introduce. Additionally, these groups aim to promote their ideology, which is ultimately to bring these countries under sharia law and establish Islamic extremist parts of a caliphate.
In terms of our interest, AQIM is part of a larger threat posed by al Qaeda and ISIS, and Islamic extremism in that area. We wish to see AQIM defeated, because they ultimately are a piece of the larger al Qaeda network.
TCB: Is combatting AQIM a priority for the U.S.? How does going after that organization compare to going after other al Qaeda or ISIS affiliates?
Shedd: Although the campaign against AQIM doesn’t garner the same level of visibility as the campaigns in Yemen and against ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, and in Mosul, Iraq, I still believe that the U.S. is fully committed to combatting this group.
I want to underscore the importance of partnerships, in this case between the U.S. and France. France has played, and continues to play, a very important role in combatting AQIM. They have significant interests in that area, and they aim to ensure that AQIM is defeated, so there is by extension a very close partnership with the French. The French have stepped up to their responsibility to go after these Islamic extremist groups, which have the potential of reaching into Europe should they not be curtailed on the ground in Mali, Mauritania, Libya, and elsewhere in North Africa.
TCB: What is the level of coordination and cooperation between the U.S., France, and countries in the Sahel with respect to military operations and intelligence sharing on AQIM?
Shedd: The fundamental building block in all external support to counter AQIM is creating capacity in those countries, some of which have really low or few capabilities to counter these types of threats. One thing that I’ve noticed that doesn’t receive a lot of publicity is that these countries welcome building partnerships with the U.S., France, and other Western allies in terms of the counterterrorism mission. So whether it’s in Nigeria, where you have Boko Haram who has deepened its ties with al Qaeda in northeast Nigeria, or it’s North Africa more proper, the capacity building of these countries’ security services along with their militaries is something being done in tandem with France, and perhaps some other allies from Europe, in order to ensure that these countries are more effective in dealing with these threats.
TCB: What more can the U.S. do to help push back against AQIM’s expansion?
Shedd: I place the additional efforts to counter AQIM into three categories. First, there are always opportunities to increase intelligence sharing on the nature of the threat and thereby, by extension, the means for countering those threats with actionable intelligence. Finding ways to collect and share more intelligence among local partners on AQIM’s activities is vital to the collective war on terror in that region.
Second is the need to enhance outreach with partner nations in that area so that improving civil society is a priority as part of the counterterrorism efforts. That means coming in with education and other longer term efforts that address the grievances associated with some of the things that AQIM takes advantage of.
Lastly, it is necessary for the U.S. administration, as well as our partners such as France, to have a strategy to go after AQIM and other al Qaeda affiliates – a bold strategy that consists of all elements of national power. A military campaign alone is not going to do it. It’s going to require bringing a better way of life in the region in need of potable water, healthcare, education, etc. That’s all part of the third leg of the stool, which is helping countries locally build that capacity based on clearly established strategic objectives on America’s part. Today, that strategy is unclear.
TCB: It appears that AQIM has thus far been more regionally focused, but is the threat posed by AQIM to the U.S. homeland receiving enough attention here in the U.S.?
Shedd: I believe that the great men and women of the counterterrorism communities are very focused on the threats posed by an unchecked AQIM. But whenever you have ungoverned territories, as we do in parts of North Africa, the threat is even more real. Sixteen years after 9/11, the greatest threats that we face is not knowing what we don’t know. What we may not know about AQIM is how they are training and equipping terrorists, as well as planning a terrorist attack from one of these ungoverned large spaces.
Better intelligence collection is always desired in order to better understand the adversary’s plans and intention, because you never know when and where in those ungoverned spaces that kind of activity and planning could be taking place. In other words, while appropriately focused on Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and elsewhere, we cannot rest on our laurels of success in North Africa, believing that new threats couldn’t emerge from North Africa despite the enormous efforts undertaken by the men and women in our Intelligence Community who work on this unending 24/7 counterterrorism mission. Any strategy should include as a top priority the need to learn more about what we don’t know, and what we must be vigilant about.
TCB: Is there any one country in the region that is particularly worrisome with respect to ungoverned spaces and terrorist plotting?
Shedd: Of all of the North African areas, the one country that concerns me the most is Libya and the absence of sound overall governance despite the many efforts at it. These circumstances allow for the space for AQIM and/or its affiliates to continue to operate despite our best wishes of good governance in some of the countries. Libya is one of the many areas that I remain very concerned about as a potential future platform for planning and executing terrorist acts against the U.S. and/or the friends and allies of the United States.