Mali’s Instability: Advantage, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Photo: AP

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) propensity for kidnapping was back on display earlier this week, as al Qaeda’s North African branch released a video of Swiss Christian missionary Beatrice Stockly, who has been held captive by the terrorist group for more than a year. The recording of Stockly was issued less than one month after French humanitarian aid worker Sophie Petronin was abducted by AQIM affiliate al-Mourabitoun in the eastern Malian region of Gao.

Snatching foreigners and turning hostages into profits has been a significant revenue stream for AQIM. “AQIM has historically netted the highest ransoms within the al Qaeda network,” explains Rukmini Callimachi, reporter at The New York Times and expert on al Qaeda and ISIS. Between 2008 and 2014, AQIM received approximately $91.5 million dollars in ransom payments, nearly three times the amount of the second largest total generated by al Qaeda’s Yemeni offshoot, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), during that same time span.

AQIM’s aptitude for seizures was enhanced in 2012 when the group established a safe haven in northern Mali, a popular destination for western tourists and aid workers. Originally created in January 2007 as a rebranding of the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), AQIM initially fixated its operations in and around Algiers, Algeria’s capital city, conducting more than 600 attacks against the Algerian government.

Eventually, the Algerian army managed to push AQIM southward, where it has taken advantage of political instability in Mali over the last half decade to hijack an ethnic Tuareg-nationalist rebellion and assume control over the northern Mali region of Azawad. Since moving into its Mali refuge, AQIM has struck targets throughout western Africa, including several western hotels in Mali and in neighboring Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. According to figures compiled by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, AQIM and its affiliated groups launched more than 250 attacks last year alone.

While other terrorist organizations emphasize infiltrations into Europe or the United States, much of AQIM’s ambitions appear regionally based, as the group pursues foreigners or western businesses stationed in northwestern Africa.

“The probabilities that the group will perpetrate an attack in the West are thin,” explains Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, Cipher Brief expert and fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “AQIM remains very focused on the Sahel and will probably conduct more attacks in the Sahelian countries (at least for the time being) against western interests, killing westerners as well as locals at the same time.”

Efforts to beat back AQIM have been led by the French, who intervened in Mali in 2013 to prevent AQIM and its associated groups, including al-Mourabitoun and Ansar el-dine, from capturing Mali’s capital, Bamako. The French successfully halted AQIM’s advances, killing many senior AQIM operatives, including former top military commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, and deployed a force to northern Mali to deter another AQIM-led uprising.

In recent years, however, patrolling northern Mali has taken a toll on the French government and military alike. In circumstances reminiscent of the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, a weak central government in Mali has left the French to shoulder the burden of keeping an al Qaeda franchise under wraps. Whether the French will be able to endure is anyone’s guess.

“Indeed, al Qaeda and its associates may well be betting that the French will eventually pull out of Mali, writes Christopher Chivvis, Cipher Brief expert and Associate Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation. “If they do, Mali and the region are likely to slide back to where they were before the French intervened in 2013 – home to a large terrorist safe-haven that increasingly attracts adherents from elsewhere in the world.”

And while the French have taken the lead in this initiative, some experts believe it is unlikely that the Trump Administration will provide increased assistance when it takes office.

“The ‘America First’ proclivities of the incoming administration in Washington, in addition to its seemingly transactional approach to foreign and defense policy, suggests that combating AQIM in northern Mali will not be a top U.S. priority,” notes Geoff Porter, Cipher Brief expert and President of North Africa Risk Consulting.

With the French growing weary, the Malian government mired in instability, and international counterterrorism efforts concentrated on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, AQIM is poised to continue wreaking havoc across northwestern Africa. 

Bennett Seftel is deputy director of editorial at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.