By Raby Ould Idoumou
It is a desperate time for the once-dreaded al-Qaeda.
Funds are depleted, long-time figurehead Osama Bin Laden is dead and counter-terror operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan keep operatives on the run or in hiding. The embattled terror group is now counting on al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and other organisations for restored credibility and rescue.
When Ayman al-Zawahiri needed to overcome a shortfall of funds after the death of Bin Laden, he looked to the Sahara.
“After Osama Bin Laden was killed, it became likely that the future of al-Qaeda would involve Maghreb countries,” university professor Ely al-Sheikh Ould Bah said.
Arms and drug trafficking, along with abductions for ransoms, have produced a revenue stream for al-Qaeda’s North African branch. But all is not as it appears, security experts caution.
The high-profile kidnappings of westerners in the Sahel-Saharan region in recent months do not necessarily indicate “an increase in the organisation’s capacity to strike”, a UN Security Council report noted in February. The abductions “might just imply a need to raise money and get international attention, or be the result of internal power struggles”.
Security analyst Hamadi Ould Dah agrees that al-Qaeda “had no other option but to resort to its Arab Maghreb branch”.
“However, this group seems to be unable to provide any support for the main al-Qaeda organisation because of the internal problems facing it, and also because of crippling security crackdowns by Sahel countries,” he tells Magharebia.
Given significant attrition among its ranks, as well as its poor media skills, the Maghreb branch appears unlikely to live up to Zawahiri’s expectations.
The Madrid-based Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH) recently confirmed that al-Qaeda’s Maghreb offshoot faces problems of its own.
“Internal fractures within AQIM lead us to question the real cohesion of the organisation,” Madrid-based Institute of Studies on Conflicts and Humanitarian Action (IECAH) observed in a February report.
“Its activities in the Sahel region seem to better reflect the action of different cells with varied driving forces rather than a co-ordinated action with a clear identity and rationale,” the IECAH said.
And as al-Qaeda gets more connected with criminal activities “and disconnects with the ideological discourse as justification of its actions, its tactics are subject to increasing criticism and rejection by religious leaders in the Maghreb and Sahel”, the report added.
Al-Qaeda has long prepared its branch in the Islamic Maghreb to assume the mantle when it collapses. To celebrate the 5th anniversary of the September 11th, 2001 attacks, the terror group posted a video in which al-Zawahiri announced that Algeria’s “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat” (GSPC) had become part of al-Qaeda.
GSPC emir Abdelmalek Droukdel was eager to mount a serious media campaign. The only problem: no one knew how to do it.
Abu Yasser Sayyaf, GSPC’s webmaster, had to issue an online plea for help uploading content and using different programmes, “which shows how far behind GSPC was technologically”, terrorism analyst and academic Manuel Torres Soriano explained in a January analysis, “The Road to Media Jihad: The Propaganda Actions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”.
Sayyaf’s excuse for the second-rate video and audio was the group’s isolated location in the mountains of Algeria.
Things changed in 2007. The GSPC’s adoption of the name “al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM) coincided with a media outreach initiative modelled after the parent group to which AQIM had become allied. More media production was compulsory for GSPC if it were to merge with al-Qaeda as an official branch.
The newest members of the global terror organisation quickly recognised the merit of visual and audio messages, Torres Soriano says. More media production was compulsory for GSPC if it were to merge with Al-Qaeda as an official branch.
For example, in 2007 — the year of the name change — AQIM released six videos, almost double the number of all videos it produced during the previous eight years.
Al-Qaeda had been trying for years to solidify its support in the North Africa desert, but the GSPC was still a long way from performing like an affiliate of a global terror group.
“Although the GSPC started its activities at the information era par excellence, its method was more that of a traditional gang than that of a group ‘apprenticed’ by Osama Bin Laden,” Torres Soriano points out. After AQIM’s merger with al-Qaeda, however, “it turned into a group with its own media strategy”.
“Ayman al-Zawahiri urged AQIM to develop its own propaganda machine,” journalist Mohamed Ould Sid al-Moktar tells Magharebia. Now that AQIM has met the challenge, Bin Laden’s successor and his top aides believe it to be a group upon which al-Qaeda can depend, al-Moktar adds.
They forget that the Maghreb branch is under siege from Sahel security services.
“Al-Qaeda’s dependence on AQIM is similar to a weak entity leaning on another weak entity; something that will take both of them down,” al-Moktar says.
Abdel-Rahim Al-Manar Slimi of Mohammed V University in Rabat noted that “al-Qaeda’s branches are prospering in areas where the state is absent or is failing; a situation which didn’t exist in North Africa until the fall of Kadhafi’s regime, and Libya’s entry into a transitional status”.
Meanwhile, AQIM is trying to expand relations with terrorist movements in Africa, especially Boko Haram. Al-Qaeda’s Maghreb branch may also try to exploit the recent clashes between Touareg rebels and Malian army.
Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz recently suggested in an interview with Le Monde that al-Qaeda was involved in the northern Mali conflict. A spokesperson for the Touareg rebels countered that the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA) “neither has interests nor shares any policies with that terrorist organisation”.
Instead of turning to AQIM, Ayman Al-Zawahiri could have chosen to depend on al-Qaeda branches, in the Arabian Peninsula or Iraq, Boko Haram or Shabab al-Mujahideen.
But these branches are not based in the Sahara.
Analysts believe that “al-Qaeda Central” sees the desert as a place where its leaders can escape, and where rampant criminal activity keeps the money flowing.
Mohamed Ould Zain of the Sahara Media network points out, however, that both al-Qaeda and its offshoot AQIM face difficult times in the wake of the Arab Spring.
“There is growing recognition that peaceful struggle and democracy are the most effective way to make progress, not violence and killing,” Ould Zain says.
Raby Ould Idoumou is a Nouakchott-based writer and terrorism analyst. He also serves as a communications director for the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH).