Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM, also known as Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb or AQLIM) and its offshoots or autonomous cells pose the main terrorist threat in North Africa and the Sahel. Under pressure from Algerian security forces, AQIM has increasingly moved its operations out of the capital of Algiers.
The vast area of Algeria’s six Saharan provinces and of its sparsely populated Sahelian neighbors affords AQIM optimal terrain in which to move and conduct training as well as to advance its regional ambitions. Algeria’s North African neighbors, Tunisia and Morocco, have prevented AQIM from penetrating their territories, except for some recruitment of individuals; both governments fear that AQIM will transfer operational capabilities to indigenous groups. Neither has experienced a major terrorism attack for several years, but both governments and that of Mauritania continue to unearth alleged Al Qaeda cells and affiliated terrorists.
It is not clear what AQIM’s “unity” with or “allegiance” to Al Qaeda means in practice as the group does not appear to take directions from leaders in Afghanistan/Pakistan. A nominal link is probably mutually beneficial, burnishing Al Qaeda’s international credentials as it enhances AQIM’s legitimacy among radicals to facilitate recruitment. Since “uniting” with Al Qaeda in 2006, AQIM’s rhetoric against the West and governments in the region and beyond, e.g., to Nigeria, as well as its calls for jihad against the United States, France, and Spain have increased.
Yet, its operations remain geographically limited to Algeria and the Sahel, and public information available does not suggest a direct AQIM threat to the U.S. homeland.
AQIM’s origins date to the 1990s, when Islamist extremists and security forces engaged in a conflict sparked by a 1992 military coup that prevented an Islamist political party from winning a national election in Algeria. The terrorists sought (and seek) to replace the Algerian regime with an Islamic state.
The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) was then the main terrorist threat.50 In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) split from GIA, claiming to oppose the GIA’s indiscriminate targeting of civilians. In 2003, under new leader Abdelmalik Droukdel (aka Abu Musab Abdulwadood), GSPC declared “allegiance” to Al Qaeda. In 2006, it announced “unity” with Al Qaeda, changing its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. AQIM raises funds primarily by kidnapping for ransoms and by trafficking in arms, drugs, vehicles, cigarettes, and persons.51 It also gets small-scale funding from cells in Europe.52 AQIM communicates via sophisticated videos on the Internet.
In 2006, AQIM increased its attacks against the government, security forces, and foreign workers in Algeria. In 2007, it shifted tactics to “Iraqi-style,” suicide attacks, with simultaneous bombings of the Government Palace (the prime and interior ministries) and a suburban police station in April, and of the Constitutional Council and the U.N. headquarters in December, among other attacks.
An AQIM suicide bomber failed to assassinate President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in September. After a relative lull, terrorist attacks on security forces escalated in summer 2008, when suicide bombers perpetrated a particularly bloody attack at a police academy, resulting in more than 40 deaths. In 2009, perhaps because security forces had made it difficult to conduct operations in the capital, AQIM mounted attacks elsewhere. AQIM continued to focus on the Berber region of the Kabylie in northeastern Algeria, where the security presence had been reduced to pacify civil unrest.53 In June, gunmen killed 24 gendarmes (paramilitary police) in an ambush more than 200 miles east Algiers. In July, they ambushed a military convoy 90 miles west of Algiers, killing at least 14 soldiers.54
Several Al Qaeda-linked international terrorist plots have involved Algerians. In December 1999, Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian trained in Afghanistan, was arrested after attempting to enter the United States from Canada; he was convicted for the so-called Millennium Plot that planned bombings in Los Angeles. His associates and other Algerians in Canada were linked to the GIA and Al Qaeda. In January 2003, six Algerians were arrested in a London apartment with traces of ricin, a deadly poison with no known antidote.
In October 2009, two French brothers of Algerian origin, one a worker at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, were arrested in France after intelligence agencies came to suspect them of “criminal activities related to a terror group,” i.e., AQIM.55 Algeria continues to be a major source of international terrorists, and Algerians have been arrested on suspicion of belonging to or supporting AQIM in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Britain.
AQIM has become increasingly active in the West African Sahel, where it “continues to demonstrate its intent and ability to conduct attacks against U.S. citizens or other foreign nationals,” according to the U.S. State Department.56 The Sahel stretches from Mauritania to Chad and encompasses several poor, often politically unstable countries with large, sparsely populated northern border areas and limited state capacity to monitor or secure them. AQIM reportedly maintains mobile training camps along the Algeria-Mali border, and carries out smuggling operations in countries across the Sahel, taking advantage of porous international borders.
The group has carried out raids on military and police targets, primarily in Mauritania and Mali; kidnapped and assassinated soldiers and tourists in these countries and Niger; attacked foreign embassies in Mauritania; and repeatedly clashed with the militaries of Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria.
The threat of kidnapping is of growing concern. In 2007, AQIM associates murdered four French tourists, prompting cancelation of the famous Dakar Motor Rally. In 2008, AQIM assassinated 12 Mauritanian soldiers and kidnapped the U.N. envoy to Niger and a Canadian colleague. The Canadians and several European tourists kidnapped in early 2009 were held in Mali and ransomed several months later. A Briton in the group was beheaded after his government refused to meet AQIM demands to release a radical cleric who is an alleged Al Qaeda member.
In June 2009, a U.S. aid worker in Mauritania was shot in an apparent kidnapping attempt for which AQIM claimed credit, and, in August, AQIM perpetrated a suicide bombing near the French embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania. It also assassinated a Malian military official involved in the arrest of several AQIM members. That killing was followed by a series of armed clashes between AQIM and Malian forces, which, with Algerian military aid and French air intelligence support, vowed an “all-out war” on AQIM. In November 2009, a heavily armed group attempted unsuccessfully to kidnap U.S. embassy employees in central Niger.
AQIM’s presence in the Sahel is divided between two main groups whose members are predominantly Algerian, but include individuals from Mauritania, Niger, Mali as well as Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, and Benin.57 The groups appear to cooperate operationally, but their roles and relations are not clear. Differences between them may be reflected in the outcomes of the 2008/2009 kidnappings noted above: in one a British hostage was executed, reportedly for jihadist reasons, while the other hostages were ransomed.58 The group that sought ransoms has been responsible for many terrorist attacks, but it reportedly primarily pursues criminal income earning operations and maintains a regional network of contacts who include state officials, possibly marking it as relatively pragmatic compared to other AQIM elements.
Implications for U.S. Policy
U.S. policy makers’ efforts to assist North African and Sahelian governments in countering AQIM threats may need to take into account colonial history and regional power balances and navigate them adroitly.
Algeria, Mauritania, Niger, and Mali are all former colonies of France and suspicious of foreign involvement in their internal affairs and territories. Yet, despite their unease, governments in the region are attempting to improve their counterterrorism capabilities with some foreign assistance in order to address the escalating threat of regional terrorism. Algeria, which waged a bloody war against France for independence, is particularly opposed to foreign interference.
It has a stronger military and is richer than its neighbors thanks to its oil and gas wealth and sees itself as the regional power. This may breed some resentment in the neighborhood and discourage cooperation, as may Algeria’s attempts to act as the pre-eminent regional interlocutor for the United States. Nonetheless, Algeria has hosted regional counterterrorism meetings, provided air cover for some counterterrorist operations in the Sahel, and provided military assistance to Mali.
The U.S. government conducts several initiatives aimed at countering violent extremism in the region. In 2002, the Department of State launched the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI) to increase border security, and military and counterterrorism capacities of Chad, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. PSI programs focused solely on building security sector capacity. In 2005, the Bush Administration announced a “follow-on” program known as the Trans Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP).
An inter-agency, multi-faceted effort, TSCTP integrates counterterrorism and military training with development assistance and public diplomacy. It aims to “improve individual country and regional capabilities …, disrupt efforts to recruit and train new terrorist fighters, particularly from the young and rural poor, and counter efforts to establish safe havens for domestic and outside extremist groups.”59 TSCTP is led by the State Department, but other agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Defense (DOD), implement components of the program, including DOD’s Operation Enduring Freedom – Trans-Sahara (OEF-TS).60 Under OEF-TS, U.S. military forces work with African counterparts to improve intelligence, command and control, logistics, and border control, and to execute joint operations against terrorist groups.61
As democracy struggles to take hold in the region, Sahelian countries face diverse security threats, including armed insurrection, banditry, illegal trafficking, and other criminal activities that may threaten state stability more directly than Islamist terrorism. Some in the development community question whether U.S. policy toward the region strikes an appropriate balance between countering extremism and addressing basic challenges of governance, security, and human development, which some view as contributing to the rise of extremism.
Others question whether the U.S. response employs the appropriate mix of civilian and military resources or
suggests a possibly counterproductive “militarization” of U.S. foreign policy in the region.
This article is an edited selection of a larger February 2010 Congressional Research Service Report, Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence, and Implications for U.S. Policy (PDF) or found here at Open CRS
49 Prepared by Carol Migdalovitz, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Nicolas Cook, Specialist in African Affairs, and Lauren Ploch, Analyst in African Affairs. See CRS Report RS21532, Algeria: Current Issues; CRS Report RS21579, Morocco: Current Issues; and CRS Report RS21666, Tunisia: Current Issues, all by Carol Migdalovitz, for additional background and information.
50 GIA remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO’s), although its heyday ended in 2001 and it has not perpetrated an attack since 2006.
51 See also, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “Three Al Qaeda Associates Arrested on Drug and Terrorism Charges,” Press Release, December 18, 2009.
52 See also, Michael Jonson and Christian Nils Larson, “Illegal Tender: Funding Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” Janes Intelligence Review, October 2008.
53 See also, U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Terrorism, 2008, released April 30, 2009, available online at http://www.state.gov.
54 Some attributed the second ambush to the Protectors of Salafi Call, which reportedly had split from the GSPC and, therefore, is not considered AQIM.54 Others attributed the attack to a regional command of AQIM and still others suggested that AQIM is encroaching on the Protectors’ territory. BBC Monitoring Middle East, “Five Regions Reportedly Designated for ‘Terrorist Deployment’ in Algeria,” El Khabar website, August 5, 2009; and, BBC Monitoring Newsfile, “Retreating of the Salafi Call Protectors,” Echourouk el Youmi website, August 17, 2009.
55 Emily Andrews, “Big Bang Scientist Admits Plotting Al Qaeda Atrocity,” Daily Mail, October 12, 2009.
56 U.S. Department of State, “Travel Warning: Mauritania,” December 2, 2009.
57 One group, reportedly led by Yahia Djouadi and key associates, and is linked closely to AQIM’s Algerian leadership. A second group operates semi-autonomously under the leadership of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a Mali-based former GIA and GSPC member who reportedly split from the GSPC after opposing Droukdel’s accession to the GSPC leadership. See the U.S. Department of the Treasury, “Treasury Targets Al Qaida-Affiliated Terror Group in Algeria,” July 17, 2008; Geoffrey York, “The Shadowy Negotiator Who Freed Fowler and Guay,” Globe and Mail, October 17, 2009; and, Reuters, “Mali Arrests Four Al Qaeda Members Near Algeria,” May 1, 2009, inter alia.
58 Andrew Black, “Mokhtar Belmokhtar: The Algerian Jihad’s Southern Amir,” Terrorism Monitor, (7:12), May, 2009; and U.N. Security Council (UNSC), Committee pursuant to resolution 1267 (1999), various documents, inter alia.
59 U.S. State Department, FY2010 Congressional Budget Justification. TSCTP includes Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia. Libya has been invited to join. Countries nominated for TSCTP membership by a USG agency are consulted and must agree on the designation.
60 For more information, see CRS Report RL34003, Africa Command: U.S. Strategic Interests and the Role of the U.S. Military in Africa, by Lauren Ploch.
61 TSCTP and OEF-TS capacity building activities with Chad, Mauritania, and Niger were limited in FY2009 due to U.S. government restrictions. Sanctions on Mauritania, applied after the August 2008 coup, were lifted in September 2009. Programming in Chad and Niger has been restricted due to both political concerns and human rights vetting issues.