Al-Qaeda, in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is an Islamist militant organization who joined al-Qaeda in 2006. Originally, this group was formed in 1998 as Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) which is a faction of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), very active in Algeria. After joining al-Qaeda, the group changed its name to the current one. Its objectives are: ridding North Africa of Western influence; overthrowing governments considered apostate in Algeria, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia; installing fundamentalist regimes based on sharia. AQIM operates in the northern coastal areas of Algeria and northern Mali. It mainly employs conventional terrorist tactics. Its financing comes from extortion, kidnapping and donations. It operates thanks to a solid network that is formed by a part of AQIM itself, and allies of al-Qaeda branches which are local jihadist organizations.
The strong political instability in the Sahel region has given the opportunity for AQIM to assert its presence in the area. In the last few years, the growing presence of the group in southern Libya, southern Algeria and Mali makes it difficult to create a “cordon sanitaire” that would isolate or limit the scope of action of the group. The fragility of the Libyan state makes possible the infiltration of AQIM. The fragmentation of the territory made sure that the country and its borders could become the perfect corridor for arms and drugs smuggling. The difficulty to control the Libya-Niger borders enables the penetration of the Salafists in the fragmented northern Libya until the eastern coasts and the Gulf of Sidra. If there is no kind of external military operation or political solution to help reconstruct the new government, the possibilities of controlling the Egypt-Lybia borders become very difficult. In the contrary case, AQIM will acquire more control of the area by expanding their corridor and by installing new basis, thus stopping the reconstruction of the territory. It seems that one of the new objectives of AQIM is to regionalize the group by taking advantage of the weakness of Ansar al-Sharia, another Islamist group that operates in seven countries in the area.
In these last days it seems that Maghreb fighters are recruiting former members of the Libyan branch of Ansar al-Sharia. They wish to acquire more power in the region by trying to keep away the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) menace. Moreover, it is documented that AQIM has also a link with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG). This can be explained through AQIM’s will to strengthen the regional network of Salafi jihadists. It is important to remark that there is no alignment between AQIM and ISIL. In fact, AQIM didn’t recognize the caliphate because it was established without the approval of all the jihadists of the world. For this reason ISIL started to menace AQIM’s fighters. The result of this contrast could be the creation of a double offensive front that could bring more instability in the country and a permanent area of contrast with the predominance of one of these groups on the territory. This means a never ending civil conflict between AQIM and ISIL. A possible victory of the latter would open a new front in the global war on terrorism. This will redraw the scenario in some parts of the region.
The growing poverty of the Algerian and Malian borders helps the jihadists to control the two regions, but the political and military external help brings AQIM far from the area. Mali was the first instance in which AQIM attempted to govern a large part of territory based on sharia. In this region and in these circumstances, AQIM collaborated with Ansar Dine. In 2012, the al-Qaeda’s affiliated group took advantage of political chaos in northern Mali to consolidate their control and to tie their relation with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad to secure independence in Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu for ethnic Tuareg. In these two last years, things have changed and Tuareg has started to keep distance from AQIM by getting behind the French army who is in the region. Moreover, the Operation Barkhane (former Operation Serval) has diminished the power and the control of AQIM in Mali. The French presence in Sahel and, in particular in Algeria and Mali, strengthened the control of the borders which makes it impossible to trade in that area. The French also provide political and military support to local regimes who oppose to AQIM. For AQIM’s fighters, France is a cumbersome presence because it made impossible the accomplishment of their mission. This is due to the Operation Barkhane which, on one hand, aims to remove the jihadistsfrom the area and, on the other hand, attempts to reassert the supremacy of French in the region. In addition to this, it should be mentioned that kidnapping is used as a tool to put pressure on foreign governments, in particular on those who are present in Sahel.
On 18 November, AQIM released a video of two hostages, Serge Lazarevic and Sjaak Rijke: both were kidnapped in Mali during November 2011. In this new video we have the certainty that the hostages are still alive and both appeal to their governments, respectively French and Dutch, to negotiate their release from AQIM’s militant. The possibility of establishing a Salafi jihadist caliphate in the Sahel-Sahara region is in doubt if ISIL continues its advance in North Africa. A possible link with the other two members of al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and Boko Haram could help to enlarge the area of influence of all three groups keeping away the Western presence from the two regions. It seems that the three terrorist groups already collaborate in particular in terms of financing and training. If this collaboration amongst themselves proceeds, and none of them recognize the existence of the ISIL caliphate, it becomes possible that AQIM, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab creates a strong resistance to the advance of ISIL in the region where those three groups have strong and different interests.
In the light of this brief excursus and analysis, the proposed solutions are different and necessary. There is the need to implement the operation conducted by the French, by expanding the scope to the entire North Africa and aim to re-establish balance in the area. It could be useful to stop the terrorist activities of AQIM in Libya, Algeria and Mali by deploying a sufficient number of men on the borders all around Libya. In addition to this, there is the necessity to break the relationship between Boko Haram, al-Shabaab and AQIM itself in order to stop the financing of the three and to stop the smuggling of arms, drugs and the kidnapping. It would be helpful if those countries participating in the Operation Barkhane could allocate a budget useful for the restoration of some of the institutions of Mali and Algeria. Moreover, the foreign presence in the Sahel should not be too invasive, but must seek to empower the rulers but not replace them. As regards to the Libyan situation, it is still a priority to try to restore the state organization. Through this, it could be possible to reconstruct a balance in North Africa. The existence of too many close links between the Libyan politics and the organized crime makes it difficult to give much more authority to those who are responsible. The creation of a new security force able to fight against organized crime could be considered a good strategy to point to a weakening of the small organized groups who operate in the area and, on a larger scale, of AQIM in the region.
Master’s degree in International Relations (LUMSA)
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