Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

FormedSeptember 11, 2006
DisbandedGroup is active.
First Attack1998: From 1998 to 2003, the GSPC conducted a series of guerilla-style attacks using small arms, in addition to mortar, rocket, and IED attacks on Algerian Government targets. [1]
Last AttackJuly 2, 2015: AQIM released a video depicting an ambush of UN peacekeepers in Mali. (unknown casualties) [2]
UpdatedApril 12, 2016

Narrative Summary

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), also sometimes referred to as Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQLIM), is an Algerian-based Salafi-Jihadist organization that became affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda (AQ) in 2006.  Prior to becoming an AQ affiliate in 2006, AQIM was known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The GSPC was formed in 1998 when several generals in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the largest and most brutal Islamist group fighting the Algerian Government in the Algerian Civil War, split away from the larger organization. [3] [4] [5] These generals, led by Hassan Hattab, broke with the GIA in protest of its indiscriminate tactics and excessive slaughter of civilians. [6] The GSPC originally garnered widespread public support by pledging to continue resisting the government without targeting civilians. Thus in its early days, the GSPC often perpetrated guerilla-style attacks using small arms, in addition to mortar, rocket, and IED attacks. [7] However, the Algerian government’s amnesty program in the early 2000s lured many fighters away from the GSPC, creating disarray in its ranks. It remains unclear if the organization has ever regained the same cohesion it possessed in the late 1990s. [8]  

Following these set backs, the GSPC began to expand its operations into other parts of Algeria and the greater North Africa. Most notably, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was named commander of the GSPC’s southern operations in 2003, began to establish cells in the south of Algeria and Mali as early as 2003. [9] Later, in August 2003, Hattab was forced out of the GSPC, purportedly because he supported reconciliation with the government.  He was replaced by Nabil Sahraoui, who is best known for first pledging the GSPC’s allegiance to Osama bin Laden as well as to Taliban leader Mullah Omar in October 2003 (although Sahraoui nominally pledged allegiance to bin Laden in 2003, the GSPC did not become a formal affiliate of AQ until 2006). [10]  Sahraoui was killed in a shootout with the Algerian army on June 20, 2004. [11] He was succeeded by Abdelmalek Droukdel, who remains the Emir of AQIM today. {“Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb.” Australian National Security, May 2013. Web. 27 Oct. 2015. Little is known about the group’s activities during this time outside of the increasing number of high-profile kidnappings it conducted. Over the course of the preceding decade, the group raised an estimated $50 million from ransoms alone. [12]

On September 11, 2006, the GSPC and Al Qaeda leadership announced a formal alliance between the two organizations; the GSPC was renamed Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in January of the following year. [13] It is believed that the alliance was originally facilitated by members of the GSPC’s leadership who had trained and fought alongside AQ in Afghanistan in the 1980s prior to returning to Algeria.  The alliance had seemingly little to do with the groups’ ideology, and much more to do with the monetary and strategic advantages it conferred on each organization. For the GSPC, becoming part of Al Qaeda increased the organization’s international profile and boosted its recruitment capabilities. [14] For Al Qaeda, allying with the GSPC presented the group with the opportunity to expand its operations onto a new continent and thus demonstrate its resilience and continued power at a time when the global war on terror was reaching its zenith. Perhaps even more importantly for AQ, however, was the huge amount of monetary resources the GSPC brought to the affiliation.  By 2006, the GSPC was one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world, having raised tens of millions of dollars from ransoming hostages and trafficking arms, drugs, and people through North Africa. [15] [16]

AQIM’s attacks and militant operations reached their height in 2007.  Prior to this time the group’s terrorist activities were limited to kidnappings and guerilla-style attacks on Algerian government targets, which usually utilized small arms.  Beginning in 2007, however, AQIM began to focus its resources on larger scale bombings and higher profile kidnappings. [17] [18] The most notable of these attacks was AQIM’s simultaneous bombings of the regional UN headquarters and the Algerian Constitutional Court in Algiers on April 11th 2007, in which 33 individuals lost their lives. [19] Droukdal also began to spread AQIM’s activities further into other states in the region, reflecting his desire to establish an Islamic Caliphate not only in Algeria, but also across the rest of North Africa. [20]

Instability in the Middle East following the Arab Spring in 2011 has profoundly affected AQIM’s operations and capacity. Analysts have become increasingly concerned in recent years about the great number of fighters that have left the Sahara and Sahel region to fight in the conflicts now raging in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. There is some evidence to suggest that some of these foreign fighters have returned to swell AQIM’s ranks. [21] Furthermore, the crises across the region have led to an the influx of arms to the Middle East and North Africa, which has allowed AQIM to grow its arsenal as well as profit from selling old munitions to combatants.  Additionally, the instability in neighboring Libya has presented AQIM the opportunity to expand its operations eastward. [22] Most notably, many senior U.S. officials, including former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and former head of Africa Command General Carter Ham, have alleged that AQIM was linked to the September 2012 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi. [23] [24] These claims have never been proven, but continue to be debated among U.S. leadership and policy analysts. During this time, AQIM also established relations with militant groups elsewhere in the region, including with Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Somalia’s Al Shabbab, and Yemen’s AQAP.  It has purportedly exchanged funds, arms and information with these organizations. [25]

In March 2012, Tuareg rebels rose against the Government of Mali.  AQIM’s southern battalions, led by Belmokhtar, quickly took over leadership of the rebellion, largely sidelining the Tuareg rebels, and established a foothold in Northern Mali that included the cities of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. In its operations in Mali, AQIM worked closely with Ansar al-Din (AD) and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which are two other prominent Islamist Organizations operating in West Africa.  [26] Together the groups established Sharia law in the lands under their control and set up training camps for new recruits. [27] However, by January 2013, a French military operation aimed at re-establishing stability in Mali had pushed AQIM and its allies out of most of the country. [28]

Around the same time in late 2012 or early 2013, AQIM’s southern front began to fragment.  A serious schism between AQIM central leadership under the command of Droukdal and Belmokhtar’s southern battalions had been progressively widening for several years. As Belmokhtar’s financial resources and prestige grew over the course of the late 2000s as a result of his involvement in the regional arms and drug trafficking trade as well as in a series of high profile kidnappings, so to did his independence from Droukdal’s command. [29] Although Droukdal attempted to reassert control over AQIM’s southern flank by appointing several close allies as regional commanders, the schism was only compounded by the harsh French and Algerian military crackdowns on the group in 2012.  Thus in late 2012, Belmokhtar and his divisions in the south are believed to have split from AQIM, renaming its splinter group the al-Mulathamun Battalion (“Those who Sign in Blood”).  The al-Mulathamun Battalion’s most notable operations were the hostage crisis in January 2013 it masterminded at the Amenas natural gas facility in Eastern Algeria that left at least 38 civilians dead, and its twin suicide bombings in Niger later in the same year. [30] [31]

AQIM’s strength appears to have somewhat ebbed since 2013, although it did make international headlines in July 2014 when it released a statement supporting the Islamic State (IS).  This was especially notable, given AQ Central’s general opposition to IS. Neither AQ Central nor IS is known to have responded to the statement. [32] However, in July 2015, AQIM released an official statement on twitter denouncing the IS in response to the attacks carried out by its affiliates against the Mujahideen Shurah Council (MSC), an AQ-affiliated organization in Libya. [33] The group reiterated its rebuke of IS in a joint statement published between AQIM and AQAP in November 2015. [34] Also in 2015, AQIM again gained international attention for an attack it perpetrated on U.S. peacekeepers outside Timbuktu in Mali. [35]

Leadership


  1. Abu Zeid (Unknown to Present): Zeid is believed to be a top commander in AQIM. In 2012, Droukdal gave Zeid command of several battalions on AQIM’s southern front in an attempt to counterbalance Belmokhtar’s growing influence.[36]
  2. Amari Saifi (Unknown to 2004): Saifi was the deputy commander of the GSPC until his capture by Algerian security forces in 2004.[37]
  3. Hassan Hattab (1998 to August 2003): Hattab founded the GSPC when he split from the GIA in 1998 in response to the GIA’s increasing use of mass violence against Algerian civilians. He remained the leader of the GSPC until August 2003, when he was forced out of the organization because of his support for a peace agreement with the Algerian government. [38]
  4. Mokhtar Belmokhtar (1998 to 2013): Belmokhtar assumed command of the GSPC’s southern battalions in the late 2000s. He is credited with expanding the organization’s operations southward, into southern Algeria and Mali. His familial ties to the tribes of the southern Maghreb region allowed Belmokhtar to capitalize on the trafficking trade in the region. He was so successful in the illegal cigarette trade that he earned the moniker, “Mr. Marlborough.” As Belmokhtar’s financial resources and personal fame grew, he became increasingly independent from AQIM central leadership. Finally in late 2012, Belmokhtar split from AQIM all together and founded his own organization, which he named the al-Mulathamun Battalion. [39]
  5. Nabil Sahraoui (August 2003 to June 20, 2004): Sahraoui replaced Hassan Hattab as the leader of the GSPC in August 2003, but was killed a year later in June 2004 in a shoot out with Algerian security forces. He is known for pledging the GSPC’s nominal allegiance to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. [40]
  6. Abdelmalek Droukdel (June 2004 to Present): Droukdel, also known as Abou Mossab Abdelwadoud, is an engineer by trade and an expert in improvised explosive devices. He succeeded Sahraoui as leader of the GSPC in June 2004 and is credited with formally allying the GSPC with Al Qaeda.[41]

Ideology & Goals

AQIM is a Salafi-Jihadist organization.  As the GSPC, the group’s main focus was the overthrow of the Algerian government and establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the Maghreb that would enforce Shariah Law in the region. [42] The GSPC expanded this goal in the early 2000s to include the overthrow of the other governments in the Maghreb region, namely those in Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Mali, and the reclamation of the lost Islamic lands in Southern Spain. [43] Despite its alliance with Al Qaeda in 2006 and name change the following year, AQIM’s goals did not shift dramatically.  Unlike Al Qaeda Central, AQIM considers France and Spain, not the United States, the “far enemy,” and prefers to target regional governments over Western Nations. [44] [45] Although AQIM has often threatened to attack France and was quick to praise the Charlie Hebdo massacre, there is no evidence that AQIM has perpetrated any attacks on targets outside the Maghreb region.  It has, however, publically expressed support for Islamist extremism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, Chechnya, and Palestine. [46]

Name Changes


Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

·      United States Foreign Terrorist Organization: March 27, 2002 [58]

·      Listed under United Nations Security Council Resolution 1267 as an entity associated with Al Qaeda: 2013 [59]

·      Also listed as a terrorist organization by Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.K. (The U.K. lists the group as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC)) [60]

Resources

AQIM has often been called “Al Qaeda’s wealthiest affiliate.” [61] The group has raised the majority of its funds from kidnappings for ransom and its trafficking activities.  It is estimated that over the course of the first decade of the 2000s, the group raised over $50 million from kidnappings alone. [62] [63] [64] Furthermore, the group has become a key trafficker of drugs, cigarettes, arms, and humans both within North Africa and between South America and Europe via Africa. [65] The tribal connections of many of the group’s leaders are believed to have helped facilitate AQIM’s entrance into these illegal trades in the early 2000s. AQIM is also believed to receive a smaller portion of its income from donations from sympathizers in Europe, criminal activities such as robbery, and connections with other groups in the region, such as Boko Haram and Al Shabbab. [66]

External Influences

AQIM has no known connections with governments in the region or abroad.

Geographical Locations

AQIM is based in the Kabylie Mountains in Northern Algeria.  However, over the course of the first decade of the 2000s, AQIM expanded its operations into Niger, Tunisia, Mauritania, Chad, Libya and Mali. [67] [68] The group’s presence in Mali expanded significantly following a coup in Mali that overthrew the Malian Government in late 2012. Within a matter of months, AQIM’s Mali based battalions, led by Belmokhtar and working in cooperation Ansar al-Din and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), had captured large swaths of Northern Mali, including the Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal.  However, by January 2013, French forces had largely pushed AQIM and their allies out of Malian territory. [69] In addition to its holdings in North Africa, AQIM is also suspected of having cells spread throughout Europe. Some sources have also reported AQIM operatives fighting alongside other Al Qaeda affiliated groups in the Iraqi Insurgency after 2011. [70] 

Targets & Tactics

AQIM is most famous for it numerous kidnappings of aid workers, diplomats, tourists, and employees of multinational corporations.  Many, but not all, of those kidnapped by AQIM have been Western citizens in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Algeria. [71] [72]

 

In its early days, AQIM often perpetrated guerilla-style attacks using small arms, in addition to mortar, rocket, and IED attacks. [73] Its most common targets were the Algerian Government or military officials. After 2007, the group began to focus on larger, more sophisticated bombing attacks.  The group is known to possess significant quantities of AK-47 assault rifles, various small handguns, Semtex (a multi-purpose plastic explosive), PK 7.62mm GPMGs (General Purpose Machine Gun), and RPGs (Rocket Propelled Grenades).  Additionally, AQIM has been reported to possess SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, .50 caliber DSHKs (armor piercing machine guns), and NATO issued F2000 assault rifles. The group’s weapons stores have only increased since the outbreak of civil war in Libya in 2011, which brought an influx of arms to the Maghreb region. [74]

 

Although AQIM has often targeted westerners in North Africa, the group has never carried out an attack outside of the Middle East.  Although undoubtedly hostile to the U.S., AQIM views France and Spain as the “far enemy,” as opposed to the secular governments of the Maghreb, which it deems the “near enemy.” [75] [76]

Political Activities

AQIM has no known political activities. 

Major Attacks

  1. 1998: From 1998 to 2003, the GSPC conducted a series of guerilla-style attacks using small arms, in addition to mortar, rocket, and IED attacks on Algerian Government targets. (unknown casualties).[77]
  2. April 2003: Belmokhtar took 32 Europeans hostage in Northern Mali. All but one of the hostages were ransomed for a total of $6 million. The remaining hostage died in the desert of unspecified causes. (1 killed, 0 wounded).[78]
  3. 2007: AQIM claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing attack in the Algerian city of Batna that was aimed at the motorcade of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Although the president was not injured, 20 others were killed. (20 killed, unknown wounded).[79]
  4. December 2007: AQIM conducted simultaneous bombing attacks on the Algerian Constitutional Court and the UN Regional Headquarters. (33 killed, unknown wounded).[80]
  5. August 19, 2008: AQIM perpetrated a suicide car bombing at a police college in Issers, Algeria. (48 killed, unknown wounded).[81]
  6. December 2008: AQIM abducted UN Special Envoy, Robert Fowler, and his assistant, Louis Guay, in Niger. They were released in 2009. (no casualties)).[82]
  7. May 2009: AQIM released a statement announcing that it had killed a British hostage following months of failed negotiations for his release. (1 killed, 0 wounded).[83]
  8. June 2009: AQIM claimed to have killed U.S. citizen Christopher Legget in Mauritania because of his missionary activities. In 2011 an Algerian court sentenced an AQIM member to death and two others to jail for Legget’s murder. (1 killed, 0 wounded).[84]
  9. March 2012: Following a coup in Mali launched by Tuareg insurgents, AQIM and its allies, Ansar al-Din (AD) and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), launched an offensive in Mali, eventually taking control of Northern Mali. However, by January of 2013, a French operation pushed AQIM and its allies back out of most of the country. (unknown casualties).[85]
  10. September 11, 2012: Although it have never been proven, AQIM has been implicated in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens as well as three other Americans. (4 killed, 10+ wounded).[86]
  11. May 2014: AQIM claimed responsibility for killing four policemen outside the home of the Tunisian Interior Minister. (4 killed, unknown wounded).[87]
  12. May 31, 2015: AQIM claimed responsibility for a mine that was triggered by a UN convoy in Mali that included the UN MINUSMA peacekeeping mission’s commander, Major General Michawl Lollesgaard and the mission’s police chief, Abdounasir Awale. (3 killed, unknown wounded).[88]
  13. July 2, 2015: AQIM released a video depicting an ambush of UN peacekeepers in Mali. (unknown casualties).[89]

Relationships with Other Groups

AQIM’s relationship with Al Qaeda (AQ) dates back to the 1980s, when many future leaders of AQIM fought alongside bin Laden and the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. [90] Although Nabil Sahraoui nominally pledged the GSPC’s allegiance to AQ in October 2003, the two groups did not become formally affiliated until September 11, 2006.  The GSCP did not change its name to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb until January of the next year. [91] Often termed an alliance of convenience, the AQIM-AQ affiliation has seemingly little to do with the groups’ ideology, and much more to do with the monetary and strategic advantages it confers on each group. For the GSPC, becoming part of Al Qaeda increased the organizations international profile and boosted its recruitment capabilities. [92] For Al Qaeda, allying with the GSPC presented the group the opportunity to expand its operations onto a new continent and thereby demonstrate its resilience and continued power at a time when the global war on terror was reaching its zenith. Perhaps even more importantly for AQ, however, was the huge amount of monetary resources the GSPC brought to the affiliation.  By 2006, the GSPC was one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world, having raised tens of millions of dollars from ransoming hostages and trafficking arms, drugs, and people through North Africa. [93] [94]

Ansar al-Din (AD) and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) are both believed to be splinter groups of AQIM, although it remains unclear when or under what circumstances they broke with the organization.  Both AD and MUJAO fought alongside AQIM’s southern battalions, led by Belmokhtar, in Mali in 2012. However, in late 2012, Belmokhtar and his divisions in the south are believed to have split from AQIM also, renaming itself the al-Mulathamun Battalion (“Those who Sign in Blood”). [95] [96] The al-Mulathamun Battalion and MUJAO merged in August of 2013 to form al-Murabitun, or “The Sentinals.” [97]

The U.S. State Department has claimed that AQIM has coordinated and exchanged money, weapons, and information with Al Shabbab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular (AQAP) in Yemen. [98] In July 2014, AQIM released a statement supporting the Islamic State (IS).  This was especially notable, given AQ Central’s general opposition to IS. Neither AQ Central nor IS is known to have responded to the statement. [99] However, in July 2015, AQIM released an official statement on twitter denouncing the IS in response to the attacks carried out by its affiliates against the Mujahideen Shurah Council (MSC), an AQ-affiliated organization in Libya. [100] The group reiterated its rebuke of IS in a joint statement published between AQIM and AQAP in November 2015. [101]

Community Relationships

Although AQIM has extensive business ties with the communities in the Maghreb and cooperates closely with locals in its smuggling and trafficking activities, the communities also tend to be unreceptive to AQIM’s messages of radical and violent Islamism.  Furthermore, views of the United States and the West tend to be positive among West Africans, further reducing the impact of AQIM’s radical messages. [102]


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