Drowning in the Desert: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

AQIM (al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) is a branch of the terrorist group al Qaeda that operates in Northern African countries such as Mali, Algeria, Niger, and so on. Al Qaeda in the Maghreb began in 1998 as a group known as the GSPC, with the main goal of overtaking the Algerian government and gaining the support of its people. The founder of GSPC, Hassan Hattab, had originally been part of a group known as the GIA, which had the same goals of taking over the Algerian government. However, Hattab took issue with the takfiri ideology (extremist mentality) of the GIA, because once in power they had begun to turn against civilians, which he felt was wrong. Hattab’s group, the GSPC, aimed to complete their goals without betraying the civilians who had helped them. This people-friendly strategy later helped them become so popular in the Maghreb and rise to power.

A few years after their founding, Hattab’s successor renamed the group “al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”. This change put them under the metaphorical “umbrella” of the al Qaeda name, giving the group protection and power, and encouraging more people to join their group. However, AQIM mainly gained power through the usage of guerrilla tactics- in 2003, AQIM kidnapped 23 European tourists throughout the Sahara, holding them ransom and ultimately making $4.5 million dollars per hostage. They also made an estimated $100 million from various smuggling activities. However, with this money, they were able to provide benefits and services for locals in their territories of interest, gaining them useful local support and enabling them to become more powerful than the official government.

In 2012, the French government became aware of AQIM due to their involvement in certain terrorist attacks claimed by al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is responsible for hundreds (if not thousands) of attacks across the globe, one being the infamous attack on employees of the magazine Charlie Hebdo after they published an offensive cartoon of Mohammed on their cover page. The French sent troops to the Maghreb, succeeding in destroying the AQIM organization enough that its members were forced to scatter across the Maghreb. Although these supporters still exist, they have been dampened by the presence of French and American troops and have not regained the control over the area that they once had. It appears that AQIM rose to power using guerrilla tactics, evolved into a semi-government-like entity in 2012-2013, but devolved back to a guerilla group after being pushed out of power by French forces. 

In 2012-2013, at the height of their power and control, al Qaeda in the Maghreb displayed characteristics similar to those of a government. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, AQIM “bought themselves goodwill, friendship and networks by distributing money, offering medicine, treating the sick and providing cellular phone access.” Offering medicine and healthcare is something many governments do for their citizens. They also provided cell phone access which, although unbeknownst to many of us, is actually something similar to what our own government does- the US offers free cell phone plans to those who cannot afford it. The CTC also describes how “after the MNLA offensive, AQIM also offered locals protection. In some of their territory in Timbuktu, for example, AQIM communicated a “green” cell phone number that people could call if they were harassed by MNLA members or ordinary bandits.” This is definite government behavior- if someone feels threatened in the United States, they call 911 and the local police come. If someone’s being harassed in Timbuktu, they call the green cell phone number and AQIM members come to assist them. 

The way AQIM was able to settle in northern Mali was a push towards becoming a government. AQIM has a very successful way of gaining power, and integrated themselves into communities “based on a combination of military, political, religious, economic and humanitarian means.” In Mali, they were accepted into the area because the locals so despised the official government that they actually preferred AQIM- people viewed the local government as corrupt and unfair, whereas AQIM presented as a group of honest Muslims that brought many benefits to the community. This government-oriented approach put them in a position to replace the already-existing government. Perhaps, if they had not been pushed out by the French, they would have been able to take power and instate themselves as a government in northern Mali. 

After the jihadists of AQIM scattered, any government-like structure they had was dissolved. Small groups were able to survive thanks to local support, but the strong presence of troops from countries such as the US and France made sure that they were unable to regroup. In 2017, AQIM merged into a group known as JNIM, a currently active terrorist group, in an effort to stay alive and continue their mission. But with 6,000-7,000 American troops still in Africa, it is unlikely that they will ever regain the power they once held. 

Boko Haram, A Gang-like Terrorist Group

         Boko Haram (“western education is forbidden”), formally known as Jama’atu Ahlus-Sunnah Lidda’Awati Wal Jihad (“People Committed to the Prophet’s Teachings for Propagation and Jihad”), is a jihadist terrorist organization based in the northeast states of Nigeria. It was founded in 2001 by Muhammed Yusuf in Maiduguri. Boko Haram reveals how the members view the world and their place in it through the group’s name. In order to create a “pure” Islamic state ruled by Sharia, Boko Haram wages a war against who they perceive “corrupt, false Muslims.” Their attacks mainly focus on police, military, government targets, as well as on Christian churches and schools and Muslim individuals who are critical of the group. Even though Boko Haram was originally identified as a guerrilla group for their clear political motivation and later as a terrorist group by the UN, the US, and other countries in the 2010s, the features of its structure, financing system, and warfare strategies and effects place Boko Haram in a category of a gang rather than a government.        

          The cell-like structure of Boko Haram allows it to develop into various factions and offshoots, and the repercussion for disloyalty within the group is execution, which is similar to many gangs. In August 2016, nearly a year and a half after Boko Haram pledged allegiance to ISIS under Shekau, the second leader of Boko Haram, ISIS unilaterally announced a replacement for Shekau. This was because Shekau’s indiscriminate use of violence that affected Muslims. The new candidate was Abu Musab al-Barnawi, son of Yusuf. The group split into two: Boko Haram or ISWAP led by Shekau and ISWA led by al-Barnawi. Several conflicts between the two fractions occurred in the following months, resulting in deaths of several Shekau’s associates, resembling gang warfare where its members kill or maim members of different gangs in turf fights or simply because of respect issues. Boko Haram shows no tolerance towards the members who are weak or disloyal. Mamman Nur, the military chief, was allegedly killed by his own men after failing to exact a ransom before releasing the kidnapped Chibok girls. Ali Gaga, leader of Boko Haram, was killed by his own men because he allegedly plotted to escape along with over 300 Boko Haram captives and to surrender to the Nigerian military. “Once in, hard to quit” is a typical feature in gangs, which is also shown within Boko Haram.

        Another hallmark of gangs are their finance sources, which are through various illegal dealings. Similar to that, Boko Haram’s finances heavily rely on lucrative criminal activity, particularly kidnapping for ransom and extortion. In April 2014, Boko Haram militants kidnapped around 276 teenage girls from a boarding school in Chibok in Borno with a demand of $50 million for ransom. This incident sparked global outrage and a #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media. It is also believed that Boko Haram finances itself through bank robberies, protection money from local governors, and foreign donations.          

          Since Boko Haram changed strategy in 2011 when it adopted suicide attacks, there has been an increase in frequency and magnitude of killing and injuring many innocent people, which moves the group further from operating like a government. The effects during the past ten years are disastrous: more than 10,000 Nigerians have been killed; a lot of people have been maimed; women have been kidnapped and raped; family members of Boko Haram victims have undergone severe psychological trauma. Out of a total national population of 160 million, there are about 10 million Nigerian youth  not in school, along with 19,000 teachers fleeing in fear. Beyond social and educational consequences, Boko Haram also affects Nigeria’s economy. Banks, markets and shops do not open regularly due to the fear of attacks, leading to a reduction in commercial activities. Similar to the effects of gangs in general, the chaos and disruption Boko Haram has brought to Nigeria’s citizens’ lives fear and terror.

          The operating systems and beliefs of Boko Haram, where conflicts occur between fractions and no betrayal is allowed, along with its financing source through illegal activities, are similar to a predatory gang. Moreover, while a government should protect its people from threats and maintain a functional system within the society, Boko Haram destroys the Nigerian economic system, education, and basic social structure. Ruling and controlling some villages with fear and terror, Boko Haram has not been successful at acting like a common gang rather than a government.