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al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: The Making of an Islamic Caliphate

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a militant group that operates in the Sahara and Sahel regions in Africa. It is a Salafi-jihadist group, though its ideology also includes regionally resonant ideas, such as those that allude to the Islamic conquest of Maghreb and the Iberian Peninsula.

AQIM branched out from a guerrilla Islamist movement called the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) that, in the 1990s, opposed and revolted against Algeria’s secular leadership. Some members of the organization disapproved of the group’s indiscriminate methods and the killing of civilians and decided to split from the group and form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). This organization was initially popular due to its intentions of rebelling without harming civilians, though it failed to move away from this type of killing. The GSPC became an al-Qaeda affiliate in 2006 and was then renamed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Even with this new affiliation, AQIM’s original interests and goals were safeguarded.

AQIM has its roots in the Kabylie Mountains of Algeria, though the group has expanded into other countries in the recent past. Its businesses of smuggling, trafficking, and kidnapping for ransom are carried out within communities that stretch across the Maghreb region. The group has been very successful and is considered al-Qaeda’s wealthiest affiliate.

Although AQIM’s tactics qualify the organization as a guerrilla group, it acts as a gang and its recent activities demonstrate the group’s aspirations to become the government of a caliphate within the Maghreb region of Africa.

AQIM’s operations include raids, assassinations, suicide bombings, executions, and kidnappings, all of which are guerrilla-style actions. The majority of its funds come from kidnapping for ransom and trafficking various items, including people, vehicles, weapons, cigarettes, and narcotics. This behavior suggests that AQIM acts as an institutional gang. Its activities go beyond guerrilla warfare to money-generating activities for the sake of sustenance and influence.

The immense wealth of the group alone is appealing to possible members, though its association with al-Qaeda boosted its numbers as the affiliation widened AQIM’s audience to the massive number of online jihadists who now see the group as fighting on behalf of al-Qaeda. AQIM became more of an international presence and was able to boost recruitment.

Since becoming affiliated with al-Qaeda, AQIM’s goal of overthrowing the Algerian government has expanded to include the governments of Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, and Mali, and to the reclamation of the lost Islamic lands in Southern Spain. The group’s center has shifted progressively southward to the Sahara and Sahel regions. AQIM now has the potential to unite North African militant groups by bringing them together under the common umbrella of al-Qaeda.

The potential of this unification has already been displayed through AQIM’s efforts in Mali. Following the Arab Spring, Libyan Tuareg fighters ended up in Northern Mali, where AQIM and its various splinter groups allied with the Tuareg fighters and took control of much of Northern Mali. The group hoped to create an Islamic state in Mali and use that as a platform to launch a movement southward. Other countries intervened and forced AQIM out of some major strongholds, though the group continues to operate in Northern Mali, demonstrating that it hopes to reassert itself in the areas that it once controlled. Due to this setback, AQIM has turned to Libya, using its instability as an opportunity to expand eastward, and uses it as a new platform to strengthen its presence in the country and carry out powerful attacks in Algeria. AQIM’s ultimate goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Maghreb region, where the group would enforce Sharia Law. The group does not currently appear to be able to create such a state in the area, though it will presumably continue behaving as it has been, completing both jihadist and criminal operations to strengthen its finances and further its goals.