All posts by Zephy Thompson

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.