Crisis in the Sahel: Transnational Terrorism

AQ Maghreb

While some suggest the threats in the Sahara and Sahel are local or regional in scope, their impact is global. Even a cursory overview of the involvement of North Africans as itinerate jihadists linked to al-Qaeda demonstrates this. 

As observed in Iraq, in Syria, we know that North Africans make up a large percentage of the foreign fighters on the rebel side, many of which are aligned today with the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Recently, the Tunisian government announced that 800 of its citizens were fighting alongside Islamist rebels in Syria. Further, in a testament to the scope of the problem, the Libyan Foreign Ministry publicly announced that it had no control over citizens who were leaving the country to join the Syrian uprising. Nevertheless, the flow of African jihadists to fight abroad is, of course, nothing new. Indeed, it was two Tunisians that killed Northern Alliance Leader Ahmad Shah Massoud as an apparent favor to al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks. 

Yet it is not simply Africans leaving to combat perceived threats to Islam outside of the continent that speaks to the global nature of North African militancy: it is also the flow of jihadists into Africa. The recent arrest of a French citizen in Mali, Gilles Le Guen (also known as “Abdel Jelil”) confirms this point, as does the investigation into the January 2013 attack on the natural gas plant at In Amenas in Algeria. It is becoming increasingly evident that the terrorists who perpetrated the attack were able to recruit individuals from Canada to join the operation. In sum, for militants that share the worldview of AQIM, Africa has many front lines and “occupied territories” that also require the fard ‘ayn (individually obligatory) support of fighters to combat non-Muslim oppressors. This was a primary ideological contribution developed by one of global jihad’s original architects, Abdullah Azzam.

Viewed slightly differently, the development of extremist states (emirates) in Africa matters to jihadists, and when non-Muslim forces threaten them, a global reaction ensues. For instance, when France intervened in Mali, threats to France came from al-Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP), Jabhat al Nusra in Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and more recently, AQIM. 

This legacy of transnational jihadism and its growing impact on “local” groups like Boko Haram is precisely why AQIM is more dangerous than ever before—and is further evidence that combating terrorism in Africa should matter very much to the US and her allies.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is the most notorious violent extremist network in the region and a principal source of terrorist violence. Trends related to AQIM that we are witnessing across North Africa and the Sahel should be a cause for concern. The next section explores these developments.

AQIM remains poorly understood and generally underestimated. This could be due to the fact that the organization’s Shura council and leadership is in Kabylia, in northern Algeria, and intelligence sharing from the host country is marginal at best. However, AQIM has been forming networks in the Maghreb and the Sahel for many years, and developing cells or cooperating in other ways with extremist factions like Boko Haram, the Boko Haram splinter group Ansaru, and various Tunisian and Libyan jihadists. The recent attack against the Embassy of France in Tripoli and the failed attack against the British embassy illustrate that the Algerian jihadists and their local allies are able and ready. 

It is noteworthy that the head of AQIM’s notables’ council, Abu Ubayda Youssef al Annabi, recently called for support in attacking France. This call echoed a common refrain of many other global jihadists—join the fight globally against Islam’s oppressors—but was very specific for AQIM and representative of its growing vision and, likely, reach. Indeed, AQIM’s ability to leverage support and increasingly develop its narrative is where its strength lies. Speculation over whether the group operates as a unified organization, how it is divided into smaller franchises or the count of its “members” is basically irrelevant. The important matter is the influence it wields to mobilize support from Islamists across the region, harness discontent and legitimize violent jihad against regional states and their Western supporters. This ability lends it an increasing global character, which has been especially apparent over the last two years.

AQIM has been expanding and forging relationships across the Sahara and Sahel for years with significant implications for the region. These relationships go beyond North and West Africa, as the involvement of Canadians in the In Amenas, Algeria, gas plant attack demonstrated. After the gas plant attack in Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s popularity grew among certain youth in North Africa. An example from social media provides one useful metric. A Facebook page called the “Derna Media Center” (DMC) gained 4000 new “likes” in two weeks after the attack when Belmokhtar’s photo was posted on the site and he was touted a hero (Facebook removed the page). While these “likes” could, of course, indicate many different things and do not suggest 4,000 new AQIM recruits, they serve as one quantifiable illustration of the attention (and potential attraction) AQIM is capable of generating within some regional segments.

In sum, AQIM is linked to a greater or lesser extent to almost all increasingly active jihadist networks across the region, even if by inspiration alone. Indeed, in just the first two weeks of May we have witnessed continued suicide attacks in Mali and the dismantling of two terror cells in Morocco (the “Al Mouahidoun” and “Attawhid” cells, according to news agencies, which had already carried out robberies to fund their activities and were believed to be in contact with jihadists in northern Mali). Further, Egypt claims that it has disrupted a terror plot against one or possibly two foreign embassies; Boko Haram has not stopped its relentless attacks in Northern Nigeria; and an alleged Tunisian militant was arrested for apparently plotting against US and Canadian interests. While some view these events as wholly disconnected, my experience on the ground and contacts across North Africa strongly suggest that the common denominator tying them together is AQIM and/or its inspiration.

Boko Haram is a terrorist group allied with AQIM that wants to create an Islamic State across Nigeria. While some question its links to AQIM, the proof of this relationship—and therefore the threat from Boko Haram to allied interests and US—is growing.

In August 2011, the group attacked the UN Headquarters with a suicide bomber—an innovation that speaks to the group’s commitment to tactical progress and jihadist modus operandi. It is not a coincidence that the same year a spokesman for the group, Abu Al-Qaqa, claimed that Boko Haram had ties with al-Qaeda. While there is no concrete proof to this assertion, the group undoubtedly drinks from the same well, as evidenced by its behavior and pronouncements. A well-publicized video on YouTube titled “Join the Caravan” shows Nigerians participating in training with AQIM. Further, in September 2011, AQIM’s media wing released for the first time a 2011 message purportedly written by Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram. These events highlight the ideological and potentially operational support that permits Boko Haram to grow in sophistication (and threat).

Rudolph Atallah is a senior fellow with the Ansari Africa Center. This piece is an excerpt of Atallah’s full testimony before the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs on May 21, 2013. Photo credit: Flickr

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