Last month British Prime Minister David Cameron said Islamist terrorist groups in North Africa pose a significant threat to global stability. The Islamist presence in Algeria and Mali, he said, is “linked to al-Qaeda, it wants to destroy our way of life, it believes in killing as many people as it can. We need to work with others to defeat the terrorists and to close down the ungoverned spaces where they thrive with all the means that we have.”
British pundits were quick to heap scorn on Cameron’s assessment. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian wrote that
the so-called al-Qaida menace appears to be a ragtag coalition of Tuaregs, gangsters and dissidents, armed with weapons mostly released by Nato’s regime change in Libya. They managed to grab a barely accessible Saharan base, but have melted away at the first sign of serious opposition.
Tom Stevenson on the website of the UK monthly Prospect claims these groups pose no “existential threat” to the West and its interests. British former diplomat Carne Ross states that while the armed Islamist groups across Africa may be collaborating, there is “no evidence of a coordinated network with international terrorist ambitions.” Unlike real terrorists who fight for global jihad, Ross claims, Africa’s jihadist groups have strictly local origins and local agendas. Such skepticism has also been voiced in official circles in Washington.
The French government, by contrast, has taken the Saharan terror threat very seriously for some time. According to the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur, members of the departing Sarkozy administration in May 2012 informed François Hollande’s defense staff that “the French people don’t know it, but the risk of [terrorist] attacks coming from this region are very high.” Since 2009, these sources claim, French intelligence services thwarted three planned attacks on French soil and five attempts to infiltrate jihadist fighters.
Today, after a week or two of calm in most of Mali, it’s apparent that reports of violent jihadism’s demise in the country were greatly exaggerated. Over the weekend, the northern city of Gao was the scene of Mali’s first-ever suicide bombings: two separate bombs exploded, one involving a jihadist on a motorbike, the other a jihadist on a donkey. Malian security forces carried out arrests on Saturday, then on Sunday engaged in fierce firefights with Islamist rebels; news footage from France2 (below) shows French armor and helicopter gunships coming to the aid of Malian troops in the city. The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has claimed responsibility.
There’s a tendency among some analysts to dismiss AQIM as a primarily criminal enterprise, more concerned with its lucrative smuggling and kidnapping activities than with jihad. I used to think this way, but now I’m not so sure.
For those who want to learn more about AQIM, I recommend two books. The first, published in French last year, is Al-Qaida du Maghreb Islamique : L’industrie de l’enlèvement, by the Franco-Beninois journalist Serge Daniel. Daniel, the veteran West Africa reporter for Agence France Press and Radio France International, spent over two years interviewing the region’s security officials, political leaders, and even detained radicals. His book minutely details AQIM’s origins in the Algerian civil war and its decade-long history of kidnapping Westerners for ransom, a strategy that has netted the organization up to €100 million by some sources. (In this regard, the supposed bombshell revelation by a former U.S. ambassador to Mali that France had paid ransoms to AQIM came as no surprise.) Somewhat less thoroughly, the book also outlines AQIM’s Algerian-dominated command structure, its involvement in drug smuggling, its finances, its ideology, and its recruiting methods. (The AQIM fighter’s average age, Daniel says, is 16 years; reports of child soldiers in the Islamists’ ranks have been legion both in Malian and Western media). The book portrays the group’s members as driven first and foremost by intolerant dogma and virulent anti-Western zeal.
The second book is A Season in Hell: My 130 Days in the Sahara with Al Qaeda by Robert Fowler. This is an account by a senior Canadian diplomat who was himself kidnapped by AQIM during a mission to Niger in December 2008. He and another Canadian hostage were held in the unimaginably remote wastes of Mali’s Kidal region for four months before being set free (at the price, according to Daniel’s book, of the release of AQIM members from Mauritanian custody). “I have never met a more single-minded and committed set of individuals than the AQIM katiba [unit] that held us,” writes Fowler, who describes at length his erstwhile captors’ operational prowess, their austere lives, their harsh environment, their fervent faith and their many (unsuccessful) attempts to persuade and harangue their hostages into converting to Islam. His portrait of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the AQIM leader who coordinated last month’s hostage drama in Algeria, is especially telling: the man may have a reputation as a smuggler of stolen cars and cigarettes (he’s been branded “Mister Marlboro” in the Western media), but in these pages Belmokhtar appears so puritanical he’s visibly ashamed to inform his Canadian hostages that some of his fighters ate part of a package of cookies meant for them after it broke open en route. Fowler characterizes the question of whether AQIM is “really Al Qaeda” as “startlingly moot: if they think like Al Qaeda, are motivated by and want to achieve the same things as Al Qaeda, behave like Al Qaeda, fight, kill, and die like Al Qaeda, and say they are Al Qaeda, then, quite simply, they are.”
[Fowler has recently returned to the public eye in Canada through his outspoken advocacy of a larger Canadian role in international military intervention in Mali.]
At the onset of Operation Serval last month, AQIM was estimated to have up to 1000 fighters. (Its allies had a few thousand more; some have reportedly turned up in Darfur, others in Libya, while still others have no doubt sought safer careers since French airstrikes began.) The organization seeks to “internationalize the conflict as best as they can,” according to an EU adviser quoted in The Washington Post. In addition to its role in orchestrating January’s In Amenas attack, AQIM brought fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram to train for several months in Timbuktu.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its partners in the region may not have held their ground against the French army and air force last month, but they are by no means vanquished. Reports indicate that they carried out an orderly withdrawal to their desert stronghold, where they will be exceedingly difficult to find and kill. They are ideologically driven and flush with cash. They have the desire and growing capacity to sow terror and instability throughout West Africa and the Sahara. In light of the renewed violence in Gao this weekend, it would be prudent to expect them to put up a determined, bitter fight lasting not weeks, not months, but years. If they are not eliminated or effectively contained, and if what Daniel and Fowler have written about them is at all accurate, there’s no reason to believe they’ll be content to remain in the Saharan sands and leave the rest of the world alone.
Postscript, 14 February: A description of life under Islamist rule in Timbuktu, based on Arabic-language court documents discovered in that city, appears on the website of Foreign Policy. Rukmini Callimachi of the Associated Press describes an AQIM “manifesto” left behind in Timbuktu.