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West Africa's Growing Terrorist Threat: Confronting AQIM's Sahelian Strategy

West Africa's Growing Terrorist Threat: Confronting AQIM's Sahelian Strategy

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Published by Davin O'Regan
AQIM has been present in West Africa for several years but is now beginning to assert itself more forcefully. For French and Portuguese language versions and other related articles, visit: http://africacenter.org/2011/03/asb_11_eng/
AQIM has been present in West Africa for several years but is now beginning to assert itself more forcefully. For French and Portuguese language versions and other related articles, visit: http://africacenter.org/2011/03/asb_11_eng/

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Published by: Davin O'Regan on Mar 27, 2011
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02/04/2013

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AFRICA SECURITY BRIEF
West Africa’s Growing Terrorist Threat:Confronting AQIM’s Sahelian Strategy
B
Y
M
ODIBO
G
OÏTA
A PUBLICATION OF THE AFRICA CENTER FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES
 
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is increasingly well integrated with local communities andcriminal networks in the Sahel. 
Counterterrorism efforts among Sahelian governments remain uncoordinated and too narrowly focusedto contain and confront AQIM’s long-term and sophisticated strategy in the region. 
To prevent AQIM from further consolidating its presence in the Sahel, regional policies must beharmonized and security forces refocused so as to minimize collateral impacts on local communities.
H I G H L I G H T S
NO. 11 / FEBRUARY 2011
night raids by AQIM in Arlit, Niger, resulting in thekidnapping of seven employees and family membersfrom the compound of the French multinational nu-
clear services rm Areva, beneted from “excellent
information” inside the company, according to its se-curity consultants.
1
Recent attacks also reect growing operationalcapacity. Just days ater the Niger kidnappings, butapproximately 1,200 kilometers to the west, Mauri-tanian troops engaged AQIM militants and pursueda highly mobile convoy or several days into northernMali. Weeks beore this operation, a suicide bomber’struck exploded into a military barracks wounding sev-eral soldiers in Nema, Mauritania. The attack wasA sustained upsurge in the requency o kidnap-pings, attacks, arrests, and bombings in the Sahel inthe past several years has heightened concerns thatal Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is gainingtraction in West Arica. Indeed, AQIM now has asubstantial presence over vast stretches o the Sahel.A low-intensity terrorist threat that once lingered onthe margins is now worsening at an escalating rate.
Previous AQIM attacks largely consisted of op-portunistic kidnappings of tourists and nongovern-mental organization (NGO) workers in the Sahel. Re-cent attacks, however, have demonstrated a greater degree of sophistication and intelligence-gathering
capability. For example, the September 2010 over 
-
 
2notable in that it was carried out arther rom siteso previous AQIM operations and in the center o arelatively large Mauritanian town. In January 2011,a Tunisian gunman linked to AQIM threw a home-made bomb at the French embassy in Bamako, Mali.This was ollowed days later by the kidnapping o twoFrench nationals rom a restaurant in Niamey, Niger.The two were later ound dead ollowing a ailed res-cue attempt near the Malian border. In early February2011, three suspected terrorists were killed and eightMauritanian troops wounded when two explosives-laden trucks detonated in Nouakchott. Their objec-tive: to assassinate the Mauritanian president.Previously believed to be relatively weak andisolated, AQIM’s advances are the results o a pa-tient eort to cultivate deeper roots in remote re-gions o the Sahel. AQIM is now increasingly wellintegrated with local Sahelian communities andmany AQIM leaders have established direct collu-sive associations with government and security of-cials. Most ominously, AQIM groups are developingcooperative relationships with regional drug tra-fckers, criminal organizations, and rebel groups toaugment their resources and fnancing. As a result,AQIM can not only more ably conront and resistgovernment security services but also undermineSahelian states rom within.I more energetic steps are not taken to conrontAQIM’s new Sahelian strategy, the eventual estab-lishment o sanctuaries, mini “Waziristans,” in theregion is a real possibility. AQIM already operatesacross a region o several hundred thousand squarekilometers. Northern Mali, in particular, is becominga central redoubt. AQIM’s attacks and presence havethreatened vital economic activity. Once a populartourist destination, this region is now largely o lim-its to oreigners given the risk o kidnapping. Unor-tunately, eorts to conront Islamic terrorist groupsin West Arica are uneven, uncoordinated, and shortlived. A combination o security sector adjustments,development engagement, and international partner-ships is needed to comprehensively counter AQIM’sstrategy and uproot its expanding connections to Sa-helian communities.
A NEW DIMENSION TO THE THREAT
Contemporary dynamics among terrorist groupsin the Sahel trace their roots to Algeria’s political cri-ses during the 1990s. Among the many groups activethen, the Armed Islamic Group (AIG) became themost notorious Islamic terrorist organization in Al-geria. Its exceedingly violent strategy, however, costAIG the popular support it initially enjoyed. Even-tually a dissident branch called the Salafst Groupor Preaching and Combat (known by its Frenchacronym GSPC) eclipsed its predecessor, though itailed to recapture AIG’s initial reach or capabilities.Having made little progress on its own, in 2006–2007the GSPC announced its allegiance to al Qaeda. Op-erating under a new name, al Qaeda in the IslamicMaghreb shortly thereater executed a series o large-scale bombings and attacks in Algiers and northernAlgeria. However, under intense pressure rom Al-geria, it was unable to maintain a high operationaltempo. AQIM has since been most present and activein the western Sahel—a largely desert and sparselypopulated region that spans the borders o Algeria,Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and parts o Chad.Though active in various orms or many years,the strength, appeal, and reach o Islamic terroristgroups in West and North Arica have generallyebbed and lowed without achieving critical massor momentum. However, marked distinctions haveemerged between AQIM as previously constitutedin the Maghreb and the networks presently activein the Sahel. The earlier organization tended to op-erate in or base itsel near major cities and executeepisodic large-scale attacks. In contrast, acts currentlyperpetrated by AQIM in the Sahel are increasinglya mixture o criminal and low-level terrorist actions.While there have been periodic attacks in capital cit-ies, most incidents have targeted regions distant romgovernment outposts (see fgure). In this way, AQIM
Dr. Modibo Goïta is a Professor at the Alioune BlondinBeye Peacekeeping School in Bamako, Mali.
“the eventual establishment ofsanctuaries, mini “Waziristans,”in the region is a real possibility”
 
3is taking advantage o Sahelian states’ inability to ex-ercise eective control over their peripheral territory.More importantly, AQIM is able to advance its long-term strength and viability by integrating with localcommunities to gradually deepen its roots, grow itsresource base, and develop its operational strength.
2
 Without any signifcant government presence in theSahel, AQIM aces ew challengers.This strategy o integration is pursued in severalways. Marriage with locals has proven eective indeveloping strong ties. For example, Mokthar Bel-mokhtar, an Algerian AQIM leader, married thedaughter o one o the chies o the Arab Barabicha
3
 tribe in northern Mali, thereby consolidating hisgrowing alliances with nomadic groups in the regionthat run local smuggling routes.
4
AQIM is also at-tempting to cast itsel as an ally and potential protec-tor o local communities. It oten fercely condemnsthe arrests o locals or civilian causalities resultingrom government raids. By the same token, AQIM isexceedingly careul not to inadvertently target localcommunities and interests in the Sahel.AQIM’s illegal activities also generate incomeand job opportunities or communities and individu-als in the region. Reinvesting ransoms received romkidnappings, AQIM has hired local bandits and reb-els in Niger, Western Sahara, and elsewhere in the re-gion.
5
While many o the Tuareg communities in theSahel have kept their distance rom AQIM, severalcommunity spokespersons have noted that decliningeconomic opportunities are driving some “into thearms o AQIM.”
6
Ironically, it is AQIM’s low-levelterrorist attacks and criminal activities that havelargely contributed to the worsening economic situ-ation in the Sahel. Tourism once drove a signifcantamount o business activity in the region, but visi-tor numbers have dropped sharply as a consequenceo AQIM kidnappings. A key airline that servicedseveral Sahelian cities, Point Arique, recently sus-pended ights, urther isolating the region.Perhaps most worrying, AQIM is branching outbeyond kidnap-or-ransom operations to generate rev-
“with deepening roots in localcommunities and the regionaleconomy, AQIM is developingenhanced resilience againstcounterterror efforts”
FIGURE: ZONE OF AQIM INFLUENCE
Source: UN Ofce or the Coordination o Humanitarian Aairs. Modifed by Author.

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