AQIM up to 2012
Mali was never meant to be AQIM’s primary target. Despite several reformulations in the past decades—from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in the early to mid-1990s to the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) to an Al Qaeda affiliate in 2006—AQIM’s primary goal remains toppling the regime in neighboring Algeria. The majority of the group’s attacks in its early days were focused not on the Sahara or Sahel, but rather northern Algeria, where the group’s emir Abdelmalik Droukdel is thought to be hiding today.
Only through the success of two AQIM commanders—Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid—was the terrorist group able to make serious inroads in the Sahel, including Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Mauritania, which recognized Israel and cooperated with the United States, was a logical target for the jihadists, and one-eyed Belmokhtar’s connections in the country made Mauritania relatively easy prey for AQIM from 2007 onwards.
Next door, northern Mali—poorly-governed and populated by some sympathetic Tuaregs—served as an attractive rear base from which to launch strikes in neighboring countries. It was here that a growing rivalry between Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar played out—both commanders stepped up their campaigns to kidnap Westerners caught in the cross-hairs, each trying to one-up the other (see here for more). But the primary fight was never really about Mali. Instead, AQIM treated it more like a playground—a chance for each commander to hone their skills and advance their prestige, as well as a centerpiece for the group’s robust contraband smuggling network, essential for financing the jihad back in Algeria and Mauritania.
Experiment in Mali
A Tuareg-led rebellion that drove Malian authorities out of a vast swathe of northern Mali in April 2012 presented AQIM with an alluring temptation. Teaming up with like-minded forces—Ansar Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO)—AQIM and its local Islamist counterparts ended the secular Tuareg movement’s (MNLA) brief hold on power in the summer of 2012, taking the key towns of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal for themselves. The Islamist fighters’ quickness in establishing authority over Azawad shocked almost everyone watching, maybe even the victors themselves.
Suddenly the narrative changed: AQIM’s southern flank had proven much more successful than the group’s other contingent of fighters holed up in Algeria’s northern mountains. A new alluring opportunity fell right into AQIM’s lap: the chance to establish an Islamic state in the heart of the Sahara as well as a permanent base from which to launch international attacks. As the international community dithered, slowly putting together plans to deploy a small and under-equipped West African force to expel the Islamists, AQIM, Ansar Dine, and MUJAO were busy tightening their grip on northern Mali.
Yet their success was never meant to be. Despite bolstering preparations in case of foreign intervention, AQIM gambled that no one would call its bluff. But the capture of Konna in central Mali in January 2013 triggered exactly that: a fierce French-led response that would prove to be the Islamist front’s undoing. France was determined to extinguish AQIM’s entire network in Mali. By March, every major town in Mali had slipped out of Islamist control, and French and Chadian forces had killed the infamous rebel leader Abou Zeid himself. Despite the success of his new breakaway group’s (al-Mulathameen Brigade) surprise blow killing 39 foreign oil workers at In Amenas in January, Belmokhtar’s time in Mali was up. Once able to freely walk the streets of Gao, the French-led intervention sent him fleeing for his life. His whereabouts are unknown; he may even be dead.
The two commanders overplayed their hand, and despite a flurry of cautionary rhetoric, AQIM is worse off today than it was prior to 2012.
This does not mean AQIM will vanish like Gamaah Islamiyah in Egypt after the 1997 Luxor massacre. In many ways, the failed experiment in Mali may encourage the terrorist group to double down on its other strengths: Algeria and Mauritania. AQIM is also busy fostering ties with emerging partners in Tunisia, Libya, and perhaps beyond. Many skilled AQIM commanders remain, including Abu Zeid’s replacement, and the still-porous borders and weak militaries of the Sahel give AQIM ample opportunity to rebound.
I am willing to bet AQIM will still be around three years from now. However, analysts will likely view the 2012-13 Mali adventure as an asterisk: a serious blow to the group’s power, but not the fatal punch.
Jean Pierre-Filiu, “Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?” Carnegie Paper, Carnegie Endowment for Peace (June 2010).
Wolfram Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region,” Carnegie Paper, Carnegie Endowment for Peace (September 2012).
Andrew Lebovich, “What’s Old is New Again: The Legacy of Algeria’s Civil War in Today’s Jihad,” Jihadica blog (January 21, 2013).