Hopes of Al Qaeda’s demise are proving premature
Al Qaeda and its various militant affiliates have been relegated in recent months to statements of support as protesters across the Middle East and North Africa demand greater freedom and an end to authoritarian rule. If anything, empathy for Al Qaeda’s violent, militant version of Islam appeared to have dissipated as youthful protesters challenged authoritarian leaders and forced the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt to resign.
A sense that the protests were marginalizing the group was reinforced by the fact that fears in Western capitals that fighters of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, would join Muammar Qaddafi’s battle in Libya against Western-backed rebels have so far proven unfounded. But officials in Mali as well as Libyan rebels say Colonel Qaddafi has in recent weeks funnelled arms, including ground to air missiles, to AQIM in the hope that it would escalate tension in region by stepping up its attacks.
That’s precisely what AQIM did. It attacked an Algerian military post in the eastern town of Azaga, 140 kilometres from the capital Algiers, killing 14 Algerian soldiers and wounding 10 others. The attack puts to bed hopes that the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa may signal the beginning of the end for Al Qaeda and its affiliates. In a statement, AQIM, which operates across north-western Africa in Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger, claimed responsibility for the attack saying that “we will never forget the blood of our martyrs and we will reply to all those among us who have been killed by the evil apostates.”
While the attack demonstrates Al Qaeda’s capability to strike, it ultimately may well further isolate the group. The attack comes two months after the Algerian government lifted the 19-year-old state of emergency in the country in response to weeks of protests demanding greater freedom and improved economic opportunity. The attack was the first since various Arab countries, including Egypt and Syria, lifted their long-standing states of emergency in moves designed to pave the way for more open and transparent rule.
By attacking the Algerian military, which has taken a leading role in recent years in the fight against AQIM, the group provided embattled regimes with a tangible argument to justify their resistance to popular demands for change. In doing so, Al Qaeda has called into question its repeated declarations of support for the wave of protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.
Various governments in the region have justified their crackdowns on demonstrators with assertions that foreign forces instigated the protests. Colonel Qaddafi has portrayed his war against the country’s rebels as a battle against Al Qaeda. A spokesman for Mr. Qaddafi asserted earlier this week that an Al Qaeda leader was heading with a group of militants for the embattled western rebel-held town of Misrata.
AQIM has differentiated itself from Al Qaeda and its affiliate in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by exploiting the fact that law enforcement agencies in northwest Africa with the exception of Algeria are underfunded and corrupt. Lax law enforcement has allowed the group, which emerged from Algeria’s Islamist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), to build a drug smuggling business and secure revenues from the kidnapping of Westerners and Gulf nationals for ransom.
AQIM inherited GSPC’s crime networks in the Sahara, which helped it smuggle drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants. AQIM has also skilfully exploited discontent among the Tuareg and other tribes in the region.
Since 2007, AQIM has killed scores in various suicide bombings, including 11 United Nations staffers, four Frenchmen, a Briton and an American. Many more have been kidnapped and held for ransom. The French embassy in Mali warned this week that new intelligence showed an increased risk of kidnappings in Mali and Niger. French consul general Patrick Mazounie said on the embassy’s website that the risk was highest in the southeast Malian region of Mopti region, near the border with Burkina Faso.
Security officials in Mali who often mediate the release of hostages taken by AQIM linked the increased risk to the turmoil in Libya.
“We, like other countries, have learnt that terrorists want to take hostages in the Sahel countries and drive them to Libya with the aim of making official the presence of al-Qaeda in that country. We are taking all necessary precautions in concert with other countries,” a Malian security official told Agence France-Presse.
The French warning comes as France is trying to secure the release of hostages captured last September in Niger’s uranium-mining town of Arlit in one of the AQIM’s most daring attacks to date. Three of the hostages—a French woman and a Togo and Madagascar national—were released on February 24 in the triangle where the borders of Algeria, Mali and Niger meet. The group still holds four Frenchmen and is reported to be demanding a ransom of $120 million for their release. France has rejected the demand.
The kidnappings were the first to strike directly at foreign economic interests. The hostages were employees of Avera, a maker and operator of nuclear reactors that produces in Niger half of the uranium used in French nuclear reactors. The abductions constitute a setback for Avera’s efforts to reduce widespread local resistance to its operations on which AQIM has been feeding. Local NGOs and tribesmen accuse Avera of bribing Tuareg rebels, polluting underground aquifers, aggravating a chronic water shortage, and exposing its employees to uranium contamination.
AQIM’s strategy in the coming months is likely to aim at escalating French and European Union involvement in hostilities beyond Libya across northwest Africa. France alongside Britain is leading allied forces that have imposed a no-fly zone on Libya in accordance with a United Nations Security Council resolution.
AQIM backed by Colonel Qaddafi hopes that the escalation will undermine already waning public support in the EU for military engagement in Libya. France’s leading role is in line with a 2008 French defence white paper that identified the minerals and oil-rich Sahel as one of four regions—among them being the Gulf—as crucial to French national security. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France described the Sahel as “extremely dangerous. ... (It) shows that we must redouble vigilance,” he said.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])