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Al Qaeda in North Africa: Profile

Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

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Al Qaeda in North Africa goes by the name of “Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM). For long less prominent in the news compared to the militants in Yemen or Iraq, AQIM is actually one of the wealthiest Al Qaeda branches in the Middle East, with a growing presence in the deserts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

See an overview of other Al Qaeda branches in the Middle East

Presence

via longwarjournal.com

AQIM aspires to act as an umbrella group for like-minded militant outfits across the “Maghreb”, i.e. the North African states of Algeria, Morocco, Libya and Tunisia. But although isolated militant cells claimed numerous bomb attacks across North Africa since the early 2000s, AQIM remained limited to its traditional base in Algeria – the site of a horrific civil war in the 1990s between the state and various Islamist insurgencies.

Having failed to destabilize North Africa’s authoritarian regimes, AQIM turned its attention to the vast, ungoverned desert terrain of the Sahel region, particularly areas in northern Mali. Spanning across the borders of Mauritania, Mali and Niger, Sahel gives AQIM the space and the resources it had been denied in the “Maghreb”, becoming Al Qaeda’s window into the Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa.

Leadership & Organization

AQIM is an orphan of the Algerian civil war, a direct descendant of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which fought a desperate guerilla war against the Algerian state in the late 1990s. Eventually crushed by the military, GSPC remnants turned to forging links with other lone wolfs in North Africa.

In late 2006, this collection of small but highly committed terrorist cells gained in prestige and funding through official recognition by Al Qaeda’s leadership, under the name of Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb.

Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud commands AQIM’s largely Algerian core of a few hundred fighters. Experience and financial clout enables them to absorb other Islamist groups roaming the Sahel region, strike alliances with Tuareg tribesmen fighting for autonomy against local governments, and profit from various smuggling networks.

Read about Al Qaeda's organization after Osama bin Laden

Goals & Strategy

AQIM’s declared goal is an Islamist state stretching across North Africa and into the former Muslim caliphate in Andalusia, southern Spain, whose golden era in the Middle Ages is an important element in AQIM’s mythology.

However, political reality and the trail of money led AQIM to focus on establishing safe havens in the Sahel desert, from where it can harass weak regional militaries and plan attacks in the Maghreb countries.

  • Propaganda: AQIM is seen as ideologically less rigid than other Al Qaeda branches, part of a conscious effort to tailor the message to the North African culture. Accordingly, AQIM’s propaganda material puts less emphasize on the liberation struggle in Palestine or the global jihad for the Muslim caliphate. The focus is on repression by local governments, depicted as servants France and Spain, the colonial powers (read more on Al Qaeda's propaganda).

  • Funding: AQIM generates substantial revenue by kidnapping Western tourists and smuggling drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants. Kidnappings are often outsourced to criminal groups in the Sahel, who pass on the abductees to AQIM operatives.

  • Tactics: The revenue is used to fund hit-and-run attacks and suicide bombings against the desert outposts of Algerian and Mauritanian forces. AQIM is also planning terrorists attacks in North Africa and on Western targets.

Biggest Attacks

2007 bomb attack on United Nations offices in Algiers. Failed plot in January 2012 to attack US and European ships in Mediterranean.

Recent Activities

The March 2012 rebellion by Tuareg tribes in northern Mali provided AQIM and its affiliates with an unprecedented opportunity to seize territory and open training camps in a large area that has fallen out of government control.

AQIM is believed to be closely allied to the Islamist elements among the Tuareg rebels, making northern Mali a potential next terrorist hotspot.

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