World Defense Review


Published 08 May 08

J. Peter Pham

Strategic Interests

by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb:
An Evolving Challenge in the War on Terror

Last Thursday an airstrike on the Somali town of Dhusamareb, 300 miles north of Mogadishu (see W. Thomas Smith, Jr.'s report in Human Events), dispatched Adan Hashi ‘Ayro, the commander of al-Shabaab ("the youth"), the terrorist organization spearheading the bloody Islamist insurgency in the Horn of Africa, and several of his cohorts to the custody of the nineteen angels stoking the stone-fueled fires of hell (Qur'an 74:30, 66:6). The territory of the onetime Somali Democratic Republic is, however, only one front in the war on terror's African theater. Another is the vast expanse of the Sahara Desert and the Sahel, areas which are likely to play an increasingly significant role in the overall struggle against extremism.

Bloomberg's Daniel Williams reported two weeks ago that "bands of Islamist fighters, terrorist trainers and arms suppliers roaming the mountainous southern Sahara Desert are new targets in the U.S. war against al-Qaeda." Despite some notable successes against the extremists including those scored by United States-led Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Program (TSCTP) which I have previously chronicled the dynamics of terrorist groups in the subregion indicate mounting security challenges for governments in North Africa, Europe, and beyond.

Early last year, I wrote in this column that while "to date radical Islamism has not attracted widespread support" in Trans-Saharan belt, extreme poverty and simmering ethnic tensions "render the terrain especially fertile for extremist penetration [as] groups that have ... purely local grievances [may] ... in their desperation ... take help from anywhere they can receive it and these groups have received input from outside groups that do not necessarily share their immediate concerns but have an interest in creating havoc and chaos in whatever region." I subsequently reported that currently the most significant challenge is the one presented by hardcore elements of the Algerian Islamist terrorist organization Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (usually known by its French acronym GSPC, Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat) which in 2006 formally pledged its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and declared itself al-Qaeda's franchise in the subregion, changing its name to Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Maghrib al-Islami ("Al-Qaeda [Network] for Jihad in the Islamic Maghreb,"AQIM).

Since its "rebranding" group has been responsible a number of spectacular attacks, including an April 11, 2007 simultaneous suicide car bombings of Algerian Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem's office in downtown Algiers and a police station in the city's Bab Ezzouar neighborhood, which left more than thirty people dead and injured 150 others, and a September 6, 2007 suicide bombing in the eastern town of Batna which targeted Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. While Bouteflika, who had not yet arrived at the Al-Atik Mosque, was not unharmed, the bombing resulted in the deaths of twenty and the wounding of more than one hundred spectators who had been waiting for head of state. These attacks were followed by a December 11, 2007 pair of near simultaneous car bombings on the Constitutional Court and United Nations buildings in Algiers which killed at least three dozen people, including seventeen UN employees, and wounded several hundred. The 2007 edition of the U.S. State Department's legislatively-mandated annual Country Reports on Terrorism, released last week, described the high-profile attacks as underlining "the substantial shifts in strategy made by [AQIM] towards mass-casualty attacks employing suicide tactics and targeting Western interests" and acknowledged that "we have witnessed a shift in Algeria to tactics that have been successfully employed by insurgents and terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan."

On the other hand, Algerian extremists had come under intense pressure. The massacres of the 1990s had turned much of the civilian population against the Islamists' armed struggle as the path to bring about changes in the country. American and European technical and logistical support to the Algerian armed forces as well as the fostering of regional security cooperation led to a weakening of the GSPC-cum-AQIM network. Last April, Samier Moussab, a.k.a. Samir Saïoud, the group's number two, was killed in a clash with security forces in Si Moustapha, about 50 kilometers east of Algiers. The hunting down of Saïoud recalled the spectacular capture three years earlier of Amari Saïfi, a former Algerian army officer-turned-GSPC leader better known by his nom de guerre Abderrezak al-Para ("the paratrooper") who was responsible for the kidnapping of thirty-two European tourists in 2003 and their ransoming for 5 million euro. Al-Para was caught after an unprecedented across the open deserts of four countries coordinated by U.S. Navy P-3C Orion long range surveillance aircraft. Last week, it was reported that, seeking to avoid the fate of his colleagues, the AQIM field commander in southern Algeria, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a.k.a. Lâaouar ("the one-eyed"), a veteran of Afghanistan who has been setting up terrorist cells in Mali and Mauritania as well as a considerable arms trafficking network across the subregion, was negotiating the terms of his surrender through an attorney.

It is likely that being cornered was what originally motivated and will continue to drive the Algerian terrorists into the embrace of al-Qaeda which, in turn, has the potential for transforming nature of the challenge posed by the group. It is a pattern that has been seen before. In the 1990s, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Organization (Tanzim al-Jihad) had not only failed to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak, but had been driven out its sanctuary in Sudan. With its membership dwindling even its military commander, Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, quit the group merged with al-Qaeda and shifted its focus from attacking its "near enemy," the Mubarak regime, to confronting its "far enemy," the U.S. patron of the Egyptian state. Likewise, while GSPC largely confined its activities to Algeria which it wanted to take over and turn into an Islamist state, AQIM has adopted both a more pronounced anti-Western rhetoric a switch ironically made easier by France's close ties with the Algerian government and, more recently, American assistance to the country's security forces and an increasingly transnational approach to operations.

While the extent to which the largely Algerian AQIM has subsumed the far smaller Islamist groups which had been separately battling the governments of Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania is disputed among analysts, it is clear that since its affiliation with al-Qaeda it has drawn recruits from outside Algeria. In the last two years alone, Algerian security forces have arrested Libyans, Moroccans, and Tunisians in periodic raids like the three two weeks ago on three AQIM safe houses just east of Algiers. And it goes without saying that some of foreign extremists have escaped the dragnets to return to their native countries. The Washington Times reported last week that Algeria had warned Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, whose secular government bans women's headscarves in public buildings, that AQIM was planning "spectacular attacks" against it. Meanwhile the State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism warned that the main threat to the Cherifian Kingdom was "knowledge transfer of AQIM operational capabilities to Morocco's committed, but relatively inexperienced, Salafi adherents," noting that "there were credible reports of Moroccans going to northern Mali and Algeria and returning to Morocco after training with AQIM."

Beyond the Maghreb itself, AQIM has considerable reach to émigré communities in Western Europe where many, especially young males, have increasingly rejected the very societies which host them and have assumed radicalized religious identities. As Lorenzo Vidino documents in Al Qaeda in Europe: The New Battleground of International Jihad, rather than assimilating, many North African and Middle Eastern immigrants have cloistered themselves in ghettos dominated by mosques and social organizations, many financed by money from abroad, which often have various connections to radical ideological and terrorist networks as well as criminal enterprises. The phenomenon is especially evident in France, where more than one-fourth of the total population and three-fourths of the prison population is Muslim (see John Rosenthal's Policy Review study on "The French Path to Jihad: Islamist Inmates Tell Their Stories"), and Spain, where the March 11, 2004 attacks on the Madrid commuter train system left 191 dead and hundreds injured. The Spanish case is particularly illustrative as a recent analysis by the International Institute for Strategic Studies noted:

The Spanish government's decision to distance itself from the U.S., however, does not appear to have diminished radical Muslim activity in Spain. Between March 2004 and February 2007, authorities detained over 200 suspected Islamist militants. Expatriate Moroccan, Algerian and Syrian militants in Spain some of them veterans of groups that originated in their home countries, such as the Armed Islamic Group, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) of Algeria and the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group were initially organized along national lines. But, consistent with a global trend whereby national insurgencies converge transnationally through al-Qaeda, Islamic militancy in Spain has become more consolidated ... Given that there are probably over one million Muslim immigrants in Spain, most of them North African (mainly Moroccan) and many of them in the country illegally, it seems inevitable that such radicalization should spread further into Spain.

One might also add that, notwithstanding Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's attempts at appeasement, Spain will likely remain a target for Islamist terrorists for ideological reasons which Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others have repeatedly cited. Spanish sovereignty over the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the Moroccan coast is considered a challenge to Muslim pride. Moreover, it should be recalled that, as al-Andalus, most of the Iberian Peninsula was incorporated into the Dar al-Islam, Muslim territory, at one point or another in the nearly eight centuries between Tariq ibn Ziyad's landing at Gibraltar (the name itself is derived from the Arabic Jabal Tariq, "mountain of Tariq") to Boabdil's surrender to Ferdinand and Isabella. In his September 19, 2007 video entitled The Power of Truth, al-Zawahiri explicitly linked Spain and the mission of AQIM: "Restoring al-Andalus is a trust on the shoulders of the nation in general and on your shoulders in particular, and you will not be able to do that without first cleansing the Muslim Maghreb of the children of France and Spain, who have come back again after your fathers and grandfathers sacrificed their blood cheaply in the path of God to expel them." A report last year by Fernando Reinares, director of the global terrorism program at Spain's Elcano Royal Institute of International and Strategic Studies, noted:

It is the frequency and aggressiveness with which al-Andalus is mentioned lately by the al-Qaeda leadership itself that is so worrying ... These references, which are in fact targeting and instigation, and indeed imply possible facilitation of terrorist activities against Spain, now acquire particular significance ... because the idea of a violent recovery of al-Andalus has already permeated the narrative of the North African networks of Jihadist terrorism and, in particular, of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), of Algerian origin, which recently changed its name to become a regional extension of al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. In a statement issued on 9 January 2007, shortly after changing its name, the GSPC said: "We embrace Jihad to fulfill an ineluctable Divine plan which has been imposed on us since the fall of al-Andalus and the sale of Palestine, and since we were divided by the borders which the invaders invented". Just a few weeks earlier, the group's leader had also made a solemn reference to Algerian Muslims as "the grandsons of Tariq ibn Ziyad" and "sons of Yusuf ibn Tashfin" [a Berber general ruling large parts of North Africa who, responding to an appeal from Moorish rulers, defeated King Alfonso VI of Castile and León in 1086, incorporating al-Andalus into his dominions] ...

Spain is now more a target for al-Qaeda than it was before the attacks of March 11, 2004 in Madrid. Indeed, the country seems to be more of a target for international terrorism than ever before and, based on the nature of the indicators which suggest this conclusion, this is by no means a temporary situation. The fact that Ayman al-Zawahiri keeps insisting on the violent recovery of al-Andalus as part of a future pan-Islamic caliphate, his discourse permeating now the narrative of North African groups and organizations linked to al-Qaeda, makes Spain a permanent target for individual and collective actors belonging to the multinational networks of the global neo-Salafist Jihadist movement as a whole.

The alignment of AQIM with al-Qaeda also gives the latter a significant entrée into the Maghrebi diaspora in Europe which it previously did not have. Certainly AQIM predecessor organizations, the Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA) and the GSPC, had extensive networks of cells throughout Western Europe, some of which were involved in raising funds for them through the smuggling of drugs and immigrants, while others provided support for recruitment, training, and other logistical activities. Thus, in accepting AQIM's allegiance, the al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan has acquired a new capacity to potentially hit its "far enemies" on their own soil, including the United States which, through the Visa Waiver Program, enables holders of passports from twenty-two European countries to travel to America without obtaining a visa.

The U.S. response to broad array of challenges which come together in AQIM must necessarily be multifaceted. As I have previously advocated:

We need to increase technical assistance to help allied governments in the Sahel and Maghreb increase their ability to police their own territory and enhance their collaboration with each other in tracking and blocking terrorist activity that is no respecter of borders. This type of partnership also serves a longer-term objective which African nations have made their own: the increasing integration of countries within subregions and across the continent as a whole. Since al-Qaeda's new African affiliate is a local, regional, and intercontinental franchise operation, it will only be beaten by a competitive effort that has similarly integrated and forward-looking strategic perspective.

However, to avoid legitimizing the "near enemy-far enemy" narrative of whereby collaboration with national governments risks strengthening the extremists, the United States needs to make sure that its approach engages not only regimes and militaries, but also other elements of Maghrebi society. A rather innovative initiative has been Magharebia, a website sponsored by the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Some 447,000 visitors a month now turn to the site for news and information as well as in-depth analysis about the subregion, content which is offered in English, French, and Arabic. (Despite ill-informed hysterics by pundits like Marvin Kalb, who described the portal to USA Today last week as a "deliberate deception," the website clearly identifies its sponsor and acknowledges its editorial mission to identify "trends, solutions and successes that can serve as models for progress throughout the region.")

America also needs to assure on a long-term basis its thus far successful engagements in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Under the umbrella of TSCTP, a State Department-led enterprise supported by the Defense Department's Operation Enduring Freedom-Trans Sahara (OEF-TS) and integrating contributions from the Treasury Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), America has partnered up with Algeria, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco, Senegal, and Tunisia in a multifaceted approach including anti-terrorism training, the Terrorist Interdiction Program (TIP), counterterrorism finance assistance, as well as good governance and public diplomacy efforts to promote regional security and prevail against extremist threats like AQIM. The history of U.S. foreign policy, however, is littered with the wreckage of well-conceived programs whose only fault was lack of sustainment, especially when budgets need to be tightened and/or the attention of policy makers gets distracted. AFRICOM commander General William E. "Kip" Ward highlighted the challenge in his "posture statement" during a March 13 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee:

Building partnership capacity provides the foundation for many of our strategic objectives. As we continue building the AFRICOM staff, we solicit your support not only for our own efforts, but for the development of the capabilities of other U.S. government departments and agencies whose civil expertise is critical to stabilization and capacity building missions overseas. While our traditional military experiences and background allows us to bring extensive mobility, logistics, and command and control capabilities to bear in support of USG efforts, we remain concerned that, if interagency capabilities are not better resourced, non-traditional tasks will, out of necessity, default to military elements ...

You can help modernize our nation's approach to national security by supporting the development of other USG departments' and agencies' ability to project their unique expertise in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives. This is critical, and will assist in our collective effort to prevent disputes, poverty, and instability from leading to extremism, violence, and armed conflict, thereby better protecting U.S. interests and the American people.

The marriage of convenience between Islamist extremists in the Maghreb and the Sahel and the leadership of al-Qaeda does not by itself increase the risk of attack on America and its allies. However, the access that al-Qaeda now gains to North African and European communities and the more universal status which AQIM now acquires does raise the expectations among their constituents that together they will strike more effectively against enemies, both near and far, thus heightening the danger that they will be impelled by internal pressure to mount some sort of an assault. Consequently, the United States needs to continue its modest, but effective, strategic investment in this vast and hitherto largely overlooked geopolitical space.

J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.

Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).

In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.

© 2008 J. Peter Pham

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