Published 23 Sep 10
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
When Crime Does Pay: The Threat of an Emboldened al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
In my annual survey of African "hot spots" back in January, I noted that "al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seems to be stirring again as well as getting more involved in illicit trafficking of drugs and persons." Subsequently focusing on the West African drug trade, I explained that as "the group's activities in its traditional stronghold in the Berber region of Kabylie along Algeria's Mediterranean coast continue to decline because of pressure from security services," its ongoing struggle for survival would dictate that the terrorist organization should "come to rely heavily on drugs, kidnapping for ransom, and other criminal enterprises in the south to get the money it needs to keep going" since "working in its favor is the relative weakness of many of the states in the Sahel and their general lack of capacity to monitor what is going on in their vast territorial expanses," to say nothing of the fact that some of the countries in the subregion have "agendas [which] do not necessarily include regional cooperation, much less on sensitive matters like security and law enforcement."
Unfortunately, recent developments seem to confirm this grim analysis that AQIM is increasingly willing to make common cause with criminal elements in the interest of both augmenting its tactical and operational capabilities and extending its strategic reach. When this opportunism on the part of the group is linked up to the increasing range of resources available to it, one has the makings of a very dangerous resurgence that not only threatens the states of North Africa and West Africa, but also targets Western Europe and beyond.
On November 29, 2009, three Spanish aid workers from the Catalan nongovernmental organization Barcelona Acció Solidària – Alicia Gamez, Rocque Pascual, and Albert Vilalta – were abducted when their convoy, which was carrying humanitarian relief materiel, was ambushed by armed men in northwestern Mauritania, approximately 170 kilometers from the capital of Nouakchott. While AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack, an investigation by Mauritanian security services led them to one Omar Sid'Ahmed Ould Hamma, a.k.a. Omar le Sahraoui ("Omar the Sahrawi"), who was arrested in Mali in February of this year and extradited to stand trial in Mauritania. Subsequently nearly two dozen accomplices were rounded up by Mauritanian officials.
What is interesting, as the Spanish daily ABC reported earlier this year, is that Omar le Sahraoui was never a member of AQIM. Rather he is, as the newspaper's headline noted, a mercenary working for the regional al-Qaeda franchise. In fact, Omar le Sahraoui, as his nom de guerre suggests, "was part of the hierarchy of the Polisario Front," the Algerian-backed group that has unsuccessfully sought for nearly four decades to wrest control of the Western Sahara from Morocco (see my study in the Journal of the Middle East and Africa on the subject). A source quoted by the Spanish newspaper described him as "a man of the desert" who "placed his expert knowledge of the territory gained over the decades at the service of terrorists and traffickers of drugs and other contraband." At his subsequent trial, it was further revealed that he had been paid by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a.k.a. Khaled Abou al-Abbas, a.k.a. Laâouar ("one-eyed"), head of AQIM's southern command in the Sahel (see my report last year on this character), to organize and carry out the attack. An analysis published in May by the Brussels-based European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center found that those rounded up with Omar le Sahraoui represented a veritable cross-section of Saharan and Sahelian rogue outfits, including at least three other Polisario veterans, Mohamed Salem Mohamed Ali Ould Rguibi, Mohamed Salem Hamoud, and Nafii Ould Mohamed M'Barek. In July, after an exhaustive trial, Omar le Sahraoui was convicted by a Mauritanian court for his role in organizing the abduction of the three Spaniards and sentenced to twelve years of hard labor.
Regrettably, less than a fortnight after the terrorist mercenary's conviction was confirmed, on appeal by the Mauritanian judiciary in early August, he was a free man. His release was part of the price that AQIM demanded in exchange for the two Spanish men they still held (the woman, Alicia Gamez, was released in March). Although Prime Minister José Luís Rodríguez Zapatero will neither confirm nor deny it, Spain's Socialist government apparently also forked over a significant ransom to the terrorists. Estimates of the ransom vary, but Spain's second-largest newspaper, El Mundo, citing Arab sources, reported that it was between five and ten million euros ($6.5 and $13 million), potentially making the kidnapping of the three Spaniards the most profitable operation of its kind that AQIM has ever orchestrated, possibly topping even the $8 million it reportedly collected last year in exchange for freeing Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay and several German and Swiss civilians.
While one naturally sympathizes with those held hostage by the terrorist group and their families – and, to a certain extent, also with the government officials who are consequently under tremendous public pressure to "bring them home" – the payment of ransoms and the release of convicted operatives only serves to embolden the terrorists. Moreover, it seems that AQIM does not waste any time in putting any new resources it acquires to work. Consider that in the month since the Spanish hostages were freed in exchange for the record ransom as well as one of their more skilled mercenaries, AQIM has steadily ratcheted up its attacks across the Sahel.
Just two days after AQIM released the two Spanish aid workers in the presence of the freshly sprung Omar le Sahraoui, a suicide bomber attempted to drive an explosives-laden truck into a military installation in the town of Nema, 1,100 kilometers east of Nouakchott. Fortunately, alert guards challenged the driver of the truck as he approached and, when he failed to stop, shot him before he could enter the facility. Thus the damage was limited to several buildings in the town. It is thought that the attack had two goals: revenge for the death of a half dozen AQIM fighters who were killed when a joint operation by Mauritanian and French commandos raided one of the terrorist group's camps in Mali in late July in an unsuccessful attempt to free a 78-year-old French hostage, Michel Germaneau (who was killed in retaliation) and to express its disapproval of the diligent counterterrorism efforts of the Mauritanian government as evidenced in its prosecution of Omar le Sahraoui.
The effort to cow the Mauritanians has failed so far: this past Sunday, Mauritanian military aircraft fired on a column of AQIM fighters in northern Mali near the frontier between the two Sahelian countries. The aerial raid came after several days of heavy fighting during which Mauritanian forces killed a dozen members of AQIM. While the terrorists came out the worse from the clashes, the fact that such open battles took place at all is a worrisome indication of escalation in the regional fight against the group.
Of course, the conflict had already been escalated by AQIM when, early last Thursday, operatives from the group staged a raid on the town of Arlit in northern Niger, about 1,000 kilometers northeast of Niamey. Seized in the attack were a manager of the French nuclear group AREVA and his wife, both French citizens, and five expatriate employees of an AREVA subcontractor: three French, one Togolese, and one Malagasy. AREVA operates three uranium mines in Niger, the world's second largest producer of the nuclear material. According to Algerian intelligence sources, the raid was led by an Algerian extremist, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, head of the same AQIM cell that had abducted Michel Germaneau earlier this year. Nigerien sources add that the raiders were assisted by guides speaking Tamashek, the language of the Tuareg, a nomadic people native to the region whose members have had a contentious history with the government in Niamey over the distribution of revenues.
Late Tuesday, Radio France Internationale reported that AQIM had formally claimed responsibility for the latest kidnapping and that the terrorist group had announced that "the Mujahedin will subsequently communicate their legitimate demands." The report by the state-owned French broadcaster also noted that the hostages have been moved to a remote mountainous zone in northern Mali, close to the Algerian frontier. For its part, France deployed military forces to Niger, former colony, for the first time in nearly a quarter of a century, to assist the regional forces in the search for the hostages. France's President Nicolas Sarkozy convened an emergency meeting of the country's national defense council and was expected to ask the United States for technical assistance in efforts to pinpoint the location of the captives.
Even while France sought to find and rescues its citizens in Africa, the country also braced itself for the possibility that extremists cells within its borders, some possibly connected to AQIM, were preparing for an attack. On Sunday, speaking at a previously scheduled memorial for the victims of terrorism, French Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux noted the current nature of the threat and urged that "every citizen should be concerned, but at the same time reassured that the intelligence services and the security forces have been totally mobilized." The Reuters news service subsequently reported that French authorities had been alerted last week by Algerian officials that there was a possible threat from female suicide bomber to the Paris metro system. The threat certainly is in line with those made against France by various Islamist militants since the French Senate voted 246-to-1 last week to approve legislation banning people from covering their faces in public, essentially outlawing burqa- and niqab-type robes worn by some Muslim women (the bill had passed the National Assembly on a 335-to-1 vote last month). Moreover, it should be recalled that AQIM has its roots in the Algeria's Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA, Armed Islamic Group), a terrorist organization that had a history of striking at targets in France as well as responsibly for hijacking Air France Flight 8969 in 1994 with the intent of crashing it into the Eiffel Tower. French domestic intelligence and counterterrorism (DCRI) chief Bernard Squarcini has told the press rather frankly that all the "red lights are now flashing" and that "the risk of a terrorist attack on French soil has never been higher and, objectively, there are reasons for worry." This warning was reiterated Wednesday by the director-general of the National Police, Frédéric Péchenard, who cited "serious indications from reliable sources" that pointed to "an imminent attack."
In this context, the resurgence of AQIM should be cause for grave concern – all the more so because the payment of ransoms and the release of jailed militants have given the terrorist group a considerable boost, not just in terms of material and human resources, but also in terms of prestige among extremists. Exacerbating the threat that an emboldened AQIM poses is that its leadership has shown itself to be rather pragmatic in their using the resources which come their way to "professionalize" their operations, that is, employing mercenaries like Omar le Sahraoui and others willing to work for hire for the terrorist organization irrespective of their ideological commitments. The six killed in the failed French raid on AQIM in July, for example, included three Tuareg, an Algerian, a Mauritanian, and a Moroccan. By using personnel who are either trained or who have superior knowledge of the geographic or social space in which operations are to take place, AQIM's terrorist activities not only stand a greater chance of success, but in the event of failure and capture, authorities do not gain much by way of entry into or leverage with the terrorist group itself. Given how this threat has been evolving, it may turn out to be fortuitous that al-Qaeda's franchise has provoked what is apparently a rather robust reaction from the French at this time, rather than later after it has had more time to consolidate its position.
— J. Peter Pham is Senior Vice President of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy in New York City. He also holds academic appointments as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science, and African Studies at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He currently serves as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and Editor-in-Chief of its refereed Journal of the Middle East and Africa.
Dr. Pham has authored, edited, or translated over a dozen books and is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic. 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 has testified before the U.S. Congress on numerous occasions and conducted briefings or consulted for the U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. He has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, the Associated Press, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, Le Monde, National Journal, Newsweek, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean's, among others.
© 2010 J. Peter Pham
NOTE: The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the opinions of World Defense Review and its affiliates. WDR accepts no responsibility whatsoever for the accuracy or inaccuracy of the content of this or any other story published on this website. Copyright and all rights for this story (and all other stories by the author) are held by the author.