TERRORISM IN THE MAGHREB
In September 2006 the Salafist Group for
Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a terrorist organization active in
Algeria, officially changed its name into Al Qaeda in the Islamic
Maghreb (AQIM) thus shifting its operational range from the fight
against Algerian authorities to a wider international context. On
January 3rd, 2007, the group's leader, the so-called national emir
Abdel Malik Droukdal aka Abu Mussab Abdel Woudou, announced in a video
posted on the internet his intention to join forces with Osama Bin
During the 23-minutes film, Droukdal is shown sitting down with a kalashnikov in his hand, just like Bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri. In the video, Abdel Malik Droukdal declares his sympathy for Al Qaeda, and attacks the Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his policy of national reconciliation. He states that his group's military capabilities are intact and accuses Algerian authorities of squandering the country's rich natural resources (oil and gas). Droukdal blames France and the United States for their aggressive neo-colonial policy against muslim communities.
The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat was born in 1996 following a split within the Islamic Armed Group (GIA). The GIA was active since the 1992 coup d'etat by the Algerian army that had ousted and arrested the leadership of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the islamist party that had just won the elections. Hassan Hattab, a former parachutist in dissent with the then-national emir, had accused the GIA of indiscriminately targeting the civilian population during its terrorist attacks. A modus operandi that Hattab decried due to its effects on the sympathies and support of the people (and on financial backing from abroad). For this reason he decided to form his own group: namely the GSPC.
The splinter group
Hattab had dedicated himself to striking
ferociously the regime's military and security targets. His attacks
were concentrated in the Kabylia (Tizi Ouzou, Bouira, Bejaia) and
Boumerdes areas where his militias were based. Slowly the GSPC had
extended its control to other areas of the country at the expense of
the GIA that gradually began to come apart. Abdel Malik Droukdal,
former GIA member, joined the GSPC and ousted Hattab who was in favor
of national reconciliation and in open opposition to joining Al Qaida's
orbit. Droukdal's purge of the GSPC's leadership also involved
militants close to Hattab such as Sadaoui Abdelhamid, in charge of Zone
2, known with the “nom de guerre” of Yahia Abou al Haytem. By 2004
Abdel Malik Droukdal had taken complete control of the organization.
The GSPC had inherited an operational structure very similar to the GIA's: a national emir (Abdel Malik Droukdal), a Shura (a consultative council) and a division of Algeria into zones controlled by local emirs. Zone 2 was in Boumerdes, in Algeria's centre-north, and it was probably the most important one because most of the military operations against the regime took place there and in Kabylia. Within each zone operated a number of Katibeh (phalanxes or battalions), military units led by commanders who reported to the local emir. The Katibeh had logistic and financial independence. Their fund-raising activities included robberies, extortion and thefts perpetrated against the local population.
Hassan Hattab's GSPC already had the financial support of the Algerian diaspora in Europe that sent its money through couriers, money transfers or the less detectable “Hawala” system. Al Qaeda had promised support, but their cash never showed up.
By joining the global terrorist network the GSPC opened up a series of opportunities:
The access to Al Qaeda's international financial and logistical network;
The possibility of recruiting other terrorist groups active in the wider Maghreb region;
An increased publicity for its actions against the authorities in Algiers;
The first group to join AQIM was the Libyan
Islamic Fighting Group (“Al Jamaa’a Al Islamyiah al Muqatilah bi Libya”
– LIFC) that already stationed on the Algerian territory at the border
with Libya. Then came the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group and a series
of armed groups that were dedicated more to banditry than to ideologic
or political battles:
Then came the group led by Mokhtar al Mokhtar alias Khaled Abul Abbas, a group of thugs based on the north-east of Mali bordering Algeria. Linked to local Tuareg tribes fighting the government in Bamako, the group finances its activities through smuggling, robberies and abductions (they are responsible for abducting 2 Canadians);
Next came the group led by Abdel Hamid Abu Zeid, a competitor of Mokhtar al Mokhtar, active in the same region of Mali. Abu Zeid is responsible for the abduction of a German, two Swiss and a British. The latter was killed during a sloppy rescue mission by Special Forces.
The two groups above are also known for having held for ransom two Italians, Sergio Cical and his wife (then freed), and for currently holding Rossella Orru and Maria Sandra Mariani.
In time Mokhtar and Abu Zeid, both initially fighting against the regime in Algiers and former members of the GIA and the GSPC, had developed their illegal self-financing. Their adherence to AQIM formally meant their robberies now had a political backing. Droukdal had and has no role in their decision-making. This is probably why Abdel Malik Droukdal has recently nominated a new emir in charge of Zone 9, the Sub-Saharan sector: Makhluofi Nabil, also known as Nabil Abu Alqama.
The local governments' response
The declared internationalization of North African terrorism has led local governments to respond.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria has gone ahead with his national reconciliation project by trying to separate Hassan Hattab from Abdel Malik Droukdal. A similar experiment had already proven successful in September 1997 (completed in 1999), when the Islamic Salvation Army had given up the armed struggle and broken up with the GIA.
In Libya - through the good offices of Hamas - authorities had freed a number of Muslim Brothers incarcerated in March 2006 with the promise, supported by the Brotherhood's leadership in Egypt, that they would stop fomenting armed opposition against Muammar Gaddafi. At the same time Seif al Islam, on behalf of his father Muammar, had gone ahead with the “redemption” of the LICG leaders in jail. Their confinement in isolation was loosened up and some of the group's members were released in December 2006 and in January 2007. In order to gain their freedom, the LICG members declared their disengagement from Osama Bin Laden's global jihad.
Alongside their peace-making attempts, the
two regimes intensified their military operations. In Algeria the armed
forces proceeded with a series of sweeps, aerial and artillery
bombings. In Libya the Security Services were in charge of the physical
elimination of opponents and of the persecution of their families. In
February 2007 the two countries began developing joint operations and,
in September of that year, a joint patrolling of the common borders.
On April 23rd and 24th 2007, Libyan authorities summoned the Directors General of the Security Services and of Police of the AMU – Arab Maghreb Union (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania) – to Tripoli to study a common strategy against the growing terrorist threat.
What has lead the GSPC to become Al Qaeda in
the Maghreb is the transhumance of terrorists from other groups in that
area that decided to join Droukdal's formation. The entry in the
jihadist orbit has also caused the dispatch/arrival of armed volunteers
from/to other theaters such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.
Algerian volunteers have fought alongside the “Tanzim Qaidat al Jihad fi Bilad al Rafidayn” (i.e. the Organizatoin of al Qaeda for the jihad in the country of the two rivers, that is Mesopotamia) of Abu Musab al Zarqawi; Algerians and Libyans joined the ranks of “Ansar al Islam” (i.e. the partisans of Islam) of Mullah Krekar or the “Jaysh al Mujaheddin” (i.e. the army of the fighters) along the Iraq-Syria border. A portion of these fighters returned to their countries of origin with a strong military experience. The direct consequence was a renewed vigor of Algerian terrorism, the first kamikaze attacks in Cyrenaica (July and August 2007), and other similar events in Morocco.
The anti-terrorist cooperation in North Africa increased in 2007. In June of that year the Chief of Staff of the Algerian Army, Ahmed Gaid Salah, met in Tripoli with the Libyan Minister of Defence, Abu Bakr Younes Jaber. Topic of the discussion: the protection and control of the common borders. Libya was closing down its Southern border and had created a 300 km Security Zone controlled by its army.
In April 2008 the first batch of 90 LICG terrorists was freed. None of them had actually taken part in assaults or attacks. They all declaredly gave up the armed struggle. Some of them even supplied information on the group's logistical network in Libya. The initiative was taken by the Libyan II.SS. with the political avail of Seif al Islam, who acted as bestower of clemency. During the same period the Libyan intelligence services began a secret negotiation with the political wing of the LICG, in the United Kingdom at the time, that had never agreed to the merger with AQIM.
The anti-terrorist cooperation between Algeria and Libya continued on the military front. In August 2008 a penetration attempt by the “Katibah al Shuhada” (the martyrs' battalion), AQIM's main military unit, on Libyan territory was intercepted. The group, annihilated during the clash. was formed by 70-100 combatants, mainly Libyans and some Algerians. In this occasion, the two countries agreed to a prisoners' swap and the return of the bodies for their identification. All of the common border between Ghadames and Ghat was under a high terrorist threat. Nonetheless, the Libyan intelligence services had managed to convince the political wing of the LICG to give up the armed struggle.
A regional rapid response force
The Al Qaeda terrorist franchising in North
Africa has also led to new offsprings in the area spanning from
Mauritania to the Horn of Africa. New groups have seen the light - al
Djazaira ala Salafya and al Tafkir wal Hijra in Algeria, al Muharabi al
Islamya in Libya, al Barakat al Islamya in Somalia – alongside to new
threats: attacks against oil installations, tourist abductions, bomb
In March 2009, 136 members of the LICG were released by Libya. Another one hundred were released in June that year after the Libyan Islamic Combat Group's political wing in London declared a cease fire with Gaddafi. From this moment onwards, the regime in Tripoli claimed that there existed no armed opposition to the government. The remaining LICG members were labelled bandits and Al Qaeda terrorists.
Before the 40th Anniversary of Gaddafi's rise to power in 2009, the regime invited all opponents to return to the country, thus highlighting the will to proceed with a national reconciliation. The LICG leaders still in Libyan jails wrote and issued a document – favored/steered by the Security Services – that claimed that all ideologically-led armed struggle was against Islam. Hence, AQIM was committing an act of apostasy. The initiative was anticipated by the liberation of 88 among former terrorists and Muslim Brothers.
In July 2009, during an African Union meeting in Tripoli, the Security Services from Libya, Mali, Niger, Algeria and Mauritania met. They approved an operational plan to create a joint rapid-response military force of about 22 thousand men (7.000 Algerians) that would be deployed in the fight against AQIM in Sub-Saharan Africa. About three thousand Tuareg from Mali, Niger and Mauritania who knew the terrain were also added to the force. Bamako had managed to sign a deal with the internal Tuareg opposition of the “Alliance D�mocratique du 23 Mai pour le Changement” in order to fight AQIM.
The plan also included the creation of a regional database on terrorism and the possibility – with previous notice – of allowing troops to cross the borders during pursuit missions. The plan also included Algerian and Libyan financial support to the people in Northern Mali and in Niger (who benefited from the terrorist's actions and from the ransoms paid) and the intensification of aerial patrolling. The attention was concentrated on Northern Mali and Niger were the terrorist groups are still at large.
An uncertain future
The outbreak of the Arab Spring has come into
this picture. There is no sure data on the number of terrorists roaming
in the Sahel, but several analysts agree that a reasonable number is
about 400 elements. There are strong connections between the terrorist
activity and weapons' and drugs' smuggling. In the recent past the
traffics also included human beings. Today, as in the recent past, the
most valuable activity is the abduction of foreigners. There is no
certainty regarding the link between the North African terrorist groups
and those in the Horn of Africa, namely the Somali al Shabaab, or in
the Arabian peninsula, that is Al Qaeda's branch in Yemen. No
information is available regarding the contacts between AQIM and
Nigeria's Boko Haram.
Analysts disagree also on what will happen to Al Qaeda in the region now that the regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt have fallen. The political resurrection of Ennadha in Tunisia, the presence of former LICG members in the ranks of the insurgents in Libya, the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the Salafists in Egypt are all part of a strictly orthodox vision of Islam as applied to society. These factors could either increase radical terrorism or bring it to an end.
The case of Abdelhakim Belhadj is extremely symbolic. Belhadj is one of the leaders of the rebels that ousted Gaddafi. He was a veteran of the war in Afghanistan against the Russians, became a member of the Libyan Islamic Combat Group, returned to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Talebans with the nom de guerre of Abu Abdallah Sadaq. He was captured by the U.S.A. in Kuala Lumpur, extradited to Bangkok and successively handed over to the Libyans. Abdelhakim Belhadj was then granted an amnesty and freed. He is now one of the most influential people in the new Libya. Will he be capable of putting his jihadist past aside and become a politician?
The only hard fact is that totalitarian regimes in North Africa have been replaced by political and social forces who share a common islamist root. This phenomena has two explanations: one is strictly ideological because no alternative socialist/secular ideas have been accepted in the Arab world as has happened elsewhere. Many believe, as the Muslim Brotherhood preaches, that “Islam is the solution”. The other is merely practical as the only alternative consensus that could have been built against totalitarian regimes could only have come from the mosques and the Imams. It remains to be seen whether the political supremacy of Islam will be a moderate one – as has happened in Turkey with Recep Erdogan – or a radical one, as some indicators seem to accredit. On the other hand, the question is also whether Al Qaeda's terrorism will be capable of adapting to the new social context, whether is will come out more powerful than ever or disappear.