Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Torstaina, 18. syyskuuta 2008     0 kommentti(a)

This week’s Economist has a fascinating article that in effect suggests the failure of the recently renamed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to live up to its name. AQIM was a re-branding of the Algerian terrorist and insurgent organisation the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, known commonly by its initials in French –GSPC. The idea seemed to be that AQIM would end the national focus of the GSPC in its fight against the Algerian government and link up jihadist groups across North Africa. The GSPC has long been linked to terrorist activity beyond Algeria, particularly in neighbouring Saharan states but also in Europe and Canada, but when I looked at the open-source evidence of this in depth a couple of years ago, it appeared that there was a lot less to this than meets the (particularly, American) eye.


AQIM fighters pictured in 2007 (Source Wikipedia/as Shahab)

The Economist poses the question “does AQIM really exist as a coordinated regional organisation?” The answer they suggest is negative. They note the same phenomenon in connection to the AQIM as I noted previously when they were still called the GSPC – that the vast majority of AQIM/GSPC attacks against Algerian security forces and other targets happen in a relatively small area around Algiers or within the city itself. This was the case of the horrific suicide bombing of the UN offices last December that killed 40 and showed once again that jihadists see the UN as part of the “Crusader-Zionist alliance” and not as a neutral arbiter of the international community. A new name does not change the fact that AQIM is a product of the Algerian civil war of the 1990s, and that their violence predominantly continues in regions of Algeria where the Islamist insurgency always had its strongholds.

The Economist quotes George Joffé of Cambridge University describing the jihadists across the region who have come together under the AQIM banner as “more a series of groups with national agendas and a common ideology”, but it appears the notoriously ruthless security apparatuses of those states are severely limiting the opportunities for the different national groups to cooperate more. The specialists interviewed in the article only identify the kidnap of two Austrian tourists in Tunisia this year as a possible case of AQIM from Algeria crossing borders to operate internationally.

Another dimension to this story is the Iraqi connection. The Economist notes that jihadists in Morocco seem to have been more focused on sending volunteers to Iraq than in fighting in their own country. It is notable that one of the senior commanders of al Qaeda in Iraq is an Algerian and he has directly and vigorously denounced the actions of AQIM in Algeria saying:

“The attacks in Algeria sparked animated debate here in Iraq… By God, had they told me they were planning to harm the Algerian President and his family, I would say, ‘Blessings be upon them!’ But explosions in the street, blood knee-deep, the killing of soldiers whose wages are not even enough for them to eat at third-rate restaurants . . . and calling this jihad? By God, it’s sheer idiocy!”

His central argument appears to be that the real Jihad is in Iraq against the Americans, and this seems to be a regional dimension to the wider theological questioning of the al-Qaeda strategy that I wrote about in an earlier post on this blog.

North Africa remains vital though for the EU states. Firstly there are large Maghreb diasporas in Europe, particular in France. And whilst social and economic marginalisation remain serious issues for such communities, the fear of extremism is the shadow that hangs over the integration debate – the Madrid bombings were essentially a result of a Moroccan network in Spain. Any resurgence of terrorism in the countries of origins of these communities will reinforce the concerns of European security agencies (see particularly p.24).

Secondly North Africa and Algeria in particular are central to Europe’s energy needs. As concerns about over-reliance on Russian gas and oil supplies continue to rise, increasing attention is being paid to the oil and gas reserves to the South of the Mediterranean. A recently proposed ‘EU pipeline’ from Nigeria, north across the Sahara to Algiers ready for onward transport to Europe has not even been agreed on yet but already insurgent groups in the Niger Delta have said they will destroy it and considering the route such a pipeline would have to take, concerns over the North African jihadists will remain prominent and in future they will be increasingly a European security concern and less a worry for the United States.

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