TERRORISM IN THE SAHEL AND THE SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA: MORE THAN A REGIONAL THREAT
At the beginning of 2014, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he “can’t say the threat from the terror network is any less than it was a decade ago”. He further added: “Al-Qaeda probably poses an even bigger challenge today, because its franchises are much more globally dispersed”.
The Clapper report also noted that “instability in the Middle East and North Africa has accelerated the decentralization of the movement (al-Qaeda), which is increasingly influenced by local and regional issues. However, diffusion has led to the emergence of new power centers and an increase in trends by networks of like-minded extremists with allegiances to multiple groups”.
According to the report, sub-Saharan Africa has turned into a haven for terrorists, and more attacks are to be expected. The Sahel region – Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Chad – could see more terrorist attacks in 2014. In Nigeria, Somalia and Kenya terrorist attacks have already increased.
“Sub-Saharan Africa will almost certainly see political and related security turmoil in 2014. The continent has become a hothouse for the emergence of extremist and rebel groups, which increasingly launch deadly asymmetric attacks, and which government forces often cannot effectively counter due to a lack of capability and sometimes will (…)
Governments in Africa’s Sahel region – particularly Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, – are at risk of terrorist attacks, primarily for these countries’ support to the January 2013 French-led international military intervention in Mali (…)
In Somalia, al-Shabaab is conducting asymmetric attacks against government facilities and Western targets around Mogadishu. The credibility and effectiveness of the young Somali government will be further threatened by political infighting, weak leadership from President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, ill-equipped government institutions and pervasive technical, political and administrative shortfalls.
Nigeria faces critical terrorism threats from Boko Haram and persistent extremism in the north”.
The report connects this worrying trend with the Arab Spring, the revolutionary phenomenon that led to the toppling of several authoritarian regimes in North Africa: “In the three years since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, a few states have made halting progress in their transitions away from the authoritarian rule. Nevertheless, political uncertainty and violence will probably increase across the region in 2014 as the toppling of leaders and weakening of regimes have unleashed ethnic and sectarian rivalries that are propagating destabilizing violence”.
Such assessments were preceded by similar warnings addressed since several years ago.
- As early as September 2011, General Carter F. Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command (2011-2013), warned, regarding the terrorism threat in the region: “If left unaddressed, then you could have a network that ranges from East Africa through the center and into the Sahel and Maghreb”.
- In April 2012, Gerhard Schindler, director of the German intelligence service, (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND), declared in an interview with Der Spiegel that “the terrorist threat has definitely increased in North Africa in recent months. In Nigeria the terrorist group Boko Haram has joined al-Qaeda. In Somalia it’s the Shabaab militia… We are also observing that al-Qaeda is reorienting itself in North Africa. I think there are good conditions for a terrorist organization there: We have high unemployment in these countries, in some areas the population isn’t being provided with basic services and there aren’t proper security structures based on the rule of law”.
- The official page of the British Foreign Office (Updated: 20 January 2014 and still current at 27 February 2014), mentions that “the Sahel region is threatened by terrorism”. There’s “a very real threat of kidnap to westerners in the Sahel and surrounding region (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, but also Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria)”. The threat has increased following the January 2013 military intervention in Mali and the Foreign Office warns that “further attacks are highly likely”.
One of the most complex regions of the world
The Sahel is the eco-climatic and bio-geographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert in the north and the Sudan Savannas in the south. Its name comes from the Arabic word sāhil, literally meaning “shore” and describing the appearance of the vegetation of the Sahel as a coastline delimiting the sand of the Sahara. It stretches some 5400 km across the north of Africa, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea, covering an area of 3053200 sq km. The post-colonial Sahel states are Burkina Faso, Chad, D’Jibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan. The Sahel, which is home to approximately 100 million of the world’s poorest and forgotten people, is also one of the most complex regions in terms of ethnic configuration, religion, colonial experiences, environment and geography. Nigeria alone harbors more than 450 ethnic groups while countries like Mali, Senegal, Niger, and even Nigeria, apart from the configuration of plural identities, also share mixed ethnicity across boundaries and borders. In Mali, Sudan (before the creation of South Sudan), Chad, Mauritania and Niger, the population has been divided between those of Arab descent and mostly nomadic, and those of African origin, who are mostly sedentary.
Even before the formation of modern states, the Sahel was a transport belt that linked Sub-Saharan Africa to the Maghreb, the Middle East and Europe, for legal and especially for illegal trafficking. The complex nature of the Sahel region makes it extremely difficult to track criminal agents and their activities, as people can easily claim multiple identities across boundaries. Criminal gangs engaged in arms sales, drugs and narcotics and human trafficking usually take advantage of the vastness of the Sahel and its harsh environment. In addition, terrorism in the Sahel region has made it possible for all kinds of illegal activities to thrive in the region. One of the specific features of the terrorist groups and guerrillas that operate in the Sahel is their direct involvement in activities such as drug or human trafficking or tobacco smuggling, either directly or in association with organized crime groups.
In Nigeria, for example, the authorities revealed that in 2012, the country had 70 per cent of the 10 million illegal weapons in circulation in West Africa, and the situation worsened since the violent turn of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya, the insurgency in Somalia and other countries that favored the arms smuggling, mainly by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Nigeria is particularly vulnerable, since there are 1,497 identified illegal routes into the country, according to Interior Minister, Abba Moro. Illegal arms have proliferated out of Libya. A study of the United Nations Panel of Experts on Libya, mentioned that following Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011, arms left Libya “to 12 countries” in the North African region and West Africa, until March 2013. Arms now flow out through Facebook accounts. One of such online sites that displayed phone numbers for contacts had 14,000 visits as of October 2013.
I. Side effects of the Arab Spring: radical Islam in failed states
The 2008 defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed by the 90 percent decline in the number of the al-Qaeda militants in that country, and the subsequent death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, made analysts believe that Islamic terrorism was on the way of disappearing. In fact, the number of the terrorist attacks, most of them by Muslim religious radicals, more than doubled, from 7,200 in 2009 to 18,500 in 2013. The main causes of this growth were considered to be the state-sponsored Islamic terrorism and the Arab Spring uprisings that began in Tunisia, in December 2010.
The Arab Spring is seen as having been one of the greatest contemporary surprises of the global political development and some political historians included it in a so-called “Fourth Wave” of the world democratization process (borrowing from Samuel Huntington’s “Third Wave” democratization).
The term refers to the third major surge of democracy in history and was coined by Samuel Huntington in an article published in the Journal of Democracy, and further developed in his 1991 book The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. Huntington describes global democratization as coming in three waves. The first wave of democracy began in the early 19th century (when suffrage was granted to the majority) until 1922, when Benito Mussolini rose to power in Italy. The ebb of the first wave lasted from 1922 until 1942, during which the number of democracies in the world dropped to a mere 12. The second wave began after the Allied victory in World War II, and crested nearly 20 years later in 1962, with 36 recognized democracies in the world. The second wave ebbed as well at this point, and the total number dropped to 30 democracies between 1962 and the mid-1970s. The third wave began in 1974 (Carnation Revolution, Portugal) and included the democratic transitions in Latin America in the 1980s, Asia Pacific countries (Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan) from 1986 to 1988, and Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By some measures there are well over 100 democracies in the world today, a marked increase in just a few decades. Many of these newer democracies are not fully consolidated, since while they have electoral institutions in place, political democracy remains fragile. Reasons for this fragility include economic instability, continued elite dominance of politics, ongoing military interference in civilian affairs, and others. For this reason, political scientists and theorists believe that the third wave has crested and will soon begin to ebb, just as its predecessors did in the first and second waves.
Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” that started on 17 December 2010 is considered as the first of the events in North Africa and the Middle East referred to as the Arab Spring. The revolution, that started and spread across the countries with the help of social media, led to the resignation of President Ben Ali after 23 years in power. The success recorded in Tunisia inspired and sparked popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The countries affected included Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen. The uprising in Egypt, Libya and Yemen succeeded in ousting from office their dictators while in Syria it led to a still ongoing civil war.
Freedom for all, including radical Islam
According to many analysts of the Arab uprisings’ phenomenon, the Arab Spring included the mistake of accepting as tacit allies radical Islamic groups which had long been trying to overthrow the authoritarian rulers. These groups considered the secular democrats who sustained the Arab Spring as competitors for power, not allies in creating new democracies. This misreading of the Islamic terrorist groups (most of whom consider democracy un-Islamic) proved to be very expensive in terms of lives, property damage and economic losses, since the Arab Spring also proved a major boost for Islamic terrorist morale and numbers.
In the revolutionary process, thousands of Islamic terrorists were released from prison. By recycling all these imprisoned Islamic terrorists after 2011 the terrorism acquired the ability to do a lot more damage.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have found a second wind, after the supposed weakening that followed Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011. During the first year of the Arab Spring, as the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya imploded, al-Qaeda’s future seemed even more in doubt. However, while pro-democratic Islamist movements emerged victorious at the polls in Egypt and Tunisia, they failed to sideline the militaries, which have since returned with a vengeance, especially in Egypt. Consequently, the euphoria of the Arab Spring has gone into remission, while, at the same time, various radical movements have now entered the power vacuum created by frail and failing states.
The result was a significant increase in Islamic terrorist violence. For the Arab Spring countries it meant prolonged unrest and more deaths. The unrest continues in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Algeria and the overall financial cost is estimated at over a trillion dollars, most of it represented by the shrinking GDP. The situation is particularly difficult for populations that were poor to begin with. Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Bahrain have suffered most from the unrest, losing up to a third of their GDP because of the Arab Spring economic disruption. Wealthier monarchies and dictatorships also spent money (sometimes borrowed) to placate their restless populations.
The Arab Spring generated unexpected popular uprisings against dictators and monarchs. Most are seen as having succeeded (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya), while others failed or never got going (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Algeria, Morocco, Lebanon) and Syria is not over. The uprisings were mostly about corruption and the resulting widespread poverty and bad government. For that reason, the Saudi Arabian monarchy was able to buy its way out of an uprising. Yemen mutated into a low level civil war, while Syria grew into a countrywide guerilla war. Egypt and Tunisia were over quickly but subsequent elections put Islamic conservatives in power, and then out of power as the voters realized that the Islamic radicals wanted not democracy, but a religious dictatorship.
Experts in the Salafi and al-Qaeda ideology pointed out that the Arab revolutions surprised not only the leaders of the countries affected, but also al-Qaeda. Although al-Qaeda expressed sympathy towards Arab peoples in some of its statements, this does not necessarily reflect its satisfaction with the popular revolutions, as much as it expresses its position towards the Arab rulers whom it considered its primary enemy.
Arab Spring consequences for the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa
The Arab Spring not only brought about a period of political uncertainty in the affected countries, but it also created the opportunity for political instability in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa. In this region, the fragility of the states (many of them failed states) also increased the window of opportunity for non-state armed actors to penetrate the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, which ultimately impacts negatively on the region that moved from revolution to political uncertainty and instability.
The weakness of national governments in the North Africa and Western Sahel region – mainly those of Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, and Libya – stems from a disproportionate projection of power from capital hubs to international legal boundaries and inadequate territorial organization/management from the center to the periphery. Flawed infrastructures, weak governance, and recurring economic underdevelopment are driven by both defective institutionalization and limited state penetration in society. For many indigenous people, systems such as tribalism, customary practices and linguistic affiliations transcend international boundaries and, in many cases, their ethnic diversity and religious identity prevails at the expense of existing colonial borders.
In these shifting sands, with a history of state neglect, different tensions, including long-standing grievances over cultural alienation, political suppression and a historic lack of development, marginalization permitted violent radical groups to settle in. The region is sparsely populated and uncertainty, diversity and the complexity of the Saharan milieu is shaping the local events. Like the states, Islamist militant groups use this space as an area of operations for criminal activity rather than as a sphere of influence and genuine control.
Historians note that post-colonial political liberalization in Sub-Saharan Africa has significantly altered public life in many countries. The outcome of the democratic awakening was followed by a retreat of democracy in Africa (reflecting a global trend), a process favored by several factors: the reconfiguration of power instead of democratic transformation; autocratic tendencies of post-liberation regimes; appeasing of aid donors by trading economic growth for political advance; attractiveness of the “East Asian model” propelled by China’s dominant presence; and heightened concern for stability and security with the upsurge of jihadist Islam, transnational crime, and collapsed states.
While the Arab Spring put an end to some of the most enduring autocratic regimes in the region, the end of the regimes in countries like Libya liberalized access to weapons, which found their way to the Sahel and other parts of Africa. In most cases, weapons got into the hands of rebels and terrorist groups who have continued to make use of them against already fragile states.
Taking advance of the political turmoil
The killing of the U.S. Ambassador and his colleagues in Benghazi (Libya) on September 11, 2012, the al-Qaeda affiliates’ seizure of Northern Mali, followed by the French military intervention and the In Amenas (Algeria) gas plant attack (January 2013), the September 2013 attack at the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi (Kenya), all were indicators of the changing frontlines of radical Islam in the Sahel. In the same context, the U.K. security services warned about the increasing number of attacks perpetrated by Boko Haram, the terrorist organization in northern Nigeria, and some even suggested the possibility of a British military intervention similar with the French one in Mali.
The availability of arms in Libya provided impetus for renewed armed insurrection against the state in Mali and Nigeria. Large quantities of weapons are also present in other states in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa, making these countries prone to conflicts and instability. Since the state authorities often do not have the capability to confront armed insurrection of non-state armed actors, international intervention was used to assist these states in pushing armed groups out. The intervention of France in Mali’s confrontation with Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine and other terrorist cells is a classic example.
The new pattern that began to emerge indicates the resurgence of militant Islamists and others seeking to take advantage of the political chaos gripping the region. The Benghazi attack was preceded by the re-emergence of the Tuareg separatist group known as the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad in Northern Mali (MNLA), a long-standing post-colonial movement that has been actively trying to secure autonomy for the Tuareg since Mali achieved independence in 1960. But the 2012 MNLA uprising was supported by two Islamist movements, Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), both of which came with a determination to impose Sharia law and to destroy the very nature of Mali’s Sufi Islam. The sudden and violent ascendancy of Salafist Islam in Northern Mali, represented by AQIM and Ansar Dine, two different al-Qaeda-affiliated movements with different sets of supporters and leaders, is what ultimately triggered the French decision to intervene militarily in January 2013.
A tactical shift of al-Qaeda
A recent study concluded that Islamic terrorist activity in North Africa and the Sahel increased 60 percent in 2013, mainly as a result of the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings that overthrew the governments of Libya and Tunisia. That contributed to the rebellion in northern Mali in 2012. Eliminating the police state governments of Tunisia and Libya, and freeing many Islamic terrorists from prison was a boost to the terrorist organizations.
The fear that the Sahel could become the next Afghanistan has been a topic of sustained planning and source of counter-terrorism funding and training for almost a decade. Three years from the Arab Spring, its democratic gains are in doubt, while there has been a clear resurgence of radical Islamist groups. The euphoria of the Arab Spring has given way to al-Qaeda-linked terrorist attacks and the return of military juntas.
Analysts point out to a tactical shift for al-Qaeda and other radical Islam groups, which now hope to capitalize on the chaos and disenchantment of the Arab Spring in order to target the so-called “near enemy” (national governments and/or the secularized military juntas). This new phase outlines new dangers, since governments in North Africa are now trying to suppress both democratic activists and radical jihadists simultaneously.
The idea of avoiding confrontation with regimes where Islamists came to power via elections is a proof of this shift in strategy, as well as al-Qaeda’s pragmatism in choosing to adapt to changing circumstances. To that end, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has argued that the group should exploit the Arab Spring to expand its recruiting by creating a civilian wing concentrating on religious propagation. This has subsequently led to the creation of Ansar al-Sharia groups within the Arab Spring countries – namely those with security vacuums, such as Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen. Civilians within Ansar al-Sharia are conducting a “hearts-and-minds” campaign based on charitable and religious work particularly on the outskirts of cities and towns.
II. Al-Qaeda franchises in Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa:
AQIM, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab
Currently, al-Qaeda is defined as a global international terrorist network, with a general command in Afghanistan and Pakistan and affiliates in several countries which are serving al-Qaeda’s broader goals. The emergence of formal affiliates, or branches, has been a core al-Qaeda objective since the early 1990s.
The backbone of today’s al-Qaeda consists of its “general command”, or “core”, based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its formal affiliates. The al-Qaeda affiliates include: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and “the Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. All of the affiliates have publicly sworn bayat (an oath of fealty) to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership (Jabhat al Nusra in Syria openly proclaimed its allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri). There is evidence showing that while al-Qaeda’s general command guides the overall strategy pursued by the affiliates, the affiliates enjoy a large degree of latitude in deciding how to run their operations.
In addition to the established affiliates, there are numerous associated jihadist organizations that al-Qaeda either influences or outright directs without officially recognizing the group as an affiliate. Several such groups are to be found in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa. The main and the most dangerous ones, besides the affiliates, are estimated to be the AQIM’s splitting groups, franchises and “satellites” all over North and West Africa, as well as Boko Haram (Nigeria).
One of the AQIM followers in Mali is Ansar Dine, which the U.S. State Department designated as a terrorist organization, in March 2013, noting that it “cooperates closely with” and “has received support from AQIM since its inception in late 2011”. Ansar Dine “continues to maintain close ties” to AQIM and “has received backing from AQIM in its fight against Malian and French forces”.
In Nigeria, Boko Haram is not a formal al-Qaeda affiliate, but according to the U.S. government the group has maintained ties to three affiliates. “There are reported communications, training, and weapons links between Boko Haram, AQIM, al-Shabaab and Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which may strengthen Boko Haram’s capacity to conduct terrorist attacks”.
Other pro-al-Qaeda organizations have emerged since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring under the name Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Sharia Law). The first Ansar al-Sharia was in fact a rebranding of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other Ansar al-Sharia chapters are run by jihadists with known ties to al-Qaeda.
Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia is headed by Seifallah ben Hassine (also known as Abu Iyad al-Tunisi), who has known ties to al-Qaeda senior leaders. Ansar al-Sharia in Libya hit the headlines when the American ambassador to Libya was killed in Benghazi in September 2012. Ansar al-Sharia Egypt is led by Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) leaders who have remained loyal to al-Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. The groups calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia are all open about their support for al-Qaeda’s agenda.
1. Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
The biggest and most dangerous al-Qaeda group in Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa is undoubtedly Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), not only because of its dimensions and strength, but mainly because of its capacity to spread and adapt to the changing environment, as well as for its specific feature, the direct involvement in organized crime activities.
An evolving and increasingly amorphous organization, AQIM is seen to be a threat to security in Africa where it has seized and murdered Western hostages, launched brutal attacks in the Sahel and the Maghreb, and helped a variety of militant groups in a region prone to crime and militancy alike.
AQIM has the power to mount attacks against targets outside North Africa, but so far it has not shown serious interest in doing so; its rhetoric regularly excoriates France and the United States, but its actions focus more on regional targets. The anti-European, local, and anti-colonial dimension of AQIM’s history appears to be the group’s core driver, but the shared background of its leaders as mujahedeen in Afghanistan links it to a broader global current of Islamist militancy that also encompasses the core of al-Qaeda.
Prior to 2007, AQIM was known as Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). It evolved from the Groupe Islamiste Armé (GIA), the terrorist organization which fought the insurgency against the government that lasted through much of the 1990s. By the mid-1990s, the GIA began to lose popular support and was viewed as having been penetrated by Algerian government agents. Consequently, the group broke apart and the main branch rebranded itself as the GSPC in 1998.
Some GSPC leaders and operatives reportedly fought alongside al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but the overall connections were limited. After 9/11, this initial connective tissue began to grow stronger. Bin Laden attempted to make contact with the GSPC in 2002, but Algerian security forces killed his emissary. Later, the GSPC came into contact with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
GSPC’s transformation into AQIM in 2006 was favored by several factors, mainly the pressure it faced from the Algerian army, and, on the other hand, the efforts of Osama Bin Laden to export the al-Qaeda “brand” and encourage the development of offshoots in the world. Thus, Abdelmalek Droukdel (aka Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud), who had become GSPC leader in 2003 (and still runs AQIM) sought a closer relationship with core al-Qaeda, hoping that this move would strengthen his own position within the group.
Aligning with al-Qaeda also helped to recruit local fighters, many of whom had been energized to fight by the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the al- Qaeda “brand name” was supposed to confer a plus of aggressiveness, singling AQIM out amid the region’s militant groups.
In 2006, Droukdel exchanged letters with al-Qaeda leaders in Pakistan, and in 2007 he formally renamed the organization Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. A trove of letters discovered in Bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound indicated that AQIM subsequently remained in contact with the core al-Qaeda. After 2007, AQIM attacks spread beyond Algeria to several neighboring states, reflecting Droukdel’s new ambition for forging a regional Islamist caliphate rather than simply imposing Sharia law in Algeria alone.
As of late 2012, AQIM operated in a corridor along much of the northern Sahel, a 7000-kilometer long ribbon of land that runs across the widest part of Africa and includes sections of Mauritania, Niger, Algeria, Libya, Burkina Faso and Chad, that is from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. The vastness and the lack of control of the region made some analysts consider it a territory practically owned by al-Qaeda, different from Afghanistan that the group never owned.
Splitting groups and change of strategy
In the early 1990s the southern Algeria and later northern Mali group of AQIM were under the undisputed rule of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an ex-Afghanistan fighter who was appointed in 1992 head of Sahara operations by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), from which he split six years later and joined the nascent AQIM.
The AQIM fighters also fled across the border into Mali where, starting from as early as 2003, they used the country’s vast northern desert to hold French, Spanish, Swiss, German, British, Austrian, Italian and Canadian hostages, raising an estimated $89 million in ransom payments, according to Stratfor.
The transformation of the GSPC into AQIM also encouraged the rise to power in south-eastern Algeria of Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, whose activities were soon noticed by al-Qaeda’s core leadership, which established direct contact with him.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar soon developed an extensive network of links to local political structures and criminal organizations. He sent some of his proceeds from these activities back to his leaders in the Kabylie region, in the north of Algeria, and after 2006, some of these funds could even have made it back into the coffers of core al-Qaeda in Pakistan. But as Belmokhtar’s financial means and prestige grew, so did his independence. Droukdel’s ability to control Belmokhtar’s activities from the Mediterranean coast diminished and, eventually, Belmokhtar’s independence created a rift with Droukdel. In late 2012, Droukdel officially ousted Belmokhtar, who promptly formed his own group, the “Katibat al-Mulathameen”(“Signed in Blood Brotherhood”) that attacked the In Amenas gas facility in January 2013. This operation and a later one involving suicide bombers against a French-owned uranium mining company in Niger were widely seen as designed to enhance Belmokhtar’s claim to be a regional jihadist leader.
In August 2013, Belmokhtar forged a new alliance with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO, after its name in French), to form al-Mourabitoun, (a name that refers to an Islamic state established in the desert 1,000 years ago). Al-Mourabitoun appears to be operating outside Mali (in Niger and Libya) but has moved some people back into northern Mali and French troops are looking for them. While not numerous, Al-Mourabitoun is considered to have some imaginative, aggressive and energetic leaders. It recently issued threats against France via the Internet, is sometimes seen as more of a threat than AQIM, which suffered greatly during a year of French attacks and is reported to also have gone through an internal split.
Local observers noted in 2013 that the French-African military campaign against AQIM led to the death of some of the main of its leaders, the first to fall being Abdelhamid Abu Zeid. The next AQIM chief, El Kairouani Abu Abdelhamid al-Kidali, was also reportedly eliminated by French and Chadian forces. On 2 March 2013, Chad authorities reported that Mokhtar Belmokhtar had been killed in a raid by Chadian troops against a terrorist base in Mali. However, two months later Belmokhtar claimed responsibility for two suicide truck bomb attacks.
After the French-African intervention and Abou Zeid’s death, many analysts see AQIM as facing a worsening of the internal disputes, but also a process of adapting in order to attract new recruits.
Several videos and documents issued by AQIM in 2013 reveal a shift in the group’s focus on local issues rather than the previously approached international or regional issues, such the Arab-Israeli conflict and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The new AQIM strategy is seen as aiming to recruit youth in Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco to do battle in northern Mali and southern Algeria and to challenge French influence as well as the Algerian government. This signals a shift toward localization of jihad instead of its internationalization, with AQIM recommending that its members stay in North Africa to recruit more followers instead of going to conflict zones like Syria, and arguing that the local governments were trying to get rid of fighters by facilitating their travel abroad, thereby limiting the potential of action in their own countries.
This new approach may reflect recent instructions from the core al-Qaeda that urges supporters not to target or clash with Arab regimes, especially those in which Islamists have come to power via elections. Al-Qaeda sees such attacks as not being productive and encouraged its members to utilize the margin of freedom being created, either to topple regimes or to pressure them to offer genuine reforms.
AQIM’s axes of influence: South, West and East Africa
AQIM benefitted from regional conditions and pursued alliances with other regional groups to achieve its objectives, strengthening them financially and technically in the process. It has also sought to exploit the security vacuum in post-Gaddafi Libya and has made overtures to militant groups as far away as Egypt. AQIM also looks to Syria as the most important emerging new arena for jihad, much as the current AQIM leadership viewed Afghanistan in the 1990s and Iraq in the 2000s as proving grounds for their fighters and recruiting pools for new members.
Efforts to build relationships with a diverse network of militants in North Africa are underway. The goal is not to monopolize but to help increase the efficiency of the local extremist groups that have sprung up in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
AQIM influence moves along three related axes: to the West, to the East, and to the South. The North axis is seen for the moment as being mainly rhetorical, aimed at France and its western allies. Of the three active axes, the southern has been by far the most significant to date, but the western and especially the eastern axes have become much more significant since the Arab Spring revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.
a) For several years, the southern axis (Sahel) has been the most important to AQIM. The Sahel is one of the world’s poorest regions; poverty, corruption, and privation in the endemically weak states of Mali, Mauritania, and Niger have left them highly vulnerable to criminal activity. AQIM has grown and thrived in this criminal milieu for more than a decade.
AQIM’s alliances in northern Mali were mainly developed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his smuggling networks for almost a decade, until the end of 2011. When Gaddafi-aligned Tuareg mercenaries retreated from Libya in 2011 and helped fuel a revolt in Mali, Belmokhtar seized the chance to push forward the dream of a regional Islamic caliphate there. Joining forces with the radical Islamic Tuareg group Ansar Dine, Abu Zeid’s AQIM battalion, and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO),the Azawad offshoot of AQIM, Belmokhtar pushed out the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) and managed to acquire firm control of most of the north by the end of 2012.
- Ansar Dine (Harakat Ansar al-Dine, “movement of defenders of the faith”) is a militant Islamist group led by Iyad Ag Ghaly, one of the most prominent leaders of the Tuareg rebellion in the 1990s. He is suspected of having ties with AQIM through his cousin, Hamada Ag Hama. Ansar Dine wants the imposition of strict Sharia law across Mali.
The group’s members are reported to be from Mali, Algeria, and Nigeria. Omar Ould Hamaha, who served as Ansar Dine’s spokesman after April 2012, became the military leader of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA/MUJAO) in August 2012.
On 22 March 2012, Ansar Dine and the Tuareg rebels of the MNLA took advantage of a coup d’état in Mali and occupied the towns of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. On 26 May, the MNLA and Ansar Dine announced a pact in which they would merge to form an Islamist state called the “Islamic Republic of Azawad”. Later on, the two groups distanced themselves and began to clash. Ansar Dine and MUJAO managed to drive out the MNLA from the cities of northern Mali. This triggered the request for help by the Malian authorities and the UN Security Council resolution 2085/20.12.2012 that was followed by the French-led Operation Serval aimed to oust Islamic militants in the north of Mali, which is still going on.
In March 2013, Ansar Dine was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the U.S. Department of State, and the U.N. Security Council.
On 24 January 2013, a faction called the Islamic Movement for the Azawad split from Ansar Dine, which claimed to be ready for negotiations and to reject extremism and terrorism as well as any association with AQIM.
- Jama’at Tawhid Wal Jihad fi Garbi Afriqqiya (“Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa”, MUJWA/MUJAO after its initials in French) consists of members who broke off from AQIM in 2011 and, similar to AQIM, it aims to establish Islamic law across West Africa. It is believed to be led by a Mauritanian, Hamada Ould Mohamed Kheirou.
The rank and file are mostly Tuaregs, Mauritanian and Malian Arabs, as well as sympathizers from Nigeria and other Sahelian countries. Most members are from outside Mali, and the group has abducted aid workers and diplomats for ransom. Very little is known about the group except that it seemed to be heavily funded by drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. MUJAO’s first major operation was in Algeria in October 2011, when it kidnapped three aid workers in the town of Tindouf. The hostages were freed in July 2012, reportedly after a ransom was paid.
Before France’s military offensive, MUJAO’s sphere of influence was mainly in north-eastern Mali, where it controlled key towns such as Kidal and Gao, regarded as the drug centre of Mali.
Currently, MUJAO is attempting to regroup and recruit in Niger, Mauritania and in the Polisario-controlled Sahrawi refugee camps in southwest Algeria. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently warned that the precarious situation of young, disgruntled Sahrawis make them vulnerable to radicalization.
A group called “The Sons of the Islamic Sahara Movement for Justice” split from MUJAO in May 2013 and reportedly works in northern Niger, western Libya and south-eastern Algeria. Algerian sources say the group is made up of Libyans, Algerians and Malians. It is reported to have carried out attacks against Algerian gendarmes.
The flimsy security environment in the region has enabled AQIM to target countries that contributed to the French military effort in Mali and that represent France’s major strategic economic interests in the Sahel. One of those countries is Niger where, on 23 May 2013, a coordinated double suicide bombing hit a French-owned uranium plant in Arlit and a military base in Agadez. The attack was claimed as a joint operation planned and executed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s “Signed in-Blood katibat” and the MUJAO.
Niger, which was listed by AQIM’s associates as a target of choice, is facing three main security challenges:
- Increasing instability in Libya caused by the fragmentation of power that negatively impacted the country’s periphery in terms of border security and control.
- Rising security concerns in Mali, which are a serious challenge for its neighbors as the stabilization process is long, uncertain and punctuated by a protracted insurgency.
- A growing and increasingly diffused insecurity in Nigeria (with which Niger shares more than 900 miles of porous border), which is struggling against Boko Haram. Boko Haram not only calls for the creation of an Islamic state in the northern Nigeria, but it seemingly seeks to consolidate its operational relationship with al-Shabaab in Somalia. Due to its geographic location, Niger is seen as a bridge linking the two militant groups.
AQIM’s cooperation with the Nigerian jihadist group Boko Haram and its offshoot Ansaru have attracted recent attention. AQIM’s cooperation with Boko Haram and Ansaru also appears to have been focused more on kidnappings and roadside attacks than on sophisticated terrorist techniques. Nevertheless, the Nigerian militias’ connections with AQIM offer them the chance to improve their fighting techniques and gain knowledge necessary for terrorist attacks. The two groups may have different objectives, but their cooperation strengthens both sides.
b) AQIM’s influence to the east (in Libya and Tunisia) is seen as growing, and it is considered as more alarming, because those countries are closer to Europe.
- In Libya, the most radical groups operate under the name of Ansar Al-Sharia. One of the groups, from the eastern town of Derna, is led by Sufian bin Qumu, who was once Osama bin Laden’s driver and later a prisoner at the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Sufyan bin Qumu is wanted in relation to the attack that killed the US ambassador in Benghazi. The former Guantanamo detainee survived an alleged attempt on his life in April 2013.
Another Ansar Al-Sharia group, based in Benghazi, is also believed to have played a key role in the attacks on the U.S. compound in 2012. The group is commanded by Mohamed al-Zahawi.
The recently released “U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence review of the intelligence concerning the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya” confirms that multiple parts of al-Qaeda’s international terrorist network have been linked to the attack, including AQIM and Ansar al-Sharia. Members of both Ansar al-Sharia in Derna and the group’s Benghazi branch took part in the attack.
Members of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi might also be members of AQIM, but membership does not necessarily mean affiliation, formally or ideologically, with AQIM. Ansar Al-Sharia is seen as a constellation of Islamist militias with contacts with transnational jihadists transiting the area.
- In Tunisia, the key group is also named Ansar Al-Sharia. Formed in the aftermath of the 2011 revolt, it is headed by Seifallah Ben Hassine (aka Abou Iyad), a known jihadist who spent eight years in jail on terrorism-related charges, has been in the UK and is reported to have fought in Afghanistan and to have been involved with core al-Qaeda in Pakistan in 2001. Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia is considered to be responsible for the February 2013 assassination of Tunisia’s secular opposition leader, Chokri Belaid, and it was declared by the government a terrorist organization in August 2013.
Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia has a significant internet and social media presence with websites, and Facebook and YouTube accounts. AQIM is content to see Ansar al-Sharia assume operational control of dawa activities in Tunisia, while it concentrates on militant activity in and outside of the country. AQIM has so far benefited from the disorganization and demoralization of Tunisian security and intelligence services.
In this context of security vacuum and fragmented politics, there are many windows of opportunity for AQIM to creep into Tunisia and Libya. The proliferation of militant organizations and the ever-larger availability of weapons complicate the landscape of militancy in the Maghreb.
After the 2013 French-led Operation Serval, which drove it out of Northern Mali, AQIM appears to have found a place in the mountains and dune-covered wastes of south-western Libya. U.S. officials have confirmed the existence of camps in south-west Libya, and a U.N. official based in Sebha, Libya’s main southern city, described the extremist group as being “all around” the area. From those bases, experts and Western officials say that AQIM is building up new links and preparing for new attacks. A Morocco-based al-Qaeda expert, who has interviewed former and current leaders of AQIM in Mauritania, said there are signs that the group is also preparing to recapture lost territory in northern Mali once the French leave.
The growing AQIM presence in southern Libya has raised concerns in the West, with one British official describing the security situation in the region as potentially more dangerous than before the French intervened.
c) The western axis has been so far the least important and fruitful for AQIM, whose activity in Morocco and Western Sahara has been limited. The western axis matters more as a potential area for future expansion. Longstanding discontent and social displacement from the conflict in Western Sahara makes it fertile ground for AQIM recruitment. Many refugees from Western Sahara are housed in Algerian camps run by the rebel group Polisario. These camps in particular offer opportunities for AQIM to find recruits for criminal or terrorist activities in the region.
Kidnap-for-ransom, drug trafficking, and corporate management
In the context of the November 2013 AQIM abduction and killing of journalists Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, in northern Mali, analysts noted that, contrary to what was expected after the French operation Serval, the group’s core revenue stream and principal activity was still functioning and AQIM is a tougher and richer organization than most had believed. In the last ten years, AQIM is estimated to have made over 200 million US Dollars from the “kidnapping-for-ransom” (KFR) business alone, making it one of the wealthiest “firms” in northern Mali.
Huge cash reserves and an impressive business discipline – which would put to shame most government-owned companies in the region – combine to produce a paradoxical “business model”. But its vitality and growth tacitly implies some level of cooperation. Evidence that countries like Spain, Italy and France have been regularly fueling AQIM with cash in order to get their hostages released is emerging. In November 2013, four French hostages in Niger were released after the government in Paris allegedly paid $35 million, inevitably leading to a spike in the number of kidnappings. Officially, the French government denied paying anything, but some French media questioned that response.
From 2003 – 2007, several reports noted that AQIM averaged one “Kidnapping for Ransom” a year at a rate of $2 million per person. In the following years until 2012, the number of kidnapping cases rose – averaging 4 per year, while demanding ransoms of up to $8 million per hostage – yielding an exponential increase in AQIM’s annual revenues of almost 1500%.
Abdul-Hamid Abu Zeid, who was killed in February 2013, was considered the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of AQIM. His division was the wealthiest of AQIM and it relied almost exclusively on kidnapping as a source of revenue. After his death, Abu Zeid reportedly left a lot of frustrated followers searching the desert for his “hidden treasure”, since he used to keep cash reserves and buried large sums of money in desert holes that he located with GPS devices whenever needed.
Cooperation from local people has also been a key to AQIM’s success. Over the years, the use of a “natural safe” as a hiding technique has been very useful, with excess cash being used to consolidate support from locals, build schools and feed the hungry. To provide to the suffering masses what the failing state structures have not has been one of the main marketing tools of the organization.
AQIM had other sources of income as well. According to estimates released by terrorism experts, the group obtained revenues of about $100 million from diversified sources, including arms and human trafficking, smuggling of cigarettes and narcotics.
In April 2013, the UK Border Force seized, at the Port of Tilbury in Essex, a cocaine transport, valued at over £17 million and believed to have been smuggled via Senegal to Europe by al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Officials believe the cocaine was part of a major deal between AQIM and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which provided cocaine in return for the weapons the Islamist terrorist group had procured – possibly from Libya.
In the mid-2000s AQIM is supposed to have established partnerships with international drug cartels in Colombia and Bolivia that helped it acquire sophisticated know-how in telecommunications, money laundering and cash management.
Reportedly, AQIM even held a “joint board meeting” in 2010 with the Cali Cartel on a private island located off the shores of the failed state of Guinea Bissau. The two organizations reached an arrangement by which the cartel would provide cocaine and transatlantic transport and AQIM would provide its supply chain system and its knowledge of the desert routes to smuggle the narcotics up north to the Mediterranean.
Before this, there was consistent evidence that AQIM and MUJAO were consistently involved in drug smuggling, although drug smuggling is unlikely to have been their primary source of finance and, in fact, kidnapping for ransom yielded a better profit.
The rise of AQIM’s and MUJAO’s wealth had common causes with the growth of narcotics smuggling across the region. Criminal networks were able to flourish because they were often controlled by members of local elites and state agents, who have been using the proceeds for personal enrichment and as a political resource. This applies to both drug trafficking and kidnap-for-ransom, the latter activity providing the basis for arrangements between local elites and extremist groups.
Drug trafficking – together with smuggling in a wide variety of other goods – is a major source for enrichment in the Sahara. To succeed in this business, smugglers need logistics, a regional network, weapons, and political protection. At the same time, the profits generated from smuggling have a profound impact on local socio-political structures, enabling traffickers to buy weapons, influence and social standing. Drug smuggling in the Sahel-Sahara is thus closely linked with both members of the political and business establishments, and leaders of armed groups – including extremist groups such as AQIM and MUJAO.
For states such as Mauritania, Mali and Niger, the question boils down to “controlling smuggling, or losing the North”. By relying on local allies in their northern regions, these governments are tempted or forced to turn a blind eye to local elites’ involvement in weapons or drugs smuggling. Governments in the region are caught in a dilemma: allies with access to profits from smuggling can rapidly build a power base of their own and eventually challenge central government control. Variations of this dilemma have been playing out over the past two years in southern Libya, northern Mali and Niger.
2. Boko Haram: from religion to jihad
Boko Haram arose as a religious group in the North-east of Nigeria, a region that hosted extremist religious groups in the past, and experienced sectarian religious violence that usually involved the Muslims and the Christians.
The official Boko Haram name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (“People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”). The Hausa name “Boko Haram” (“Western education is sinful”) comes from a local radical Salafist group which transformed itself into a jihadist terrorist organization in the early 2000s. The Boko Haram ideology considers anything western as completely un-Islamic and that Western civilization is responsible for the evils of the modern society. The group fights to establish an Islamic state in Nigeria, where they can impose the strict interpretation of the Sharia law.
Boko Haram is also viewed as a political militia of the Northern/Hausa-Fulani hegemony. Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka argued that the group is available to highly placed, highly disgruntled and highly motivated individuals who, having lost out in the power stakes, have sown to bring the Nigerian society to its knees, create a situation of anarchy either by breaking up the country or bringing back the military – “not merely to Islamize the nation but to bring it under a specific kind of fundamentalist strain”. (Newsweek, January 16, 2012).
The source of Boko Haram’s membership is similar to that of previous extremist religious elements in Northern Nigeria, namely, the destitute, the unemployed and disillusioned youths that represent a failure of the government in basic social provisioning. The revolt was fostered generally by the feeling among many in the North that the modern secular system is incapable of stimulating meaningful development and prosperity in the region.
The core of Boko Haram emerged out of a political militia group known as Ecomog, used by a former governor of the Borno state, Ali Modu Sheriff, to dislodge his predecessor, Mala Kachalla, whom he sponsored to office in 1999.
Boko Haram was founded in the mid-1990s in Maiduguri, a city in the poor northeastern corner of Nigeria, and Mohammed Yusuf, a radical Muslim calling for the imposition of the Sharia law, became the group’s leader. The group attracted followers mainly in the northern part of the country, which never profited from the oil revenues of the Christian south. In the early years of Boko Haram, Yusuf built up a kind of state-within-a-state, complete with its own tax-collection apparatus, healthcare system and police force. In July 2009, after hundreds of Boko Haram loyalists stormed prisons and police stations in Maiduguri, the government in Abuja sent in units of elite soldiers. The revolt was crushed and eyewitnesses spoke of several thousand victims, of executions and of mass graves dug under the cover of darkness. Yusuf was arrested and shortly thereafter his body was found on the streets. He had been shot, and his body showed clear signs of torture.
The crackdown brought Boko Haram more new members and it grew from a regional sect into a terrorist organization that now views itself as part of a global Islamist network. Since 2011, the group drew attention to itself mainly with suicide bombings. Most of the attacks attributed to the group have targeted police stations, churches, schools and other educational institutions.
Currently, Boko Haram is led by Abubakar Shekau, a hardline cleric who, on a number of occasions, has been reported killed.
In May 2013, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan ordered extra troops into northeast Nigeria to crush Boko Haram, but the offensive, backed by air power, is so far seen as having failed.
Jihad under AQIM guidance
French intelligence officials have noted since 2010 ties between Boko Haram and AQIM. A confidential dispatch to Washington from February 2010, published by WikiLeaks mentioned that “French sources believe that AQIM is actively trying to expand its reach, and is apparently in direct contact with (the) Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram”. In June of the same year, AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel confirmed that his organization was supplying weapons to Boko Haram.
According to Nigerian security authorities, paramilitary training by AQIM to Boko Haram included looted Libyan military arms, some of which were later identified in Nigeria. Both have been seen fighting alongside Tuareg rebels in Mali, which generated speculation – that was however not confirmed – that, after the Islamist takeover of northern Mali in early 2012, Boko Haram sent militiamen to fight alongside MUJAO.
Other information mentioned that the Nigerian terrorists have also reportedly visited al-Shabaab training camps in Somalia and that AQIM allegedly sent experts to Nigeria to train people in the use of bombs.
Boko Haram’s interaction with AQIM and other terrorist networks in West Africa was confirmed by the Nigerian Chief of Army Staff, who recently declared that the involvement of foreigners in Boko Haram’s terrorist activities in Nigeria is certain.
Also, representatives from Chad confirmed at the beginning of 2013 that Boko Haram leader Mohammed Shekau was sighted in Mali to support the activities of AQIM. The discovery of large arms caches and ammunition in a house belonging to a Lebanese linked to Hezbollah in Kano city, in the first week of June 2013, further corroborated the view that Boko Haram has links with external terror groups.
Since Yusuf’s killing by security forces in 2009, Boko Haram has grown more violent and its attacks more sophisticated, an evolution considered to be directly influenced by its links with the al-Qaeda-inspired movements.
In September 2013, Boko Haram carried out the worst attack in years, killing more than 140 people in a single ambush in Borno State. Dozens of armed gunmen blocked a highway and slaughtered civilians. The group also claimed responsibility for the abduction of foreigners in neighboring Cameroon.
In the first two weeks of February 2014, Boko Haramkilled 106 people in Igze village, and attacked as the northeastern town of Bama, shooting or burning to death 47 people. Since the group started its activities, more than 3500 Nigerians have lost their lives to terrorism.
Involvement in trafficking and piracy
- One of the worrying features of Boko Haram is its suspected involvement in arms-trafficking and smuggling, using mainly the porous nature of the Nigerian borders with Cameroon, Chad, and Niger.
Recently, the Comptroller General of Nigerian Immigration Services stated that the Service discovered hundreds of illegal routes in Nigeria that link or lead to some neighboring African countries.Nigeria’s borders have hundreds of footpaths crisscrossing to neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad and Niger with links to Mali, Libya and Sudan. A conservative estimate of the local people mentioned well over 250 footpaths from Damaturu/Maiduguri axis that link or lead direct to Cameroon, Chad or Niger. These paths, which are mostly unknown to security agencies, are unmanned, unprotected and have continued to serve as conveyor belts for arms and ammunitions, even for drug trafficking.
The trafficking through such footpaths is using camels, donkeys and even cows. Small arms, ammunition and drugs such as cocaine are usually concealed and moved on camels and donkeys’ back in specially crafted skin or thatched bags, mainly meant for the illegal “expedition”, as well as in empty fuel tankers, vehicle engines and bags of grains.
- Boko Haram is also engaged in piracy off Africa’s West Coast, particularly the Gulf of Guinea. In a 2012 meeting of the 15 security chiefs of ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), it was mentioned that the activities threaten to undermine the socio-economic and political development of the region.
The costs of the piracy in the Gulf of Guinea are estimated as being bigger that the $7-10 Billion in losses occurring on the other side of Africa off the Somali coast. London-based Lloyd’s Market Association (that includes several big insurance companies) listed Nigeria, neighboring Benin and nearby waters in the same risk category as Somalia. In 2013, Nigeria had 31 of the 51 events in the Gulf of Guinea, overtaking Somalia which had only 15 episodes of piracy that same year. Reports mention that Nigerian pirates were also involved in cases across Togo, Gabon and all the way up to Ivory Coast.
Although it is difficult to document the suspected terrorist ties to piracy in the waters off Africa, officials are worried that even if Boko Haram insurgents are not directly involved in the attacks off Nigeria and Cameroon, they may be reaping some of the profits and using the money for ongoing terrorist training or weapons. Consequently, the U.S. and some of its allies are considering plans to increase anti-piracy operations along Africa’s west coast.
Ansaru: a dangerous offspring closer to AQIM
Ansar al-Muslimin in the Lands of the Blacks (JAMBS) is thought to have been founded following a split from Boko Haram. Also referred to as Vanguards for the Protection of Muslims in Black Africa, or simply Ansaru, the group has claimed the taking and killing of a number of hostages.
Ansaru publicly split from Boko Haram in January 2012, after denouncing Boko Haram’s attacks on Kano that killed almost 200 people as “killings of innocent Muslims”. It is considered as being created in May 2011, when a group claiming to be “al-Qaeda in the Land Beyond the Sahel” and a faction of Boko Haram kidnapped two foreign engineers in Nigeria and asked for a 5 million euro ransom. Such a strategy, usually employed by AQIM, and the fact that the mediator in the ransom negotiations, Mustafa Ould Limam Chafi, also negotiated many of AQIM’s previous hostage ransoms, indicated that that the group has close ties with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
Since 2012, Ansaru “specialized” in foreigners’ kidnappings, with the first such attacks being claimed in November 2012. Ansaru also came to the attention at the beginning of 2013, with two attacks in which14 foreigners were kidnapped in northern Nigeria and Cameroon, in a location close to Boko Haram’s core territory in northeast Nigeria. Most of the Ansaru attacks targeted French nationals or those supporting French operations in Mali, another aspect that may indicate a link between Ansaru and AQIM.
Another link between the two groups is the man behind the May 2011 operation, Khalid al-Barnawi, whom the U.S. State Department designated a global terrorist in June 2012 because of his ties both to Boko Haram and AQIM. Al-Barnawi worked with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, setting up kidnapping training camps in Algeria with AQIM’s predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). According to counterterrorism experts, al-Barnawi might be known under the name of Abu Usmatul al-Ansari, who claims to be Ansaru’s leader. Al-Ansari was known previously as Boko Haram’s commander in Nigeria’s northeastern states, Ansaru’s primary area of operation.
Currently, Ansaru’s activities and agenda are visibly different from Boko Haram, mainly because of the transnational scope of attacks and the ability to coordinate with other groups operating in West Africa. One of the estimated dangerous connections is with AQIM, which might attempt to direct Ansaru’s activities in Nigeria. AQIM may work more closely with Ansaru in an attempt to orchestrate its activities into a broader strategy. Ansaru could also extend AQIM’s network farther south, possibly into Cameroon, and, according to Stratfor, the group’s rise might negate the gains made against AQIM militants in northern Mali.
3. Al-Shabaab: threatening not only a fledgling state
The Somali Al-Shabaab (Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahideen – HSM, “Mujahedeen Youth Movement” or “Movement of Striving Youth”), more commonly known as Al-Shabaab (“The Youth”) is a jihadist group that joined al-Qaeda in 2012. As of 2013 it was estimated to have between 4,000 and 6,000 militants. Al-Shabaab has been designated a terrorist organization by several Western governments and security services.
In 2012, the United States government began a new policy of offering financial rewards in exchange for information as to the whereabouts of Al-Shabaab members, with an offer totaling $33 million for the capture of seven of Al-Shabaab’s senior commanders, including a reported $3–$7 million per leader. $7 million were set aside for information regarding the group’s Amir or Spiritual Leader, Ahmed Godane (Abu Zubayr), with another $5 million bounty on Al-Shabaab’s Deputy Leader, Sheikh Mukhtar Robow (Abu Mansur).
Its origins are not clearly known, but former members say a group called Hizbul Shabaab was founded as early as 2004. The current group is an off-shoot of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which splintered into several smaller factions after its defeat in 2006 by the Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the TFG’s Ethiopian military allies.
The Islamic Court Union, a loose formation of Islamic judicial systems, managed to restore some sort of civil order after years of violent anarchy in Somalia, opening the Mogadishu airport and earning the support of a Somali majority. However, the ICU, which was a coalition of interests that ranged from the moderates to the worst of the militants, worried the United States, afraid that Somalia might become an al-Qaeda safe haven. Consequently, with the approval of the United States, Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and splintered the ICU, with the moderates going into exile and the militants forming Al-Shabaab.
On February 9, 2012, Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Abu al-Zubair “Godane” (originating from the northern breakaway region of Somaliland) announced in a fifteen-minute video message that Al-Shabaab would be joining the Islamist militant terrorist organization al-Qaeda. Ayman al-Zawahiri approved and welcomed Al-Shabaab as al-Qaeda’s Somalia-based terrorist cell.
In response to Godane’s announcement, other Shabaab top leaders refused to adopt the new name (“al-Qaeda in East Africa”) and agreed on a new policy, independent of al-Qaeda and focusing on domestic issues. By 2013, the rifts within Al-Shabaab erupted into all-out warfare between Godane’s faction and those of other leaders in the organization. The Kenya Westgate attack in September 2013 was said to be a reflection of the power struggle within the insurgent group, with Godane’s hardline “global jihad” faction seeking to exert its authority.
Its leadership positions are mainly occupied by Afghanistan- and Iraq-trained ethnic Somalis and foreigners. Fighters from the Persian Gulf and international jihadists were called to join the holy war against the Somali government and its Ethiopian allies. Though Somali Islamists did not originally use suicide bombing tactics, the foreign elements of Al-Shabaab have been blamed for several suicide bombings.
Formerly a predominantly nationalist organization, Al-Shabaab repositioned itself as a militant Islamist group that also attracted a large cadre of Western devotees. The foreign recruits played a dual role within the organization, serving as mercenaries and as a propaganda tool for radicalization and recruitment.
In the past two years, Al-Shabaab has been forced out of most of the major towns and cities, such as Mogadishu and Kismayo. But it still carries out suicide attacks there, as well as in neighboring countries, such as Uganda, where 76 people were killed in 2010, as well as the September 2013 attack against the Westgate shopping mall in Kenya, in which at least 67 people died.
State-of-the art propaganda
Echoing the transition from a nationalistic struggle to one with religious pretenses, Al-Shabaab’s propaganda strategy is starting to reflect this shift. Through their religious rhetoric, Al-Shabaab attempts to recruit and radicalize potential candidates, demoralize their enemies, and dominate dialogue in both national and international media.
Al-Shabaab is known for having used radio and TV networks to present its propaganda in the form of domestic news reports, but after the territorial losses, it has been using increasingly the internet to convey its message. Its English-language output, particularly its use of Twitter, has demonstrated a level of sophistication unmatched by similar militant groups, and reports suggest that it has proved an effective tool for recruiting Muslims overseas. The micro-blogging site allows Al-Shabaab to provide real-time updates which challenge official narratives on operations such as the attack on a UN compound in Mogadishu in June 2013 and the Westgate siege.
Al-Shabaab also uses online forums and chat rooms in order to recruit young followers. Before being closed, Al Shabaab’s official website featured posts, videos and official statements in English, Arabic and Somali, as well as online classrooms. Prior to its expulsion from Mogadishu in mid-2011, Al-Shabaab had also launched the Al-Kataib propaganda television station and on December 7, 2011, Al-Shabaab reportedly began using the Twitter social media network. The move was believed to be an attempt by the group to counteract tweets by allied officials and to interact with the press. The account, HSMPress, has attracted over eight thousand followers. In September 2013, Twitter suspended at least six Al-Shabaab accounts after the outfit ridiculed the Kenyan government’s response to the Westgate shooting in Nairobi, an attack which Al-Shabaab had claimed responsibility for. The group re-opened a Twitter account in December 2013.
Money for members from smuggling and piracy
Al-Shabaab’s success can be attributed to its ability to pay its soldiers adequately. A young al-Shabaab fighter can earn US$300 a month from his regional commander as a loyalty fee while his food, water, khat (a local drug also known as mirrar) and weaponry is additionally supplied by the Al-Shabaab leadership. In comparison, a soldier fighting for the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), fresh out of Kenyan and Ugandan training camps, will have a hard time earning as much.
As in the case of the other African groups described earlier, most of the Al-Shabaab money comes from illegal sources. Al-Shabaab has been accused of being responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of elephants every year for their ivory, and for killing rangers hired to protect them. The proceeds from the ivory trade allegedly supply Al-Shabaab with income with which to carry out their operations. According to a source within the militant group, between one to three tons of ivory, fetching a price of roughly US$200 per kilo, pass through the ports in southern Somalia every month. Al-Shabaab’s estimated monthly income from ivory was calculated at between US$200,000 and US$600,000.
Ivory is only part of the picture. Foreign funding is raised through the “Hawala” system and Islamic “charities” and, supplemented by criminal activities, enables Al-Shabaab to hold on to its troops. The criminal activities include taxation of businesses and NGOs, trafficking in drugs, arms and humans, and involvement in counterfeit currency.
In 2011, Al-Shabaab was also supposedly in contact with the local pirate gangs which launched maritime raids from areas in southern Somalia controlled by the insurgent group. Al-Shabaab members have also extorted the pirates, demanding protection money from them.
Shady deals with government representatives
Although, under the U.N. supervision, Somalia has managed to have the main state institutions functioning, it is still pretty much a failed state. It has not had an effective national government for about 20 years, during which much of the country has been a constant war-zone.
The current president, a former academic and activist, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, was elected in 2012 by the newly chosen Somali parliament, under a U.N.-brokered peace process. He defeated ex-President Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, a former Islamist rebel fighter, whose three years in power were criticized by donors who said corruption was rife.
Al-Shabaab has denounced the process as being a foreign plot to control Somalia, but managed to have contacts and even allegedly to obtain some form of protection from the authorities.
a) A United Nations report leaked in February 2014 warned of “high level and systematic abuses” by Somali government officials who have passed weapons and ammunition to Al-Shabaab. The report mentioned that at least two clan-based “centers of gravity” were identified for arms procurement within Somali government structures that were distributing arms to “parallel security forces and clan militias that are not part of the Somali security forces”.
One of those groups was said to be within the Abgaal sub-clan of Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. “A key adviser to the president, from his Abgaal sub-clan, has been involved in planning weapons deliveries to Al-Shabaab leader Sheikh Yusuf Isse … who is also Abgaal”, the report said.
The Somali authorities strongly protested, with the head of Somalia’s military, General Dahir Aden Elmi “Indhaqarshe” describing the U.N. report as “fabricated”. However, he acknowledged that an investigation into how Al-Shabaab obtains its arms would be worthwhile. The Somali army commander also accused that “the U.N. Monitoring Group wants al-Shabaab to be an endless project in order to gain funds from the world while they are struggling hard to make Somalia’s government weak and nonfunctional” (local news agency Raxanreeb, February 17, 2014).
The U.N. report generated strong resentments also because it was seen as overstepping the U.N. monitoring mandate and, according to a senior AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia) analyst based in Nairobi (quoted by the Waagacusub news agency), “to send a report to the U.N. Sanctions Committee on the basis of an ill-informed clan relationship assumption is dangerous and explosive for the management of clan relations in Somalia. It demonstrates the Group’s ignorance when it comes to the clan system in Somalia”.
In Great Britain, the news prompted requests to stop the donations to Somalia, which add up to more than £90million a year, and to allocate part of the £11billion international aid budget to help flood victims in the country.
British aid to Somalia is already channeled through charities and agencies, rather than central government, in a bid to sidestep rampant corruption among officials. A separate study revealed that many of these organizations have been forced to hand over large sums in “protection money” to Al-Shabaab to be allowed to work there – even during the drought and famine of 2011 when nearly 260,000 Somalis died. Nearly £500,000 of British aid and supplies are estimated to have been stolen by Al-Shabaab militants.
b)According to information obtained also last February by the local news agency Waagacusub Media, a secret deal was allegedly signed in 2013 between the Mogadishu authorities and Al-Shabaab. The object of the deal was not disclosed, but it was supposedly brokered by two businessmen known as fundraisers for Al-Shabaab. They represented the Somali President and signed a deal with the Al-Shabaab leader for the Galgaduud and middle Shabelle provinces, at a meeting in the town of Cadale (in the middle Shabelle region). The two businessmen, one of which also holds a Canadian passport, are well-known for controlling the fundraising operations in the Somali Diaspora destined to Al-Shabaab. However, one of them is also manager of a company called Al-Kheyraad, owned by the president of Somalia. It was confirmed that Al-Kheyraad won all the tenders for the Mogadishu construction projects offered by the Turkish government to Somalia.
It is also believed that the deal was secretly supervised by the government of Qatar, which is financing the religious groups in Somalia.
Similar claims regard a supposed support by Qatar for Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the Sahel. The first one dates from June 2012, when the French magazine Le Canard Enchaîné quoted French Military intelligence sources asserting that Qatar was financially supporting Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its splinter group the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). The reports were vague but they usually refer to financial support from Qatar, while some refer to Qatari planes delivering weapons and even Qatari Special Forces. However, no specific evidence confirmed the allegations.
The continuing American drone campaign in Somalia is a major concern for Al-Shabaab, which has seen several senior members targeted and killed in 2013. The drone strikes have also damaged communications within Al-Shabaab and restricted the movements of its leaders, with many senior members, including leader Abdi Godane, believing that contact with mobile communications equipment can be tracked to target drone strikes.
Like the Somali army, there is infighting within Al-Shabaab, which might divide into smaller groups if Godane is killed. Having survived at least two recent attempts on his life, Godane is reported to have even grown suspicious of his own bodyguards in Al-Shabaab’s Amniyat intelligence unit.
Al-Shabaab’s primary focus is likely to remain on Somalia. However, the group is willing to launch operations elsewhere in the region if they are deemed to serve the goal of overthrowing the Somali government, chiefly by undercutting neighboring countries commitment to the sustained provision of military assistance. Al-Shabaab has a strong support network in Kenya, and small-scale attacks in Nairobi, Mombasa and along the Somali border are likely to continue. There is little to suggest this threat will be diminishing in the near future.
4. Coordination and joint activities
Under the umbrella of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM), militants and armed radical groups have expanded and entrenched their positions throughout the Sahel and Sahara over the last decade. They move from one country to another – a hard core of operatives working in an area that covers parts of south-west and south Libya, southern Algeria, northern Niger, north-east Mauritania and most of northern Mali. They also have connections in northern Nigeria, especially with Boko Haram.
Boko Haram operatives have been involved in hostilities in Mali and cooperate with AQIM and Al-Shabaab. Reportedly, links also have been established with Hezbollah, allowing the Lebanese terrorist group to run a weapons armory in northern Nigeria.
According to General Carter Ham, former head of the U.S. Africa Command’s declarations, as of June 2012, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Boko Haram were attempting to synchronize and coordinate their activities in terms of sharing funds, training and resources.
In the summer of 2013, reports mentioned a liaison between the Islamist militants in the Sahel, Al-Shabaab and a few other “informal units” operating in the porous borders area between Chad, Libya and Sudan. Al-Shabaab militants were reported to have travelled overland to Mali disguised as Koranic students or merchants. En route it is believed they stayed in safe houses in major cities before joining groups in the AQIM network to share experiences.
The groups interact on more of an informal than a coordinated basis, favored by lax border controls and territorial continuity. They also exploit the tribal systems and relationships between ethnic groups, using them to their advantage.
The prospect of closer interaction between AQIM and local militant groups is a source of great concern to both North African and Western governments, which also fear the closer relationship between AQIM and terrorist organizations in Africa such as Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.This was expressed in January 2013 by UK Prime Minister David Cameron when he warned, after the hostage crisis in Algeria, that the West should brace for another decades-long struggle against Islamist militancy in North Africa. The Western response will the decisive factor to whether AQIM remains a containable threat or develops into a major danger to regional stability and Western interests.
III. Current situation and short-term assessment
The new evolution of Radical Islam in North Africa and the Sahel is widely considered to be “one of the darker sides of the Arab uprisings”. Although ideologically al-Qaeda might have been absent from the Arab Spring upheavals, logistically, the jihadists benefit from the lack of control at the borders, the expansion of ungoverned areas, the proliferation of weapons, the disorganization of police and security services in all these countries.
Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011 has not seen a decline in terrorist attacks in Africa and the Middle East. Subsequent to the Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa, the U.S.-led incursion into Libya unleashed Islamist militias that killed Muammar Gaddafi who is quoted as having warned that al-Qaeda would take control of Libya if he were overthrown. Since then, a dozen countries have been infiltrated by Islamists linked to al-Qaeda. Large caches of unprotected weapons have fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda linked Islamists across Africa’s Maghreb and Sahel regions, and the Middle East.
Statistical records of 2013 indicate that terrorist attacks in the Maghreb and Sahel increased an alarming 60 percent from the previous year, totaling 230 incidents, the highest annual total in the region over the past twelve years. Countries most affected by new attacks in 2013 were Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, and Mali. The U.N. Security Council convened a special session in March 2013 and warned that an “arc of instability” was stretching across the Sahara and Sahel regions, and, “if left unchecked, it could transform the continent into a breeding ground for extremists and a launch pad for larger-scale terrorist attacks around the world”.
Another 2013 statistic, issued by IHS Jane’s terrorism and insurgency center, mentioned that terrorist and insurgent attacks across Africa and the Middle East have rapidly increased in number, with significant increases in both militant and non-militant fatalities.
In Tunisia, attacks more than tripled, from 21 in 2012 to 72 in 2013, while in Libya, there were 237 attacks recorded in 2013 and 81 in 2012. Figures also show that while attacks are increasing at a slower pace in sub-Saharan Africa, those that occurred claimed a higher number of fatalities.
In 2012 the IHS Jane’s terrorism unit reported 1370 attacks with 3434 fatalities, but while 2013 saw only slightly more attacks, deaths rose by almost 500. According to IHS Jane’s terrorism and insurgency centre, the increases are part of a wider surge in attacks that has been noticeable over a five year period. In 2009, a worldwide total of 7217 attacks were recorded from open sources, and in 2013, that number increased by more than 150% to 18524.
A constant feature of the region is the “kidnapping-for-ransom”, especially of Western persons. Since 2008, over 25 Westerners have been kidnapped in the Sahel region, with a number of hostages still being held. AQIM operates directly or through criminal gangs who carry out kidnappings on their behalf or pass on their kidnap victims in return for payment. Terrorist groups in the region have also kidnapped 16 westerners in Cameroon and Nigeria since December 2012.
There are currently around 6 hostages being held in the Sahel and surrounding region, some of whom have been held for 2 years. Victims in the region have included construction workers, NGO workers, tourists and diplomats of various nationalities, primarily European.
No signs of a diminishing trend
The beginning of 2014 shows no diminishing trend of the region’s radical Islam and insurgent groups’ activities in Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa.
- Recent reports mentioned an increased number of attacks in Northern Mali, by jihadists trying to re-conquer the areas abandoned in 2013. Most of the attacks are done by Ansar Dine and AQIM, aiming to frighten the local inhabitants, but they are more discreet, in order to avoid triggering the intervention of the French troops.
- A statement released at the beginning of 2014 reveals that jihadist organizations in Northern Africa tend to increase cooperation. On January 4th, the “al-Mourabitoun” group of Mokhtar Belmokhtar issued a statement threatening the interests of France and its allies in retaliation for their operations in Mali. The statement reviewed the militants’ activity in 2013 and mentioned the occasions when Western hostages were seized by the group and MUJAO separately before they joined forces in August 2013. The statement was the first to be published by the new extremist coalition.
- Also in January 2014, AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel appointed a head for a new branch that would focus on activities in Tunisia and Libya. The new group, which will be led by Khaled Chaieb (aka Lokman Abou Sakhr), resulted from the merger of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia with the so-called Okba Ibn Nafaa katibat, and is already known as “al-Qaeda in Tunisia”. The new emir will replace Ansar al-Sharia chief Abou Iyadh, who was apprehended in Libya.
According to local observers, sending Khaled Chaieb to Tunisia follows recommendations from a three-day summit in Benghazi of representatives from Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt, as well as Algerian representatives of AQIM, held to plot a new strategy for the region.
- In Somalia, Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the 21 February attack against the presidential palace in Mogadishu, “Villa Somalia”. The attack began with a car bomb that went off at the entrance to the palace, followed by militants who tried to shoot their way into the compound. Among the dead were Gen. Nur Shirbow, former deputy intelligence chief and Mohamud Hersi Abdulle, the permanent secretary for the office of the prime minister.
The attack on “Villa Somalia” came a week after at least five people were killed when a car loaded with explosives blew up near the entrance to the international airport in Mogadishu, an attack believed to be aimed at a passing United Nations convoy. Al-Shabaab also claimed responsibility for that attack.
- In Nigeria, the month of February has seen renewed attacks from Boko Haram, one near the border with Cameroon, with more than 100 victims, and another one in Bama, setting 1500 buildings ablaze, killing more than 115 people and leaving many others injured. It triggered a prompt reaction of the U.S. Secretary of State, who assured that the U.S. remains “a committed partner of the Government of Nigeria as it works to root out Boko Haram and associated groups”.
Sustained military operations have restricted Boko Haram and Ansaru’s ability to operate. However, the build-up to the 2015 election cycle is likely to prompt a spike in violence as militant groups receive increased funding and look to influence domestic politics with their activity. The incentives to carry out high-profile attacks will grow, raising the risk of isolated attacks in the capital Abuja.
Short-term assessment – Focus on Libya and Tunisia
Examination of terrorist threats in the Maghreb and Sahel in 2013 reveals a shifting geopolitical security threat environment. During 2012, radical Islam groups’ attacks in Mali, Algeria, and Nigeria represented the gravest strategic challenges within the broader regional “arc of instability.” Mali took its initial steps toward normalization, but growing security challenges due to the unfinished transitions borne in the Arab Spring saw Mali, Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia as the countries with the largest number of terrorist attacks in 2013. Other African countries of concern bordering the Maghreb and Sahel in 2013 were Somalia, Kenya, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.
Indicators of instability and conflict are also present in several countries of the region that had fewer or no reported incidents of terrorism in 2013: Chad, Mauritania, Morocco, and Niger. In Chad, the security situation has steadily improved in the past few years, but the country has a long history of instability and is located in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood. Mauritania continues to be threatened by AQIM and other terrorist groups operating in the region, who take advantage of porous borders to carry out attacks. As for Niger, it experienced one of the deadliest attacks of 2013, when MUJAO detonated two car bombs simultaneously in a military camp and at a French-operated uranium mine.
- The Libya security crisis is considered to be one of the main sources of concern, the war in Libya’s aftermath revealing the scale of the threats facing the countries in the Sahara-Sahel region. The terrorist groups are taking advantage of the security vacuum created by the Libyan crisis, and pose a threat to the stability of Niger, Chad, Mauritania, Sudan, the Central African Republic and even Nigeria.
The current state of affairs has also led to Libya becoming a major rallying point and training centre for jihadist groups. The country is also a headquarters and hub for smuggling. Drugs are trafficked from South America by cartels and channeled via ports along the southern shores of the Mediterranean to Europe, often through illegal migration networks.
- Although the situation in Tunisia appears to be better, it too carries the potential for a future filled with uncertainties. All the signs are there that a new geopolitical map of terrorism is taking shape in the absence of any prevention strategies. The spread of terrorism and crime not only threatens the southern Mediterranean, but it could also have a direct impact on the entire international community.
While Tunisia has been spared the chaotic turmoil of the other post-Arab Spring states, a growing al-Qaeda presence threatens to destabilize the country and undermine its democratic aspirations. Analysts assess that both democrats and al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists have similar potential to shape post-revolutionary Tunisia’s future, given the risk that the Mount Chaambi area (situated along the Algerian border) will continue to serve as a hub for international jihadist forces.
After being dislodged from northern Mali by the French military during January 2013, many AQIM militants returned to Tunisia and established training camps in Mount Chaambi. Algeria’s counter-insurgency operations throughout its Saharan terrain also pushed scores of Tunisian jihadists back into western Tunisia, where the state has far less experience cracking down on Islamist insurgents.
Al Qaeda-affiliated militias in Tunisia, such as AQIM, Ansar al-Sharia, and the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade (UINB), have shown a determination to carry out their agenda and directly challenged the state’s authority by creating parallel justice systems, based on a rigid interpretation of Sharia law. Such unofficial judiciaries have been increasingly popular in certain areas where locals believe that alternative legal systems are more efficient and less corrupt that the state judiciary.
In search of a coordinated counter-terror strategy
Most of the political and diplomatic decision-makers, as well as the analysts interested in the phenomenon agree that the growing threat of the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa terrorism and insurgency can only be countered with a common strategy, in which the central place must be assumed – albeit gradually – by the national governments of the countries concerned.
a) In the wake of unprecedented Islamist explosions and attacks across North Africa, the foreign ministers of 19 states – including France and much of North Africa – launched an equally unprecedented response. Meeting in Morocco’s capital in November 2013, they vowed to pool their intelligence efforts against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers. Their agreement, known as the “Rabat Declaration”, creates a counter-terrorism intelligence fusion center and formalizes the plans to share secret reports on terrorists.
b) At the 5th Marrakech Security Forum, organized in January 2014 by the African Federation for Strategic Studies (FAES) and the Moroccan Centre for Strategic Studies (CMES), the participants agreed that post-Arab Spring unrest in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt may lead to a vast “area of lawlessness in international relations, bringing about a new geopolitical configuration which harbors the potential for future confrontations in a region which was supposed to form the bridgehead of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership”.
c) In an interview published by Associated Press in January 2014, French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said France is moving toward a regional counterterrorism approach in former French colonies such as Chad, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali. The counterterrorism plan will involve, among others, creating specialized posts such as for logistics, intelligence-gathering and fighter planes. Chad’s capital, N’Djamena, will be a hub of French air power in the region and a base for the Rafale and Mirage fighters. Unmanned aircraft, such as France’s Harfang and the Reaper surveillance drone that France bought from the U.S., will be stationed close to Niamey, Niger’s capital.
The new approach follows strategic recommendations laid out in a recent review of the nation’s security and defense operations that put a new focus on Africa.
In February 2014, the 3,000 French troops based in Mali, Niger, Chad, Ivory Coast began in a process of re-organizing to provide quick reaction forces anywhere in the region. The new arrangement is meant to be flexible enough to deal with whatever the Islamic terrorists might do in the region. To that end, the American Africa Command (AFRICOM) is cooperating with the French to provide specialized capabilities like aerial tankers or additional airlift as well as intelligence collecting (satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles-UAV) and American Special Forces in the region.
d) On 10 February 2014, France refused Niger’s appeal for a western military action in Southern Libya against Islamist fighters who have established bases in the region. Niger’s call for help was considered to be a desperate one, as Islamist attacks and kidnappings on its mineral-rich soil have posed a threat to the security of its uranium production.
According to the French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, “there was no question” of putting foreign troops into a region that the United States identified as an increasingly worrisome new haven for al-Qaeda-linked militants. However, the French foreign minister mentioned that plans will be drawn to help the Libyan government deal with the issue.
Although an intervention has been ruled out, countries like Britain, Germany, the United States, Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia are aware of the dangers that can be posed and talks were planned for March 2014 to draw up such plans.
e) Besides praising the democratic progress in Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, during his February 2014 in Tunisia, the U.S. State Secretary John Kerry also offered to help the North African country’s fight against Islamist militants. During his visit, one of the main topics approached by Kerry with the Tunisian officials was the persistent violence by Islamist militants, whose leader has pledged allegiance to AQIM.
f) During the February 2014 International Conference on Human Security, Peace and Development: Agenda for 21st Century Africa, held in Abuja, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan suggested that countries should be allowed to chase fleeing terrorists on other nations’ territories. The suggestion is said to have been generated by the Nigerian government’s frustration from the refusal of Cameroon to cooperate with Nigeria in its efforts to combat Boko Haram.
Nigeria considers that Cameroon has a history of harboring persons that use its territory to destabilize Nigeria and, as early as the beginning of the 20th century, northern Nigeria suffered from violence orchestrated by religious leaders whose roots were in northern Cameroon. Currently, the government in Abuja thinks that Cameroon, unlike Niger and Chad, has been providing a safe haven for fleeing Boko Haram members.
g) At the beginning of March, at the end of several joint operations between the Somali National Army (SNA) and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) forces, five strategic towns in the Bay region of Somalia have been reported as being re-conquered by the national authorities from the control of Al-Shabaab.
The SNA and AMISOM joint operations signal the beginning of the renewed efforts of the Somali government forces working more closely with AMISOM forces to dislodge Al-Shabaab from many of its strongholds across the country.
In a recent book issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the authors explain that “the geopolitical significance of the Sahara is becoming painfully clear. Islamist militant groups and transnational criminal networks are operating in the region’s most fragile states, exploiting widespread corruption, weak government capacity, crushing poverty, and entrenched social and ethnic tensions. The unrest spills over borders and aggravates protracted regional crises”.
A confluence of forces, from the revolts in North Africa and the proliferation of weapons to transnational trafficking of illicit goods and terrorist activity led by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, are generating acute concern about the fragile states and territories of the Sahara and Sahel.
“The challenges faced in the Sahel do not respect borders and, therefore, neither can the solutions”, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has observed. While his observation might be true in the case of terrorism, trafficking and armed conflicts leading to the spillover of refugees in neighboring countries, the structural fragilities of the governments of this region respect borders. Before becoming regional threats to the stability of the Sahel, issues of terrorism and armed conflicts started as poorly managed domestic challenges. Fragile democracies, precarious standards of living, a harsh climate jeopardizing livelihoods, weak and corrupt governments, artificial and porous borders, security threats in the forms of human trafficking, drugs and arms smuggling and radical religious factions are some of the most prominent difficulties encountered in this region of approximately 150 million inhabitants.
The internal sources of insecurity include institutional weakness and corruption, endemic poverty, and sociopolitical tensions. Unaddressed identity-based grievances splinter these societies, while legacies of past abuses and religious radicalization stir up tensions further. External stresses range from transnational organized crime, terrorism, and weapons proliferation to foreign meddling and global economic shocks.
On the other hand, in the post-Arab uprisings, the failure of the new elites to stop the violence can be imputed to the conventional wisdom that most of the inherited problems would disappear overnight once accountable and democratic governments had replaced the authoritarian states. Instead, the region seems to be drowning in a deep sectarian, ethnic and tribal chaos likely to provide the ingredients for dramatic instability. As long as new leadership are unable to conceive a global vision of a post-authoritarian state, the Sahel-Sahara region security fatigue cannot be overcome only by hard security arrangements and stability may prove difficult to build, nurture, and consolidate.
As long as African states remain fragile, and as long as they are unable to meet the basic demands of their citizens, the stability of states in the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to be threatened.
The current threat of al-Qaeda in Africa is considered to be still predominantly a local, African problem, manifested in very different and very local ways. Within North Africa, AQIM is both increasingly large and increasingly amorphous. The relationships between core AQIM in Algeria, its offshoots in the Sahel, their partners, and the broader jihadist currents in Libya and Tunisia are neither fixed nor hierarchical.
Despite its reversal in Mali, AQIM is planning for the long haul. AQIM stands at a crossroads and so does the policy approach to countering it. Future choices, whether by local or international actors, will play a critical role in further narrowing or expanding the attractiveness and room for maneuver of AQIM in North Africa.
AQIM remains a serious danger in the region. Even if it is still focused on establishing Islamic law in the territories they control rather than directly attacking Europe or the United States, AQIM and its partners are growing stronger and gaining recruits amid often favorable local conditions. AQIM also acts as a force multiplier for other extremist groups in the Maghreb, sharing knowledge, weapons, and financing, and also affording a certain degree of legitimacy to what are often no more than crude criminal activities.
The threat is increasingly seen as getting closer to Europe and the West, especially in the context of the extension of the French counter-terrorist intervention in the Central African Republic. At the beginning of March 2014, the militant Islamist website “Al Minbar Jihadi” has created a series of posters calling for attacks on France and for the assassination of President François Hollande in reprisal for the country’s policies in Mali and the Central African Republic.
“Al Minbar Jihadi” Media Network is known for publishing news for various al-Qaeda affiliates. It operates an online magazine since July 2013 and launched its own magazine in January 2014. According to French newspaper Le Figaro, the website is also known as being close to AQIM.
Unless stronger action is taken against AQIM, it is likely to develop further. The instability and lack of security in broad swaths of northern Africa – much of Libya, parts of Tunisia, increasingly Egypt and large parts of the Sahel – offer AQIM rich opportunities to transit, recruit, raise funds, plot, and conduct operations.
Africa’s Sahel region remains at risk for high-profile terrorist attacks in the near future. The drawdown of French troops in northern Mali is likely to prompt an increase in militant attacks and kidnappings in both Mali and the wider Sahel-Sahara region. These could potentially stretch into new areas, most probably in Chad. French counterterrorism operations in Mali are not estimated to eliminate the risk of attacks, particularly in desert areas.
The problems facing the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa are enormous and complex. They will only be resolved, if at all, by sustained, indigenously-tailored efforts over time. The large size of most of the region’s countries, as well as the multitude of ethnic and religious groups, also calls for carefully implemented decentralization efforts providing greater autonomy to local governments.
 Cf. Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, Statement for the Record, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence presented by James R. Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, January 29, 2014.
According to the widely-accepted Fund for Peace definition, a failed state is characterized by: (a) loss of control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein; (b) erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions; (c) inability to provide public services; (d) inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community
 Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the In Amenas January 2013 attack were analyzed in a previous work
Cf. A. Hirsch, ‘Mali conflict could spill over into Western Sahara, warns Ban Ki-moon’, The Guardian, 9 April 2013, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/apr/09/mali-conflict-spread-western-sahara
 According to most historians, the conflict in the region can also be linked to the imposition of colonial borders, which gave territories inhabited by Somalis to Kenya and Ethiopia. As a result, Somali nationalists have been calling for a country for all the people sharing the same language and culture, and Kenyan and Ethiopian governments, opposed, which led to a low intensity warfare that occasionally flares up.
 Recent estimates suggest that up to 38,000 elephants are being killed each year – on average up to 104 a day
 Perilous Desert – Insecurity in the Sahara, edited by Frederic Wehrey and Anouar Boukhars, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013