Al Qaeda Thrives Across Weak West African States by Bennett Seftel - The Cipher Brief
Earlier this year, The Cipher Brief examined the deteriorating security situation across North Africa, contending that al Qaeda’s regional offshoot, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was poised to wreak havoc and generate further instability throughout the Sahel. Over the past nine months, this appears to have been the case as AQIM has accelerated its operations and stretched its target set into new territories.
Last week, the U.S. evacuated more than 100 Peace Corps volunteers from the West African country of Burkina Faso, which has witnessed an uptick in extremist related activity since January. The announcement came one month after a mid-August terrorist attack on a prominent Turkish café in the Burkina Faso capital city of Ouagadougou left nearly 20 people dead, including foreigners from Kuwait, Canada, France, Lebanon, Nigeria, Senegal, and Turkey. Although no group formally claimed responsibility, the incident bears the hallmark of atrocities carried out by AQIM, which is known for targeting locations frequented by Westerners.
AQIM was created in January 2007 as a rebranding of the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. The group initially fixated its operations in and around Algiers, Algeria’s capital, conducting more than 600 attacks against the Algerian government. Eventually, the Algerian army pushed AQIM southward, where it hijacked an ethnic Tuareg-nationalist rebellion in Mali and assumed control over the northern Mali region of Azawad in 2012. From that launching point, AQIM has orchestrated attacks throughout the Sahel region, including at several western hotels in Mali and in neighboring Burkina Faso.
Of all the al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM is most notorious for snatching foreigners and turning hostages into profit. Between 2008 and 2014, AQIM received approximately $91.5 million dollars in ransom payments, nearly three times the amount of the second largest total generated by al Qaeda’s Yemeni offshoot during that same time span. AQIM’s aptitude for hostage taking was enhanced after it relocated in northern Mali, a popular destination for western tourists and aid workers.
However, AQIM is not the only terrorist organization that has carved out a stronghold in northern Mali in recent years…