Small Wars Journal

Northern Mali Conflict 2012

Thu, 07/31/2014 - 3:01pm

Northern Mali Conflict 2012:  How Algerian Militants Transformed into an Al-Qaeda Affiliate and Penetrated an Ethnic Cleavage to Remain Relevant

Jason Guffey

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) grew out of Algeria’s civil wars beginning in the 1990s, after Arabs returning from the Soviet-Afghan war formed armed groups to overthrow a secular government unable to address the majority of the population’s needs.  Algeria broke out into civil war in 1991 against the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which was established by former Arab members who had fought with the mujahedeen.  From the GIA, a new group formed when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) split from Algeria’s GIA insurgent group in the late 1990s, and declared allegiance to al-Qaeda (AQ) in 2003, though the relationship was not formalized publicly until 2006.[i]  In the early 2000s, GSPC was on the verge of defeat by government forces and other secular armed groups.  This was thought to initially help align the group to AQ.  According to a report by the Council on Foreign Relations, the initial strategy had less to do with ideology and more to do with remaining relevant, helping to improve recruitment and fundraising.[ii]

In late 2010, the Algerian military undertook a series of campaigns against AQIM in the Tizi Ouzou region, in Northern Algeria. The campaigns were also due to a shift in attitude among the Tizi Ouzou population toward the Algerian military. While the Tizi Ouzou population had historically viewed the military with suspicion due to its heavily-handed tactics among its populations, the Tizi Ouzou population started to become more welcoming of the military’s effort to curtail AQIM because the latter had resorted to extorting the local population and to kidnap and ransom. Due to a lack of population support and coordinated government effort to rid the region of AQIM, they were forced to move further south. They intensified the pace of their operations in the Sahara and Sahel, and have since become a predominantly Saharan-based organization.[iii]

Though AQIM has had a historical footprint within the Azawad region of Southern Algeria and Northern Mali, it was not until 2010 that this region became its primary focus.  Unlike the coastal region of the North which is more densely populated and government and security forces maintain control, Southern Algeria and Northern Mali are far more remote and lawless, and the ethnic Tuareg populations that reside in this area have a long history of insurgent and criminal activity, making this region more equipped for AQIM to operate.  This set the foundation for AQIM’s infiltration into the Azawad region among the Tuareg population prior to the 2012 Northern Mali uprising.  Because of this, Tuaregs who had historically fought as separatists now grabbed headlines for aligning with AQIM in order to help defeat government security forces and seize control of territory. 

Due to the other armed groups operating, recruitment and membership is somewhat complex with intertwined groups offering support, working together, and some members flowing between groups, and allegiance is not set in stone for some.  To understand AQIM, there has to be parallel analysis to other groups operating within the region.  Ansar al-Dine is a home-grown movement comprised of mostly ethnic Tuaregs who favor Islamic law.[iv]  While AQIM does seem to operate as one lone entity at times, leading up to and during the 2012 Northern Mali conflict, fighters from AQIM fell under Ansar al-Dine.[v]

Though AQIM fighters aligned with Ansar al-Dine, AQIM was largely comprised of outside forces.  Their foundation in the Algerian civil wars meant that they drew much their support from the Algerian population.  The Algerian militants began to lose strength at the hands of the Algerian government in the early 2000s which propelled their alignment with AQ in hopes of remaining relevant and gaining further resources.[vi]  From this point, the foundation was set for AQIM to receive outside support with fighters coming from other parts of the Western Sahara, as well as Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Nigeria, and Sudan.  Conversely, AQIM could not have gained such regional relevance if not for the local support it was able to draw, both in terms of support and recruitment, in which it received the support of many local Tuaregs.  Also of importance, AQIM is able to operate because it had the sympathy from some government officials.  Corruption and alliances formed with political officials helped to fuel support for AQIM and other armed groups operating in the region.[vii]

In 2011, some members stated that AQIM focused too much on criminal activity and did not have enough dedication to the jihad and consequently split from the group, forming a new faction, The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO).  MUJAO is comprised of mostly ethnic Tuaregs, so part of the split was due to the Algerian leadership and foreign membership of AQIM.  Others have speculated that the split was partially planned, in that AQIM wanted to fragment in order to seek new opportunities for financing and recruiting.  Nevertheless, efforts to totally separate Ansar al-Dine, AQIM and MUJAO have been difficult because of the close associations among the groups.[viii]

The primary leadership is predominantly Algerian, and all were previous fighters in the GIA or GSPC.  The leadership includes a committee which is divided into two councils.  The Council of Notables, made up of the senior members, function as a war council.  The other is a Shura Council, which gives religious advice and provides legitimacy to the group’s purpose and ideology.[ix]  AQIM’s territory is broken down into four regions and controlled by subordinate commanders.  The Central region is located in Northern Algeria and contains the Algerian capital.  The West contains Morocco, the East contains Tunisia and Libya, and the South contains Southern Algeria and Northern Mali.  The Southern zone had long been a supporting zone for smuggling and logistics, but became more involved in tactical operations leading up to the conflict.[x]

The group raises money through an array of criminal activities, and in July 2012 the head of U.S. Africa Command, Gen. Carter Ham, described AQIM as al-Qaeda’s wealthiest affiliate.[xi]  They are able to stay self-supporting because each cell is responsible for their own sustainment, which gives them both profit and buy-in to the group at large.  The list of illegal financing operations includes kidnapping for ransom, trafficking of arms, vehicles, and persons.[xii]  They are also involved in the smuggling of drugs that go between Latin American suppliers going to the European market.[xiii]  Their most significant source of funding comes through kidnappings.  Most of AQIM’s activities in the Sahara have been kidnap operations targeted at aid workers, diplomats, tourists and expatriate employees of multinational corporations in which they have been very successful, raising tens of millions of dollars.[xiv]

Beyond kidnappings, their strategy consisted of bombings and raids against government security forces, as well as information operations.  The group’s media arm regularly releases statements claiming responsibility for attacks and employs the rhetoric and symbolism of Salafi-jihadi thought with a return to Shar’ia law.[xv]  The bulk of their messaging is targeted to highlight government corruption and the importance of fighting for the return to a “proper,” more Muslim way of life.

Their most successful strategy leading up to the conflict, however, was their alignment to the ethnic Tuareg’s nationalistic goals.  Taureg uprisings were spawned three times following conflict in Libya.  Many Tauregs fought on the side of Muammar Gadaffi, and during rebellions fighters would come to his aid in support.  The 2011 Libyan Civil War sparked the 2012 Taureg uprisings in Northern Mali, and even though there was much attention given to AQIM in this conflict, the movement was initiated by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who are secular ethnic Tuaregs, and whose goals are nationalistic/separatists in nature.[xvi]  However, during the 2012 conflict, the MNLA aligned with radical Islamists groups to help oust government forces.[xvii]  From this conflict, AQIM was able to maintain relevance and penetrate an ethnic cleavage that desired independence.

Shortly after aligning with the MNLA, AQIM along with their supported Islamic groups, Ansar al-Dine and MUJAO, turned against the MNLA and began forcing them from gained strongholds in the north. The MNLA soon regretted forming the alliance from both the standpoints that they had historically been opposed to Ansar al-Dine, and now they had lost the support of the international community, and in particular France.[xviii] Although the groups had joined forces against the Malian government, from the beginning the MNLA had trouble working with the Islamists and AQIM’s strategy all along was to disband the MNLA by working with Ansar al-Dine and MUJAO to take over their territory.[xix]

Once the MNLA ceded territory, Islamists quickly moved to implement Shar’ia law by carrying out brutal punishments such as stoning and amputating the hands and feet of accused thieves.[xx]  As the militants began to consolidate control in the north and continued their advance south, evidence supports that they were in the early stages of forming an Islamic state, complete with Shar’ia courts and Islamic police conducting brutal public punishments to alleged criminals.[xxi] An uncontested campaign by AQIM and its allies would have meant the complete collapse of Mali giving jihadist a state safe-haven to operate within.

With relative ease, French-backed forces, accompanied by 2,000 Chadian troops took back the towns in the north and faced little to no initial resistance from the Islamists. With such a rapid military advance, it could have been deceptive that the campaign would become easy. The rebels shifted to guerrilla tactics, blending into the civilian populations and launched a campaign of suicide attacks.[xxii] The Associated Press recovered a document left behind by AQIM that helps to shed light on their response to the French led military campaign. The manifesto shows they predicted a military response and that there was internal disagreement over how to rule the region. In the document, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of AQIM shows a willingness to adapt and give short term concessions for long term gains. He argues that the general population needs to be educated in the ways of Shar’ia law, and that they made a mistake in rapidly implementing the Islamic law. In order to continue an effective campaign, they would need to show restraint and make amends with the secular MNLA fighters they had helped to previously oust.[xxiii]

In the hope to regain its northern footing, the MNLA favored the French military intervention and used the opportunity to work with French and Chadian troops. The French led forces decided that they could work with the MNLA since the secular forces could be used to help combat the Islamists.  In the months following, French backed forces continued their campaign to disrupt Islamic forces.  However, the French set a short timetable to have most of their forces out of the country by the end of 2013 and moved swiftly to have elections prior to their departure.  Voter turn-out was low in the north where AQIM and the other Islamic groups operate, and observers were concerned over electoral corruption.[xxiv]

Major improvements in the security situation have been made since the 2012 conflict.  Several top leaders have been killed or captured and within the last year the jihadists have not pulled off any significant attacks.[xxv]  This does not mean they are fully put to rest as they still resort to guerrilla tactics and criminal activities such as kidnap for ransom.[xxvi] Yet while the Mali government remains ill-equipped to fight off Islamists, French officials see it as a benefit that the MNLA and aligned separatists Tuareg groups do not seek to recreate an alliance with the Islamic groups.  But the key to AQIM’s longevity is that they do have the support of parts of the local population.[xxvii]  This has been their key strategy all along.  They have remained aligned with other Islamists militants and they use their local understanding of the region to leverage support in ungoverned areas.  Militants continue to highlight government corruption and weakness and their remaining leadership and core group of fighters remain motivated to fight.[xxviii]  Their ability to blend into the population, gain local support, and conduct criminal activities for financing will keep AQIM alive in the Sahel at least for the near future.

End Notes

[i] Alexis Arieff, “Algeria:  Current Issues,” in CRS Report for Congress No. RS21532, by the Congressional Research Service, 18 January 2013.

[ii] Jonathan Masters, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),” Council on Foreign Relations.  [available at:].

[iii] Richard A. Nessel, “Why Failing Terrorist Groups Persist:  The Case of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (Master’s Thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, June 2012).

[iv] Morgan Lorraine Roach and Adam Gianella, “Foreign Militants Complicate Crisis in Northern Mali, in The Foundry, 06 November 2012.  [available at:].

[v] Andrew Lebovich, “AQIM and Its Allies in Mali,” in The Washington Instiute, 05 February 2013.  [available at:].

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Roach and Gianella, 2012

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Nessel, 2012

[x] Ibid.

[xi] David Lewis, “Al-Qaeda’s richest faction dominant in north Mali,” in Reuters, 26 July 2012.  [available at:].

[xii] Masters, 2013

[xiii] Lewis, 2012

[xiv] David Cohen, Remarks of Under Secretary David Cohen at the Chatham House on “Kidnapping for Ransom:  The Growing Terrorist Financing Challenge,” Press Center:  U.S. Department of Treasury, 05 October 2012.

[xv] Geoff D. Porter, “AQIM’s Objectives in North Africa,” Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel at West Point, vol. 4, issue 2 (February 2011) : 5-10.

[xvi] Peggy Bruguière, “Exclusive:  Tuareg Rebels in Mali Talk Tactics and Weaponry,” in France 24, 22 June 2012.  [available at:].

[xvii] John Campbell, “Some Mali Tuaregs Turn Against Radical Islamists,” Council on Foreign Relations.  [available at:].

[xviii] Leela Jacinto, “Strange bedfellows:  The MNLA’s on-again, off again marriage with Ansar Dine, in France 24, 05 June 2013.  [available at:].

[xix] Anna Mahjar-Barducci, “Fighting al-Qaeda for a Secular State near Mali,” Gatestone Institute, 31 July 2012.

[xx] “Al-Qaeda sends reinforcements to aid Islamists in Mali,” in France 24, 17 November 2012.  [available at:].

[xxi] Derek Henry Flood, “Between Islamization and Secession:  The Contest for Northern Mali, in Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel at West Point, vol. 5, issue 7 (July 2012) : 1-5.

[xxii] Melissa M. Cyrill, “Conflict in Mali and French Intervention,” Institute for Defence Studies Analyses, 08 February 2013.

[xxiii] Rukmini Callimachi, “AP Exclusive:  Rise of Al-Qaida Sahara Terrorists,” in Associated Press, 28 May 2013.  [available at:].

[xxiv] “France praises Mali’s election as Keita leads,” in BBC News Africa, 29 July 2013.  [available at:].

[xxv] Adam Nossiter, “Keeping Al Qaeda’s West African Unit on the Run,” The New York Times, 29 April 2014.  [available at:].

[xxvi] “Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists abduct Red Cross workers in Mali,” in France 24, 11 February 2014.  [available at:].

[xxvii]  Morten Bøås, “Guns, Money, and Prayers:  AQIM’s Blueprint for Securing Control of Northern Mali,” in Combatting Terrorism Center Sentinel at West Point, vol. 7, issue 4 (April 2014) : 2.

[xxviii]  Bøås, 1.


About the Author(s)

Captain Jason Guffey is a Civil Affairs officer in the 95th CA BDE (Airborne). Previously, he served as an Infantry officer with 3d Brigade, 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas. Captain Guffey has completed deployments to Afghanistan in 2011-2012 and Iraq in 2004. He holds a B.A. in History and Political Science from Middle Tennessee State University and is currently undertaking graduate studies in Diplomacy at the Bush School at Texas A&M University.