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Potential Escalation of Al Qaeda’s Activities in the Islamic Maghreb

11 November 2016

It seems that the escalating military operations by the international alliance and some of international and regional parties against the ISIS have pushed other terrorist organizations to increase their activities for the sake of regaining power lost to ISIS since their expansion into northern Iraq in mid-2014. These operations have started to yield significant human and military losses.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is one of the organizations whose power has more or less dwindled due to ISIS. Many small terrorist organizations in North African countries have joined ISIS, including Al Wasat, who, after pledging allegiance to ISIS, changed to the Soldiers of the Caliphate in the Land of Algeria. Other groups who have joined ISIS include Ansar AlKhilafah, Saraya AlGhurabaa, Al Ansar, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, whose activities have crossed the Nigerian border and now extend into neighboring countries. However, joining ISIS has not prevented internal conflict for Boko Haram. There were some disagreements between the two groups after Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau refused the decision made by ISIS leader Abu Bakr AlBaghdadi to appoint Abu Musab Al Barnawi, the movement spokesperson, as the leader of Boko Haram.

Converse Paths

This, however, did not prevent these organizations from competing with ISIS and preparing for pressures that could be imposed upon them following the waning influence and activities of ISIS, due to international and regional military attacks.

In other words, according to several trends, these organizations no longer rule out the possibility of facing difficult challenges in the phase following ISIS’ decline. This is on the basis that the military attacks against ISIS will push regional and international forces involved in the war on terror to continue to tighten security measures and raise the level of security coordination among them in order to face other terrorist organizations. This is especially in light of the continued threat to the interests of these powers by such organizations.

Some reports have revealed that in the last few months some terrorist organizations have sought to carry out huge terrorist operations in order to diminish the pressures faced by ISIS. For example, in June 2016, Al Shabab elements attacked the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), focusing on the Ethiopian forces of the mission due to their large numbers and high level equipment. 

These organizations now believe that the escalation of their own terrorist activities, in parallel with the continuing war against ISIS, is what can be called an “advanced defense,” even though they realize the potential repercussions imposed upon them by the weakening of ISIS influence on their own power and activities in the areas they control. Despite this, tension and rivalry are essential features for the relations between ISIS and some of these terrorist groups.

Various Mechanisms

These organizations, at the top of which is AQIM, have begun to adopt several mechanisms for continuing their activities and facing pressures expected to escalate in the coming period. This escalation would either be due to security restrictions imposed by some North African countries, for example Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, or due to human losses which may increase in the coming period as a result of military operations. These mechanisms include the following:

1. Flexible alliances: AQIM was eager to establish flexible alliances with other terrorist organizations in the region for the sake of expanding the margin of options available and boosting its ability to execute terrorist operations in more than one area simultaneously.

Following the previous alliance with the now-exiled Ansar Dine group in North Mali, the group formed another alliance with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which was led by Ahmed Ould Amer, nicknamed Ahmed el Tilemsi, who was killed in a French raid at the end of 2014. The organization also regained its alliance with Al Mourabitoun group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, in December 2015.

2. Diversification of funding sources: the organization has sought to expand its funding sources not only as a means to increase income, but also to assist in decreasing the pressures imposed upon it by the governments North Africa, which seek to track these sources for the sake of weakening the group’s abilities to execute the terrorist operations.

Several viewpoints point out that kidnapping and ransoming foreign tourists is one of the main sources of funding for the organization. Some estimates stated that, in the last 10 years, the organization was able to allocate over $50 million through kidnapping operations alone.

Moreover, AQIM takes part in smuggling operations, especially human smuggling, in light of its control over major smuggling areas and roads in North Africa. The group is also involved in the smuggling of drugs and various other commodities and goods.

It seems that Al Mourabitoun’s re-joining of the organization will boost its ability to participate in smuggling operations. Some have given the leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the nickname “Mr. Marlboro” due to his wide fame in the field of cigarette, automotive and weapons smuggling

3. Operating in groups: AQIM relies on a system of groups and separate battalions in their operations and activities. These groups and battalions are spread over wide geographical areas, which allows the group organizational flexibility allowing elements to move constantly in more than one area. The organization comprises three main areas: the middle area, the desert area and the eastern area.

4. Organizational decentralization: The group adopted a decentralization mechanism for its administrative structure by delegating its groups and sub-battalions to make decisions within their scope, particularly in light of the extension of the group in more than one geographical area.

Moreover, the group was eager to activate the role of the executive councils and committees in such a way that contributed to expanding the margin of choices and the freedom of movement to deal with developments in a given area.

5. Loose borders: The group has taken advantage of loose borders in some areas as a result of the various crises that countries of the region are facing. These crises span financial, security and military operations. While countries are distracted with internal issues, AQIM seeks to increase their activities and carry out more terrorist operations, particularly in north Mali in response to French military operations there.

These mechanisms on whole will probably not enable AQIM to decrease the pressures it will face in the coming period, especially since many international and regional forces are increasing internal coordination to fight against terrorist organizations.