Nowadays, European countries are very concerned about the threat posed by jihadism, due to the proximity to of North Africa and the large number of Muslims living in their societies. Among all these threats, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has always stood out for being the best organized, possessing the greater resources and being a serious danger for western interests and individuals in the region. However, after the Mali conflict and the following French military intervention, the organization has been weakened, as much in its forces as in its capability of action. This has not been an obstacle for the attacks to keep occurring and for the proliferation of jihadist organizations in the region, including the arrival of Daesh.
The Operation Serval inflicted a severe blow to AQIM’s presence in Mali and forced them to hide in the northern areas of the country, next to Algerian and Libyan borders. But the reflection on the reasons of that defeat went further. In some documents found by Associated Press after the intervention, Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM’s leader, blame his lieutenant for it. He thought that the control of the territory should have been left to local fighters, because showing their expansionist intentions brought to the discontent of local populations. In his opinion, not respecting local religious practices and beliefs was determinant for the population to turn against them.
The consequence of these differences was the split-off of Mokhtar Belmokhtar from the organization. In the summer of 2013, he founded al-Mourabitoun. The group was composed of his followers and former members of the Monotheism and Jihad Movement in West Africa (MUJAO), and it was the responsible for the attack at the Tigantourine gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria. In spite of these difficulties, AQIM remained an important threat and started its process of restructuring.
The current map of jihadism in North Africa
Unfortunately, neither the Operation Serval nor the ongoing Operation Barkhane, have stopped the increasing jihadist presence in the Sahel and North Africa. Despite AQIM’s weakness, other organizations did not suffer as much as them. In fact, new jihadist organizations have appeared, taking advantage of the lack of security in Mali. Furthermore, it has led to the landing of Daesh in North Africa by Libya.
In Algeria, AQIM and al-Mourabitoun continue to be the main threats, focused on attacking security services and the military, as well as national and western interests in Algerian soil. On April 19, 2014, AQIM’s elements attacked a military convoy in Tizi Ouzou, killing 11 soldiers and injuring other five. In July 2015 another ambush at Aïn Defla killed 14 soldiers. AQIM was confronted by a challenger named Jund al-Khilafah fi Ard al-Jazayer, which was born in the summer of 2014 as a split-off of AQIM and pledged alliance to Daesh on September 14, 2014, by his leader Abdelmalek Gouri (a.k.a. Khaled Abu Suleiman). On September 21–24, 2014, they hijacked and beheaded French citizen Hervé Gourdel in Kabylie region. Algerian authorities pointed out that, in December 2014 Gouri was eliminated and the total eradication of the group would have been achieved in April 2015, when his successor, Bashir Othman Al-Assimi, and 25 of his men were also eliminated. However, the video appeared in July in Syria, in which two Algerians of the group, Abu al-Baraa al-Jazairi and Abu Hafs al-Jazair, called to fight Algerian government and to regain Al-Andalus, is a sign of preoccupation. Spanish academic Carlos Echeverría Jesús signaled that “between January and June 2015, armed and security forces would have eliminated 202 jihadists in different confrontations.”
As for Libya, in 2014 democratic transition was disrupted by a violent outburst between rival armed factions. The governmental authority collapsed and terrorist groups took advantage of it. In October 2014, Ansar al-Sharia in Derna pledged alliance to Daesh and was confronted with other extremist groups. It is also important to note that Libya is the key to the source and transit networks of foreign fighters destined to Syria and Iraq. These jihadist groups have copied the Daesh methods, including summary executions and public whipping, murders and beheading of civil society activists, judges and members of the security forces. According to the Human Rights Watch, more than 250 politically motivated killings have occurred in Benghazi and Derna, in 2014. This shift towards Daesh values has deprived AQIM of having much more influence in the chaos of Libya, despite the high profit from the porous and uncontrolled borders for trafficking and training.
In Tunisia, there has been an increase of counterterrorism efforts with a positive outcome. The 2014 elections were held without significant incidents thanks to the work of the security forces. However, terrorism remains an important threat to the nascent democracy, as demonstrated by the terrorist attacks on the Bardo National Museum and the tourist resort at Port El Kantaoui, which left more than 60 people dead; or by the flux of arms and militants through Algerian and Libyan borders. Besides this, there is great concern for the huge number of Tunisians enrolled in the fight in Syria and Iraq (around 3,000) but also about their return. The shift of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia towards Daesh has also deprived AQIM from taking a higher advantage of the political situation in the country, even if they have tried to influence local movements through rhetoric.
Morocco seems to be the less concerned country with the terrorist threat, likely due to its comprehensive counterterrorist strategy. There are no organized extremist groups in Morocco, even if there are some independent and autonomous cells, self-proclaimed of salafist ideology. Moroccan authorities have disrupted many AQIM and Daesh recruitment networks. Around 1,500 Moroccans have left for fighting in Syria. Their return is the greatest security concern for the country because both groups have constantly called on jihadists to overthrow the Moroccan monarchy and to commit attacks on institutions. In July 2014, the Ministry of the Interior informed of the arrest of 120 jihadists returned from Syria since the outbreak of the conflict.
Resurrection of AQIM
After the severe blow inflicted by the Operation Serval on AQIM, the organization is no longer the undisputed leader of jihadism in North Africa and the Sahel. Currently, it hardly has several hundreds of militants in Algeria and fewer in the Sahel. To some degree, the safe haven of north Mali has ceased to exist, although the characteristics which made the Sahelian strip a safe haven continue to exist. The same applies for the different illicit traffics, which swarm the region and the inability of the affected countries to control their borders effectively. However, the organization is changing its activity towards the Maghreb region, taking advantage of the current chaotic situation in Tunisia and especially in Libya.
According to Anouar Boukhars, the main goal of AQIM after the Mali defeat is keeping a low profile, which allows them to operate without being detected:
[…] Algerian AQIM leaders hope that this time their soldiers can hide their true intentions, adopt a low profile and avoid to dominate the political and military scene. « It is better to keep silent and pretend to be a ‘local’ movement with its own cause and concerns », said Droukdel to his insubordinate militants in North Mali. « No one has tell you to show that we have an expansive project, jihad, Qaida or whatever kind. » In other words, the objective is not to monopolize but to instrumentalize the local extremist groups appeared after the Arab spring. […]
Events that occurred in Libya and Tunisia since the beginning of the Arab revolts have opened these countries to the introduction of AQIM. Its strategy pursues to encourage the cohesion between local radical groups and to avoid unnecessary confrontations with the State. According to Anouar Boukhars, “until now, AQIM has taken advantage of the disorganization and demoralization of Tunisian security and intelligence services. The army has not yet achieved to expel AQIM operatives hidden since December 2012 in the mountainous border with Algeria in the southwest of the country.” Tunisian borders are used as transit and refuge points as well as for recruitment. However, Ansar al-Sharia in Libya has chosen to pledge loyalty to Daesh, a drift followed by Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, which has transformed these countries in a battlefield between two different visions of the caliphate – similar but different – because Daesh’s one is much more destabilizing than al-Qaeda’s one. This will contribute in the future to the “legitimization of al-Qaeda.”
The landing of Daesh in North Africa has not only deprived AQIM of a greater influence on local organizations, but has also affected its internal structure. It should be highlighted the internal split in Belmokhtar’s group, which had changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Sahel, asserting its loyalty to al-Qaeda. His lieutenant in al-Mourabitoun, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, asserted in May that the group had pledged alliance to Daesh, something quickly denied by Mokhtar Belmokhtar. Al-Sahrawi rejoined MUJAO while Belmokhtar keeps loyal to al-Qaeda as his attitude and subsequent actions prove.
In fact, al-Mourabitoun has been one of the al-Qaeda associated groups more active in the last months. On November 20, 2015, only one week after Daesh’s attacks in Paris, they carried out the assault on the Raddison Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital city of Mali, which resulted in the death of 19 hostages. Executed by al-Mourabitoun, AQIM joined the claim for its authority, although Mokhtar Belmokhtar simply claimed responsibility in the name of al-Qaeda.
The merger between both organizations took place on December 4, 2015, as it was confirmed by both spokespersons. The reasons for this union are clear: on one hand, al-Mourabitoun is currently the most active group, something that AQIM lacks to some degree; on the other hand, the rise of Daesh in the Maghreb pushes al-Qaeda affiliated groups to add up forces rather than being divided. This was confirmed by al-Mourabitoun’s spokesman, Abu Dujana al-Qasmi: “Our merger with our brothers and beloved in the AQIM organization was done with the intention of preserving a strong, united stance in the face of the occupying Crusador enemy.” With the new year, the organization celebrated this union by launching a video in which it called upon the Libyan population to reject a “pseudo-democracy,” but it also contained allusions to the recovery by Muslims of the Spanish cities Ceuta and Melilla.
There are four main goals pursued by this merger:
- To slow down the influence of Daesh in the region.
- Droukdel may have promised Belmokhtar that he would be appointed to a senior position in the parent organization.
- To increase the drawing power of the organization for additional jihadist fighters and thereby, to enable a broader range of terror attacks.
- An opportunity for reinforcing the campaign of treaties with tribes in the Sahel area, and creating strategic depth which will permit more freedom of movement, weapon smuggling, and refuge areas.
This renewed capacity has been put into practice with the attack on January 16, 2016, in the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The assailants hijacked people and entrenched themselves in the hotel during the whole night. The result was 29 people dead and 176 hostages rescued. It is the first jihadist attack in Burkina Faso’s history. The situation of instability, which the country suffers from since the resignation of President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 and the takeover by a military junta have enabled the introduction of jihadist in the country.
In sum, we can note that AQIM’s current strategy is based, on one hand, in keeping a low profile and working with local jihadist organizations in the shade. On the other hand, it is based on taking advantage of the situation of insecurity in the region. In any case, it will not take the risk of controlling territory, the fatal error committed in 2012. According to Olivier Roy, it will be only possible to marginalize AQIM “if local forces from which they take advantage can be convinced that they have not to protect the organization.” For this reason, the main objective of the organization is to recover the lost time and legitimacy.
Victoria Silva Sánchez
Baab Al-Shams – Contributing Editor
 United States Department of State. “Country Reports on Terrorism.”. United States Department of State Publication, 2014: 159.
 Echeverría Jesús, Carlos. “La situación de seguridad en Argelia.” Real Instituto Elcano – Documento de Trabajo, No. 19 (2015): 12.
 United States Department of State, 194.
 Ibid., 211.
 Ibid., 198.
 Boukhars, Anouar. “¿El resurgimiento de Al Qaeda en el Norte de África?”. FRIDE – Documento de Trabajo, No. 120 (August 2013): 7.
 Ibid., 6.
 Ibid., 10.
 Echeverría: 12.
 International Institute for Counterterrorism. “The unification between the Al-Murabitoun Organization and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: a show of strength or a sign of distress?.” Insights ICT Jihadi Monitoring Group (December 23, 2015): 2.
 International Institute for Counterterrorism: 3.
 Boukhars: 11.