AQIM Fighters in the Algerian Desert, Wikimedia Commons
By Sudakshina Chattopadhyay, Columnist
Through a sort of jihadist-evolution al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is the most recent reincarnation of a Salafi-jihadist militant group operating in the Sahara and Sahel. AQIM’s roots can be traced back to the early 1990s Armed Islamic Group, or in French the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA). The GIA was a reactionary insurrection that “began after Algeria’s French-backed military canceled a second round of parliamentary elections in 1992 when it appeared that the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win power.” French military intervened in the elections out of fear that the Islamic Salvation Front, or Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) would “disassemble the democratic establishment to construct an Algerian theocratic system under Sharia law.” Already harboring ill feelings towards its former colonizer, France, the GIA immediately commenced a violent campaign against foreigners living in Algeria.
GIA’s main objective was to “overthrow the secular Algerian regime and replace it with a fundamentalist Islamic state.” GIA is perhaps best known for having hijacked the Air France Flight 8969 in 1994. With a growing reputation for slaughtering the civilian population and using “brutal tactics such as beheadings,” several GIA commanders broke away from the group to form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). By rebranding itself as GSPC, the guerilla movement was able to distance itself from the ruthless reputation of the GIA and project a newer image vowing not to harm the Algerian civilian population.
Throughout the late 1990s GSPC was not able to stave off the French counterinsurgency and lost significant operational momentum and support from the local civilian population. In an attempt to rejuvenate its presence and influence the group “aligned with al-Qaeda in the 2000s to retain relevance with high profile attacks and improve funding and recruitment.” On September 11, 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri, announced the union between al-Qaeda and GSPC. In January of 2007 GSPC rebranded itself as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Alexis Arieff, an analyst from the Congressional Research Service, wrote “Adopting the famous name may have enhanced AQIM’s legitimacy among extremists and facilitated recruitment, while enabling al-Qaeda to burnish its international credentials and, potentially, access a region geographically close to Europe.” Arieff’s comment accurately expressed a common sentiment among experts about the again rebranded Islamic group. Undergoing several conversions in less than two decades due to weakening circumstances indicated the group’s inability to sustain its clout and objectives. Additionally, merging with al-Qaeda also suggested an adjustment in the group’s initial objective. In addition to Algerian targets and trying to establish a caliphate in Algeria, AQIM was forced to adapt their objectives to include Western targets aligned with al-Qaeda’s efforts.
To further understand the AQIM insurgency it is necessary to acknowledge the organization is structured as both a hierarchy and network. Abdelmalek Droukdel, also known as Abou Mossab Abdelwadoud, has been the leader of AQIM since 2004. While he may well be the leader, AQIM relies heavily upon its network structure. “Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey likewise characterized AQIM as ‘a syndicate of groups who come together episodically, when it’s convenient to them, in order to advance their cause. Sometimes their cause is terrorism. Sometimes it’s criminal. Sometimes it’s arms trafficking.’”
Though it is apparent that since its inception dating back to the GIA, splinter groups seem to be an unavoidable symptom for this movement, AQIM once again experienced a break in its formation when one of its founding members, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, left the group in 2012 to create his own organization. Belmokhtar’s splinter group is known as “the al-Mulathamun Battalion, meaning ‘Those who sign in Blood Battalion’.”
Why Does AQIM matter?
While aiding the Tuaregs in their latest large scale rebellion, AQIM resurfaced in the mainstream media following the 2012 coup d’état in Mali. Even before the unrest in Mali, AQIM was rarely portrayed in the media or perceived as a direct threat to the Western world. Rather, for strategic reasons, AQIM has become more relevant lately due to its proximity and relationship to other perceived national threats. Since early 2007, the AQIM insurgency has capitalized on the vulnerabilities of a region plagued with weak central authorities and porous borders to conduct its operations in several states throughout the Sahel. The North Africa region also offers a geographic environment suitable for the growing insurgent population, fit with deserts and cave-filled terrains across numerous states borders.
To achieve its objectives and build capacity AQIM employs tactics that include guerilla-style raids; assassinations; suicide bombings targeting military, government, and civilian parties; and kidnappings. Kidnappings, especially of Westerners, are one of their most frequent practices as the group raises money through “kidnapping for ransom” (KFR). KFR is seen as a significant concern as it can also “facilitate prisoner exchange and discourage foreign enterprise…” Additionally, AQIM is known for trafficking arms, vehicles, and narcotics across borders spanning from Libya and Algeria to Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. General Ham, former head of Africa Command, described AQIM as al-Qaeda’s ‘wealthiest affiliate.’
The 2012 coup d’etat in Mali morphed into AQIM’s almost successful attempt to gain control in Bamako and institute a caliphate in the heart of the Sahel. According to the United States Department of State, AQIM is the “most active terrorist threat” in Algeria.AQIM’s splinter battalion, al-Mulathamun led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, “claimed responsibility for the January 16, 2013 attack against a gas facility near In Amenas, Algeria.”The al-Mulathamun battalion took over 800 hostages when they attacked the Tiguentourine gas facility (a joint venture among Algerian, British, and Norwegian companies) for four days. The attackers ultimately killed 39 foreign hostages, including three US citizens.
AQIM does not presently impose a direct threat upon US National security and interests. However, its solid financial background and sustained presence in a strategic region requires a more in-depth look at how to best decapitate this festering infection. The prospect of AQIM’s continued presence and stronghold in the Sahel results in too much risk. While al-Qaeda has more or less hopped off the ISIL fence, it is not unlikely to assume that AQIM has the capacity to make the leap. After all, adaptation is in their nature.
Sudakshina Chattopadhyay is an M.A. candidate in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program, concentrating in Terrorism and Substate Violence. Her research focuses on terrorism and insurgency throughout the Middle East and Africa’s Sahel region. Before pursuing her master’s degree, Ms. Chattopadhyay served in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso from 2011-2013 and received her B.A. in International Relations and Policy Studies from Syracuse University.
 Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters, “Backgrounders: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),” Council onForeign Relations, 8 January 2014. http://www.cfr.org/terrorist-organizations-and-networks/al-qaeda-islamic-maghreb-aqim/p12717.
 Michael Willis, The Islamist Challenge in Algeria, Lebanon, NY: Ithaca, 1996, 253.
 “Armed Islamic Group (GIA).” Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security, 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (November 26, 2014).http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3403300046.html.
 Rich Nessel, “Islamism in Algeria and the Evolution to AQIM: Transformations of Significance and
Insignificance,” Global Education, Community, Collaboration, Online (ECCO), 2011, https://globalecco.org/ctx-v1n2/islamism-in-algeria-and-the-evolution-to-aqim.
 Laub and Masters, 1.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 1.
 Ibid, 3.
 Ibid, 3.
 Ibid, 4.
 Ibid, 4.
 “Country Reports on Terrorism 2013,” United States Department of State Publication, Bureau of Counterterrorism, 2014, 128.
 Ibid, 128.
 Ibid, 129.