Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb Strikes Again

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb Strikes Again

By Hanna Rogan

On 22 February 2008, two Austrian tourists disappeared from southern Tunisia. On March 10, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for their kidnapping. In return for the liberation of the Austrian hostages, now believed to be held in northern Mali, AQIM demanded the release of fellow mujahideen from prison, as well as a ransom. This incident, which has received little attention in Western media, is significant as an illustration of the current state of the main Islamist network in North Africa and how it has changed throughout the last few years. It sheds light on the general escalation of insurgent violence in the Maghreb, and demonstrates how AQIM has resorted to new operational tactics, partly as a result of its need for financial resources. The incident also illustrates a de facto regional expansion of the AQIM, as well as the group's international aspirations.

The History of AQIM

Until January 2007, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb was known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (known by its French acronyms GSPC). An offspring of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA – an umbrella organization for a number of jihadist militias during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s), the GSPC continued the violence into the 2000s and emerged as the main militant Islamist group in Algeria and the wider Maghreb. Regime crackdowns and amnesty programs throughout the last decade have severely weakened the Islamist movement in Algeria. Nevertheless, the last year witnessed a steep increase in violent activity. This development coincided with the announcement by al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in September 2006 that GSPC had joined forces with al-Qaida. The name change from GSPC to AQIM occurred four months later.

While it is still difficult to determine the full implications of the al-Qaida–GSPC merger, the period following it has been extremely violent, and has involved new operational practices on the part of AQIM, most notably suicide attacks which were previously near unheard of in Algeria. Moreover, the group seems to have increased its activities outside Algeria. For example, Mauritania has been the location of several operations since late December 2007, and AQIM-affiliated cells have also been intercepted in Tunisia. It is likely that the brand name al-Qaida has attracted new recruits, including from Algeria's neighboring countries. Employing the term "Maghreb" in the group's name also seems to indicate an effort to unite likeminded actors in the whole region. [1] As for the international dimension, AQIM's hatred of the West is mostly present in the group's official communication, in which it verbally attacks the "Crusader West". However, in 2007 there were also several attacks on international targets within Algeria, the most well-known being the 11 December suicide operation against a UN building in Algiers. The kidnapping of the two Austrian tourists could be yet another indicator of AQIM's international aspirations.

The Austrian Hostage Affair

The hostage situation that currently unfolds is shrouded in uncertainties regarding the kidnapping operation and the claims put forward by the kidnappers. According to the communiqués published by AQIM's media committee on the Internet, and a videotaped statement broadcasted by al-Jazeera satellite channel, the Austrian tourists Wolfgang Ebner and Andrea Kloiber were abducted in Southern Tunisia by a group of mujahideen affiliated with AQIM led by Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, the second-in-command of the Tariq bin Ziyad brigade, also known as the Sahara brigade. [2] The communiqués state that the condition for liberation of the hostages is the release of mujahideen prisoners from Algerian and Tunisian prisons. They warn that any military intervention to free the hostages will result in their killing, and conclude by advising Western tourists to stay away from North Africa.

Neither AQIM nor the governments involved have indicated the current location of the hostages, ransoms to be paid by Vienna, or the names of the mujahideen whose release was demanded. However, because Vienna has sent two special envoys to Mali to negotiate the liberation of the hostages, and because it is well known that AQIM holds rear bases and training camps in the Sahara (including on Malian soil where the group is protected by Tuareg tribes hostile to the Malian government), it must be considered likely that the hostages have been taken from Tunisia through Algerian territory to northern Mali, as reported by the Arab press. [3]

It must also be considered likely that AQIM has demanded a ransom. This is common practice for the group which is known to struggle with low cash flow. AQIM has previously openly declared its need for funds, asking supporters to provide money – "the backbone of jihad". [4] An unofficial message recently published online specifically called for money, food, and medicine to be sent to the Maghreb mujahideen. [5] Lately, kidnappings of native Algerians, with subsequent demands for ransoms, have become more commonplace. [6] Moreover, the group recently carried out a raid in Tizi Rached, Algeria, targeting the post office and a bank. Though it claimed the life of one police man, the operation was unsuccessful from an economic perspective, as the bank vault was empty. [7] Other operations targeting Algerian and Mauritanian army facilities and soldiers have been more rewarding for the mujahideen. They have seized large numbers of weapons and vehicles, which are proudly shown off as war booty in videos of the raids published on the Internet.

It is important to note this is not the first time foreigners have been kidnapped in the Maghreb. In 2003, thirty-two tourists, mostly Germans, Swiss, and Austrians, were taken hostage by GSPC's emir in the Sahara region, Abd al-Razak, also known as al-Para. The hostages were released after a month-long ordeal, during which two hostages died from insolation, and reportedly after the payment by German authorities of a 5 million Euro ransom. [8] Coincidentally, al-Para, who was captured in Chad in 2004 and subsequently extradited to Algeria where he now awaits trial, is believed to be among the mujahideen prisoners whose release has been demanded in the current kidnap case. Along with al-Para, the AQIM has supposedly also listed Samir Saioud, also known as Mousab and responsible for recruiting suicide bombers, Abd al-Fatah Abu Basir, emir of the Algiers area, as well as 10 named salafists imprisoned in Tunisia. [9]

The Real Targets

This information reveals an imbroglio of involved parties, some of which are reluctant for political and economic reasons, to admit any involvement in the hostage crisis: Tunis, eager to remain an attractive tourist destination, claims that "… for the time being, no one can confirm the presence of the two Austrians on Tunisian soil, nor that they were abducted from Tunisian territory". [10] Algiers which actively has sought to document the success of anti-terrorism measures, states that "Algeria [was] not directly concerned with the hostage affair", emphasizing that "… the abduction took place outside Algeria."and that "… the hostages are currently held outside Algerian territory". [11] Nevertheless, the AQIM holds Austria, Algeria, and Tunisia responsible for the safety and the liberation of the hostages, thus indirectly targeting these very countries. The operation threatens tourism as a source of income and aims to impair the economy of the North African states, as well as their reputation, by demonstrating their inability to contain terrorism. Moreover, kidnapping foreign nationals reinforces this strategy because it increases international pressure.

AQIM's International Aspirations

Indeed, while the geographical movements of AQIM activists in this affair indicate a viable regional network, the case also sheds light on the international dimension of the group's activities. The abduction of the two Austrians took place after several attacks on Westerners and Western-affiliated companies in Algeria throughout the last year and a half, such as "The Bouchawi raid" in December 2006 that targeted workers of Brown and Root Condor, a subsidiary of Halliburton, and attacks on Russian workers of Stroytransgaz in February and December 2007. The latter incident took place only days before the UN building in Algiers was struck by a suicide bomber, taking 17 lives. Yet it should be stressed that the preferred AQIM target remains national army and police forces in the region.

Signs of a subsidiary international dimension of AQIM's motive, aims, and strategies might be read out of the group's public communications. For example, the communiqués issued on occasion of the hostage situation refer to the situation of the Muslims in Gaza:

"We say to the Western tourists who are flocking to Tunisian territory in search of fun at a time when our brothers are being slayed in Gaza by the Jews with the complicity of the Western states [...] we warn them to stay away from the Islamic Maghreb." [12]

The communiqués go on to "demand the release of prisoners in Algerian and Tunisian jails, imprisoned with the support of the Western states, [...] victims ofthe new Crusader campaign against Islam". [13]

This kind of rhetoric is indeed not new on the part of GSPC or AQIM. Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the previously nationally oriented insurgent group has paid increasing attention to the "Islamic Umma", to international "fronts of the jihad" from Chechnya to Iraq and Somalia, and to Muslims suffering under "apostate regimes" and "infidel intervention" in the Muslim world. Several attempts to align the group with the global al-Qaida network resulted in the September 2006 al-Qaida-GSPC merger and the famous words that the group be a "thorn in the neck of the American and French Crusaders".

It is not only the rhetoric of the AQIM that coheres with al-Qaida's global jihad. A change in tactics may be observed, most notably with the use of simultaneous attacks and suicide operations that are well-known from the Iraqi theatre and one of al-Qaida's trademarks. Abductions are also a well-known tactic used by a large number of terrorist and insurgent groups worldwide. Many jihadi groups from all over the Muslim world have used abductions as a tactic of local and international jihad, the prime example being the abduction campaigns inside Iraq.

It should be noted that the use of suicide operations is a highly controversial issue also within the mujahideen communities. The AQIM struggles with lack of popular support, and has declared its intentions since its inception as the GSPC in 1998 not to target Muslim civilians. Indeed, this vow represented its hallmark as it sought to distance itself from the massacres perpetrated by its predecessor, the takfiri-oriented Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Therefore, the current rise of suicide operations and indiscriminate targeting of victims in Algeria is at the core of ideological dissent within the AQIM. This has been attested to by former members of AQIM who have recently surrendered under the Algerian regime's amnesty program. Repentant Benmessaoud Abdelkader, for instance, claims that there is no religious justification for employing suicide operations, that the tactic is counterproductive, and imposed on the group unilaterally by the leadership. [14] Other adversaries of the leadership's strategy, who reportedly also oppose the entire al-Qaida merger, have allegedly joined rival jihadi factions in Algeria, such as the Protectors of the Salafi Call. In response to press reports about dissent within AQIM, the leadership issued an official statement, categorically denying "any internal opposition to the tactic of martyrdom [suicide] operations" and assuring "that there is agreement within the organization". [15]

A less controversial topic is the 'mediatization' of the jihad in the Maghreb. Like al-Qaida affiliated groups elsewhere, the AQIM operates a Web site (currently unavailable), distributes communiqués and video recordings of operations to jihadi web forums, publishes an online magazine, and has also used the Qatar-based satellite TV station al-Jazeera to spread its message. The operations carried out by the group have also become more spectacular and 'media friendly', including the already mentioned suicide operations, high-casualty operations, attempted attacks on high profile individuals, [16] and an attack on the Israeli embassy in Mauritania. [17]

Conclusion

The abduction of the two Austrians in Tunisia in February 2008 by AQIM adds to the list of such spectacular operations. Moreover, the incident's international dimension suggests an AQIM commitment to the global al-Qaida network and its doctrine. However, further research is needed to improve our understanding of the actual relationship between al-Qaida and the radical Islamist movement in the Maghreb, and the implications of their alignment. While the AQIM seems to benefit from a certain flow of new recruits, some willing to commit suicide attacks, the reported internal discord on the issue of employing this tactic, and perhaps more importantly on the issue of GSPC's merger with al-Qaida, indicates certain weak points. What appears as a quite successful attempt by al-Qaida to incorporate another group and to unify the jihad, may, after all, have the opposite, splitting effect in the longer run.

For the time being, the AQIM remains a mainly regionally focused jihadi network. And while it is a fact that AQIM cells have been eliminated in several countries in the region because of counterterrorism measures, and that the network therefore is weakened, it is to a large extent precisely the cooperation between militant Islamists across borders that turns the AQIM into a threat today. This is recognized by counterterrorism officials in the Maghreb. Yet while the threat is multinational, it is problematic, as one Algerian officer laments, that there is no "joint military unit" facing it. [18] Thus, operating mostly freely in the vast desert area on the borders of the Maghreb countries, and developing new al-Qaida-like operational tactics, the AQIM is likely to strike again in the near future.

About the Author: Hanna Rogan is a Research Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment.

Notes:

 [1] It is in this regard interesting to note that the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) joined al-Qaida – and not AQIM – in November 2007 through an announcement made by al-Zawahiri and Abu Layth al-Libi, a former LIFG member (killed in Afghanistan in January 2008). This suggests a lack of coordination between the established jihadi groups in the region, yet does not prevent links between jihadi individuals/cells of various Maghreb origin and AQIM.

[2] The Tariq bin Ziyad brigade has its name from the Muslim general who in 711 conquered parts of Spain.

[3] "2003 scenario of the European kidnapped tourists repeated: The Austrian hostages located in the Sahel region" (in Arabic), An-Nahar online, 11 March 2008, www.ennaharonline.com/national/5923.html.

[4] GSPC Media Committee, "Wealth of spoils... Facts or Illusions?" (in Arabic), 21 Dec 2006, www.qmagreb.org\pages\tharwa.htm (accessed July 2007).

[5] "Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb refutes the presence of its leader in the area besieged by the army" (in Arabic), Al-Sharq al-Awsat online, 10 March 2008, www.asharqalawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&article=462027&issueno=10695.

[6] "Huit enlèvements dans une seule commune en Kabylie", Tunisia Watch, 11 March 2008, http://tunisiawatch.rsfblog.org/archive/2008/03/11/huit-enlevements-dans-une-seule-commune-en-kabylie.html.

[7] "50 terroristes font une incursion à Tizi Rached", Liberté Algerie Online, 3 March 2008, www.liberte-algerie.com/edit.php?id=91206&titre=50%20terroristes%20font%20une%20incursion%20à%20Tizi%20Rached.

[8] "Should Germany Pay to Free Hostages?", Spiegel International Online, 30 July 2007, www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,497269,00.html.

[9] "Al-Qaida bargain to release al-Para and Salafists arrested in Tunisia" (in Arabic), El-Khabar, 15 March 2008, www.elkhabar.com/quotidien/lire.php?idc=30&ida=101210&key=2&cahed=1, or "Austria sends envoy to Bamako and the kidnappers settled 150 kilometers from Kidal"( in Arabic), an-Nahar online, 15 March 2008, www.ennaharonline.com/national/6177.html.

[10] "Tunisie-Autriche : Précisions d'une source officielle à Tunis", Info-Tunisie, 10 March 2008, www.infotunisie.com/2008/03/100308-10.html.

[11] " L'Algérie n'est pas directement concernée", L'Expression edition online, 16 March 2008, www.lexpressiondz.com.

[12] AQIM Media Committee, "Statement claiming responsibility for kidnapping of the two Austrian tourists in Tunisia" (in Arabic), 10 March 2008, via www.al-ekhlas.net/forum.

[13] AQIM Media Committee, "The Mujahideen's conditions for release of the Austrians" (in Arabic), 13 March 2008, via www.al-ekhlas.net/forum (accessed March 2008).

[14] "Révélations de Mossaab Abou Daoud. Désarroi des groupes armés", L'Expression edition online, 15 Août 2007, www.lexpressiondz.com/.

[15] AQIM Media Committee, "Statement about the latest delusions of some media outlets" (in Arabic), 14 May 2007, www.qmagreb.org (accessed July 2007).

[16] "Al-Qaida vise des personnalités politiques", l'Expression edition online, 23 March 2008, www.lexpressiondz.com/article/2/2008-03-23/51028.html.

[17] AQIM Media Committee, "Statement about the attack on the Israeli embassy in Nouakchout" (in Arabic), 2 February 2008, via www.al-ekhlas.net/forum (accessed March 2008).

[18] "Lutte antiterroriste : en attendant l'union sacrée » Jeune Afrique Online, 23 March 2008, www.jeuneafrique.com/jeune_afrique/article_jeune_afrique.asp?art_cle=LIN23038lutteercasn0.



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