Out of Sight out of Mind: The Battle for Yemen’s North

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After at least six months of handwringing, Yemen’s President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih has finally signed the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) deal to step down as president of Yemen. It would require Salih to step down when a new president is elected after 90 days from the date of signing. There is hope for the future, yet there is much to fix and many challenges ahead in Yemen. The next government will have a difficult time putting the country back together as Salih’s dithering has led to a loss of control at the fringes of Yemeni society in the south, but even more so in its volatile north. The Huthis, a revivalist Zaydi movement, whose main base of operation is in Sa‘da, is wrestling control of Yemen’s northern governorates from the Yemeni state, its tribal allies, and Islamist factions.

Within a few hours of Salih signing the GCC deal, the leader of the Huthis, ‘Abd al-Malik Badr ad-Din al-Huthi, released a communiqué denouncing the deal. ‘Abd al-Malik emphatically stated: “We consider any agreement with the oppressor is a betrayal of the blood of the martyrs and the wounded, and a disregard for the sacrifices of the Yemeni people and a painful stab against the free rebels who have endured all kinds of suffering and imprisonment, torture and murder of more than ten months.” ‘Abd al-Malik proclaimed that the revolution would continue until the demands and goals of the revolutionaries are met.

Prior to the Yemeni uprising that began following the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in late January 2011, between 2004 and 2010, the Yemeni state fought the Huthis in six rounds of battles; the last with the help of the Saudis. Besides their pent up antipathy toward Salih’s regime, one reason that the Huthis may be against the resolution is because they have made a lot of progress over the past few months in taking over three governorates in northern Yemen. The past few months have seen renewed fighting in northern Yemen this time between the Huthis and Islah, one of the main opposition parties in Yemen that is a coalition of Ikhwanis (the Muslims Brothers), Salafis, and tribal elements from the Hashid tribal federation.

At the outset of the Yemeni uprising, ‘Abd al-Malik announced his support for the pro-democratic protests and for regime change. Large crowds of Huthi supporters joined in protests in Sa‘da where the Huthis main base of operations lies. At the same time, the Huthis saw an opportunity to wrestle control of Sa‘da back from the state as Salih’s regime became isolated in Sana‘a. On March 26, the Huthis took Sa‘da and installed new military checkpoints as well as established their own administration in Sa‘da Governorate, independent from Yemeni authorities; appointing former arms dealer Fares Mana‘a as the new governor.

The Huthis also began an offensive in al-Jawf Governorate, which is southeast of Sa‘da. Fighting picked up in July against fighters from Islah where hundreds are believed to have died on both sides. There are reports that the Huthis are in control of al-Jawf now, too, and have now turned its attention to Hajjah Governorate, which is south of Sa‘da. On November 9, the Huthis beat back the pro-government Kashir and Aahm tribes and were able to take control of Kuhlan Ash Sharaf District, which is vital since there is a highway there that connects Sana‘a to the Red Sea. Pro-government sources in Hajjah believe the Huthis are taking these strategic positions to prepare an attack on Sana‘a. If Hajjah falls to the Huthis they will be in control of three governorates in northern Yemen.

Another issue at hand is increasing tensions with the Salafis at the Dammaj Institute in Sa‘da, which could exacerbate already thick sectarian tensions. A month ago, the Huthis laid siege to the Dammaj Institute complex after a letter from Imam Yahya al-Hajuri, the principal of Dammaj Institute, was leaked to the Huthis. In the letter, al-Hajuri thanked Brigadier General Yahya Mohamed ‘Abdullah Salih, the president’s nephew and chief commander of Yemen’s security forces, as well as the Saudis for fighting the Huthis in previous rounds of battle. The Huthis are also claiming that Salafis are bringing weapons inside their educational institutions. Making matters worse, al-Hajuri has sanctioned a jihad against the Huthis.

Attempts at reconciliation have been futile, as both sides have broken multiple potential ceasefires over the past few weeks with continued low-level fighting. Tensions have also been heighted because according to ‘Abd al-Malik, two weeks ago, the Huthis foiled a suicide attack in al-Jawf on Eid al-Ghadir, which is celebrated by Shi‘a to commemorate the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s speech appointing ‘Ali ibn ‘Abi Talib as his successor, which is a contentious issue between Sunnis and Sh‘ia. Although ‘Abd al-Malik blamed the failed attack on the United States as a way to ratchet up sectarian strife as he did in August when there was a successful car-bombing, this case like the one in August was most likely perpetrated by elements in or affiliated with al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Earlier in the year, AQAP declared jihad against the Huthis, whom they view as agents of the Iranians or as they call them rawafid (a derogatory term for Shi‘a meaning rejectionists). AQAP also claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack that killed ‘Abd al-Malik’s father, Badr ad-Din al-Huthi, who was seen as the most influential Zaydi scholar of the past generation, and later his funeral procession both in late November 2010. Additionally, there are reports on global jihadi forums that AQAP has set up training camps in Sa‘da with 200-300 fighters.

There is no end in sight for the potential of even more expanded fighting in Yemen’s north between the Huthis and Salafi elements as well as AQAP. The destabilization of Yemen’s north has been a worry of the Saudi regime, which is one of the main reasons they entered the sixth battle between the Yemeni state and the Huthis in late 2009 and early 2010. As Gregory Johnsen has noted on numerous occasions, Saudis main policy with regard to Yemen is to keep it stabilized enough so it that does not become a failed state, at the same time, not strong enough so that it does not challenge the Saudi state.

If the Saudi’s decide to join the fight again to try and suppress the Huthis it has regional implications as well. Although the Huthis follow the Zaydi school of Shi’ism while the Iranians practice Imami (or Twelver) Shi’ism there is a level of affinity. Unlike Hizbullah, HAMAS, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad the Huthis are not an official proxy of the Iranian state. That said, due to the sectarian overtones of the fight between the Saudis and the Huthis, Iranian media endorsed the side of the Huthis. The Iranian government also decided to name some of their streets after Huthi “martyrs” from the fighting. As such, the conflict in northern Yemen could quickly become another chess match between the Saudis and Iranians in their cold war.

Even if the conflict in northern Yemen does not become a strategic regional battle, the fragile state of the northern governorates is a worry to the fractured Yemeni state. Indeed, the new Yemeni government has much to deal with including a spiraling economy, depleted water and energy resources, continued humanitarian disasters, secessionism in the South, and disillusioned youth who jump started the uprising; yet a resolution to the decade-plus long grievances of the Huthi movement and the Zaydi population in the north at large would go a long way in hopefully providing space for the new Yemeni government to deal with even more dire issues.

Kidnapped Europeans, AQIM, and shady dealings in northern Mali

After months of relative quiet in northern Mali, this week has seen a flurry of events potentially involving al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that could signal greater instability in the Sahel. Five Europeans were kidnapped and one killed this week by armed men, at a time when Sahelian countries and Europe are more and more concerned about the aftermath of the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and the perceived growth of AQIM’s power and influence.

These incidents followed swiftly on the wounding of a former French army officer deeply involved in Sahelian affairs and negotiations for four French hostages held by AQIM since last September, an incident cloaked in shadow that nonetheless has shone a light on the complex world of hostage negotiations, ransom payments, and private military contractors in the heart of Central Africa.

Two kidnappings and a killing

The most recent incident took place today, when a group of armed men burst into a restaurant in the ancient city of Timbuktu’s central square, and attempted to seize four Europeans – a dual South African/British citizen, a Swede, a Dutch, and a German. According to eyewitnesses, the German, identified as an elderly man, resisted abduction and was shot dead on the spot; the three others were quickly spirited away. While no one has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping, which took place in one of Mali’s biggest tourist attractions, suspicion fell immediately on AQIM or AQIM “subcontractors” a reference to past kidnappings where traffickers seized Europeans and then sold them to the group for a fee.

In the second and decidedly more suspicious case, two French men identified as geologists working for a Malian cement company (or a South African bank, according to some reports), Serge Lazarivic and Philippe Verdon, were seized early Thursday morning by up to seven heavily armed men from their hotel in Hombori, between Mopti and Gao. Local reports indicate that the group of armed men seized and tied up the Frenchmen’s driver as well as the hotel guards, before forcing their way into the hotel. There the men similarly detained the hotel’s manager, and demanded to know the location of “the two white men,” adding, “we didn’t come for you, we came for the whites.” One of the men was supposedly beaten while resisting capture, leaving blood stains behind in the hotel. The kidnap victims were then spirited north towards northern Mali’s lightly-populated desert, where AQIM is known to have bases.

And this is where things get shady. While the two men were identified as “geologists” or “engineers” in early reports, an investigation into the men’s identities turned up two men with identical names and deep mercenary connections. A man named Philippe Verdon is said to have been arrested in 2003 in the Comoros following a coup attempt there, and had a relationship with Bob Denard, a mercenary commander extraordinaire heavily implicated in a series of unsavory dealings in Africa, including in, you guessed it, Comoros. Serge Lazirivic, for his part, reportedly owns a security company in France, is wanted for questioning in Kosovo, may have recruited mercenaries to support former President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) Mobuto Sesi Seko during the late 1990’s. He also appears to have a very cozy relationship with French intelligence.

These revelations then beg the question: What were these men doing in Hombori? While we can’t discount the possibility that they really were geologists, the prospect that these men were actually private military contractors has led some to speculate that they were performing a security survey, or attempting to set up a security business in Mali. Others speculate that the men were, in fact, negotiating the liberation of four French hostages held by AQIM commander Abdelhamid Abu Zeid somewhere in eastern Mali.

It is interesting timing, then, that these kidnappings took place just after a former French army Colonel with strong connections with local Tuareg tribes was wounded under unclear circumstances near Gao, in the presence of a “Malian elected official.” This individual may very well turn out to be Baba Ould Sheik, the “Mayor of Tarkint” who has been a key interlocutor in a number of successful AQIM hostage negotiations in the past.  RFI reports that the mysterious officer, who was hired by the French firm Vinci (whose employees, working as subcontractors for the French nuclear giant Areva, were kidnapped from Arlit) last year and purportedly helped negotiate the release of three of the French hostages held by Abou Zeid, slipped into Mali undetected, but was shot by a group of unidentified men when he refused to stop his car. They also report that he is the very same French officer who was the subject of a major Paris Match exposé recently about the murky underworld of hostage negotiators operating in the Sahel.

According to RFI and the Paris match report, this officer, who has extensive experience in the Sahel and West Africa, was a key military adviser to Chadian president Idriss Déby and several other African leaders, and was forced to “officially” quit the French Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) after being implicated in the disappearance of a Chadian opposition figure. Operating as a private contractor, Paris Match alleges that he proposed to the French government that he negotiate with AQIM to free the kidnapped French citizens, while also offering to help Areva secure its new uranium mine at Imouraren; he is said to have told a senior French intelligence officer that he “knows Abou Zeid” and was involved with Areva and Air France in the Sahel. The article accuses the former officer of playing a double game, drastically raising the price of ransom payments for hostages while also skimming a portion off the top for himself. And according to a Nigerien Tuareg figure who supposedly met with Abou Zeid in the Idrar des Ifoghas (in eastern Mali) as well as with Mokhtar Belmokhtar some 70 km near Timbuktu, the same officer had proposed to Belmokhtar that he be AQIM’s “intermediary” in hostage negotiations.

What now?

This level of activity shows a new aggressiveness from kidnappers in the region, though again we do not yet know whether or not the men were AQIM. Still, they were exceptionally well-informed, at least in the case of the French men kidnapped in Hombori, and these two incidents are part of a trend to push beyond the traditional areas of operation in northern Mali, perhaps in search of fresh victims operating in parts of the Sahel generally considered more secure. Hombori is in what France calls the “orange zone” considered somewhat safer than other parts of northern and eastern Mali, and the recent kidnapping of three humanitarian workers in the heavily-guarded Tindouf refugee camp, in far-Western Algeria, as well as the attempt to seize two young French men, Vincent Délory and Antoine de Léocour, from a restaurant in Niger’s capital Niamey, testify to this newfound aggressiveness.* But it is unclear if these attempts to expand kidnapping operations show that AQIM and its fellow-travelers have grown bolder in recent months, or more desperate for ransom payments as tourists and NGO workers become scarcer in the Sahel.

French soldiers (almost certainly Special Operations Forces) quickly deployed from Sévéré, near Mopti, to search for the missing Frenchmen, and an AFP journalist spotted a group of 10 French soldiers on patrol with Malian forces in Hombori. I suspect that France worked out a deal sometime in the last year allowing them to operate in Mali in the event of a situation like this, as evidence in January when French helicopters were spotted patrolling the skies above Ménaka, in eastern Mali, after the attempting kidnapping of Délory and de Léocour. French statements just before this kidnapping indicated that they had lost patience with perceived Malian complicity with traffickers and AQIM, and this deployment is likely the first sign of a more aggressive French military presence in Mali’s lightly-governed spaces. These kidnappings also spell trouble for tourism and European business interests in Mali, a country already hurting from reduced tourist revenues and deeply concerned about a renewed outbreak of Tuareg violence.

These incidents, along with the Paris Match article, may also be the start of some closer investigations into the business of hostage negotiations in the Sahel. France has in recent years has argued forcefully against ransom payments, but these recent revelations leave open the possibility that French intelligence services are involved in under-the-table dealings to free their hostages. To be clear, we do not yet know the extent of these connections, or if the specter of official French involvement in negotiations is merely speculation – after all, it’s natural that PMC’s involved in negotiations would be linked to French intelligence, since there is a very small universe of people who would have the kind of training, knowledge, and experience necessary to conduct these kinds of talks. But we may just find out more in the weeks and months to come.

*UPDATE – to clarify, Délory and de Léocour were rushed north into Mali, where the kidnapping party was ambushed by French Special Forces. The pair were killed in the ensuing exchange of fire.

AQIM’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaks out

Recently, when Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar (also known as Khaled Abou al-Abess) gave an interview in Arabic* with the Mauritanian news service Agence Nuakchott d’Information (ANI), Western media latched immediately onto Belmokhtar’s comments that it was “normal” that AQIM had obtained weapons from Libya as a result of that country’s unrest, as well as his statement that al-Qaeda “have generally been the greatest beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world.” Yet these lines reflect only a small part of what is actually an informative and worthwhile interview, one that deals in a fairly forthright manner with many of the key criticisms of AQIM activity as well as Belmokhtar himself. This is to my knowledge the first interview with a high-level AQIM commander since the group’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel (Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) gave an interview to the New York Times in 2008.

The interview also reflects the nuanced approach AQIM has taken in its public statements about the conflict in Libya, and is riddled with homages to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as the standard tropes of “global jihad.” While this may not be surprising coming from an al-Qaeda-affiliated leader, it is particularly interesting when spoken by Belmokhtar, a man with a long jihadist resumé (his nickname, “Belaouar” or the one-eyed, refers to an eye he lost while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s) who is still regarded by most analysts as being solely a criminal, a trafficker, in short  “Mr. Marlboro” as he is often known. Instead, this interview reflects at least a rhetorical commitment to al-Qaeda and the tenets of global jihad, but also a similar commitment to AQIM’s leadership, including his replacements in the Sahara, Yahya Djouadi and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar also delves into AQIM’s history with al-Qaeda, a subject that gets an incomplete telling in most accounts and is due for a serious revision.

AQIM and Libya

What most major newspapers missed in their coverage of the interview is that just after Belmokhtar acknowledges receipt of Libyan weapons — though he does not specify what kinds of weapons the group has received — he adds, “but what is more important for us is to see that this arsenal returns to the hands of the Libyan people in general, and the youth of the Islamic Movement in particular, because these arms were the power by which the regime struck its own people.”*** He proceeds to warn his “brothers” against any disarmament plan, and flatly denies direct AQIM involvement in the fight against slain Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Responding to a question about “intellectual and organizational” links between Libyan rebels and AQIM, Belmokhtar again prevaricates, telling his interviewer:

It is evident…that the youth of the ‘Islamic awakening’ and in particular ‘jihadists’ were the first to face Qaddafi’s battalions, in order to bring out the first spark, one that would give all of its hope and ardor to the global uprising of the Libyan people. From there, to say  that they had an organizational or intellectual link with us, I believe that there is nothing wrong with a Muslim having links with his Muslim brother, it is indeed his right and a source of pride and honor for us and for them. Just as the effects of the Western occupation of our countries, like the artificial frontiers…did nothing to alter our methods and our faith, which commands a Muslim to help his brother Muslim.  The Prophet Muhammad (peace and health be upon him) said: ‘Support your brother whether he is right or wrong’.

Belmokhtar dances around the question, implying support while not actually coming out and saying what the support given to Libyan rebels might have entailed. Aaron Zelin and I are planning on writing in more detail about AQIM’s messaging strategy in Libya, but in brief the organization has taken a rather careful, nuanced and subtle approach to Libya, implying but never admitting a specific role of any kind in the rebellion. And with only a few exceptions, the group has chosen not to take credit for playing a role in the anti-Qaddafi uprising.

This cautiousness could be the result of  a concern that claiming a presence in Libya (whether true or not) could bring unwarranted attention or the withdrawal of Western support from the rebels; the presence of Islamists and former (or current) jihadists has already proved a source of concern in the West, and direct evidence or confirmation of AQIM participation would undoubtedly push this concern to a fever pitch. The ambiguity of AQIM’s messaging could also, of course, indicate that AQIM simply doesn’t have anything going on in Libya.

But it is still noteworthy that Belmokhtar and other elements of the organization have made the conscious decision to tone down their rhetoric, even when more actively claiming a role in Libya’s uprising would undoubtedly lend enormous credibility to a group that is already mistrusted by the jihadi community and has only recently earned widespread attention in the Muslim world and the West.

Mauritania and jihadist credibility

From Libya, Belmokhtar and his interviewer turn to Mauritania, long a source of AQIM’s attention and a subject that takes up the bulk of this interview. As ANI points out, Belmokhtar led the then-GSPC’s first attack in Mauritania, a violent assault on the Lemgheity army outpost that killed 17 Mauritanian soldiers. Belmokhtar denies being at war in a “traditional sense of war” with the Mauritanian army, before detailing at length his reasons for repeatedly striking Mauritanian targets, including the country’s leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Israeli targets in Mauritania in 2008. Belmokhtar tells the interviewer:

It is neither our policy nor a priority of al-Qaeda to target [Mauritania's] armies. The declared strategy of al-Qaeda is to confront the crusader Occident and the jews…and it is clear and evident in all of the interviews and declarations of sheikh Osama [bin Laden] (may his soul rest in peace) and of sheikh Ayman [al-Zawahiri] (may Allah protect him), and in all of the teachings of the Organization distributed in its publications.

He then proceeds to explain that AQIM did not behead prisoners at Lemgheity, though he later says that some soldiers were decapitated, and that, “We consider this an error as there are in all wars, and instructions were given by my brother, the emir of [AQIM] Abou Mousab Abdel Wadoud to not repeat such actions.” He also says that the attack and later attacks in Mauritania was justified by:

1) joint operations and maneuvers conducted by the Mauritanian army and American forces (Belmokhtar says that his forces freed 35 prisoners who informed him of the “comings and goings” of American forces in the region);

2) The existence of an Israeli embassy in Nuakchott, “to the disdain of the feelings and dignity, not just of the Mauritanian people, but of all Muslims.” Belmokhtar also says that the period around the attack was one of “intense Mossad activity” in Mauritania, and that his group planned to assassinate the Israeli ambassador before attacking the complex itself as well as an adjacent building, an attack that took place in 2008;

3) An increase in “tyranny” and the oppression of imprisoned religious men, as well as “the torture of numerous erudite men and preachers, without counting the encirclement of mosques,” incidents that ended in gunfire. Belmokhtar also says that veiled women were not spared, including a pregnant woman who was supposedly killed by security forces, and that “the symbols of our holy religion, the houses of Allah, were threatened with being turned into bakeries by the minister of culture at the time”;

4) The existence in Mauritania of secret CIA prisons under AQIM’s surveillance, one of which was in the control of American Marines, a case eventually brought up in the local press and political class.

Belmokhtar then continues, saying that the primary objective of AQIM operations is to, “attack Western and Jewish economic and military interests, because they pillage the resources of our nation and we consider this a new occupation,” and that anyone who tries to stop them is a legitimate target. He adds, “how could we renounce our fight against the Occidentals while it is they who make our brothers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and stolen Palestine taste the worst punishment,” at a time not far removed from the incidents at Abu Ghraib, referring undoubtedly to the photos of abused Iraqi prisoners at the American detention facility there. He then quotes the Quran, “And they will continue to fight you until they turn you from your religion if they can.”

The interview then moves to the topic of a possible halt in Belmokhtar’s and AQIM’s operations in Mauritania if the Mauritanian army were to stop attacking AQIM forces in “alien territory” – in this case, Mali, the first of which was the joint Franco-Mauritanian assault on AQIM camps in Mali in July 2010. Belmokhtar responds, saying that the Mauritanian army has never been an obstacle for AQIM . He calls the attack a “desperate attempt by the French to pull us into a war that is not a priority of the Organization…it appears clear that Ould Abdel Aziz and his army have engaged in a proxy war on behalf of the French.” He also picks up an interesting thread from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),when discussing a February 2011 attempt to infiltrate the Mauritanian capital of Nuakchott with cars packed with explosives, an attempt that failed when the trucks were stopped and destroyed on the outskirts of the city. Still, Belmokhtar says, the attack was successful in that it passed through eight military regions undetected, achieved its military objective of forcing a withdrawal of the Mauritanian army from Mali, and that it accomplished its political objective by proving false Ould Abel Aziz’s claims to control the country’s borders and to have “taken the war to al-Qaeda in northern Mali.” In short, that failure can still be a success.

Belmokhtar continues, saying that Abdel Aziz’s efforts since February have been a series of failures, repeating AQIM claims to have destroyed a number of Mauritanian army trucks in a joint Mauritanian-Malian assault on an AQIM base in the Wagadou Forest in June (Kal at The Moor Next Door provides a good rundown and highly valuable context for that here) and alleging that Mauritanian forces killed the organization’s “brothers” in the Azawad region of Mali, killing two “Muslim sisters” and wounding others when a civilian vehicle got caught in the midst of a bombardment.

The AQIM leader also says that he would not refuse a dialogue “in principle” to a halt in aggression against Mauritania, and acknowledges an effort last year whereby the Mauritanian government freed some AQIM prisoners (again, Kal has the most comprehensive take) and proposed to send a delegation of experts, led by Mauritanian Salafist leader Mohammed Hassan Ould Dedew. He adds that despite differences with Dedew, “we are always ready to meet with a delegation of learned men…and are ready to have any practical discussion about the methods and original teachings of learned men to study the challenges facing the Muslim umma” or world.

While lengthy and tied up with Belmokhtar’s longstanding desire to operate in Mauritania (and animus towards the country’s leaders), what this section demonstrates above all else is Belmokhtar’s attempt for his operations — as well as those of AQIM — to be seen as religiously legitimate, to be conducted within a reasonable and acceptable level of violence, and to be a part of the war against the “Crusader West” and the Jews. In using this framing, he situates the conflict clearly within that articulated by other al-Qaeda figures, and implicitly challenges the actions undertaken by the Mauritanian government to combat the group.

AQIM and al-Qaeda

As he nears the end of the interview, Belmokhtar touches on what for me is the most interesting aspect of the whole segment, his relationship with AQIM and AQIM’s history with al-Qaeda. The interviewer brings up Belmokhtar’s removal from head of the Saharan emirate of the GSPC/AQIM towards the end of the last decade in favor of Yahya Abou Ammar (Yahya Djouadi) and the differences between Belmokhtar, Djouadi, and Abou Zeid, as well as the rumors that Belmokhtar had reached a truce with the Algerian military. Belmokhtar acknowledges that differences exist, based on different perceptions and experiences, but adds that the men are united by their Islamic ethic and morality as well as mutual respect. He then calls the pause in operations in Algeria part of the organization’s “strategic shift” in order to prepare for a new phase of action, after an evaluation of the experience of more than 15 years of fighting against the Algerian régime. He adds that he never entered into negotiations with Algeria, vents his anger at the Algerian government’s policy of reconciliation, and asks, “how could we abandon this divine path [i.e. that of war] when we have acquired honor, and the signs of a global conflict between Islam and unbelief become clear? We ask Allah to make us steadfast and to guide us along the straight path until we return to him.”

He then proceeds to strongly deny allegations that he opposed the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda (a story he blames on Algeria’s secret services, working through the newspapers Ennahar and Echorouk), as part of an effort to sell the government’s reconciliation process, first put forward under the “law of civil concord” in 1999. He then proceeds to essentially rewrite the history of the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda, saying that in 2000 the GSPC took steps to tighten its links with al-Qaeda as a counterpoint to the reconciliation law, taking steps that included an invitation for one Abou Mohamed al-Yemeni to visit the group in Algeria; he then says that the group also sent Younis al-Mauritani, recently captured in Pakistan, to al-Qaeda, and says that al-Mauritani was the first contact between the GSPC and al-Qaeda, the start of a dialogue with al-Qaeda’s leaders that was also picked up by “our brothers in Algeria.”

When Mauritani, an important operational figure for al-Qaeda, was picked up in September in Quetta, journalists, the U.S. government, and experts began immediately to fill in previously unknown gaps in his bio — including the fact that he had been a member of the GSPC, and had possibly even taken part in the attack on Lemgheity. Before Mauritani’s arrest and the release of biographical information about him, the standard story about the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda was that under Abdelmalek Droukdel’s leadership the organization took a turn towards the international, facilitating the movement of fighters to Iraq and entering into cordial talks with al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who then facilitated connections with al-Qaeda no. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, leading to the group’s public merger with al-Qaeda in September 2006 (with a statement from Zawahiri) and January 2007, with their first public statement as AQIM.

With Mauritani’s arrest, however, it became clear that he had played a key role in facilitating the group’s entry into al-Qaeda, and it is interesting that Belmokhtar brings up Mauritani’s position as an interlocutor, without mentioning Iraq. Mauritani’s history with both the GSPC/AQIM and al-Qaeda raises a number of tantalizing questions, especially if U.S. government reports that he returned to Mali after the merger, where he allegedly trained AQIM fighters until 2009. This evidence would imply a closer connection between AQIM and al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan than most analysts presume, especially with the group’s Saharan wing. Again, these data points are disparate, but demonstrate the desperate need for a re-think of the commonly-accepted history of AQIM’s relationship with al-Qaeda, and the influence of AQIM leaders, especially Belmokhtar (who led the raid at Lemgheity) and Abou Zeid (who heads the Tariq Ibn Ziad brigade that Mauritani was a part of during his time with the organization).

In a final nod to al-Qaeda, Belmokhtar confirms that AQIM maintains its demands that it will not free four French hostages seized in September 2010 from the northern Nigerien town of Arlit until French troops withdraw from Afghanistan. This is a direct continuation of a line of statements that AQIM leader Droukdel and bin Laden traded starting last fall; In October 2010 bin Laden endorsed the Arlit kidnapping, blaming it on French actions in Afghanistan and in North Africa. Droukdel followed in November with a tape demanding a French withdrawal from Afghanistan, and saying that all hostage negotiations would need to go through bin Laden, who subsequently reiterated in January his demand for the withdrawal in return for the hostages’ release.

It is convenient on the one hand for Belmokhtar to take this line on the hostages’ release, because a) they’re being held by Abou Zeid, and b) it sounds much better, from a jihadist perspective, to claim that French troops remaining in Afghanistan is the reason for keeping the hostages, rather than a failure to pay the reported asking price of $90 million per hostage. In fact, the transactional nature of hostage taking in the Sahel forces Belmokhtar to give an awkward answer to the interviewer’s subsequent question about the release of two Spanish hostages in August 2010 in return for notorious smuggler Omar el-Sahraoui (and a certain ransom), instead of other imprisoned AQIM members; Belmokhtar says the transaction had to be made hastily, saying that hostages Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta had converted to Islam while in captivity (along with another colleague who was released earlier), and that a deal for Sahraoui was already on the table.**

Still, we should not discount fully the importance of this statement; while the high ransom price might be holding up negotiations, reports indicate that France’s continued presence in Afghanistan may actually be delaying a deal for the hostages. And by confirming the organization’s stated position on the hostages, especially after the death of bin Laden, Belmokhtar makes a rhetorical commitment both to AQIM’s leadership and other commanders and to bin Laden’s past “orders,” again situating AQIM firmly within al-Qaeda.

Conclusions: Becoming (and remaining) al-Qaeda

While the nature of his words may surprise some who think of Belmokhtar as only a criminal, this interview fits neatly with other AQIM propaganda, which constantly tries to show the group’s devotion to al-Qaeda and the jihad against the West, in addition to regional governments such as Algeria and Mauritania. This, I believe, is at least partially an attempt to overcome the group’s image in the jihadi community, where it is tainted by its association with criminal activities and lingering beliefs since the Algerian civil war that various militant groups were infiltrated and possibly manipulated by the Algerian government. This process of favoring bin Laden and al-Qaeda with laudatory statements and a rigid attempt to place the GSPC and then AQIM within al-Qaeda’s sphere is something I call “becoming al-Qaeda,” and Belmokhtar’s statement fits that role nicely.

But this explanation doesn’t answer the question about why Belmokhtar is the one making these statements. The standard belief about Belmokhtar — that he is a criminal first and foremost, operating independently from the rest of AQIM — fails to explain why Belmokhtar insists on publicly and carefully toeing the line towards AQIM’s other leaders and paying repeated homage to al-Qaeda’s leaders and goals. And while this interview may be in part an attempt to maintain a space to operate or continue to recruit fighters, we cannot dismiss the possibility that Belmokhtar really does mean what he says.

Analysts often ignore Belmokhtar’s history when talking about him. But as Mauritanian journalist Hacen Ould Lebatt points out, he is a man who has been deeply involved in jihadist militancy since the early 1990’s, in Afghanistan, Algeria, and the Sahel, and has been actively involved in a number of both military and criminal activities over the years. And despite claims to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that he is any different from other Algerian militants, who like militants everywhere, be they Taliban, Haqqani Network, or al-Qaeda, engage in criminal activity to supplement and fund their activities.

We should not ignore the possibility that just as AQIM strenuously works to show itself as a full member of al-Qaeda’s jihad, so too does Belmokhtar. He concludes the interview by saying:

I would like, through you, to pay homage to our murdered Palestinian people and to all the Muslims for this great victory [the transfer of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit]…Homage as well to our brothers in the Mujahideen Brigades of the marty Izzedine al-Qassam, and all of the fractions in the country of Al-Isra [referring to the site from which the Prophet Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven, currently the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem] which we consider the true rampart of the nation against the zionist enemy, behind which is arrayed the crusader West. If this proves anything, it is that arms are all the enemy understands…I ask Allah for success, for us and for you, and that Allah reward you.

*Author’s note: All translations are mine, from the French version of the interview provided by ANI. For an English translation provided by a member of the Ansar English jihadi forum, click here (safe link).

**This difficulty reconciling AQIM’s public face and criminal operations appears later in the interview, when Belmokhtar strongly denies ties to drug and other traffickers, a trade he says is, “forbidden by Allah’s laws,” despite years of assertions that the group is tied to the drug, weapons, cigarette, and even human smuggling trade in the Sahel.

***UPDATE: In the comments below, Marwan informs us that the original Arabic word used in the interview is “Tamakun” which more closely means “control” or “self-possession.” This is an important distinction, though it’s interesting to me that both the French translator and Ansar forum user got this wrong. Still, I’m not sure that the difference between the Libyan people and specifically the youth “possessing” weapons, rather than having the weapons “returned” to them, really changes the analysis that much. Either way, in Belmokhtar’s calculation, the Libyan people now have weapons, and must maintain their hold on them. But we can have a debate about that in the comments section. 

America’s War on Terror in Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The piece below is a guest post from Hannah Armstrong, a freelance journalist who has reported from Niger, Mauritania and Morocco. The opinions expressed here are her own.

Reports of a new deployment of U.S. Special Operations Forces to help subdue Boko Haram in Nigeria, shared by the Guardian and Danger Room last week, are somewhat misleading. The reports are misleading not because they are unconfirmed, but because the United States has been quietly engaging in counterterrorism in a wide range of African countries, including Nigeria, for almost a decade.

The U.S. currently provides counterterrorism assistance to the militaries of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, under the Trans-Saharan Counter Terrorism Partnership, a large-scale expansion of the Pan-Sahel Initiative, which was launched in 2002.

The Africa-focused command center AFRICOM is also active in counterterrorism in Libya, its first military intervention, and Somalia, the first African country to be targeted by American drones launched from new bases in Djibouti and the Seychelles. Obama’s deployment of 100 special operations forces to fight the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan, brings the total tally of African countries in which the US is engaged in CT operations to – by my count – 18.

That the theater grew so wide, so quickly, is stunning. Africans were so anxious over potential misuses of the newly-launched AFRICOM in 2007 that rumors of various countries refusing to host bases were a running joke, highlighting the illogicality of a military command centre with evidently humanitarian aspirations.

A few factors explain this turnaround. On the one hand, an uptick in attacks by groups such as Boko Haram and AQIM is generating a lot more noise about terrorism in Africa. This noise is of concern to local governments, foreign investors, tourism industries, and mining operations. On the other hand, local governments have discovered that prioritizing their struggles against fringe militant opposition groups that happen to be Muslim is a great way to fast-track military assistance from the most powerful army on the planet.

“We keep getting asked to do more and more and more, and go to more places,” AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham told Stars and Stripes in September of this year. “More exercises, more military-to-military engagement, more and more requests for interchanges, and I don’t recall anybody saying, ‘We don’t want you to come here anymore.’”

But what’s to stop African governments from directing their freshly trained, capacity-built, equipment-enhanced militaries against domestic opposition? African regimes may perceive non-‘terrorist’ domestic opposition groups as their most urgent threat. In 2007, for instance, U.S. anti-terrorism training and assistance to Mali were deployed against a Tuareg rebellion, leading rebels to fire upon a U.S. military plane delivering food aid to Malian troops.

“The U.S. has really developed an interest in Africa that we just have never seen before. Between all the goings and comings in the Horn of Africa and all this snake-eater (special forces) Sahara stuff, ungoverned territories… it’s all over the place. Since I think an awful lot of it is being run out of Special Operations Command and out of the agency (the CIA), I think it is probably far larger than anyone imagines,” defense analyst John Pike told the AP.

Gen. Ham envisions an arc (crescent?) of Islamic terrorism that stretches from Somalia’s Al-Shabaab in the East to Boko Haram in the West. The petite AQIM – thought to number, at most, a few hundred – shoulders the heavy task of terrorizing the roughly 2000-mile expanse of the Sahel region, including Mauritania, Mali, Algeria, Niger, Chad, and Libya.

‘Divide and conquer’ need not be the preferred strategy of empire. British imperialist Cecil Rhodes dreamed of uniting Africa by extending an electrical telegraph line from Cairo to Cape Town. In a grimly austere economic environment, fighting terror in Africa relieves some of the pressure on the Army’s newest command center to prove its relevance and attract funding. Motives for U.S. deployments to eighteen – and counting – African countries should be seen not merely in the context of a globalizing al-Qaeda. The shadow war on terror in Africa is also a pretext for anticipatory military cooperation, one that may be laying the ground for new conflicts that have nothing to do with terrorism.

Even more on Libya’s weapons

Nigerien and Western news sources reported today about a particularly violent battle in northern Niger Sunday between the Nigerien army and heavily-armed men whose exact identities and affiliations are unclear; reports indicate that the convoy was composed of Libyan Qaddafi loyalists and “Malian Tuareg” and were headed towards northern Mali. One Nigerien soldier and 13 men in the convoy were killed, and Niger’s Defense Minister Mahamadou Karidio said that the army took prisoners and recovered a number of weapons, including two 14.5 mm machine guns, four 12.7 mm machine guns, two ML-49 and three M-80 machine guns, three rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), 36 assault rifles, six 4×4 trucks, and by some accounts more than 11,000 rounds of ammunition.

There have been a number of small skirmishes between Nigerien patrols and “armed men” of various identities in the country’s north in recent months. The most notable of this was an incident in June, when Nigerien forces seized more than 600 kg of high-explosive, blasting caps, and other arms (for what I wrote about the incident at the time, see this entry) reportedly intended for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). This should not be a surprise; northern Niger presents a far more attractive route towards Mali than southern Algeria, where the far more capable Algerian army keeps a close watch. And the porous borders and easy access to weapons make for attractive smuggling opportunities. As the operator of a local radio station told the AP, “Because of the Libyan problem, there are now traffickers heading to Libya to pick up the arms left behind and to bring them here. These same traffickers then sell the arms to AQIM.”

However, in this case it is somewhat less clear what this convoy’s purpose was. As the AP and others pointed out, the presence of Qaddafi loyalists in the convoy could indicate simple flight of former regime members towards the relative haven of northern Mali. Several key figures, including former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanussi (and maybe even Qaddafi son Saif al-Islam, though this is far from definite) are believed to be hiding in this region. But the presence of heavy weapons and such huge quantities of ammunition also raise the possibility that the convoys arms were being smuggled for eventual sale or use. If the latter case is true, then the likeliest recipients are AQIM or Malian tuareg tribes, who may be equipping as part of a promised offensive against the Malian government. The prisoners the Nigerien army says it took may be able to provide more information about this.

While hardly new to the region and to various regional conflicts, any new infusion of these arms is a cause for concern. Both the 14.5 mm and 12.7 mm are versatile and rugged weapons that can be used in anti-air, anti-vehicle, and anti-personnel capacities. They can be mounted on trucks — as was done here by Libyan rebels — or operated from fixed positions, as was done here. They also pose a major threat to pretty much anything that either the Nigerien, Malian, or Mauritanian militaries can throw at whatever armed group uses them. I asked Jeff Emanuel, a former U.S. special operator, about how the 14.5 mm and 12.7 mm can be used:

A 12.7 is frequently truck-mounted (and is frequently referred to – often inaccurately – as a Dishka), and 14.5 can be as well (we saw some of these in Iraq in particular earlier this decade). The effect of the ammunition depends on what rounds are used with it; 14.5 comes in anything from API (armor piercing incendiary, which can punch through light armor and then some, up to and including the composite armor used on most armored vehicles these days) to HEI (high-explosive incendiary), which have less punch but greater ignition. A truck-mounted 14.5 would be pretty mobile, obviously, and could be pretty effective if used correctly, though the lighter firing platform makes it significantly less stable and less accurate. Another risk with 14.5 is, of course, to aircraft.

You lose range by mounting on a truck vs. the standard 14.5 anti-aircraft (AA) gun (think ZPU or a variant), and accuracy as I mentioned before isn’t going to be the best, but aircraft could be at risk of a “big sky/little bullet” incident (or in this case “big sky/pretty darn big bullet”) anywhere under 10,000 feet above ground level, with the risks increasing as they descend. A helicopter could be a more realistic target than an airplane simply because it’s lower, slower, and more vulnerable. However, while a truck-mounted 14.5 makes a realistic mobile AA platform, it’s probably more of a consistent threat to targets on the ground simply because you get more results from “pray-and-spray” shooting in ground engagements than you do trying to chase an aircraft with rounds.

AQIM has been known to possess these weapons for years, and the “heavy weapons” found in AQIM bases in the Wagadou Forest on the Mali-Mauritania in June and October almost certainly refer to these or similar types of arms. As for the tuareg, such weapons would come in handy in the event of violence breaking out; the Malian army is notoriously ill-equipped and ill-trained (despite recent efforts at professionalization) and these weapons, combined with other armaments reportedly taken back to the region by Tuareg returning from fighting in Libya, could make a very potent combination.

That said, it’s unclear what will actually happen in northern Mali’s Tuareg areas. In Paris several weeks ago a Tuareg expert I greatly respect told me that he was certain violence would break out in one way or another, a view backed up by other observers in the region. And protests for independence have been growing in the area, while the Tuareg Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and other groups threatened violence on November 5. Yet while concern about the possible return of violence to an already troubled region hangs heavily over the Sahel, for now the situation appears tense, but calm.

As has been the case from the first sign of Libyan weapons flowing from the country’s armories, we must wait and see how these weapons actually impact the Sahel and surrounding areas. Violence has escalated drastically in northern Algeria and northern Nigeria in recent months, and a number of observers have put the blame squarely on Libyan weapons (something I discuss here with regards to northern Algeria). However, I have seen no direct proof, whether from militant groups themselves or forensic evidence presented by authorities, that the weapons used are Libyan — though AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar reportedly said in an interview recently that AQIM had acquired Libyan arms. But whether violence is happening now or battles erupt later, it seems depressingly clear that such large outflows of deadly cargo can only fuel and intensify conflict in the Sahel for some time to come.

On Flags, Islamic History, and al-Qa’ida

After writing my post on Libya, AQIM, and the spotting of a flag that appeared to be al-Qa’ida in Iraq’s (AQI) hanging over a court building in Benghazi there has been much written over the past few days regarding this flag as well as one waved at a rally also held in Libya that showed the Islamic State of Iraq’s (AQI’s successor group) flag.[1] Earlier this morning, it sparked an interesting debate between Ed Husain and Will McCants on Twitter. The flags in question were the following two:

al-Qa'ida in Iraq's flag. This was the one that appeared on top of the court house in Benghazi.

Islamic State of Iraq's flag.

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Husain contended that one should not describe this flag as an “al-Qa’ida flag,” stating: “By calling it AQ flag we give them what is not theirs. The Prophet used those colours in his raids against pagans.” On the other hand, McCants argued that Muhammad may have used similar colors (i.e. black and white), but no other Islamic movement uses the exact same styled flag as the Islamic State of Iraq. Husain mentioned Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT) as a counter example, yet that does not hold up to scrutiny, see:

Hizb ut-Tahrir's flag

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Indeed, in the case of the AQI and HuT flags they both use black as the background and contain the shahada (Islamic testament of faith: ‘There is no God, but God; and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’). While the Islamic State of Iraq’s only has the first half of the shahada at the top while on the bottom is the seal that Muhammad used in official documents. They all differ a bit though since they have different styled typeface. Further, if one were to contend as Husain did that “we” are giving al-Qa’ida something that is not theirs then we should look back and see what flags the Muslim prophet Muhammad actually used as well as the Rashidun Caliphate, Ummayad Caliphate, and the Abbasid Caliphate.

Muhammad used two flags depending on the type of raid or battle he was in. One was a solid white flag while the main flag he used was a solid black flag called rāyat al ‘uqāb (flag of the eagle). Neither flag had markings or symbols. The black flag derived from Muhammad’s tribe Quraysh’s flag, which was called the same thing, but actually did have an eagle on it. Muhammad’s two flags would have looked as follows:

Muhammad's black flag

Muhammad's white flag

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Following the death of Muhammad, the Rashidun Caliphate continued to use Muhammad’s black flag as seen above. The Ummayad’s used the white flag in both Damascus and al-Andalus. Whereas the Abbasids used the black flag once more. As such, if one looks at early Islamic history there is no connection to the flag that al-Qai’da in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq adopted. Of course the Islamic State of Iraq uses the shahada on its flag to try and show Islamic legitimacy. The Islamic State of Iraq also incorporated the seal that Muhammad used in official correspondance:

Muhammad's seal

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That said, it does not necessarily mean one cannot state that the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag is not the al-Qa’ida flag since no one has ever used that specific design, typeface, and set up in the history of Islam.

[1] According to Leah Farrall, the Islamic State of Iraq’s flag was first designed and flown by the original al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, which was located in Saudi Arabia in the early 2000s. It was popularized, though, by the Islamic State of Iraq.

Harakat al-Shabab Claims Support from ‘Ayr Clan Leaders

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

The Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Warrior-Youth, Al-Shabab) released a statement yesterday that claimed the movement has garnered the support of a number of leaders from the ‘Ayr sub-clan, part of the Habir-Gidir group within the larger Hawiye clan confederation.  The announcement comes in the midst of a major Kenyan military incursion into southern Somalia and a renewed insurgent military campaign in Mogadishu against African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and Somali Transitional Federal Government (TFG) troops.

Hussein ‘Ali Fiidow (far left), Hasan Dahir Aweys (second from right), and ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (far right)

The meeting between ‘Ayr clan leaders and Al-Shabab officials was held yesterday in Lower Shabelle, the district just to the south of Banaadir, the district where Mogadishu is located.  The specific clan leaders present are not named.  Major Al-Shabab leaders, however, were present including Hasan Dahir Aweys, who himself is from the Habir-Gidir/’Ayr sub-clan, the movement’s spokesman ‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (also known as ‘Ali Dheere), the insurgent governor of Banaadir Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, and Hussein ‘Ali Fiidow, a representative from Al-Shabab’s Political and Regional Office and current head of its Emergency Relief Committee for the drought.  The ‘Ayr and Al-Shabab leaders, the statement said, agreed on the necessity to defend the country and Islam from outside attack by “Crusader” forces, presumably by AMISOM and Kenya, both backed by the U.S. government.  Fiidow called for the clans to unite in their support of the struggle against these forces and said that all differences between them would be resolved if they used “God’s book” (Qur’an) and the traditions (Sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad.  Aweys role, if any, in negotiating the deal between ‘Ayr leaders and Al-Shabab is not discussed in the statement.  Another prominent Al-Shabab leader who came from the ‘Ayr sub-clan was the movement’s late founder, Adan Hashi Farah ” ‘Ayro.”

Many Habir Gidir/’Ayr leaders supported the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), a diverse umbrella organization of local shari’a courts and their militias that brought a brief period of relative stability to central and southern Somalia in 2006.  The ICU was overthrown in December 2006/January 2007 by a full-scale Ethiopian military invasion of the country, supported by the U.S. government.

Hasan Dahir Aweys

Muhammad Hasan ‘Umar Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman

The support of the ‘Ayr leaders, of whom 19 were present at a ceremony, if true, may be related to the recent Kenyan incursion, which is seeming more like a major military operation with no set timetable that is becoming an occupation of significant parts of southern Somalia than a simple incursion in response to kidnappings Kenya blames on Al-Shabab, which has denied responsibility, as the operation was initially described by the Kenyan government.  Foreign involvement has in the past been openly opposed by the majority of Somalis, whether it be in the ranks of the TFG, the AMISOM military presence, Ethiopia, or non-Somali foreign fighters who have joined Al-Shabab.  A prolonged, open-ended Kenyan military presence will likely be perceived as an occupation, which could potentially provide the Somali insurgent movement with a rallying call for support in a period when it is becoming increasingly unpopular on the ground because of its black-and-white, harsh interpretation of Islamic law (shari’a) and heavy taxation.  Open support by important Somali clans, such as the ‘Ayr, is a significant development, if Al-Shabab’s claims are true.  Kenya’s incursion, which the country’s defense minister says has no clear timetable, could, ironically, end up benefiting Al-Shabab, the very movement that it is supposed to cripple.

Hussein ‘Ali Fiidow

One Year Anniversary of al-Wasat Launching

When we started al-Wasat a year ago, we wanted it to be a place to post our thoughts about places and themes that often get little attention, and that’s exactly what we’ve tried to do, and will continue doing in the next year. Thanks for the continued support and readership!

Aaron Zelin and Andrew Lebovich

Is al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib Gaining Influence in Libya?

One of the biggest questions and worries the past year in Western counterterrorism circles has been about how the MENA uprisings would affect al-Qa’ida. Many pointed to the uprisings as evidence that the citizens of the MENA were not only shedding off the yoke of tyranny, but also discrediting al-Qa’ida. On the other side of the debate were those that believed that it would provide the impetus for jihadis to take over. Throughout the past ten months I have maintained that one would see something more in between these two visions and that one should focus on the internal dynamics of each country. The three countries that have worried me the most are Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Gregory Johnsen has done a great job keeping everyone updated on al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s evolution and advances in Yemen. Additionally, I have a forthcoming post at al-Wasat about the potential for jihadi penetration in the Syrian theater if the country does indeed devolve into a civil war. This post will therefore only focus on Libya and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib’s (AQIM) outreach to Libyans since the beginning of the Libyan uprising in February.

Co-editor of al-Wasat and specialist on AQIM and North Africa, Andrew Lebovich, has written some excellent pieces related to AQIM, the Libya conflict, and the seizing of weapons, which you can read here (4/4/11), here (6/19/11), here (9/8/11), and here (9/27/11). Lebovich’s two main arguments stated:

It is far more likely that AQIM would hold onto the weapons to defend against raids from helicopter-borne special forces troops, from France or elsewhere, which have been known to operate in Niger and Northern Mali and have staged at least two operations against AQIM forces, in July 2010 and in January 2011 … AQIM is using the chaos not to fight against the Qaddafi regime, but to build up their supplies and further reinforce their safe havens far from the Libyan jihad. (4/4/11)

The place where these weapons really could make a difference is northern Algeria, where AQIM has conducted a persistent IED campaign for years against Algeria’s army, police and gendarmerie. (6/19/11)

Indeed, I believe Lebovich’s argument has many merits, yet it is only one aspect of the broader picture. It is also worth noting AQIM’s media strategy since the beginning of the Libyan conflict. It is also necessary to re-visit and reassess how the Iraq jihad played a role in the Libyan jihadi community. Although AQIM is known for its history in Algeria and its attempts in recent years to infiltrate and gain influence in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger since the beginning of the MENA uprisings AQIM has zeroed in on Libya as if they smell blood in the water. Prior to the MENA uprisings AQIM (to my knowledge) never released anything dealing with Libya specifically. Since the beginning of the MENA uprisings, AQIM has released seven statements and/or videos related to the uprisings. Four of which dealt with Libya, two on Tunisia, and one related to Algeria (see chart below). It is crucial to point out that the releases on Tunisia and Algeria were all published in January. Therefore, all of AQIM’s focus on the MENA uprisings since late February — when they released their first statement on the then impending Libyan civil war — has solely dealt with Libya. This shows a genuine interest by AQIM in the Libyan theater and potentially, though not definitely, a calculation that they could make inroads.

At first, I had trouble accepting that AQIM could possibly make any inroads in Libya. One of the main reasons has to do with the Algerians’ checkered past with the Libyans during the 1990s in the age of the local jihad. It is beyond the scope of this post to get into detail about it, but I would suggest reading Camille Tawil’s excellent book Brothers In Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists, which provides rich detail of the issues between the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) and the LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) during the Algerian civil war. To put it mildly the Libyans had a bitter taste in their mouth toward the Algerians. Another reason that led me to initial skepticism was that the LIFG underwent revisions in the latter half of the previous decade, which to a certain extent moderated the leadership and members who were jailed in the group.

It also does not also necessarily account for Libyan foreign fighters in the Iraq jihad, though. According the Sinjar Records, which should be taken as a random sample of foreign fighters at the height of the Iraq jihad, the average age of the fighters were 24‐25 years old and the median age was 22‐23 years old. This would suggest that the Libyan fighters that survived the fight and did not become a suicide bomber or die in battle and returned to Libya were too young in the 1990s to get caught up in the arrests and sweeps against the LIFG. It would also suggest that the LIFG did not necessarily have sway ideologically on this new generation of Libyan jihadis. Moreover, the revisions were done with explicit coordination with the Qadhafi regime, which in the current environment calls into question those that engaged with that regime. It will also test al-Qa’ida’s current amir Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s theory that the revisions by the LIFG as well as others in Egypt and elsewhere were insincere based on pressures from various regimes. Either way, it could be argued that two ideological trends were taking hold simultaneously within the Libyan jihadi community. The first generation of Libyan jihadis were “moderating” their doctrine while the second generation was exposed to the virulent ideology of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. This twin phenomenon would have been masked by Qadhafi’s suppressive policies, which have only been exposed since his fall.

It should be noted that this does not necessarily provide wholesale proof that there is going to be some type of jihadi takeover of the Libyan government. That said, there are new data points that should be analyzed in light of the previous paragraph. It was pointed out to me Sunday on Twitter by al-Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom that the admin of the official Facebook page of the Libyan uprising (17 February Intifada) posted AQIM’s most recent video message from Shaykh al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi. This is no doubt a worrying sign.

       Additionally, this past Friday a picture in Benghazi that showed the old al-Qa’ida in Iraq flag hanging over a court building raised some alarms in the media. My initial reaction was that it most likely was a souvenir from the Iraq jihad and that it may not seem as much of a provocation as many would think since it has the shahdah (Muslim testament of faith) on it, which could signal the renewal of Islam in society. On Sunday the jihadi forums posted two videos of a caravan of cars and then marchers carrying similar flags as well as others linked to AQ. This made me rethink my initial reaction to the flag controversy, which led me to what I believe is a more nuanced take in the paragraph above that outlines how Libyan foreign fighters were exposed to AQI’s ideology. Although the LIFG’s trajectory following the Libyan uprising appears to conform to their moderation during their revision process since they have changed their group name to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change, the second generation of jihadis now that Qadhafi is dead are slowly flexing their muscle in a society rife with violence, revenge, and potential tribal war. There are still many blind spots and it is too early to conclude anything definitive, but further influence of AQIM should be watched closely.

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