AQIM and Libya’s missing weapons

It is a frightening thought; an al-Qaeda franchise in the heart of Africa which has sworn to target European and American interests in the region, not to mention local governments, equipped with a growing arsenal of heavy weapons and even surface-to-air missiles. Two reports have recently suggested rather strongly that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) had acquired truckloads of weapons from abandoned army stocks in Eastern Libya, including SA-7 missiles. This news has caused concern among commentators and officials, especially in the wake of NATO supreme allied commander Adm. James Stavridis’ testimony last week that U.S. intelligence had detected “flickers” of al-Qaeda among Libya’s anti-Qaddafi rebels, news that several Islamist former militants and a former employee of Osama bin Laden in Libya are playing key roles in Libya’s rebellion, and as writers dig back into the “Sinjar Records” documents from al-Qaeda in Iraq that showed an unusually high percentage of foreign fighters came from Eastern Libyan cities like Benghazi and Darnah, epicenters of the current rebellion. Yet before things get out of hand and people draw the worst conclusions about the admittedly real threat from AQIM to the region, these latest reports of weapons acquisition require a careful look, to determine not only what the impact of AQIM acquiring these weapons might be, but also if these reports can be trusted at all.

First, to the Reuters report citing an unnamed Algerian security official that eight truckloads of weapons from Eastern Libya had traveled through Chad and Niger before ending up in Northern Mali, including SA-7 “Strela” missiles (the same missiles used to target an Israeli airplane in Kenya in 2002), as well as “RPG-7s, FMPK (Kalashnikov heavy machine guns), Kalashnikovs, explosives and ammunition.” The official continued, saying, “we know that this is not the first convoy and that it is still ongoing.” An interview nearly two weeks ago with Chad’s president Idriss Déby similarly asserted that AQIM had acquired SAMs in Libya and brought them back to northern Niger, and was becoming “a real army, the best-equipped in the region.”

If true (and I’m really not sure about this) the news is interesting and worrisome, but not for the reason many people think. While the specter of an al-Qaeda affiliate getting their hands on SAMs brings to mind the failed 2002 attack, the scenario described in the two stories imply instead that AQIM is hoarding the missiles in isolated strongholds in the Sahel (the Ténéré region in Niger and likely the Timétrine in Northern Mali) far from any high-profile airline targets. And while it’s not impossible that these weapons would be redeployed or re-sold, the effort that would have gone into transporting these weapons across several countries and thousands of miles of difficult terrain just to send them elsewhere.

Instead, as I told journalist Paul Cruickshank last week, 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, where French forces rapidly deployed and attacked fleeing AQIM forces in Mali in a failed attempt to rescue two hostages seized 12 hours earlier in Niger’s capital of Niamey. This possibility also makes some sense alongside an interesting piece of information from North Africa analyst Geoff Porter, who wrote in an article for the CTC Sentinel in February that AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had bought a .50 cal. DSHK (or “dushka”) anti-aircraft weapon. AQIM has become militarily more aggressive in the Sahel in recent years, and heavy weapons would indicate an increased desire to expand its operations, especially as its forces becomes increasingly isolated in northern Algeria.

What is also interesting about the possibility of AQIM purchasing weapons taken out of Libya by smugglers (as the Reuters piece implies) is that it shows that despite releasing several audio tapes in support of the Libyan revolt (and despite reports of a limited AQIM presence in Libya), 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.

That is, of course, if these reports are even true. Despite the widespread attention this news has received, the claims about AQIM seizing weapons come in large part from two sources, Idriss Déby and an anonymous Algerian intel officer. While Déby’s concern about AQIM may well be genuine, he has also developed a very close relationship with Qaddafi in recent years, to the point where, in the same interview with Jeune Afrique where he said AQIM had seized the SAMs, he also said he has been speaking with Qaddafi every day.

As for the other source, it is silly to think that a senior Algerian official would speak about such a sensitive issue, and in such detail, without official sanction. And Algeria has taken a strong stance against foreign intervention in Libya, likely out of a calculation that more revolutions in North Africa are bad revolutions, as well as Algeria’s traditional opposition to foreign military involvement in conflicts in they’re back yard. Indeed, after telling the Reuters journalist about AQIM’s newfound weapons, the Algerian concluded that, “If the Gadhafi regime goes, it is the whole of Libya — in terms of a country which has watertight borders and security and customs services which used to control these borders — which will disappear, at least for a good time, long enough for AQIM to re-deploy as far as the Libyan Mediterranean.” The official concludes then that to prevent this eventuality, Qaddafi’s regime must be preserved, with or without Qaddafi.

It is quite a reach to assume that AQIM is in any real way involved in the fighting, let alone that AQIM would be able to use the vacuum left by Qaddafi’s fall to take over a large swath of North Africa, especially given the fact that no estimate that I have seen puts AQIM’s numbers in the Sahel at more than several hundred, hardly enough to control swaths of territory that are far more populated than AQIM’s area of operations in the Sahel, all with hostile NATO forces watching closely and rebels who may not take too kindly to al-Qaeda stepping onto their turf for any other reason than to fight Qaddafi. Instead, that final quote casts some suspicion on the earlier missile claims, raising the possibility that the Algerian government is inflating or at least heavily advertising an AQIM involvement in Libya in order to discredit efforts in the West to overthrow Qaddafi or support the rebels.

Additionally, this new information follows on what appears to be a rather crude attempt to forge an AQIM statement claiming that AQIM fighters were killed in a NATO air raid last Friday, analyzed quite thoroughly by al-Wasat co-editor Aaron. As Aaron points out, not only do the details of the statement appear to be inconsistent with standard AQIM statements, but it was released directly to the Algerian news outlet Tout Sur l’Algérie, and has not appeared on any jihadist forums or been confirmed by news reports. All told, this is more than enough to be suspicious of claims of AQIM of involvement, especially given the organization’s near-total radio silence on Libya over the past two weeks; no images of AQIM fighters alongside Libyan rebels, no testimony from Libyan AQIM fighters, no biographies of “martyrs” killed in combat, and thus far no video of seized weaponry.For an organization that generally produces astute media products, the failure to capitalize on clear openings to generate more credibility and support is a glaring failure.

None of this is to say that the disparate reports of AQIM’s growing arsenal are false or staged. Such eventualities are entirely possible, and AQIM would certainly love to get their hands on more weapons. And AQIM’s recent silence could be an attempt to lie low in the face of Western pressure, for fear of being snuffed out or hunted before securing either a better role in the insurgency or a victory against Qaddafi. But the context surrounding the limited evidence of AQIM involvement in the Libyan rebellion or benefiting from its chaos is enough to make me seriously question these stories, as we wait for more concrete evidence.

Negotiate with bin Laden?

Last Thursday al-Jazeera broadcast a tape attributed to AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, demanding the withdrawal of French troops from Afghanistan as a condition for the release of seven French, Togolese and Malgache hostages currently held in northern Mali (UPDATE: Aaron has the tape in English here). But then, when he said that any negotiations for the hostages had to “be done with no one other than our Sheikh Osama bin Laden… and according to his terms,” well, that was something new. While it makes sense to invoke bin Laden, AQIM’s nominal leader after the then-GSPC swore allegiance to al Qaeda in 2007, it seems a bit odd to designate him as an intermediary in hostage negotiations, something that has not been done in previous AQIM kidnappings (or any kidnappings and other activities, for that matter).

This statement comes at a time of relative inaction on the hostage front; after an immediate French military buildup in the region in September, the hostages were reportedly dispersed in different groups, and last week incoming French Defense Minister Alain Juppé said that France has been in contact with AQIM, presumably in view of some sort of negotiated release. Though new French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie quickly added that, “France will not accept that its policy is dictated to from outside by anybody,” Droukdel’s statement had already caught the attention of both the francophone and anglophone press.

As Aaron pointed out, Droukdel’s language mirrors bin Laden’s, linking France’s security to its withdrawal from the war on a precise deadline. People I respect have privately raised the possibility that the likeness between the statements, as well as the sudden prominent referencing of AQIM operations by al Qaeda leadership and vice-versa, could indicate either some level of coordination between the two organizations or at least a desire for one.

However, I think that in the absence of other evidence, mutual public recognition by the groups are instead an attempt to expand AQC’s reach (as I discussed here), while for AQIM these statements are part of a larger attempt to reform the organization’s public image and tap into the legitimacy still held by AQC and bin Laden. AQIM has a fairly well-deserved reputation for its kidnapping and other criminal (drug running, human smuggling, etc…) operations, but it’s military operations, in decline since 2007, do not compare to those of other AQ affiliates such as AQAP.

By explicitly linking itself with common themes of “classical” jihad, to use Thomas Hegghammer’s term, AQIM is likely trying to skirt its reputation and operational history, and frame all of its operations, even the kidnapping of foreigners, as jihadist operations with religiously-sanctioned aims. In fact, AQIM has been pursuing this line specifically with reference to its hostage operations for at least several months; in an initial message after the September 16 Niger kidnappings, an AQIM spokesman claimed that the kidnappings were a reaction to foreign efforts to take the wealth belonging to Niger. This again is a clear attempt to set AQIM up not as a kidnapping-for-ransom organization, but one that defends Muslim wealth against foreign aggressors, an idea that fits neatly within the acceptable bounds of “classical” jihad.

The other impetus for AQIM pushing its association with bin Laden is likely the group’s continued marginalization in Algeria, despite the growth of its reach and influence in the Sahel. The northern AQIM branch remains largeley contained in Kabylia, where Droukdel is believed to be hiding, and the increased income and recruitment of the Sahelian AQIM has not changed this fact. The Algerian news site Ennahar ran an interesting story earlier this month that three members of Abou Zeid’s group were picked up near the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset, carrying $100,000 supposedly meant for Droukdel. If this story is true, it shows the isolation of the northern AQIM, in that its fundraising efforts are in part dependent on the operations of semi-independent groups situated far away from northern AQIM’s combat zone.

The tape also has to be understood within the context of speculation that AQIM is increasing its operations in Europe, or at least gearing up for eventual operations there. Italian authorities last month rounded up what looked to be a bomb-making network at least tangentially connected to AQIM, and the arrests in France of five Algerians allegedly plotting to attack the rector of the Paris Grand Mosque have led some to argue that AQIM is becoming more of a threat to Europe. But many experts agree that AQIM is not yet ready to set up networks or attacks in Europe (whatever their ambition might be), and  readers should not conflate Algerians or other North Africans with AQIM; one of AQIM’s great failures has been that it has not been able to demonstrably tap into recruitment networks in France, and interestingly it seems that the one member of the Grand Mosque plot to train abroad went not to the Sahel or Kabylia, but to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. AQIM has been singularly unable to draw large number of recruits to its jihad, in large part because despite the name change, AQIM is still seen by many as an Algerian group dedicated to fighting the Algerian government. By talking more about bin Laden, Abdelmalek Droukdel wants desperately to show that his organization is a true member of al Qaeda, not just the one-time GSPC.