April 4, 2011 14 Comments
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.