The much feared al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) appears to be getting stronger in North Africa, particularly within its home-base, Algeria, despite the fact that the group has gone largely unnoticed in a region spellbound by the ongoing conflict in Libya and the elections in Tunisia. AQIM’s threat should not be ignored. As serious concerns remain about the vast numbers of unaccounted for weapons which have been smuggled out of conflict-ridden Libya, AQIM fighters are said to be capitalising on this security threat, by grabbing an untold number of weapons. As a result, many experts believe that violence will explode in the upcoming months as extremists look to take advantage of the democratic elections in the region as well as take advantage of a possible vacuum facing Libya.
Such fears were confirmed recently when an AQIM leader officially claimed his organisation had obtained Libyan arms. On 09 November 2011, AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced that his group has been “one of the main beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world”. Belmokhtar, who did not specify what types of weapons AQIM acquired, added that “As for our acquisition of Libyan armament, that is an absolutely natural thing”. The statement came as officials from the UN and a host of other organisations have expressed concern regarding the security of the now deceased leader Muammar Gaddafi’s weapons caches. In September 2011, weapons were spotted as far away as the Sudan, indicating that countries closer to Libya, including Algeria and Niger, are already saturated in arms. According to several experts, AQIM has already acquired surface-to-air (SAM) missiles, which could be used to take down planes. So just who is AQIM? Here we take a look at the history, goals and tactics of the fundamentalist Islamist organisation, which many experts believe may cause serious problems for Maghreb countries looking to transition to democracy after the Arab Spring comes to a close.
AQIM, which in recent years has extended its reach into Mauritania, Mali, Morocco, as well as Niger Libya, Chad, Nigeria and Tunisia, emerged in Algeria after 1992, when the now banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) Party gained considerable support among the country’s citizens. Fearing the group’s victory, Algeria’s ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) Party immediately called off the elections, and arrested thousands of FIS Party members. The move eventually resulted in a military coup, and President Chadli Bendjedid was removed from office. Following this, Islamic militant organisations, including the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), began to spring up across the country and waged an all out war against the Algerian Government. However, the GIA’s popularity began to wane due to its perceived heavy handed tactics, including killing civilians. In 1998, responding to what he saw as an increasingly brutal organisation, Hassan Hattab, a former regional commander of the GIA, formed his own group, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC). The GSPC, or AQIM as it later came to be known, had initially garnered support from many Algerians who saw the organisation as a political group that avoided conducting terrorism and fought against the oppressive Algerian regime. However, AQIM has since engaged in terroristic tactics, and has effectively become a franchise of the more globally-based al Qaeda, which has seen its organisation hit hard by the ongoing “War on Terror”.
Following its arrival to the political scene in the early 1990s, AQIM seemed to support a variety of goals. Besides initially supporting the overthrow of the Algerian Government, AQIM has since declared its intention of helping establish an Islamic caliphate. The group also announced its solidarity with al Qaeda, and other Islamic extremists in Iraq, Somalia, Palestinian territories and Chechnya. The organisation has also accused the US of meddling in Algerian affairs and leading a holy war against Muslims worldwide. Additionally, there are unconfirmed reports which suggest that AQIM may be allied with the Polisario Front, and organisation based out of Algeria which seeks independence of the Western Sahara, which obviously poses a considerable threat to Morocco, a state which has repeatedly claimed the territory as its own. In a July 2008 interview, Abdelmalek Droukdal summed up the general aims of AQIM, by saying the group has “the same goals of al Qaeda the mother”, an organisation who also supports a broad range of political objectives.
AQIM engages in a variety of tactics, but in recent times has become most notable for orchestrating kidnaps for ransom, which it uses as a means to finance the Islamic terror group, whose traditional sources of funding had dried up. Kidnaps of this kind have been rampant in Algeria, particularly in the Kabylie region, but have also been conducted in Mali. Aside from kidnapping, AQIM also engages in guerrilla warfare against military officials, drug trafficking, and has been known to employ car bomb attacks, using make shift explosive devices. However, if AQIM has indeed come into possession of more sophisticated weaponry, which would have likely made its way through southern Tunisia or through insecure Niger, the Islamic organisation may begin engaging in more serious terrorist activities, such as shooting down commercial planes, or attacking commercial and government centres, as well as oil production facilities.
WHAT NEXT FOR AQIM?
As the world begins to turn its attention toward AQIM, it is important to note that AQIM’s presence in the region can be diminished. For one thing, AQIM’s destruction may lie within its own leadership, as the group itself is said to be split among a northern/southern divide. However, looking ahead, the destruction of AQIM may be a lofty goal. Unless Libya’s NTC, supported by the West, acts fast to secure its remaining weapons, and the Tunisian Government also steps up to the plate by providing security assistance, AQIM’s presence will continue to grow in a region already beset by violence. In the end the eradication of AQIM may depend entirely on the strength and cooperation of the Algerian and Malian authorities, both of whom have been accused of not doing enough to tackle the problem, and in some cases, outright supporting the terrorist organisation. For now, AQIM is expected to ratchet up its violent tactics, as its extremist members extremists look to capitalise on the possible security vacuum facing Libya. Additionally, the group is thought to pose a threat to the upcoming elections in Morocco, which are scheduled to take place on 25 November 2011.
(Image: Al Arabiya)