The United States faces an important strategic question in northwest Africa: what level of activity by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) would constitute a sufficient threat to U.S. national security interests to warrant a more aggressive political, intelligence, military, and law enforcement response? AQIM already poses the greatest immediate threat of transnational terrorism in the region, and its operational range and sophistication continue to expand. (1) Since 2007, the group has professed its loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's senior leadership and claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks in the subregion. These attacks have included the use of suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, kidnapping operations, and assassinations.
AQIM's targets include African civilians, government officials, and security services; United Nations (UN) diplomats and Western embassies; and tourists, aid workers, and private sector contractors. As a result, combating AQIM is the focus of substantial foreign security assistance provided by Western countries, including the United States and France, to their partner nations in the Maghreb and Sahel. In 2005, the United States created the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) to coordinate activities by the Department of State, Department of Defense (DOD), and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat terrorism in the region. (2) Now including 10 African countries, (3) TSCTP operates with a combined annual interagency budget of approximately $120 million. (4)
However, the extent of the threat posed by AQIM and the appropriate U.S. response remain hotly debated in both academic and policy circles. These debates question the seriousness of the threat posed by a relatively small group of hundreds of militants operating in mountainous and arid areas of Africa, their level of ideological commitment versus their criminal and financial motivations, and even the potential complicity of regional security services in supporting AQIM. (5) The United States needs to understand the nature of the threat that AQIM poses today as well as current trends highlighting the future capabilities and intentions of the group. Only with these assessments in place can U.S. policymakers make appropriate decisions on questions about counterterrorism in northwest Africa that are hotly but inconclusively debated.
Overview of AQIM
Emanating from Algeria's decade-long conflict with Islamists in the 1990s, AQIM is the only significant militia force remaining from that struggle. Led by Abdulmalik Drukdal, it was created when the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) pledged allegiance to al Qaeda's senior leadership in January 2007. (6) While the GSPC was seen as a national insurgency on the verge of collapse because of continued Algerian security operations, AQIM quickly proved that it was not a spent force. In December 2007, the group conducted simultaneous bombings in Algiers of the UN office complex and the Constitutional Court--a symbol of AQIM's new dual agenda of attacking both Algerian national and global jihadi targets.
AQIM aspires to become a transnational movement across the Maghreb and Sahel areas, encompassing the militants and communities that were loyal to earlier generations of Islamist militant groups in the region, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, Tunisian Islamic Front (TIF), Mauritanian Group for Preaching and Jihad (GMPJ), and others. These groups were effectively suppressed by North African governments, but the drivers of extremism in the region, including poverty, political marginalization, and social alienation, have never been fully addressed. (7)
Based in the mountains of Boumerdes in Algeria's Tizi Ouzou region, (8) AQIM is a highly structured organization. Despite significant Algerian military pressure, the group coordinates its activities through a centralized shura council, including emirs responsible for matters related to military affairs, religious propagation, finance, and communications/ propaganda. …