Africa's New Bully: What Al Qaeda Movements Mean for Africa's Security

By Zhao, Jeffrey | Harvard International Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Africa's New Bully: What Al Qaeda Movements Mean for Africa's Security


Zhao, Jeffrey, Harvard International Review


Timbuktu is often referred to as "The City of 333 Saints," a moniker deserved for a city where historical households can be found on almost every street and which is home to over 100,000 ancient manuscripts. In the last decade, however, much of that history has been destroyed. Historical shrines and mausoleums have been under the attack by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a local branch of the larger Al Qaeda terrorist organization. The attacks on Timbuktu appear to be only the tip of the iceberg for this rapidly growing organization. While the United States has committed over a trillion dollars to fighting Al Qaeda in the Middle East, its oft-neglected younger brother, AQLM, has been gaining power.

AQIM, a Mali-based terrorist organization, was first formed in the 1990s after members of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) separated from the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) due to opposition to practices like beheading. However, after the GSPC began to suffer structural problems like a lack of recruits and the alienation of the Algerian populace, the group decided to ally with Al Qaeda in 2003. in order to improve its recruitment, relevance, and financing. In the last decade, the organization has been rapidly gaining power, especially in North Africa. AQIM currently has bases in Algeria along the Mediterranean coast, as well as in Niger, Mauritania, and Mali. In 2010, AQLM began expanding its reach to the Sahara and Sahel and is currently a predominately Sahel and Saharan organization, operating mainly out of Niger, Mauritania, and Mali, with less activity along the Mediterranean coast. Alliances with groups like Ansar Dine, an Islamist militant group based in Mali that helped Tuareg rebels launch a rebellion in early 2012 against the Malian government, have also helped shift the centrality of power of die organization towards the Sahara and Sahel. As the fastest growing faction of Al Qaeda, the question is whether the expansion of AQIM into the Sahara and Western Africa is a legitimate threat to both the people of those regions and the stability of local governments. The newly formed alliances of the organization, compounded with its rapidly growing regional stronghold, are cause to wonder whether AQIM is going to start establishing itself as a legitimate long-term threat in the region.

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The reasoning behind the geographical movements of the organization is instructive for identifying and understanding which regions of Africa will be potential targets for AQIM and whether terrorist activities in those regions will escalate. The most likely theory behind why these geographical shifts occurred relates to the military power of various governments in the region: Algeria's military is relatively strong compared to the militaries of Saharan and Sahel governments like Mali, Niger, and Mauritania. The military budgets of those countries are only a fraction of Algeria's, creating a power vacuum in the region. This arrangement makes it much more beneficial for AQIM to shift its operations away from Northern African areas like Algeria and towards the Sahel. This geographical shift in focus is evidenced by the group's activities in recent years, including the kidnappings of various Western citizens in the Sahel and other lower level activities in the region. These new focuses of the organization stand in harsh contrast with previous activities that often included large-scale bombings of Algerian cities. This military vacuum also creates an economic incentive for AQIM to change bases, since although these lower-level activities, like kidnapping, might leave the organization with less political clout, they do bring in substantial financial resources through ransom payments. An article published by the Jamestown Foundation indicates that due to "ineffective control of the states," there exist a large number of illicit business opportunities, and targeted kidnappings of Westerners in the region are much easier to execute. …

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