With Zawahiri in Charge, Al-Qaeda Turns to North Africa

On the five-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Al-Qaeda’s then-second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a videotaped announcement revealing the terrorist group’s intentions to spread their mandate throughout North Africa. “Osama bin Laden has told me to announce to Muslims that the GSPC (the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) has joined Al-Qaeda," he said. “We pray to God that they will be a thorn in the side of the American and French crusaders and their allies.”

The GSPC, an Algerian militant group that grew out of the country’s civil war, quickly changed their name to Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the following year, in 2007, unleashed the most violent year in Algeria’s history since the early 1990s. 

Now, with Zawahiri at the helm of Al-Qaeda’s leadership, the cash-strapped group is likely to decentralize its “base” (al-Qaeda is Arabic for “base”) and diffuse its global jihad to headquarters throughout the Arab Maghreb where satellite groups such as AQIM are well positioned to take advantage of the tense revolutionary climate. 

For Al-Qaeda proper, there is great value in changing the game and refocusing on this region of the world. Not only does the pandemonium in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya create a timely opportunity to recruit disaffected youth, the flagging security systems facilitate the dispersion of militants and arms. In Libya, for example, reports suggest that AQIM may be providing aid to members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a jihadist organization devoted to the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. Should Gaddafi fall, some experts warn, southern Libya may become a hotbed of terrorism as AQIM reaches out to its affiliates in Chad, Niger, and Mali.

Additionally, regrouping in North Africa is significant for Al-Qaeda’s long-term strategy against the West. The Arab Maghreb is much closer to Europe than the group’s lairs in Afghanistan and Pakistan, making assaults on countries like Spain and France more realistic. European officials recently expressed concerns over the presence of Al-Qaeda in the Sahel region. In the wake of recent kidnappings and murders of Spanish and French citizens by AQIM, their concerns appear to be well founded.  With the global spotlight directed at this region of the world, groups like AQIM, still unknown to many, are more inclined to broaden their visibility and strengthen their credibility by taking advantage of the international audience.

Such was the case in April 2011, when a remote-controlled suitcase bomb ripped through a café in Jemma el-Fnaa, a popular tourist destination in Marrakech, Morocco. Seventeen people were killed and more than twenty, mostly British and French citizens, were injured. Though AQIM denied involvement in the event, reports suggest that the perpetrators had connections to the group and were devotees of the Al-Qaeda ideology. At the time of the attacks, Morocco had been largely unaffected by violent regional uprisings, though protests in the country had occurred since late February. The blast was the deadliest incident in the western-most Arab state since 2003, when 45 people were killed in a coordinated string of suicide blasts in Casablanca.

Other recent events also indicate the growing presence of Al-Qaeda in the North Africa and Sahel regions. On Saturday, the Mauritania military announced the raid of an AQIM camp in Mali. One day earlier, the Mauritanian government accused AQIM of planting land mines along the Mauritania-Mali border after discovering a string of the deadly booby-traps in Wagadou. Last month in Tunisia, a group of nine armed men, all linked to AQIM, killed four policemen at a military checkpoint. And earlier that month, Tunisian police arrested two prominent members of the militant group for allegedly transporting explosives to Libya.

These recent events seem to have caught the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Last week, she announced her plans to attend a conference on AQIM in Algeria in September. Clinton realizes that in this new political landscape, it is critical to recognize the adaptability and resilience of Al-Qaeda and its reliance on regional groups to take the initiative for carrying out plots against the West. Despite bin Laden’s death, and uncertainties over the future of the jihadist movement under Zawahiri’s leadership, the foundation seems set to grow. North Africa is now on notice.

Photo Credit: Filip Gierlinski

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Nathan Lean

Nathan Lean is the Research Director at Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. His three books include, most recently, The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims (Pluto 2012). Nathan's writing has been featured in the New York Daily News, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Salon, The New Republic, and others. His newest book, The Changing Middle East, will be released by Rowman and Littlefield in 2015.

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