North Africa’s Menace

AQIM's Evolution and the U.S. Policy Response

by Christopher S. Chivvis, Andrew Liepman

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Research Questions

  1. What are the regional and global threats from the terrorist organization Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb?

Abstract

Since the 9/11 attacks, America's understanding of Al Qaeda has evolved along with the organization itself. In recent years attention to Al Qaeda's so called "affiliates" in Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and most recently Syria has overtaken concern about Al Qaeda's core in Pakistan. The North African terrorist organization Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is one such affiliate. Many Americans first became familiar with AQIM when media reports linked it loosely to the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya on 9/11/12 that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. The horrific hostage crisis at an Algerian gas facility in January 2013, which was far more closely linked to the group, further increased concern about the threat it posed and played into anxieties about what many viewed as a resurgent Al Qaeda threat. This assessment of the threat from AQIM is based on an analysis of available open-source documentation. The authors find that although AQIM is a serious regional problem, its similarity to the Al Qaeda of Osama Bin Laden should not be exaggerated, as AQIM does not currently seem bent on global jihad. In most situations, the wisest policy responses to the AQIM threat will focus on supporting local actors and U.S. allies in Europe.

Key Findings

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is an amorphous, resilient, and adaptive terrorist organization that has shown extraordinary staying power in the face of counterterrorism operations.

  • It will continue to be a lethal regional menace and force multiplier, contributing money, weapons, expertise, and manpower to extremist groups in North Africa.
  • U.S. citizens and interests in the region will remain potential targets for the fragmented, diverse, and lethal militant groups in North Africa, including AQIM.
  • Further attacks by AQIM in the region are very likely.

AQIM is focused almost entirely on Algeria and neighboring countries.

  • The recent spread of AQIM into the Sahel and its 2013 attack on a gas facility in southern Algeria demonstrate North Africa's vulnerability to militancy, but these attacks are not necessarily evidence of a resurgent global Al Qaeda threat.
  • Despite its rhetoric, AQIM has not recently shown much interest in attacking targets outside the region.
  • Its track record suggests a focus on Algeria and the Sahel rather than on the late Osama Bin Laden's "far enemy" — the West in general and the United States in particular.
  • AQIM's aggressive efforts to turn a profit by kidnapping, smuggling, and other criminal activities set it apart from other Al Qaeda affiliates.

Feuding within AQIM's leadership appears to have permanently fragmented the group into at least two distinct factions.

  • Abdelmalek Droukdal leads the remnants of the original group from the Kabylie Mountains of northern Algeria, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the chief of a breakaway faction in the south.
  • While the rift diminishes AQIM's overall strength, the organization's growing regional breadth presents an ongoing counterterrorism challenge.

Recommendations

  • The United States should not be the tip of the spear in efforts against AQIM, except in cases involving a direct and imminent threat to the U.S. homeland. Any U.S. use of armed drones against AQIM should be governed by the same principle.
  • U.S. military capabilities developed to combat core Al Qaeda will need to be adapted to AQIM's African context. Supporting the efforts of allies such as France will be very important.
  • Direct military action should be only one component of a broader U.S. policy mix that features heavy doses of economic assistance, investments in partner capacity, and support for allied operations. U.S. military resources should focus on enabling U.S. allies and partners to contain and diminish the AQIM threat.

This research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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