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Sep 28, 2012 | 10:04 GMT

Al Qaeda's Possible Ties to the Benghazi Attack

THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on Sept. 27 blamed terrorists for the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Panetta said it is unclear whether al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda's North African franchise, is the jihadist group responsible. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had tied AQIM to the attack one day earlier. Clinton later echoed calls by French President Francois Hollande for the U.N. Security Council to back West African-led military assistance in northern Mali, where the jihadist group has long been active.

There is no precedent for AQIM operations in Libya, but the group does have historical ties to Libyan jihadists. Moreover, Libyan President Mohamed Magarief said Sept. 16 that several Malians and Algerians with links to AQIM were among the 50 men arrested recently on suspicion of involvement in the Benghazi attack. Overall, several factors, including constraints faced by the group in its native Algeria and the vacuum of authority in eastern Libya, make AQIM links — as well as the broader dynamic of militant Islamism in North Africa — worth exploring.

The origins of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb extend back to Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which itself was an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group, a jihadist organization active during the Algerian civil war in the late 1990s. In 2006, the Salafists formally aligned with the al Qaeda network, joining elements of other North African jihadist groups such as the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, the Tunisian Combatant Group and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which largely consisted of militants who had returned from fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.

AQIM Activity in North Africa

Today, the al Qaeda node comprises primarily two elements: a core group in Algeria's northeast Kabylie region and a diffuse network of factions extending south across North Africa's Sahara-Sahel area. The AQIM core has been engaged in a low-level insurgency (with a brief uptick in summer 2011) against the Algerian government. The group has primarily targeted military convoys with roadside improvised explosive devices and armed assaults. The group was strongest in 2007 and 2008, when it conducted multiple suicide attacks against hardened targets in Algiers using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. Subsequent counterterrorism efforts by the Algerian government drove the group back to the northeast in 2009. They have since been fighting mainly from a defensive posture.

AQIM's southern network has made use of existing networks for funneling drugs, weapons and humans across the Sahara-Sahel to provide the AQIM core with revenue and weapons. The southern elements have also increasingly been sharing arms and funds with local militant groups in the Azawad, a region in northern Mali. One such group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, displays several AQIM-like characteristics. It has kidnapped Algerian diplomats and struck an Algerian gendarmerie border outpost with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. AQIM's southern network is highly active, but it is also divided by internal rivalries between commanders and units.

Links to Libya

These groups primarily operate far from population centers along the Algerian and Libyan coasts, but an AQIM member could nevertheless communicate with militants in eastern Libya or even conduct operations in the region. In addition to Algeria's ongoing crackdown on AQIM, Niger and Mauritania have fortified the security measures on their borders to keep jihadists out. The area in which the organization can freely maneuver has been increasingly constrained as a result. The group is under steady surveillance and faces constant threats of special operations attacks in northern Mali.

In contrast, the lack of security in eastern Libya, combined with AQIM's historical ties to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the accessibility of heavy weapons in the region, may have encouraged some members of the al Qaeda franchise to venture east. Given the country's history, the possibility of a jihadist threat emerging in eastern Libya was evident long before the recent series of attacks began. Several of the recent attacks, including the assault on the U.S. Consulate, were relatively sophisticated and well-planned, indicating the involvement of well-trained militants such as former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group members. None of the recent attacks in eastern Libya employed high-end explosives or were destructive on a large scale, but they nonetheless accomplished some of the psychological objectives of terrorism.

Broader Jihadist Environment

Information about the level of AQIM involvement in eastern Libya will remain vague and clouded by speculation. But regardless of which group — or which group's former members — conducted the Benghazi attack, the incident reflected the broader current nature of the jihadist threat in North Africa.

While many militants in Libya are well-trained former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, the various militias and jihadist groups active in the country today are merely remnants of their more robust predecessors. Algeria features a similar dynamic. For example, the U.S. Consulate assault was at least partly pre-planned, demonstrating that militant groups are capable of designing and executing operations. But the attack did not involve the more deadly weapons, such as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, that were common a decade ago. Jihadist groups in North Africa still pose a real threat, and the potential use of shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles is particularly alarming, but it is telling that the groups do not appear to be advancing in capability or sophistication.

Moreover, the security vacuum created by the fall of former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi spawned the threats posed by AQIM in both eastern Libya and Mali, where militants returned en masse from Libya after the war. Insecurity would follow the fall of any such government. But in the broader context of the Arab Spring, al Qaeda-inspired jihadism — which sought the overthrow of the region's authoritarian regimes — has become much less relevant among local populations. So while Islamist militancy in North Africa may continue in disparate forms for some time, it is unlikely to receive the popular support needed to proliferate over the long term.

Moreover, jihadism in North Africa has not demonstrated the ability to overcome significant obstacles. Consider the amount of coordination, resources and ideological traction required to plan an attack on the scale of 9/11 or to successfully assail a secure facility with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device. By comparison, jihadists in Benghazi have largely been conducting low-visibility attacks that exploit favorable but temporary conditions: lack of regional security, the wide proliferation of weapons, and in the case of the attack on the U.S. Consulate, an anti-American protest to use as cover. Terrorist tradecraft also requires more than military proficiency. Launching, say, a mortar attack with equipment stolen from an arms cache during Libya's civil war demonstrates few of the skills needed to conduct a large-scale attack in Manhattan.

Altogether, these conditions will make it possible for the Libyan government, along with regional partners and the United States, to take forceful measures to deter future attacks by groups such as AQIM — or at least limit their effectiveness. And in the absence of a strong militant power in North Africa, U.S. coordination with Libya could slowly reshape the regional dynamic in the two countries' favor.

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