The Islamic State's ideology is gaining traction across North Africa, and the group's growing popularity has put al Qaeda on the defensive. Needing to present a united front, the leaders of the al Qaeda core have pressed the group's various branches and affiliates to put aside their differences and join forces against their common enemy.
In December 2015, al-Mourabitoun — a breakaway faction of AQIM led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar — did just that by rejoining the North African branch. The reunion has had a noticeable impact on both the tempo and selected targets of terrorist activity in West Africa ever since. In January, AQIM laid siege to the Hotel Splendid in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, leaving 30 people dead. Two months later, the group claimed responsibility for an attack on the Grand Bassam beach resort near Ivory Coast's economic hub, Abidjan, that killed 16. The assaults were the first of their kind in both countries.
The groups' cooperation reflects a key strength of al Qaeda's broader franchise structure: flexibility. The ability of various al Qaeda nodes to work with one another or on their own gives the group two major advantages over its enemies. First, it enables better funded and more dynamic groups such as Belmokhtar's al-Mourabitoun to conduct fundraising operations or attacks throughout the region without interfering with the territory of other AQIM cells. Second, it gives AQIM the ability to leverage small, local militant groups with narrow agendas for its own purposes. For example, the Macina Liberation Front, a group with distinctly provincial interests, participated in AQIM's November 2015 assault against the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali. Funneling weapons, training and money to small groups has given AQIM greater knowledge of and control over certain areas of Northern Africa.
Regaining Prestige With Limited Resources
AQIM will need these advantages if it is to rebuild its presence in the region. France's Operation Serval, launched in 2013 to halt an al Qaeda-led advance southward toward Bamako, was hailed largely as a success. Though it did not completely eradicate Islamist militancy from the Sahel, it did move AQIM even further from its goal of overthrowing North Africa's "apostate" governments and establishing an Islamic emirate in their place.
For now, the group has turned its attention to rebuilding its capabilities to wage a long-term insurgency. However, this will not be an easy task. Historically, AQIM has relied heavily on kidnapping foreigners and holding them for ransom to fill its coffers. But in recent years, the number of Westerners traveling to the Sahel region has dramatically dropped off, cutting into the group's profits. Moreover, Morocco and Algeria — two longtime targets of AQIM operations — are tightening security, making it far more difficult for the jihadists to launch attacks there.
AQIM, along with other al Qaeda franchises, is also being forced to shore up support in the face of expanding Islamic State influence throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Along with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Afghanistan's Taliban, Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra and Somalia's al Shabaab, AQIM is part of the al Qaeda arc that spans from West Africa to the Himalayas. Each of these al Qaeda units is attempting to carve out a bigger constituency by winning the hearts and minds of the people in its territory and by adapting its tactics to ever-changing conditions. By comparison, the Islamic State continues to conquer using whatever means necessary, including the subjugation of local populations.
With AQIM's local and regional goals in mind, the group's recent high-profile, low-cost attacks serve two purposes. For one, they undercut regional security while making local governments appear incapable of protecting their people. However, they also attract international attention to al Qaeda, reminding like-minded jihadists — and the world — that the Islamic State is not the only powerful contender for leadership of the global jihadist movement. As AQIM finds itself squeezed by local security forces and jihadist rivals in its traditional areas of operation, it will likely try to continue attacking vulnerable Western targets by gradually spreading south into countries with fewer security measures in place, including Mali, Niger, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Senegal. However, the region’s biggest hotels will quickly react by increasing their own security, forcing AQIM and its associates to shift their attention to smaller hotels, cafes and restaurants frequented by Westerners.