Al Qaeda's Pan-Maghreb Gambit

12 MINS READNov 22, 2006 | 00:00 GMT
By Fred Burton Spanish newspaper El Periodico reported Nov. 20 that Algeria's Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) — which recently swore allegiance to al Qaeda — has been instructed to form a unified command with Morocco's Islamic Combatant Group, Libya's Islamic Fighting Group and several Tunisian groups, most notably the Tunisian Combatant Group. The new organization reportedly will be called The Union of the Arab Maghreb. The newspaper cited Spanish anti-terrorism intelligence sources, who said the information regarding the creation of the new unified network was derived from a plan Moroccan police discovered in one of several raids over the summer. The al Qaeda concept of creating a unified group of "Qaedat al-Jihad in the Arab Maghreb Countries" is not new. Moroccan authorities discovered plans for such a union in late 2005, when raids targeting several suspected militants turned up messages sent by leaders in the region to Osama bin Laden. In those messages, leaders reportedly discussed a plan for the GSPC to officially join al Qaeda and then unite jihadists in the Maghreb countries — in many ways conforming to the pattern established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who united jihadists in Jordan and Iraq. Significantly, the GSPC effort would also strive to unite North African militants living in Europe into a cohesive paramilitary entity. El Periodico's report would seem to confirm that plans for the pan-Maghreb merger have proceeded. Other signs of traction came from Ayman al-Zawahiri, who said in a Sept. 11, 2006, message that GSPC had joined forces with al Qaeda in a union he hoped would be "a thorn in the neck of the American and French Crusaders and their allies, and an arrow in the heart of the French traitors and apostates." Al-Zawahiri went on to say, "We ask Allah to help our brothers of the GSPC to hit the foundations of the Crusader alliance, primarily their old leader the infidel United States, praise be on Allah." On Sept. 13, GSPC acknowledged the merger on its Web site with a message from its emir, Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud, who wrote that, "We have full confidence in the faith, the doctrine, the method and the modes of action of [al Qaeda's] members, as well as their leaders and religious guides." The fact that al Qaeda pressed on with plans for a Maghreb merger, despite the arrests of more than 50 suspects in Morocco and the fact that the plan was exposed, indicates that the group (and its new local subsidiaries) has some compelling reasons to do so. As STRATFOR has noted, acting alone, the GSPC has been unable to derail the peace process between the Algerian government and the country's main Islamist movement, Front Islamique du Salut (FIS). Militant groups in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya are also struggling to gain traction in their respective countries. Linking with each other and al Qaeda will provide them with a boost — and will provide al Qaeda an important new geographic base and operational arm.
The Motives for Mergers The plan to unite the disparate militant groups operating in the Maghreb under al Qaeda's banner makes perfect sense from the jihadist perspective. (The name proposed for this new network should not be confused with the Arab Maghreb Union, a pan-Arab trade agreement aiming for economic and political unity in Northern Africa). Since its foundation, al Qaeda has applied the principles of unity and strength in numbers. The declaration by the so-called "World Islamic Front" in 1998 of "jihad against Jews and Crusaders" was signed not only by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri (who represented what was then an independent group, Egyptian Islamic Jihad), but also by representatives of Egypt's Gamaah al-Islamiyah, Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan and the Jihad Movement in Bangladesh. Al Qaeda leaders later forged close ties with groups such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia. Within al Qaeda, there is a culture of inclusion, and — though the existence of strong Saudi and Egyptian cadres has been noted — commanders have been promoted for the most part on the basis of their faith and merit rather than ethnicity or national origin. Commanders from East Asia, Africa and South Asia also have been joined by the likes of Abu Yahya al-Libi and Ahmed Ressam from states in the Maghreb. Indeed, men from the Maghreb states, and Morocco in particular, occupy a considerable (and disproportionate) number of leadership positions in the central al Qaeda organization. Moreover, STRATFOR has received unconfirmed reports that more than 400 North Africans are being trained in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. In announcing the GSPC merger, al-Zawahiri issued a reminder to "all my brothers who act in the service of Islam, who help the Muslims to resist the Zionist-Crusader campaign, and myself, of the need for unity, which is the door to victory. This unity is a religious duty upon the Muslims while confronting their enemies." Al Qaeda's doctrine of unity is rooted not only in theology but in very practical considerations as well. From experiences in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and now in Iraq, the jihadists have learned about the tactical and strategic value of joining forces. Al-Zarqawi was able to transform several smaller jihadist groups in Iraq into a unified, effective insurgent force — not to mention a prodigious media entity. Indeed, many jihadists from the Maghreb have traveled to Iraq to fight. In September 2005, the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that 600 Algerians were fighting as foreign jihadists in Iraq. At the time, this was believed to be 20 percent of the total strength of the foreign insurgents in Iraq — the largest of any single group. Moroccan militant networks have also been instrumental in funneling jihadists from Europe to Iraq. This exposure to the jihad in Iraq and their experience with al-Zarqawi's organization reportedly helped to propel the unification scheme in their home region. By uniting, small organizations are better able to maximize resources — sharing finance and logistics networks and important nodes, such as training camps. It also allows them to use the al Qaeda "brand name" for recruiting and propaganda purposes. Implications of the Merger Moroccan authorities also reportedly received information from their Pakistani counterparts that a key aide to al-Zawahiri recently traveled to Morocco using a Thai passport, masquerading as an Asian antiques merchant. His objective was to coordinate the activities of a number of fundamentalist groups in North Africa — presumably a reference to the merger now being discussed by El Periodico. This information complements reports from STRATFOR sources in the region, who say the leaders of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia feel threatened by an Islamic fundamentalist "tsunami" they believe might strike within the next five years. Because of this threat, Moroccan King Muhammad VI, Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika and Tunisian President Zayn al-Abidin bin Ali reportedly are preparing (quietly) for a joint security summit. Of course, political leaders in the region are not alone in their concerns. The United States recently announced that it wants to add Libya to the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP), a group of nine North and West African countries cooperating with Washington against Islamist militants. There are growing concerns about the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group — and Washington is especially concerned that al Qaeda might be seeking sanctuary in TSCTP territories. Al Qaeda also seems to be gaining influence with Western Saraha's Polisario Movement, many of the leaders of which have let their beards grow in the fundamentalist tradition. They openly call for introducing the rule of the Caliphate in the Arab Maghreb — the goal espoused by the groups now partnering with al Qaeda. Tactically speaking, the Maghreb is not as strategically significant to the United States or other "crusader" powers as the Middle East, but it still features a number of economically important targets, including Western oil companies operating in Algeria and Libya and tourist sites in Tunisia and Morocco. Since the 2003 bombings in Casablanca, there have been few terrorist strikes in the region that bore al Qaeda's imprimatur — though militant activity has been a low constant. The simultaneous truck bomb attacks against two Algerian police stations on Oct. 30 did bear some characteristics of an al Qaeda operation — and perhaps a hint of al Qaeda influence — but there were some stark differences as well. For instance, the attacks occurred at night, rather than at a time when casualties would be high. That said, such tactical differences likely will begin to dissipate as the al Qaeda-Maghreb militant relationship deepens. Ultimately, al Qaeda's previously effective strategies and attack templates likely will become more prominent in the Maghreb. By this, we mean an increase in attacks against oil-related targets (like the uptick seen in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen) and more strikes against soft tourist targets such as restaurants, resorts and hotels (like those seen in Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Kenya). Additionally, the use of suicide bombers — which are not generally part of the GSPC repertoire — is likely to increase. The Moroccans certainly have already incorporated the suicide bomber tactic. The 2003 Casablanca attacks, in which 14 suicide operatives were dispatched, involved the largest number of suicide operatives seen in a single operation other than 9/11. North African militants also will benefit from the training in operational security and tradecraft they can receive from al Qaeda cadre. Those who are traveling to fronts like Iraq already are receiving some of this type of training, but under the new arrangement al Qaeda will be able to dispatch personnel to serve, in a sense, as adjunct professors at camps run by groups such as the GSPC in the region. This means more men from the Maghreb will have access to the training since they will no longer have to travel to Pakistan or Afghanistan to attend al Qaeda camps. This also allows al Qaeda to diversify its training camps and provides continuity in case it loses a camp elsewhere. Strategically, a focus on the Maghreb makes sense for al Qaeda: The region has a long history of militant Islamism and of struggling against colonial and "apostate" rulers. Moreover, there is geographic proximity to Europe, and many North Africans have close ties to Europe and North America via their friends and family residing in large North African communities in places such as Paris, Amsterdam, Milan and Montreal. That makes the region a great springboard not only for operatives looking to carry out strikes in Europe, but also for proselytizers seeking to unify and radicalize the large North African communities in the continent. Those communities can act as either support networks or as camouflage for jihadist operatives. Though the focus of jihadist combat operations is Iraq and Afghanistan, Europe long has served as an important logistical and support base for jihadists. In recent years, however, it has become an operational theater as well — as the 2004 and 2005 attacks in Madrid, Amsterdam and London demonstrated. Italian authorities have thwarted several attacks in the last five years — as has France, which was singled out in al-Zawahiri's 9/11 anniversary message and could be the site of the next al Qaeda-linked attack. However, the Maghreb node faces a completely different operational environment than the chaos of Iraq. The Maghreb countries have central governments and military, law enforcement and intelligence units that have been fighting Islamist insurgents for decades. With the exception of Libya, these countries are also closely tied to Western military and intelligence agencies and have been cooperating with them for some time. The plan to add Libya to the TSCTP is intended to plug that gap. In this hostile environment, operational security and terrorist tradecraft will be vital, as will the node's leadership. Since the organization is based on the model of al Qaeda in Iraq, GSPC will assume the central role in the organization like Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad did in Iraq. Furthermore, al-Wadoud, the emir of the GSPC, will take on the leadership role that was so skillfully played by al-Zarqawi in Iraq. As we have seen from Iraq (and from al Qaeda's organization in Saudi Arabia), the strength of the local leader has a significant impact on the performance of the al Qaeda regional branches. When the leader is strong and organized, the branch is efficient and deadly; when the leader is weak and incapable, the branch either loses its effectiveness or never congeals into an effective force in the first place. In this case, the proof will indeed be in the pudding, as it remains to be seen whether al-Wadoud possesses the leadership skills necessary to mold this new group into a cohesive and effective organization. Should al-Wadoud prove to be a commander of the caliber of al-Zarqawi or Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, a noticeable uptick in the number and quality of attacks in the region can be expected. From there, as seen with al-Zarqawi's organization, the new Maghreb branch could project its power and conduct attacks in neighboring countries — in this case, in Europe.

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