AQIM: The Devolution of al Qaeda's North African Node
33 MINS READAug 10, 2010 | 12:21 GMT
In April, militants with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped a 78-year-old French citizen in Mali. Three months later, after supporting a Mauritanian military offensive against AQIM and later learning the hostage had been killed, the French government declared war on the group. AQIM has reached violently into the Sahara-Sahel region, but more recent developments point to the group's steady devolution since its founding in 2006. Four years hence, we thought it time to assess the current state of al Qaeda's North African node, which has been forced to strike softer targets closer to its Algerian base while its sub-commanders to the south grow competitive and autonomous.
On July 27, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that France was at war with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the al Qaeda node in North Africa. This followed a live televised broadcast the day before by French President Nicolas Sarkozy confirming that a 78-year-old French hostage captured by AQIM operatives in April in Mali had been killed by his captors. Urging French citizens to avoid travel to the Sahara-Sahel region, Sarkozy condemned the act and vowed a determined effort against the group. Fillon's announcement came three days after the end of a four-day French-backed offensive by Mauritanian troops against AQIM militants suspected of holding the French hostage deep into the Malian portion of the Sahara. Despite the loss of the hostage, the offensive represented a largely unprecedented escalation of military operations by European and African security forces against militant Islamists in North Africa and the Sahara-Sahel region, where AQIM remains a threat to security. Indeed, the events of July follow similar incidents and messages earlier in the year from French and U.S. officials warning citizens to exercise extreme caution when traveling near the Burkina Faso, Mauritanian and the Mali-Niger borders. These events also represent a steady devolution of AQIM's operational capacity and overall strength. According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center's Worldwide Incidence Tracking System and open-source material, the frequency and lethality of AQIM attacks in Algeria have fallen to unprecedented lows since the group's founding in 2006. Indeed, because of increased security efforts against the group by Algerian and regional authorities, AQIM has been forced to strike softer, more vulnerable targets near its base east of Algiers in Bordj Bou Arreridj province and the so-called "triangle of death," a mountainous area between Bouira, Boumerdes and Tizi Ouzou Kabylie. Moreover, while AQIM has widened its range far from its Algerian stronghold to countries of the Sahara-Sahel region, its far-reaching attacks are more indicative of the growing autonomy and competitiveness of AQIM sub-commanders in its southern zone of operations and an overall lack of centralized control. These attacks also show that the al Qaeda node is fairly pervasive throughout North Africa and that its parent organizations have long had a presence in the lawless Sahara-Sahel.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Tanzim al-Qa'ida fi bilad al-Maghreb al-Islami) represents only the latest manifestation of Islamist opposition and violence in Algeria. The group traces its roots back to the late 1990s and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, also known as the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC). Primarily a Salafi-jihadi Islamist group, GSPC emerged in 1998 after it split from the Armed Islamic Group, or Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA), because of the latter's brutal attacks against Algerian civilians during the country's civil war. Headed by former Algerian paratrooper and GIA regional commander Hassan Hattab, the GSPC offered disaffected GIA militants a fresh start in their struggle against the Algerian government. Hattab's leadership was short-lived, however. An ardent religious nationalist, Hattab began to dispute GSPC's slide toward the transnational jihadist agenda espoused by al Qaeda after 2001. Feeling the pressure, Hattab eventually "resigned" (though he was actually forced out) as leader in 2001 and was replaced by former GIA commander Nabil Sahraoui (aka Sheikh Abu Ibrahim Mustafa). In 2003, Sahraoui issued a statement to online jihadist forums expressing his group's intention to join al Qaeda and "Osama bin Laden's jihad against the heretic America." He was killed the following year by Algerian security forces and replaced by the current head of AQIM, Abdelmalek Droukdel (aka Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud), a seasoned Islamist militant and explosives expert. The formation of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was officially announced on Sept. 11, 2006, by al Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in an online video posted to jihadist websites via al Qaeda's As-Sahab media wing. This "blessed union," as Zawahiri put it, vowed to "be a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders and their allies." The announcement was followed by a statement made three days later by then-GSPC head al-Wadoud pledging allegiance to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and to "the faith, the doctrine, the method and the modes of action of [al Qaeda's] members, as well as their leaders and religious guides." While 2006 marked the formal merger between the two groups, al Qaeda and its nodes had been corresponding and negotiating with AQIM's parent organization for at least a few years before. In a New York Times interview published in July 2008, al-Wadoud cited religious motivation as the primary reason for GSPC's merger with al Qaeda. However, there is speculation among Western and North African intelligence analysts that the formation was less ideological and more opportunistic. Indeed, GSPC was reeling from a long-running offensive spearheaded by the Algerian government that had almost annihilated the group and forced it to retreat to its traditional stronghold in the mountainous Kabylie region in eastern Algeria. To make matters worse, the government's 1999 amnesty agreement with the militants convinced a number of GIA and GSPC members to lay down their arms (it is noteworthy that AQIM has since used the amnesty to its advantage, recruiting a number of former militants into its ranks). Desperate to survive, so the theory goes, the group turned to al Qaeda, facilitated by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka Khaled Abou el-Abbas, or Laaouar, the "one-eyed") and top members of the core group, to help it raise money, recruit fighters and enhance its status among Islamist militants both domestically and internationally. (click here to enlarge image) GSPC's merger with al Qaeda was certainly not without its difficulties. Indeed, a number of former high-ranking GSPC members turned their backs on AQIM, renouncing violence and pledging their support to the Algerian government against the newly refashioned ideology of the group. For instance, a former senior member of AQIM, Benmessaoud Abdelkader (aka Abu Daoud), who defected in July 2007, told journalists that the organization was riven by heated arguments over al-Wadoud's and GSPC's decision to join al Qaeda. The dispute was based on the fact that the merger effectively transformed the group's ideological platform from primarily domestic to primarily transnational, extending the group's target and operational ambit to include foreigners and unarmed civilians. The shift to a transnational jihadist ideology, however, was never entirely completed. Rhetorical and tactical elements of GIA and GSPC have endured to date, demonstrated by the fact that the North African al Qaeda node continues to strike a number of targets favored by its predecessors. Indeed, as time showed, AQIM's ideological platform and target set came to represent a synthesis between a focus on the "near enemy," when an militant group directs its violence against symbols and representatives of oppressive Muslim regimes (police stations, ministries, etc.), and the "far enemy," a more global jihadist focus on a military confrontation with the United States and its allies to exact revenge for the past oppression of Muslims and to prevent future oppression. The focus on the far enemy led to a deep split in the organization, which has led to a decrease in the AQIM's overall size and logistical capabilities; according to Abdelkader, dozens of fighters deserted after becoming disillusioned with the group's ideological shift.
Shifts in Strategies and Tactics
2006 For any militant group, target selection and the way it carries out its attacks reflect the group's ideology, operational capability and overall strategy. Accordingly, in late October 2006, the newly formed Algerian al Qaeda node was quick to demonstrate its commitment to strike both the near and far enemy. Over a period of 10 days, AQIM carried out at least four coordinated attacks involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against Algerian security and foreign oil companies in and around Algiers. On Oct. 19, 2006, it conducted two IED attacks, one against a police station in El Harrach, an eastern suburb of Algiers, the other against a fuel-storage site belonging to the French company Razel in Lakhdaria. On Oct. 30, the group conducted near-simultaneous vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks against two Algerian police stations in Reghaia and Dergana. In total, from September to December 2006, AQIM carried out 19 attacks in Algeria — seven involving the use of IEDs — that resulted in 39 deaths and 51 injuries to civilian and military personnel. (Measuring lethality by the number of killed and injured per strike, the group managed to kill an average of just over two people and injure roughly four people per attack.) The group also managed to carry out an assault from its stronghold outside Algeria when its operatives killed nine civilians in an armed attack in Araouane, Tombouctou, Mali, in October 2006. It soon became apparent that al-Wadoud was successfully blending GSPC's traditional guerrilla-style ambush tactics that it had used for years in northeastern Algeria — representing a balanced use of firearms and explosives — with more sensational, al Qaeda-style bombings in urban areas. Indeed, a number of these AQIM attacks went well beyond the relatively more moderate tactics employed by its predecessor. 2007 In July 2007, AQIM released an online statement to the jihadist forums claiming that it had successfully restructured and reformed the militant Islamist resistance in Algeria and that this would lead to the targeting of foreigners and the use of suicide bombers. Proof of the shift came in April, when the group dispatched suicide bombers to deploy two VBIEDs against the prime minister's office and a police headquarters in Algiers, the first known suicide attacks in Algeria associated with AQIM (there had been one such attack by GIA in January 1995 against a police headquarters in downtown Algiers that killed more than 40 people). A VBIED attack against the coast guard barracks in Delly, Boumerdes, east of Algiers, in September was also particularly bloody, with 27 sailors and three civilians killed and approximately 60 people injured. The surge in attacks continued well into the year, with a spectacular strike against Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's convoy in the eastern town of Batna in September and two simultaneous suicide bombings against the Constitutional Court and the U.N. offices in Algiers in December. In its campaign to target the far enemy, the newly formed AQIM also began striking foreign energy installations in Algeria in line with al Qaeda's tactic of "economic jihad." However, despite the expanding target set, AQIM was unable to carry out any significant or truly disruptive attacks against the Algerian energy sector. This was likely because the group, even though it had the intention, lacked the operational strength to hit key targets in the energy sector, most of which are located far into the southern desert and are well-guarded. In all, there were 33 documented AQIM-related attacks inside Algeria in 2007, 14 (42 percent) of which were conducted using at least an IED and three using a VBIED (some studies put the VBIED figure as high as eight). Combined, they indicate that the use of explosives in AQIM attacks in 2007 went up by more than 50 percent, while the use of firearms dropped considerably. This likely contributed to the alarmingly high casualty rates — 88 killed and 208 injured — for total assaults during the year both inside and outside Algeria. In terms of the lethality of the attacks, this translates to roughly 2.5 people killed and six people injured per attack. Outside the group's Algerian base, AQIM also managed to carry out two armed assaults in Mauritania in December that resulted in seven deaths and one injury. This contributed to the decision by the governing body of the Dakar Rally to cancel the annual off-road car race in 2008. The frequency and lethality of AQIM attacks in 2007 eventually forced the Algerian government's hand. In mid-2007, security forces launched a massive operation against the group that resulted in significant losses of AQIM operatives and materiel. According to the U.S. State Department, the Algerian government killed or captured approximately 1,100 Islamist militants — nearly double the figure for 2006 — during the operation.
Operations in the Maghreb
AQIM also began plotting and carrying out attacks in countries contiguous to Algeria as well as in more distant parts of the Maghreb, an Arabic word meaning "place of sunset" or "the west" that collectively refers to an area encompassing Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and the disputed territory of the Western Sahara. Operating from its base in the mountainous area east of Algiers, AQIM worked to extend its range across the Maghreb by establishing and loosely orchestrating cells to carry out attacks across North Africa. This effort included establishing cells and attempting attacks in Morocco and planting cells in Tunisia, which kidnapped Westerners and attempted strikes against the U.K. and U.S. embassies and other tourist sites in December 2006 and January 2007 known as the "Soilman" plot. These attempts were not surprising, since militant Islamist cells and groups were already present in a number of these North African countries. Groups such as the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and a number of similar organizations in Tunisia such as the Tunisian Combatant Group were all likely viewed as potential recruits in AQIM's attempt to widen its operational scope. However, despite the fact that AQIM had ample opportunity to organize affiliate cells, recruit fighters and conduct attacks in these North African countries, its attempts were, for the most part, foiled by authorities in the planning phase. 2008 The year 2008 marked the most lethally successful 12 months for AQIM since its founding. Demonstrating that it was a force to be reckoned with, the group carried out six suicide bombings against police and military targets over an eight-month period, from January to August, including a deadly train bombing in June. August turned out to be a particularly aggressive month for the group. AQIM launched 12 attacks across the country, including four suicide VBIED bombings that killed 80 people and injured many more. The VBIED attack against a police training academy in Issers alone killed 43. However, it is important to note that most of the targets struck were softer than the hardened targets the group managed to strike in Algiers in 2007, such as the prime minister's office, the Constitutional Court and the U.N. offices. This trend toward hitting softer targets and killing more people was a tactical innovation we also observed being employed by jihadist groups elsewhere. Though the overall number of attacks was down by approximately 30 percent from the previous year, the lethality (i.e., the number of dead and wounded per attack) was up almost 100 percent. This is best explained by AQIM's shift in assault tactics, which saw a 20 percent increase in the use of IEDs, including seven suicide VBIEDs in strikes across Algeria, more than double the year before. Indeed, some sort of explosive was used in almost three-quarters of all AQIM attacks in 2008, further indicating AQIM's gradual shift away from armed assaults and toward the use of IEDs. All told, the marked increase in the use of IED and VBIED suicide bombings in 2008 likely accounts for the increase in the lethality of AQIM attacks, which produced an average of more than five deaths and 10 injuries per strike over the course of the year. Moreover, the group's target set witnessed a remarkable shift from the pre-2006 days of the GSPC. According to West Point's Combating Terrorism Center, prior to GSPC's merger with al Qaeda, 88 percent of all successful attacks were conducted against Algerian national targets. After the merger this reversed, with the group's successful attacks staged 88 percent of the time against international targets, rather than national ones. The new surge in violence forced the Algerian government again to increase pressure on the group. The army launched a massive military operation against AQIM in September 2008, deploying 15,000 troops to the eastern regions of Batna, Jijel and Skikda. As part of this aggressive counterterrorism campaign, Algerian security forces began employing air power, using helicopters with infrared equipment for reconnaissance and attacks. In 2008, the emphasis on suicide bombers using IEDs and VBIEDs against softer, civilian targets was a relatively new phenomenon in Algeria and the larger Maghreb. Its emergence is likely attributable to two factors. First, al-Wadoud's decision to take on the al Qaeda label and worldview likely influenced the veteran Algerian militant to employ methods of attack consistent with those carried out by al Qaeda and its affiliates. According to a U.S. State Department report in 2007, after the merger it became apparent that militants in Algeria "had shifted to assault tactics meant to emulate the success of suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan." Second, according to American and European security officials, Algeria fell victim to the "blowback" phenomenon, whereby seasoned militants returning from a jihadist theater — in this case Iraq — joined up with the local Islamist militants, using their newly acquired battlefield skills, in some cases, to serve as significant force multipliers in their home countries. According to a September 2005 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Algerians were the single largest group of foreign fighters in Iraq, making up 20 percent of total strength. Moreover, it is quite possible that Islamist militants in Algeria were increasingly successful in urging fellow militants (and potential suicide operatives) to stay home and carry out operations on Algerian soil. Both likely account for the surge of VBIED suicide attacks in 2008. AQIM's increasing use of suicide operatives and large-scale IED/VBIED attacks in 2008 exacerbated the schism over targeting and tactics inside the group. Despite receiving praise for the more sensational attacks from high-profile al Qaeda members such as Libyan native Abu Yahya al-Libi, al-Wadoud and AQIM largely failed to generate local support for their violent campaign. Based on Algeria's history of Islamist violence that had resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, AQIM's even more indiscriminate campaign of violence turned popular sentiment against the group. Even a number of hardened former Islamist militants joined the Algerian government in asking AQIM fighters to lay down their arms, including Hassan Hattab, Benmessaoud Abdelkader, Touati Ousman (aka Abu al Abbas) and Mustapha Kertali. The year 2008 also saw a noteworthy uptick of AQIM's operations in the Sahara-Sahel, a region which includes parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Over a 12-month period beginning in December 2007, the North African al Qaeda node staged at least eight attacks in the northern reaches of Niger, Mali and Mauritania. While these certainly were not the first instances of activity by the al Qaeda node in the region, they represented an unprecedented increase. The presence of AQIM militants in these less-populated regions is not surprising, since the loosely patrolled borders and sparsely populated states of the Sahara-Sahel provide criminal gangs and militant groups like AQIM freedom to operate and grow relatively unchecked. GSPC took advantage of this with an active branch in the Sahara, which its current manifestation has built on, developing new ties with area smuggling rings. Thanks to the connections of its predecessor, AQIM cooperates with the Tuareg tribes in Niger and Mali, with the latter abducting foreigners and trading or selling them to AQIM, which holds them for ransom or uses them as bargaining chips in negotiating the release of AQIM operatives. There have been rumors that AQIM is trying to link up with militant groups in Nigeria like Boko Haram, also known as the Nigerian "Taliban," though this is unlikely given the differences in the group's objectives. To fortify their operations in the Sahara-Sahel, AQIM has reportedly constructed bunkers in mountainous areas in Mali and Niger and established additional bases in the desert region near the borders of Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. From 2008 to 2009, AQIM focused particularly on Mauritania as a staging ground to demonstrate its intent and capability to carry out high-profile attacks against international targets. In February 2008, for instance, unknown gunmen attacked the Israeli Embassy in the capital city of Nouakchott, causing no casualties to embassy personnel. The following August, al-Wadoud issued what turned out to be an empty call to arms in response to a coup in Mauritania a week before. In June 2009, an American teacher was murdered in the capital city in what was likely a botched kidnapping attempt. That August, a suicide bomber also struck the French embassy in Nouakchott, slightly damaging the outside wall of the compound and injuring two embassy security personnel. The comparatively higher incidence of AQIM-style attacks in Mauritania is due to a couple of factors. First, the country, similar to most in the Sahara-Sahel, offers a vast geography of some 400,000 square miles, combined with a small population of about 3 million people. This makes it difficult for the central government to control the countryside, giving AQIM and criminal gangs ample room to maneuver. The second factor is the local AQIM leadership. According to security officials, the decision to carry out attacks in Mauritania fell largely on the shoulders of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a 19-year jihad veteran, dubbed "uncatchable" by French intelligence. He and his 100- to 150-man el Moulathamoune ("masked") brigade of Islamists are thought to have been responsible for attacks in Nouakchott as well as outside the capital city, including a raid on a Mauritanian military outpost in 2005 and the murder of four French tourists near Aleg in December 2007. While evidence suggests that Belmokhtar is indeed behind these attacks, it is unclear why he has chosen to focus on Mauritania. It is equally unclear if he carried out these attacks under the direction of top AQIM leader al-Wadoud or whether he was acting more or less on his own. Before the most recent spate of attacks in Mauritania — which it should be noted were nowhere near as sophisticated as the attacks against hard targets in Algiers, mostly armed assaults and far fewer IEDs — al-Wadoud acknowledged in his 2008 New York Times interview that AQIM and militant operations in the region could be best described as a growing network of militants only partially controlled by his far-flung deputies. On top of the strikes in Mauritania, the uptick of violent AQIM attacks and kidnappings in the Sahara-Sahel region in 2008-2009 led to speculation that the group was surging in operational strength. However, the real reason behind the uptick was what security officials are referring to as a "vicious rivalry" between two AQIM sub-commanders, Belmokhtar and Hamid Essouffi (aka Abdelhamid Abu Zayd). This rivalry also extends to one between Belmokhtar and al-Wadoud, with the former going so far as to openly criticize the latter's leadership of AQIM and GSPC in an April 2009 an interview with the newspaper Liberte in Algiers. Belmokhtar and his "masked" Islamist fighters constitute one of four similar yet competitive Islamist brigades operating in AQIM's southern zone, the region in the Sahara-Sahel stretching from northeast Mauritania to the northern portions of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. His smuggling networks running drugs, weapons and illegal immigrants across the region as well as his kidnapping-for-ransom schemes have earned him quite a reputation, and he is known to some as "Mr. Marlboro" for his lucrative cigarette-smuggling operations, which produce large sums of money for AQIM. Though the native Algerian is a seasoned jihadist, he has been known almost as much for his opportunistic criminal endeavors. Some time in 2007 or 2008, sensing Belmokhtar's growing influence as a potential threat to his rule, al-Wadoud promoted the less-experienced Abu Zayd, deputy commander of the Tarek Ibn Zayd brigade (which consists of 100 to 150 fighters) to a higher level than Belmokhtar in AQIM's southern leadership hierarchy. Both were then placed under the command of Yahya Djouadi (aka Yahia Abu Ammar), the leader of AQIM and the overall head of the Tarek Ibn Zayd group in the Sahara-Sahel area of operations and Drukdal's representative in southern Algeria. Though this chain of command was adhered to, tensions brewed over Abu Zayd's promotion and Belmokhtar's kidnapping-for-ransom operation. In September 2008, 11 Mauritanian soldiers and a civilian guide were kidnapped after their military patrol was ambushed in the town of Zouerate, in the northern Mauritanian province of Aklet Tourine. A week later, their bodies were found mutilated and beheaded. On Sept. 22, AQIM released a statement to jihadist forums claiming responsibility for the ambush, in what they called the "Battle of Zouerate." Abu Zayd is reported to have ordered the execution. Under his direction, the Taregh Ibn Ziyad brigade were also responsible for high-profile abductions in Niger as well as the execution of a British hostage in Mali — a known operating environment for Belmokhtar's kidnapping-for-ransom operation — on May 31, 2009. This deprived Belmokhtar of desperately needed ransom money and brought unwanted attention from Malian authorities on him and his brigade. More recently, Abu Zayd has been deemed responsible for the execution of the French national in July. According to French and Algerian security officials, the above actions reflect Abu Zayd's desire to assert his global jihadist credentials against Belmokhtar's already strong influence in the Sahara-Sahel. Accordingly, security forces in the region were forced to step up their assault on AQIM and its affiliated brigades. This led to a number of arrests of AQIM operatives and a violent cycle of clashes and counter-clashes pitting Abu Zayd's and Belmokhtar's brigades against security forces of Mali, Mauritania and Niger. After taking a beating as a result of Abu Zayd's more ambitious activities, Belmokhtar and his brigade were forced to retreat to the Algerian side of the Tanezrouft Mountains, closer to AQIM's home base. Belmokhtar's newfound proximity to al-Wadoud diminished Belmokhtar's autonomy, although the rivalry continued to grow between him and Abu Zayd, with both brigade leaders pushing their respective networks to deliver more money and materiel to AQIM's headquarters in Algeria. Attacks outside of AQIM's Algerian stronghold made it seem as though the group's influence was increasing in the surrounding regions, especially those with large Muslim populations. However, while countries like Mauritania, Niger and Mali have majority Muslim populations, AQIM has yet to gain any momentum with local Salafi groups. Indeed, the more radical jihadist tenets simply have not gained much traction in the region. Also, the deep influence and presence of Sufism in these countries likely stymies AQIM's ideological appeal to the masses (Sufi Muslims are ideologically at odds with Salafi Muslims, mostly because of the Sufi focus on mystical practices, music and dancing, all of which are antithetical to the more orthodox Salafi branch). Moreover, AQIM's appeal and foundation, like al Qaeda's, is primarily theological. The group justifies its attacks against the Algerian state, foreign interests and individuals in the region, including the deaths of innocent civilians, as a religious duty. However, its deep history and ongoing cooperation with criminal smugglers definitely tarnishes its appeal to potential recruits and supporters. While AQIM's criminal dimension is absolutely crucial to its operations, it hurts its legitimacy with a number of more devout Muslim groups in the region. 2009 Despite a concerted propaganda and military effort against AQIM by Algerian and regional authorities, 2009 was another banner year for the group in terms of the number of attacks. A total of 40 armed assaults in which 107 people were killed and 107 wounded were attributed to the group during the 12-month period, the highest tally thus far, both in Algeria and the surrounding Sahara-Sahel countries of Mauritania and Niger. Fifty-five percent (22) of the attacks involved IEDs, mostly in roadside bombings that were part of armed assaults. However, AQIM used far less explosives in the IEDs and strayed away from the more powerful VBIEDs previously used. The most deadly of the 2009 attacks took place in June, when AQIM ambushed a security convoy escorting Chinese construction workers to a highway project in Bordj Bou Arreridj, 110 miles southeast of Algiers. It was the worst attack in six months (since the August 2008 VBIED suicide bombing in Issers), with militants killing 18 gendarmes using a combination of IEDs and small-arms fire. While the number of assaults increased in 2009, their lethality significantly decreased, to just over two casualties (dead and wounded) per strike, a significant drop from the year before. Also, the majority of strikes were carried out on softer, more vulnerable targets far outside the Algerian capital. Indeed, over the course of the year, more than 95 percent of AQIM-affiliated assaults took place to the east of Algiers, mostly in Blida and Boumerdes provinces, occurring, on average, about 88 miles from the city's center — the farthest average reach for AQIM attacks since the group's founding. Only two attacks fell outside of these parameters: a single RPG attack in Algiers and an armed assault 73 miles southwest of the capital in the city of Ibn Zayd in Ain Defla province. The number of clashes with security forces in Mali, Mauritania and Niger also increased, especially in December. Evidenced by the geographic shift in AQIM's attacks, it is clear that the group was being forced to operate closer to its mountainous northern Kabylie stronghold because of the increasingly successful counterterrorism efforts by Algerian security forces. Among security analysts, this is referred to as a "displacement effect," whereby a militant group is forced to act closer to its safe haven, choosing to strike in locations where state security forces are weaker. Many of these attacks also tend to be defensive in nature, striking security forces in or near militant hideouts. 2010 The lethality and quantity of AQIM attacks in the first six months of 2010 have dropped considerably. For instance, the number of deaths has decreased by more than half (from 72 in 2009 to 31 in 2010), with the number of wounded civilians and military personnel following suit (from 48 in 2009 to 16 in 2010). The frequency of attacks has also dropped significantly from January to June, with only 10 in 2010 compared to 22 in the same six-month period in 2009. AQIM is still using IEDs in approximately half of all attacks, most of which continue to occur in the east, toward the group's stronghold. AQIM has managed to strike only one moderately hardened target, a gendarme barracks in the eastern province of Boumerdes, which it hit in June with a suicide VBIED, inflicting minor damage.
From AQIM's official founding in 2006 to the present, our research indicates a few discernable patterns regarding the group's operational capacity inside Algeria. First, the majority of attacks have produced low casualty counts, from zero to three. Attacks that did achieve a higher degree of lethality (which we define as two or more people killed), were restricted mostly to Algiers and slightly to the east of the capital. Second, after GSPC's September 2006 merger with al Qaeda, the number of violent attacks and threats against foreign/international targets within Algeria's borders increased significantly. This was particularly evident in the spring of 2008 and continues to date. The attack and casualty rates were highest between mid-2008 and late 2009. Indeed, during the last six months of 2009 there was a noteworthy spike in the number of attacks. However, tracing the geographical distribution of attacks last year, we noticed that AQIM had zeroed in on softer, more vulnerable targets closer to its base in the east, strongly suggesting that the group's operational capacity had been crippled by Algerian counterterrorism efforts and that AQIM was likely trying to defend its base. The uptick in attacks appears to have been an effort on the part of the North African al Qaeda node to prove that it remained a security threat and relevant actor on the international jihadist stage. It was not a verifiable indicator that the group's strength was surging. It could well have been nothing more than a last gasp that will not likely be repeated, unless AQIM is given room to rest and regroup. Also, since the group's merger with al Qaeda in 2006, research shows an increase in attacks in September of each year, near the end of or directly after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The more recent increase of abductions of Westerners and clashes with security forces in the Sahara-Sahel is not, as some observers believe, an indication of AQIM's ability to effectively strike targets at a much longer range. Kidnapping and executing a 78-year-old aid worker in the Sahel simply does not make the same forceful statement as a coordinated multiple VBIED attack in Algiers. We believe this expanded activity in the south is more likely the result of a rivalry between sub-commanders seeking to raise funds for the organization and an overall indication of the weakness and lack of cohesion within the group. It could also be the result of increased initiative on the part of countries in the Sahara-Sahel region to go on the offensive against AQIM. A joint military base operated by Algeria, Mauritania, Mali and Niger was set up in April in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset to coordinate counterterrorism activities and clamp down on one of AQIM's main smuggling routes. According to a report July 25 in the Algerian newspaper El Watan, Algeria will be in charge of air support, with Mali covering ground operations, Mauritania heading up communications, Niger handling logistics and Burkina Faso serving in an observation role. However, as recent events have demonstrated, the joint effort has failed to advance beyond vocal commitments and formalities. Moreover, the North African al Qaeda node has failed in its original objective of unifying North African militants in the Sahara-Sahel and Maghreb, remaining an Algerian-run organization by location and leadership. Despite numerous attempts to recruit militants and organize cells of Europeans of North African heritage, it also has failed to strike Europe — namely France and Spain, its preferred targets — and other Western countries. Indeed, AQIM has failed to live up to al-Zawahiri's promise when he announced the formation of al Qaeda's new North African node, that it would "be a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders and their allies." And pressure against the group is intensifying. The military operations by French-backed Mauritanian troops in Mauritania and Mali in July were likely a harbinger of a more aggressive counterterrorism stance against the group by countries in the region. Paris' open declaration of war on AQIM after the death of the French hostage will certainly add energy to the effort. However, instead of putting French troops on the ground in Algeria, an idea that Algeria openly rejected (probably because of the sensitive colonial history between the two countries), France's declaration will likely lead to enhanced military and intelligence efforts against the North African al Qaeda node. Joining France's call, Niger's military leader, whose remarks were conveyed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, said July 28 his government is ready to "take necessary action" against terrorism and AQIM in the Sahara-Sahel. Meanwhile, Algeria itself is continuing its assault against AQIM. The Algerian daily newspaper El Khabar reported July 26 that Algerian security forces, responding to a number of small attacks against army patrols in the region, launched an operation July 21 that included heavy air strikes against suspected AQIM hideouts in Tizi Ouzou and Bouira provinces. This followed an announcement by the Ministry of Defense in June that it was reinforcing its National Gendarmerie police force by adding 9,000 members in an effort to take the offensive against AQIM. According to El Khabar, citing official sources in the ministry, Algeria has dispatched an additional 16,000 police to the southern Sahara-Sahel region of the country to confront AQIM and combat cross-border crime and smuggling. This would increase the security coverage in the south five-fold compared to the previous three years. The coverage has been further expanded by a recent doubling of the number of air patrols conducted unilaterally by the Algerian police and jointly by the police and the Algerian army. As part of the overall build-up, Algerian security forces also have incorporated a new communications network known as "Ronital." Set up in the Tizi Ouzou region of the Kabylie Mountains, where Algiers is concentrating its fight against AQIM, Ronital serves as a unified communications network operated by Algeria's central command to ensure the secure and reliable transmission of electronic messages, including sound and images. As the government offensive continues, AQIM's future seems bleak. In all likelihood, attacks involving small arms and IEDs against military and civilian convoys and slightly more hardened symbols of the Algerian state such as police stations will continue to be concentrated in Algeria, near AQIM's eastern stronghold in Blida and Boumerdes provinces. It does not appear that AQIM has the operational freedom to conduct large VBIED attacks against hard targets in Algiers, as it has done in the past. If the regional security momentum continues at its current pace, 2011 may see al Qaeda's North African node further reduced and fragmented, its remnants pushed farther south into the Sahara-Sahel and the northern portions of Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Indeed, abductions of Westerners and clashes with security forces in that region may even increase, but only because the group is unable to secure the propaganda victories and financial resources it needs due to the success of Algerian security operations. Like the Islamic State of Iraq, if criminal enterprises like smuggling and kidnapping-for-ransom operations become AQIM's predominant focus, it may find its credibility among jihadists and appeal to potential recruits eroded, making its already tenuous position even more difficult.