Several factors have allowed al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb to find havens in the region, enabling jihadist fighters to launch geopolitically disruptive attacks in western and North Africa. These factors include the existence of an indigenous conflict, a local, largely Tuareg population to blend into, the jihadists' Algerian nationality and the presence of economic infrastructure manned by foreign personnel.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has operated in two principal theaters: the Kabylie Mountains of northeastern Algeria and the Sahel region with a focus on northern Mali. In 2013, the group supplanted the latest iteration of an indigenous Tuareg rebellion and asserted control over a vast swath of northern Mali. It has since become the governing authority in cities including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, though French and African military intervention is degrading and disrupting this control.
Belmokhtar was last seen in December 2012 in Gao. He reportedly went underground in Mali in late 2012 after a disagreement with his superiors in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, in which he had been a unit commander. The split may have arisen over differing views of how much the franchise should align its ideology with that of the al Qaeda core. It might also have occurred because of Belmokhtar's frustrated leadership ambitions, which he sought to promote by splitting off and launching his Algerian attack. Disagreements over revenue sharing from kidnapping operations may also have contributed to the split.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and specifically Belmokhtar's organization, has carried out attacks in the Sahel region outside northern Mali. Its attacks typically have involved swift strikes or hostage taking, with none resulting in even short-term occupation of territory. It has kidnapped foreign nationals in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Algeria, transporting foreign hostages to the Kidal region of Mali, where they are held to extract ransom payments from the West or for use in prisoner exchanges. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb still holds seven foreign hostages from attacks that took place before the Algerian assault.
To tap into the Tuareg rebellion in Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had some of its members marry into the Tuareg, an ethnic group that straddles the Algerian-Malian border. This gave the jihadists the ability to blend into local populations and to hide its movements, and even to have indigenous rebels do their bidding. Gaining Tuareg rebels as spokesmen and soldiers alongside some black Africans also helped the jihadists achieve their military objectives.
In return, the jihadists greatly strengthened two indigenous militant groups, Ansar Dine and the Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa, and a secular armed group, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, in their struggle against Bamako and against each other. But once northern Mali was conquered, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb revealed its presence to the outside world and pushed the Tuaregs aside. None of the Malian militant groups challenged or confronted al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb for control of northern Mali.
In contrast to Mali, visibility is an asset for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Algeria , where it can more plausibly present itself as homegrown. The group and its predecessors have more than 20 years of experience conducting an insurgency against the Algerian state, and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb can easily impersonate Algerian security officials, something the Algerian prime minister said they did to infiltrate the remote energy facility at In Amenas. The relative abundance of foreigners helping operate economically significant, difficult-to-defend energy facilities in the desolate south of Algeria, a region of porous borders, also makes Algeria attractive to jihadists seeking targets to attack.
Mauritania and Niger
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has carried out limited operations in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott and in the Nigerien capital of Niamey. A cell of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is suspected of leading the unsuccessful assassination attempt against Elhadj Ag Gamou, a senior Malian army commander likely being recruited to form part of the intervention force being prepared to oust jihadists from northern Mali. Gamou said three men on motorcycles attacked him as he left a Nigerien army camp, where he was probably attending a planning meeting with the Malian and Nigerien presidents.
In 2008 the jihadist group carried out a small-arms attack against the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott. In 2009, it killed an American teacher working in Mauritania in what appears to have been a botched kidnapping attempt. In 2010, the group kidnapped five French workers at the Areva uranium mine near Arlit in northwestern Niger. The jihadists transported the hostages to Mali's Kidal region, eventually releasing them in February 2011 reportedly in exchange for a ransom of almost $17 million. Jihadists in Niger also have attacked military checkpoints and have employed mines or improvised explosive devices against convoys in order to loot their supplies.
But al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb faces limitations to its operations in Mauritania and Niger. While the jihadists can conduct limited operations there, often using Tuaregs as cover, neither country has an ongoing rebellion that the jihadists can take over as they did in Mali. It also must work harder to pass its Algerian personnel off as Nigerien or Mauritanian civilians. There are not large pockets of Western citizens found outside the capitals of Niger or Mauritania, with the exception of uranium mine sites near Arlit in the Agadez region of northern Niger. Moreover, the authorities in Mauritania and Niger have reinforced their security measures to defend against the jihadist group.
Niger plans to send ground forces into Mali as part of the African intervention force, and Chadian troops have deployed into Niger likely in preparation for the upcoming intervention in Mali's Gao region. Niamey also has sought to reduce the threat of a Tuareg rebellion by using economic and political patronage funded through uranium mining taxation receipts, giving the Nigerien Tuaregs a stake in government decision-making.
Mauritania has not contributed forces to the African intervention in Mali, but it has reinforced security on its border with Mali. Its army also receives Western military training and other assistance. In February, Mauritania will host the U.S.-organized Exercise Flintlock, which will bring together military personnel from the United States and Canada as well as countries in Western Europe and Africa to improve counterterrorism cooperation and coordination in the Sahel. But while Mauritania can increase its security posture with Western assistance, it cannot fully secure its territory against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb infiltration or prevent jihadists from finding sympathizers in Nouakchott. Nouakchott must therefore carefully balance the need to defend against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb with the caution necessary to avoid drawing the jihadists' hostility.
Security in Niamey and Nouakchott probably has been reinforced, with checkpoints long before one reaches the capitals. Meanwhile, foreign nationals probably are subject to strict security procedures to minimize their risk of being attacked. For its part, Areva probably reinforced its security and likely receives dedicated intelligence and protective security from the French military mission leading the intervention in Mali. These do not totally eliminate the possibility of an attack, but they do make it harder for Algerian or Tuareg gunmen to move supplies or conduct limited attacks before fleeing to their safe zones in northern Mali (or possibly Libya).
Like Libya, the North African country of Morocco faces threats from jihadist groups such as the al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia. Though the groups are not extensions of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, like the latter, they wish to attack the Moroccan government. They also have maintained links with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in a bid to acquire expertise, weapons, training and funding.
Local jihadist cells like Ansar al-Sharia may gain inspiration from what al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb affiliates achieved in Algeria, but various factors in Morocco will limit the effectiveness of terrorist operations. For example, there are significant tensions between the Algerian and Moroccan governments, and this makes it hard for Algerians, who have distinct accents from Moroccans, to move around Morocco without attracting attention. Rabat also has a pervasive security apparatus that has proven very effective at dismantling jihadist cells before they evolve into much of a threat. A bomb attack such as the one carried out in Marrakech in April 2011 remains a possibility, but it would be difficult to replicate given the heavy government surveillance in Morocco.
The potential cells in Morocco also need training and weaponry; assault weapons are very difficult to acquire there. Moreover, Morocco's borders to a large extent are locked down. In southern Morocco, a militarized berm located well inside the border creates a free-fire zone within Moroccan territory, helping prevent illegal crossings. And Morocco's border with Algeria is closed to normal traffic.
Libya is the weakest state in the Maghreb and Sahel regions. Central government authorities are hard-pressed to control even Tripoli and lack a meaningful presence in the rest of the country. The country hosts a diverse array of jihadists from across the region — for example, Belmokhtar reportedly was seen in Sirte and Benghazi and possibly even Tripoli recruiting fighters — along with multiple subnational, ethnically aligned armed groups all competing to defend turf, loot weapons and sell themselves to the highest bidder.
On top of this is an almost total absence of border controls and of intelligence on jihadists, along with potentially lucrative resources in the form of tremendous crude oil reserves — though these currently are unusable, at least in lawless eastern Libya — and no national command authority. All of this makes Libya especially vulnerable to becoming a jihadist sanctuary. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb will indeed look to Libya as a haven should their remaining strongholds, such as in the mountains of the Gao region in Mali, fall to foreign intervention forces.
Nigeria faces its own ongoing Islamist rebellion, in its case led by the Boko Haram group. Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have shown a small degree of cooperation, with some Boko Haram personnel allegedly seen in northern Mali at the height of jihadist occupation there and with some Nigerians — among a host of Africans — involved in the Algerian attack.
But no geopolitically significant economic infrastructure exists in northern Nigeria, especially in northeastern Nigeria where Boko Haram is concentrated, that would raise the profile of any al Qaeda operation. And while a small number of foreigners do reside in northern Nigeria, none are active in internationally significant activities on par with Algerian energy production or even Nigerien uranium production. A small number of foreigners have been kidnapped in northern Nigeria, but that they have not been transported to Mali's Kidal region suggests that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has little tactical connection to Boko Haram.
Southern Nigeria, home to the country's oil production in the Niger Delta, does face a low-level militancy campaign. But the region's ethnic Ijaw population is a staunch defender of the present Nigerian administration led by President Goodluck Jonathan, himself an Ijaw. It would be extremely difficult for Sahel jihadists to infiltrate into the Niger Delta given ethnic differences. Moreover, the Ijaw want to control the region themselves, and would not take kindly to foreigners undermining their leverage over the natural resource that supports their political prominence.
A low-level rebellion exists in Senegal's southern Casamance region, but there never has been an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb contingent active in Senegal. Moreover, there is no significant indigenous Tuareg population for the jihadists to blend into. Dakar and other urban locations in Senegal do host a large number of foreigners who could be held for ransom, but the country lacks internationally significant economic resources, such as oil and natural gas.
The government of Burkina Faso supports the French-backed West African intervention in Mali, and Ouagadougou is readying troops for the African force. Burkina Faso reportedly has reinforced its northern border security, an area just opposite Mali's militant-held Gao region. The ethnic Tuareg population of Burkina Faso is small, no reports that jihadists have infiltrated it have emerged and there is no rebellion in Burkina Faso. While there are some mining activities in the country that require the involvement of Western employees — creating a reservoir of potential hostages — such a strike would have to be a very quick operation given that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb would be operating in an otherwise disadvantageous environment.