Mali's coup in March allowed Malian Islamist militants and Tuareg secessionist groups to take control of the Azawad region in Mali's north. Eventually, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb turned on the Tuaregs and assumed control over the region for itself. But the jihadist group does not appear to think the gains it has made in the region are secure.
The new emir, Yahya Abou El Houman (who previously commanded AQIM's Elvourghan brigade and served as emir for Timbuktu) replaces Nabil Makhloufi, who reportedly died in a car crash Sept. 10. Although the killing of any high-value al Qaeda leader draws suspicion, there have been no indications that Makhloufi's death was a result of foul play. Still, reports that the emir was racing in a convoy at high speed between Gao and Timbuktu when his car crashed indicate the level of operational security being taken by leaders in remote northern Mali — especially when moving across the region's exposed landscape. Concerns over travel security have prevented AQIM's overall leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel (who appointed Yahya as the Sahara-Sahel emir), from directly overseeing operations in the Sahel from his base of operations in Algeria's mountainous Kabylie region.
According to Algerian media reports published Oct. 2, AQIM brigades in Mali have been bolstering defensive measures around their urban strongholds in a variety of ways, such as laying landmines and digging trenches. This indicates that the group suspects various forces could soon mobilize against them. The groups have also been imposing new taxes on the local population, likely in order to arm and equip themselves ahead of a possible intervention.
Threats and Disruptions
Certainly, there are several reasons for the al Qaeda node to suspect that such a mobilization is looming. Algeria, which recently held elections and is in the process of writing a constitution, needs to keep the jihadist group from expanding and undermining the government's authority during the country's sensitive political transition. Meanwhile, the United States is working to capture or kill those responsible for the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. Washington has reportedly been discussing extending its unmanned aerial vehicle campaign to target bases of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and those of other jihadists in the region. In Mali itself, the Economic Community of West African States had proposed sending a 3,000-member intervention force to help Bamako recover control over Azawad. Several Western governments have called on the U.N. Security Council to back the effort.
AQIM has already seen several disruptions to its operations. The head of AQIM's judicial council, Abderrahmane Abou Ishak Essoufi, was arrested Aug. 20 by Algerian security officials en route to what was believed to be a meeting in northern Mali involving regional militant groups. The capture likely triggered a lockdown on the group's internal movements in order to minimize fallout from any intelligence Essoufi might cede to authorities during interrogations. On Oct. 1, Heddad Fodhil (aka Abou Dedjana), the commander of a brigade in eastern Algeria's Tizi Ouzou province, surrendered after reportedly having been in communication with authorities for two months. Dedjana's surrender came after a failed operation to arrest him led instead to the arrest of another AQIM leader. Dedjana may have been turned as a result of Algiers' campaign against AQIM in the Kabylie region or even due to an ideological split.
Moreover, AQIM and Malian authorities have both reacted harshly to unfamiliar movements in their respective areas of operations. For example, late at night on Oct. 5, suspected AQIM fighters on patrol between Timbuktu and Douentza reportedly attacked a convoy of vehicles, killing two civilians. The vehicles, a small pick-up truck and a large lorry, were ferrying only civilian passengers. However, under threat of attack from African or Western troops, it would be logical for AQIM to attack any outside party that might pose even a vague threat.
Malian forces have also shown a sense of battlefield confusion. On Sept. 9, Malian soldiers patrolling supply lines near Nampala, on the road to Mauritania, shot at a convoy of Mauritanian vehicles. The route is a known smuggling corridor for jihadist manpower and weapons between Timbuktu and Mauritania, but the convoy was carrying a group of non-militant Islamist leaders headed to a conference in Bamako. Both incidents reflect an impending escalation of counterterrorism operations in northern Mali — and AQIM appears to be digging in.