By Scott Stewart
On May 28, Rukmini Callimachi, AP West Africa Bureau Chief, published an exclusive story based on a letter she found in January while searching a building that had been occupied and then abandoned by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters in Timbuktu, Mali. The letter, which was dated Oct. 3, 2012, was from the Shura Council of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and sent to the Shura Council of the the Mulathameen Brigade, or the "Masked Ones," an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb element operating in the Sahel region of Africa and headed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
The letter was noteworthy for the way it highlighted several themes we have discussed regarding al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Specifically, it noted the internal tension over the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat's decision to formally align itself with al Qaeda and become al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the long-standing tension between Belmokhtar and his counterparts and organizational superiors in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's southern zone. Finally, it documented Belmokhtar's disdain and disrespect for the group's leadership, which is located in the mountains in Algeria's northeast.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb documents
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As Callimachi noted in her story, the leadership of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb viewed Belmokhtar as a talented employee who was very difficult to manage. The letter also chided him for not conducting more spectacular attacks. Although many of the media stories about this letter have said that the letter shows that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fired Belmokhtar, a careful reading of the letter and Callimachi's reporting reveals that this is not the case. While the Shura Council was attempting to reprimand Belmokhtar, they were also asking him not to leave the organization and form his own group, as he had apparently threatened to do in a letter to the group to which this letter was a response. It also appears that Belmokhtar had attempted to bypass al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's leadership and began to communicate with the leadership of the al Qaeda core in Pakistan in an attempt to form his own Sahel-based al Qaeda franchise.
Despite the pleas in this October letter, Belmokhtar did split from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in December 2012, when he announced the formation of his own group, "Those Who Sign in Blood." Belmokhtar's new organization has had a strong start. The group claimed credit for the Jan. 16 attack against the Tigantourine natural gas facility near Ain Amenas, Algeria, and for the May 23 simultaneous suicide bombings at a French-owned uranium mine in Arlit and a military barracks in Argadez, Niger. Belmokhtar seems intent on making a name for himself and his organization and to prove that it was the leadership of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, not him, that was ineffective.
While the reporting of Callimachi and others have covered Belmokhtar's problematic relationship with his colleagues and superiors in al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb very well, we believe that this letter also provides a great opportunity to discuss the critical importance of leadership to militant groups and the impact that leadership — or lack thereof — has on such organizations.
The Significance of Leadership
Leadership is important in any type of organization, but it is especially important in entrepreneurial-type organizations — startup entities whose operations are fraught with risk and require unique vision, innovation and initiative in order to survive. In many ways, a militant group faces many of the same challenges as an entrepreneurial endeavor. In both business and militancy, there are many startups, but very few organizations survive to become major organizations. In both cases, the success of the organization does not depend as much on the product itself as it does on the organization's leadership. In other words, an exceptional individual is required to guide the organization through the transition from a startup to the big time.
It might seem a simple task to find a leader for a militant group, but in practice, effective militant leaders are hard to come by because militant leadership requires a rather broad skill set. In addition to personal attributes such as ruthlessness, aggressiveness and fearlessness, militant leaders also must be charismatic, intuitive, clever and inspiring. This last attribute is especially important in an organization like an al Qaeda franchise that seeks to recruit operatives to conduct suicide attacks. Additionally, an effective militant leader must be able to recruit and train operatives, enforce operational security, raise capital, plan operations and then methodically execute operational plans while avoiding the security forces that are constantly looking for the group.
Rivalry Within al Qaeda's North Africa Branch
Abdelmalek Droukdel (aka Abu Musab Abd al-Wadoud) the leader or "emir" of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is an experienced militant who reportedly trained and fought in Afghanistan in the 1990s before returning home and joining the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in the mid-1990s. He worked his way through the organization's ranks to become a regional leader before assuming the emirship of the group after the death of his predecessor, Nabil Sahraoui (aka Sheikh Abu Ibrahim Mustafa) in June 2004. Droukdel also oversaw the group's merger with al Qaeda in 2006, which resulted in its transformation into al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The aforementioned letter — along with history — shows that Droukdel's nine-year emirship has been fraught with troubles including battlefield losses, defections, dissention and trouble recruiting new fighters. The group's leadership, which is located in the Kabylie region of Algeria's northeast, largely has been fighting a defensive struggle to survive since 2010. It has relied on the kidnapping and smuggling activities of its units in the Sahel (including Belmokhtar's brigade) for their economic support. Government pressure and the expansive geography of North Africa have served to keep the leadership isolated from its units in the Sahel.
Following the Tuareg campaign in northern Mali and the March 2012 coup in Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's units in the Sahel took advantage of the situation to seize control of territories that they had helped Tuareg militias capture, including cities like Timbuktu, where the Belmohktar letter was found. As evidenced from other letters found in these locations, Droukdel had a difficult time controlling the activities of his southern units and their allies as they administered these areas. Their behavior, such as the imposition of strict Sharia and the desecration of Sufi tombs and historical sites, quickly turned the local population against them. What should have been a golden opportunity for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb quickly soured, and when French military forces intervened in January, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's southern units suffered terrible losses of manpower and weapons on the battlefield, including the death of Hamid Essoufi, also known as Abdelhamid Abou Zaid, a ruthless and effective tactical commander and Belmokhtar's primary rival in the Sahel. Chadian forces claimed to have killed Belmokhtar in March, but that report proved erroneous.
With the defection of Belmokhtar and his organization, and the battlefield losses in Mali, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has suffered some significant setbacks in 2013. The next year will prove a serious test for the leadership of Droukdel and his Shura Council.
Belmokhtar lost significant assets as a result of the attack on the Tigantourine facility in January, but his May 23 attacks in Niger show that he retains the ability to conduct significant operations across a wide expanse of the Sahel — something we have not seen from current al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb units in the region. Belmokhtar's troops also remain united and dedicated enough to conduct suicide attacks. It is important to note that the May 23 attacks were not nearly as spectacular as reported by some media outlets. Photos from the site of the attack at the uranium plant indicate that the vehicle bomb was significantly smaller than the 400 kilograms (about 880 pounds) reported in the press — it was perhaps only 50 kilograms. Still, Belmokhtar's group appears to pose a persistent threat across the Sahel, and Belmokhtar has emerged as the most effective militant leader in the region. It will be important to watch and see if he is able to maintain this momentum.
Leadership In Other Militant Groups
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is not the only militant organization suffering from defections, internal dissention and battlefield losses. Al Shabaab in Somalia is in a similar predicament, and none of the leaders of the various al Shabaab factions appear to posses the leadership necessary to win over and unite the other factions.
Another example of the importance of leadership is the history of the Saudi al Qaeda franchise. Under the leadership of Abdel Aziz al-Muqrin, the Saudi al Qaeda group was extremely active in 2003 and 2004. It carried out a number of high-profile attacks inside Saudi Arabia and put everyone there, from the Saudi monarchy to multinational oil companies, in a general state of panic. With bombings, ambushes and beheadings occurring throughout the country, it seemed as though Saudi Arabia was on its way to becoming the next Iraq. However, after the Saudis killed al-Muqrin in June 2004, the organization began to flounder. The succession of leaders appointed to replace al-Muqrin lacked his operational savvy, and each one proved ineffective at best. (In fact, Saudi security forces quickly killed several of them.) Following the unsuccessful February 2006 attack against the oil facility in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia, the group spiraled even further downward, only carrying out one more attack — an amateurish small-arms assault in February 2007 against a group of French tourists.
The remaining, disorganized jihadists in Saudi Arabia ultimately grew frustrated at their inability to operate on their own. Many of them traveled to places such as Iraq or Pakistan to train and fight. In January 2009, many of the militants who remained in the Arabian Peninsula joined with al Qaeda's franchise in Yemen to form a new group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, under the leadership of Nasir al-Wahayshi, the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen who served under Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before being arrested in Iran. An extradition deal between the Yemeni and Iranian governments returned al-Wahayshi to Yemen in 2003 and he subsequently escaped from a "high-security" prison outside Sanaa in 2006 with a group of colleagues.
Prior to al-Wahayshi's escape from prison, the jihadists in Yemen were divided into several competing groups and were not very effective. Al-Wahayshi was able to bring all the disparate elements of the Yemeni jihadist movement together with the Saudi refugees and form an effective organization. Today, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is not only an organization that poses a threat to the government of Yemen, it also has become transnational, attacking Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Naif on Aug. 28, 2009, and then conducting attacks against the United States using underwear and printer bombs in 2009 and 2010. The group also has launched a successful media campaign to inspire grassroots jihadists in the West to conduct attacks.
Under the guidance of al-Wahayshi and his staff, jihadists in Saudi Arabia and Yemen who once appeared to be shattered and defeated were able to reconstitute themselves into an organization that became the vanguard on both the physical and ideological battlefronts of the global jihad.
Leadership is critical to militant organizations' growth and survival. Because of this, it is very important to pay attention to the capabilities of individual leaders. Even as the Obama administration rethinks its drone policy, the effectiveness of leaders such as al-Wahayshi and Belmokhtar and their importance to their regional struggles and to the global jihad will undoubtedly ensure that they remain on the target list.