London, Asharq Al-Awsat- The name Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] has become synonymous with abductions, hostage-taking operations, drug smuggling and bank robberies. The overlap between organized crime and terrorism has become very strong to the point that some analysts believe that Al-Qaeda is shifting from criminal activity for the purpose of financing terrorism to [solely] making money. From the time it joined Osama Bin Laden’s organization at the end of 2006, AQIM has resorted to new means of obtaining funds; including the abduction of foreign nationals, blackmail, and drug smuggling.
Experts and officials from various countries have expressed their fear that Al-Qaeda’s operations have become a vital source of income to fund its attacks around the world. Moreover, experts in Algeria have raised the issue of the current overlap between AQIM and drug smugglers as a result of terrorists offering protection to drug smuggling gangs across the desert. The wave of terrorist-linked abductions started in 2003 when Algerian terrorist leader Abdul-Razzaq al-Para [The Paratrooper] kidnapped over 30 European tourists in the Algerian Sahara. Ultimately, Germany agreed to pay a $5 million ransom. But from there on in abduction and hostage-taking became a business. The kidnapping of Western tourists has become an important source of income for AQIM. In northern Algeria, especially in the tribal region, terrorists are particularly targeting wealthy men and prominent merchants in order to collect huge ransoms. The major part of such “income” is spent on weapons, which are easily acquired in West Africa.
AQIM’s presence along the African coast is among the leading issues concerning Paris with regards to preserving France’s security, which has become a priority for the country in its cooperation with the United States. This is according to what a French military official was cited as saying in a US diplomatic document that was leaked by WikiLeaks and published by the French newspaper Le Monde last month. In this context, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has called for “better coordination instead of competing with the Americans” in this vital field.
WikiLeaks has revealed that, in January 2010, key officials at the Elysee Palace in Paris met with General William E. Ward, commander of the United States African Command-AFRICOM, which is headquartered in Germany. The website disclosed that “the French insisted on the need to improve coordination in the military field and exchange intelligence information and development plans,” according to a cable by the [US] Embassy [in Paris]. Moreover, four months earlier, a secret meeting was also held in Paris and was attended by US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, in addition to European diplomats. The meeting focused upon dealing with this situation and boosting cooperation. In the joint conclusions of the meeting, it was mentioned that “terrorism is at the doorstep of Europe,” according to Romain Serman, a presidential adviser on Africa at the Elysee. This is while his colleague Remi Marechaux did not hide his skepticism when he said: “We feel that we are losing the battle between developing the countries of the coastline and the growing security threats to which these countries have become a target.”
At the same time, a cable by the US Embassy in Nouakchott (Mauritania) pointed out that the rise in the number of successful operations carried out by the AQIM has improved the organization’s credibility in the street. This is at a time when the collected ransom payments have reinforced the organization’s ability to wage operations in the region. It has become evident that many Mauritanian youth have become inclined toward Al-Qaeda. The acts of violence for which Al-Qaeda has claimed responsibility have been carried out by middle-class Mauritanians, according to another memorandum from Nouakchott. This means that extremism is not directly associated with poverty and is rather related to the lack of hope for the future.
Earlier this month, Moroccan authorities announced that they dismantled a terrorist cell that comprises 27 members and is led by a Moroccan AQIM member. Day after day, the governments of the Maghreb region and the coastline of Africa are growing increasingly concerned as the so-called AQIM broadens the scope of its operations. This is at a time when the AQIM members are focusing on “qualitative operations” that involve the abduction of foreign nationals for bargaining and extortion purposes. This is in order to force governments to negotiate with the AQIM and acknowledge it as an influential and powerful organization in the coastline of Africa and the Sahara regions. Since its establishment, the AQIM has sought to make the Sahara a fundamental base for its activities. It appears that the organization has almost succeeded in its endeavor to impose the security agenda on that region. Today, the only talk in North Africa is about the threats posed by this organization, which has managed to back Western governments into a corner by forcing them to negotiate with it whether directly or indirectly. This is similar to what happened recently with the governments of Spain and France.
The states of the region are working hard to limit the spread of this salafi organization and cut off the sources of its funding. Reports have mentioned that, for days, Algeria has been devotedly investigating money laundering operations carried out by some individuals in the countries of the coastline of Africa to Al-Qaeda’s advantage. This is in light of expectations that the organization has made a lot of money through the collection of ransom payments and illegal trafficking.
Proximity to Europe makes this region a target for Al-Qaeda on the one hand and a safe passage for jihadists into Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other regions targeted by the organizations that are structurally and ideologically associated with Al-Qaeda on the other. This is in addition to the existence of vast areas that are not under security or military surveillance. These are the so-called coastline of Africa and southern Sahara regions. Sovereignty over these vast areas is divided between several states that do not have sufficient technical and logistical capabilities to hold sway over them. The dangers associated with these areas are manifest in the fact that they have transformed into a safe field that is being exploited by extremist organizations to provide combat skills training to those who have been drawn into these organizations and teach them how to execute suicide operations. This is to the extent that such threats have become disturbing for Western governments.
In fact, the region is witnessing a rise in terrorist attacks. These attacks are no longer targeting only the housing complexes of regular citizens. Rather, they are now focused on military and security targets within the framework of a plan that Al-Qaeda is adopting. In a statement it issued earlier, the AQIM referred to this plan by saying that “the mujahidin are hiding many surprises for the enemies of God in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb that will be delivered in a successive and escalated manner.”