Asharq Al-Awsat, Algeria- Terrorist incidents in the Arab Maghreb earlier this year raised intelligence concerns about the security and stability threats posed by the increased activity of the Algeria-based Islamist resistance movement, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The attack on a military barracks in Lamghiti in northern Mauritania on June 5, 2005 indicated a turning point for the “Salafist Group for Call and Combat,” as the group was called at that time. It signified that Osama bin Laden’s followers in North Africa have expanded their targets to the Sahel. Simultaneously, it indirectly called for the intervention of western powers with influence in the region. The kidnapping of two Austrian tourists in Tunisia last February reinforced this call to the West three years after the Lamghiti operation.
Al-Qaeda’s activity in North Africa has been characterized by suicide bombings and two striking operations in the Saharan states, which indicated that new attack preparations have been made along the north-eastern border of Algeria. The first was an attack on Djanet airport, 1,800 km south of Algeria near the Libyan border, last November. The second was the assassination of eight gendarmerie border guards in an ambush in Al-Wadi region last February.
Security agencies recognized that the execution of armed operations near eastern borders might incite other foreign operations in Tunisia, Niger or even Libya. More importantly, intelligence agencies leaked indications to the press that Al-Qaeda is seeking a positive media echo chamber, which was demonstrated last week when two bombs exploded east of the Algerian capital, targeting the same French company that was exposed to an attack in Algiers last September.
The assassination of three Mauritanian soldiers in Al-Ghalawiya in northern Mauritania indicated terrorism transfers from Algeria to Mauritania. Additionally, a night club was bombed near the Israeli embassy in Mauritania and French citizens were assassinated in Nouakchott. Although Al-Qaeda did not claim responsibility for these attacks, it had the fingerprints of its elements according to security experts.
Specialists in terrorism combat agree that Mauritania has become a refuge for fundamentalists seeking to overthrow regional governments. Algerian Salafists easily infiltrate Mauritania, including the capital Nouakchott, to launch attacks against civil, local and foreign targets and organize parades against military barracks, especially in the north. Recent security breaches have been dangerous and exhibited signs of excitement among Al-Qaeda members following a period of stagnation in the Saharan states after Salafist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar displayed signs of divorcing terrorism.
The most striking operation that brought attention to AQIM outside Algeria was its threat to attack the 2008 French Dakar Rally race in Mauritania, which resulted in the event’s cancellation. In response, the Algerian government employed “Operation Decapitation” to target Al-Qaeda leaders, killing prominent figures including Zuhir Harek, Abdul Hamid Sadawi, Samir Saiud, Abdul Fatah, Abu Basir and others.
AQIM functions extend across countries; however the group takes orders exclusively from its supreme commander, Abdul Malek Droukdel, also known as Abi Musaab Abdul Wadud. He assumed leadership in 2004, succeeding the leader Nabil Sahrawi, also known as Mustafa Abi Ibrahim, who was killed by the Algerian armed forces. Droukdel is the fourth gunman to assume leadership, after Al-Majid Disho, Hassan Khattab and Sahrawi. Disho was killed in 1999 and Khattab resigned in 2003 and surrendered himself to the authorities last year.
The movement indicates in its articles that the “Amir,” or “Prince”, the title given to the group’s supreme commander, is selected according to specific criteria, chiefly comprising knowledge of Shariah, honesty, strength, longevity and lack of defects that might hinder management capabilities.
Second in rank is “Ahl Al-Hol Al-Aqd,” or the “People of Authority,” which are now divided into two councils: the “Council of Notables” and the “Shura Council.” The first depends on the leaders and deputies of the armed activity. The second comprises people experienced in armed activity and specialists in fields including military, Shariah, politics, medicine and engineering. The Shura Council also includes members in charge of the military, medical, media and Shariah committees.
Prominent members of the Council of Notables include Abu Al-Hassan Rashid, a judge on AQIM’s Shariah council, financial officer Ahmed Abi Abdullah, propaganda officer Salah Mohamed, who writes the statements of armed operations, Younis Al-Batini, leader of operations in the East, and Asem Abi Hayan, leader of operations in the central region. Security agencies have intelligence on the Council of Notables to suggest that its members influence executive decisions and enjoy the favor of the general leadership. The most prominent leaders include Ahmed Jabri, head of the military wing in the east during the time of the Armed Islamic Group, Abu Dujana Al Aghwati, Abu Daoud Musa and others.
A founder of AQIM, who gave up terrorism in 2006, agreed to speak on condition of anonymity about the decision-making process: “We depend largely on consultation when undertaking any decision so that we can deal with the subject with expertise from many fields, in addition to consulting experienced and opinioned people and specialists, while taking into account the recommendations of the political office that considers, discusses and follows events and statements, gathers political variables and important files and attaches them with suitable recommendations and advice in each file in preparation of submitting them to the leadership.” In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the individual continued: “We are keen on organizing regular meetings in the Council of Notables in order to deliberate on the conditions of the group, discuss the latest developments, follow up plans, lay down strategy, rectify mistakes and draw up alternative plans. We take into consideration the instructions and orders of the high command under the supervision of our sheikh Osama bin Laden,” without clarifying how the movement receives orders from or communicates with bin Laden.
The armed movement is organized by committees, most notably including the military, Shariah, media, financial, medical and communication committees, the “Prince’s Diwan” and the political office. Each committee presents its annual program according to the general strategy to the two Councils to be discussed, approved, evaluated and called to account.
Since its establishment in 1998, AQIM has executed operations through approximately 700 gunmen, spread across seven regions, according to the geographical distribution of the group’s activity. The regions in Algeria are divided into the central west, the eastern capital, the West, the South-East and the East. The group also operates in the Saharan region, which includes jihadists from the Sahel who were responsible for the Austrian tourist kidnapping.