RE: AQIM, UBL and Retaliation; brief thoughts

From Reuters, on AQIM and the UBL killing:

(Reuters) – The killing of Osama bin Laden raises the stakes for French hostages being held by al Qaeda allies in the Sahara, who may mount a retaliatory attack in the region.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a mostly autonomous wing which sprung from the Algerian Salafist movement in 2007 and will be unaffected operationally by bin Laden’s death in a U.S. assault on his compound in Pakistan.

Aside from an attack on the United Nations in Algiers and hits on local armies, AQIM has mostly raised its profile through kidnapping dozens of foreigners across the Sahara-Sahel zone.

Most hostages have been released after reported ransom payments. But several have been killed by the group, which blends ideology and crime as it operates alongside local rebels, desert bandits and arms and drug-smuggling networks.

The immediate concern will be for four French hostages held in the Sahara since they were kidnapped in Niger last September.

“I think there is a likelihood of retaliation. Their fate has gotten decidedly worse,” Geoff Porter, a political risk and security consultant specializing in North Africa and the Sahara.

France said in March it would not negotiate on AQIM’s demands for 90 million euros ($134 million) for their release.

[. . .]

“AQIM will want to seek revenge, that is for sure … everyone in the Sahel-Sahara must remain vigilant,” a Nigerien military intelligence official told Reuters.

“We had better hope that his death does not have a negative impact on the talks to free the French.”

AQIM’s links with bin Laden have been mixed, with the group operating largely independent of al Qaeda central, though some of its members are veterans of Afghanistan and bin Laden directly backed the kidnapping in September last year.

A number of analysts say the group is under pressure to carry out a spectacular attack to boost its jihadist credentials.

[. . .]

A Malian defense official expected reprisals but did not believe the hostages would be killed as AQIM needed them as part of its strategy to remain high profile.

After initially profiting from the easy pickings of Westerners in remote, desert locations, AQIM has become more ambitious in its attacks.

The September kidnapping, which mostly targeted staff from French nuclear firm Areva (CEPFi.PA), was the biggest blow to Western interests while there have also been raids on the capitals of Niger and Mauritania, albeit with mixed results.

A January raid on a bar in Niamey netted two French hostages, who were subsequently killed in a rescue effort by French forces. In February, suspected al Qaeda militants tried to bomb the French embassy and an army base in Nouakchott.

[. . .]

Andre Le Sage, Senior Africa Research Fellow at the Washington-based National Defense University, said AQIM should be seen as a primarily local group but they may seek to “demonstrate their anger and their ability to operate.”

“They have local roots, connections and command structures. They have always been very autonomous. This doesn’t mean his death will have no impact but it is not necessarily going to impact their operational capability in the short term,” he said.

Aside from the comments from the military/intelligence side (but only partly) most of this is probably well educated guessing. Some thoughts and things to keep in mind from this blogger’s perspective and readers are welcome to dispute/clarify their own views as well:

  1. There are significant risks associated with using the remaining Arlit hostages for retaliatory or demonstration purposes. Killing them would invite French retaliation and increase the overall intensity of French operations against AQIM in the region. AQIM likely views the price of such a response as especially high given their operational and personnel capacities. It is unlikely the group would use the hostages as a means of attracting attention in light of the UBL killing, though not impossible. It is also highly likely that such action would drive local governments (especially Mali and Niger) closer to France and make them more tolerant of a stronger basing presence and heavier military operations. The value of the hostages is principally financial (an investment in ransom payment) and symbolic.
  2. An attempt at a “spectacular” attack is more likely. As Le Sage notes in the article, giving evidence of the group’s credibility by doing something effective would increase its standing and serve its ideological goals more fully. Its most recent attacks have been increasingly bold and appear to be designed to show the group can strike in areas it has only had a limited presence in previously (along with targets it has attempted to hit previously without major success; the group has also shown surprising range through the use of “sub-contractors” and its relationships with other criminal groups). Changing the outside world’s perception of AQIM as a chiefly regional security problem is a major challenge for the group and using UBL’s death toward this purpose is highly likely though constrained by the group’s real security and military constraints. Thus it is important to note that the group’s motivation and the frequency of its attempts to hit new and/or old targets with a major impact will probably increase this does not mean that their ability to do so will necessarily change significantly.
  3. Problems with the above. It is important not to fall into inverted thinking. An assumption here is this: While the group has pledged itself to the global al-Qaeda movement and UBL’s program and there are probably some AQIM members with experience during the Afghan-Soviet War or in Iraq their fidelity to UBL is probably not a key/central motivating factor and AQIM’s senior leadership is more survivalist and regionally focused. The group is likely to determine its course of action by fitting the UBL issue into the immediate regional and organizational concerns as opposed to the ideological or even emotional concerns. Even if the group is likely to retaliate in some way, killing the hostages from a rational perspective and appears to be somewhat out of line with the group’s previous behavior and its “rational” interest. It is possible that AQIM interprets the situation differently or sees killing the hostages as the most shocking and effective way to capitalize on the UBL killing, “walk the walk”/”walk the talk” and take revenge. A Twitter conversation between Andrew Lebovich and Geoff Porter (quoted in the article) on this very point is worth posting below (as it inspired the post). Will the group retaliate at all? Would it be wise or likely for them to use the Arlit hostages to do so?
  4. What do the readers think? Respond in the comments section or by email to nourithemoor at gmail dot com.

12 thoughts on “RE: AQIM, UBL and Retaliation; brief thoughts

  1. I did not check this in detail, but it seems that the killing of hostages always occurs when France mounts a rescue operation. About the future, let’s not forget that the GSPC operated for years before trying to capitalize on the Al Qaida brand name and expand its range of operation in the Sahel. With UBL’s death the name AQIM may not have as much appeal depending on what the mothership does in the near future.

  2. While I see the value of mounting a “spectacular” operation, this also increasing the likelihood of innocent/ordinary people being hurt and thus of risking a severe drop in public opinion and sympathy.
    Also, the expansion and cooperation with bandits and drug traffickers could backfire when this activity passes a thresh-hold and becomes a perceived threat to daily life.
    This might not matter much to the committed core, but may affect recruitment going forward.

  3. Abu Zeid murdered Edwin Dyer when he was unable to trade him for money or favours. Mr Germenau died of a heart attack early July according to mr Mokaddem of Ennahar who heard it from Algerian ‘businessmen’
    The French do seem to make a mess of their rescue attempts, as we have seen in Niamey and on the Somali coast, ending up shooting their own.
    So mr Dyer would be the only example of killing a hostage and I don’t think AZ has any intent of loosing his bounty and anger the French.
    What Aqim are up to is hard to predict. Their likely target would be a US or French embassy in a West African capital, but who knows.
    Now the French have something in the making and the countries concerned seem to be in accord, except of course for Algeria. The next few months shall be interesting to watch.

    • Now it did 🙂
      The way I see it France and Italy will have to pay up for the current hostages and then the French will have a short moment to mount a decisive offensive (via proxy) and eliminate Aqim before the next kidnapping takes place. The US raid on OBL could serve as inspiration.
      I am not very optimistic.

  4. As Priffe said: The US raid on OBL could serve as inspiration.

    This is what some people were saying for long time. Guess this and drones don’t work with AQIM. They letting it grow, grow and grow.

  5. You let it grow and grow and you get this with no solution in sight. I can’t even recall how this mess in Afghanistan-Pakistan started in the first place and who was right and who was wrong. How to avoid this in the Sahara-Sahel region?

    Revenge’ suicide bombings kill 80 in Pakistan

  6. Guys,

    Its about ready to get much worse unless something is done quick to impact the safe haven in the Kidal region. AQIM is currently recruiting heavily in the north of Mali and building a larger force. The units are more multi national/multi ethnic than ever with a large number of Tuaregs and some black Africans now having joined the group. The group appears to have increased its outreach to northern Mali communities too, visiting villages offering assistance and ideology this creates an opportunity for AQIM to recruit and gain Intel. The access to large amounts of funds from kidnapping and taxing of narco smugglers has allowed the expansion, and further facilitated the purchase of the required logistics. The access to weapons has never been better thanks to the outflow of illicit arms from Libya. “This enables them to equip themselves and recruit people, to step up their activity, especially if nothing is done afterwards, if they are not pursued.” Here are a few notes I’ve taken:

    Al Qaeda is exploiting the conflict in Libya to acquire weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, and smuggle them to a stronghold in northern Mali.

    “A convoy of eight Toyota pick-up trucks left eastern Libya, crossed into Chad and then Niger, and from there into northern Mali where in the past few days it delivered a cargo of weapons.”

    •A military source in Bamako: “Several batches of these weapons have already been conveyed to bases in northern Mali by mercenaries”.•A senior official in Bamako: Authorities of this country are “very concerned“the armament of AQIM constitutes a “real danger“.

    •The weapons are conveyed by night to their final destination AQIM’s rear-bases in northern Mali which are controlled by the Algerian emir emirs, Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar and Abdel Hamid Abu Zaid.

    The Algerians think that Mali is not going to effect the safe haven and will let the network build>

    •Mali, is “so poor and weak to the extent that it accepts transfers of money from drug-trafficking activity.“

    The danger of AQIM gaining military grade explosives is that IED attacks become more effective and frequent> Two weeks ago in Niger AQIM fighters, traveling in three vehicles, fought with troops about 80 kilometers north of Arlit. The military only captured one out of three trucks, here is what they found:

    Trunks containing 640 kilos (around 1,400 pounds) of explosives and 435 detonators were found in the seized vehicle, he said, adding they were “were stamped ‘Libya’ and were of Czech manufacture”.•Also seized $90,000 in cash and numerous small arms.

    So in short it will get worse unless something is done and these small scale efforts against the network will no longer work, you’ll need big messy efforts in future if effective efforts don’t get underway now.

  7. Well we’ve said it will get worse for years now, and there’s been no real progress. But the Malian army is said to have been moving troops to Timbuktu and eastwards towards Gao.
    Even using air surveillance. And Mauritania is going to mount a campaign in northern Mali, according to Aziz, and they are working together with the Malian army. So there shoud be some action in the coming weeks.
    When you say ‘recruiting heavily’, are you implying they are offering money to mercenaries or what? Aqim is not popular in Kidal and I don’t know that they are enjoying broad support anywhere in Mali

  8. I just read about the attack in Wagadou forest and the war is on. It would be interesting to have reports from someone in the area, not Bamako but Timbuktu – Kidal.

  9. You are correct AQIM is not popular in Kidal but then again neither is the Government of Mali, after all what do they really provide most people in the north. So there a few disillusioned youth that might join AQIM for ideological reasons but mostly its the others I worry about that will sign on for the chance to make big money, I agree that only a few tuareg have joined to date, but I’d still say that to some AQIM are more popular than the Malians Bambara dominated army and they pay out.

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