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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- What do the readers think? Respond in the comments section or by email to nourithemoor at gmail dot com.