General Thoughts on the Tuareg rebellion and AQIM

This post continues some of the questions raised in the post immediately preceding it, with respect to AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), the Tuareg rebellion in Mali (and the subsequent coup) and other similar problems. The proliferation of arms and  armed groups in northern Mali since the fall of the Qadhafi regime in Libya has created opportunities and probably the necessity for AQIM to move men and activity into southern Libya, and potentially Nigeria. The Mali safe haven, for the time being, looks less hospitable to the group and conditions there mean that AQIM will likely seek out space and links in Libya to compensate for short-term losses in northern Mali and may evolve its leadership to seek a more deliberate and longer lasting presence in Libya, which is likely to become a priority for AQIM in the future. This post explores this possibility in context of recent evens in the region as it relates to armed groups in northern Mali and instability in southern Libya. It does not claim to provide any answers or satisfy all readers but mainly to explore possibilities emerging in a fluid environment. 

Northern Mali and AQIM

There are reports that Mokhtar Belmokhtar is in Libya, seeking arms. In autumn 2011, he told an interviewer his organisation had benefited heavily from the collapse of the Qadhafi regime, picking up weapons from stockpiles in the country’s south. The reports, which site Malian security sources, suggest the ongoing security vacuum in southern Libya continues to be actively exploited by armed groups in the Sahel. They also suggest AQIM has a need to seek these weapons at a time when its safe haven in northern Mali has become overrun by other armed factions with more credibility among the local population and making more tangible steps toward their stated aims. The MNLA and Ansar Eddine recently took (and reportedly also looted) the key northern towns of Kidal and Timbuktu and pressing on in Gao. The Malian army and security services, long accused of complicity with AQIM’s activities in the north are on the route and their leadership in Bamako is in chaos after a mutiny-turned coup. Meanwhile, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), a dissident group out of AQIM has undertaken operations against foreign and Algerian targets in AQIM’s area of operations. It has been reported in Algerian newspapers in Februar and March that AQIM has moved people back across the border into southern Algeria (some of these reports are of course more or less reliable than others). There is competition and this must be forcing AQIM to recalculate and scheme. The group has probably moved at least some of its personnel north, into Algeria (as some press reports have mentioned in the last two months) or into other territories like Libya.

Northern Mali is not fated for AQIM to make it its home or be a major player in the region’s internal politics in the long term (in other words, northern Mali is not inevitably a safe haven for the group; there are many possibilities and contingencies). There are no fewer than three competing armed groups in the area, all basically hostile toward the Malian government, although negotiations with the MNLA and potentially Ansar Eddine are more plausible than with AQIM (the fall of Kidal and Timbuktu changes this dynamic somewhat). (There also ethnic militias of varied loyalties in the area, as well.) Ansar al-Din and the MNLA tap the ethnic issue in the Azawad in a way AQIM does not/has not; the MNLA’s ideology and credibility are probably stronger than AQIM’s among Tuaregs and Moors and is almost certainly not as toxic for things Tuaregs actually care about as AQIM. Ansar al-Din is also probably as if not more competitive with respect to AQIM for tribal/ethnic reasons and because while it’s Islamist, it is hard to make it out as a jihadist group like AQIM. Its membership, according to media reports, comes former returned Tuareg fighters from Libya and dissident elements from AQIM. MUJWA has just came on the scene, and is calling AQIM a lot of half-baked pseudo-jihadis who are really just criminals and is carrying out its own operations as far as anyone can tell. The MNLA probably also includes at least some men who had been associated with AQIM at some point in the recent past. And the MNLA has been aggressive in denying all claims that it is associated with AQIM or its agenda (according to Mauritanian and then Malian press accounts it conned the Mauritanian government into giving it weapons on the promise that it would use them to fight AQIM rather than Bamako); it is reported that the relationship between MNLA and Ansar Eddine has suffered because the latter group’s shari’ah focus gives outsiders the impression the rebels may be associated in someway with AQIM’s worldview. It is likely the MNLA does not seek armed confrontation with Ansar Eddine in the case the Malian military regroups significantly and moves against it; it is also likely the MNLA, which is very press savvy, does not seek to affiliate itself with AQIM for political reasons and for military reasons will seek to keep Ansar Eddine away from AQIM (assuming it can maintain cohesion in managing these relationships and Iyad Ag Ghali, who is leading Ansar Eddine (or the MNLA for that matter) does not see strategic benefits in affiliating cooperating with AQIM, this comes into play when considering profits from smuggling networks as well which will be a point of interest as the rebellion goes on — who will control what routes and who will pay “taxes” to whom along with more complex issues that cannot be dealt with here). And this is all in the context of a full blow rebellion and political confusion in Bamako. So, again, AQIM’s safe haven is not quite as safe as it was in the past.

On top of this AQIM has released relatively few substantial communiqués in recent weeks and months, and those which have come out have been of lower quality compared to previous ones. This suggests the group may be on the move (also influencing this is also probably the important setbacks it has suffered in recent months in northern Algeria). These have dealt mainly with kidnappings and have differed from the groups previous communiqués in style and personnel. Black-skinned men appear in the 2012 videos wearing their turbans tightly, as compared to the more lose-fitting ones typically seen in AQIM hostage videos. The men also do not wear the semi-Afghan battle outfits seen in previous communiqués, donning what look like blue jeans or swear pants in one and what appear to be some kind of traditional ceremonial tunic. The videos also appear to be indoors, in buildings, not tents. This is in particular true of the videos of British, Italian (who were killed in the Nigerian raid in March) and German hostages taken from Nigeria. In both videos the banners hanging behind the armed men appeared less professional than those in other AQIM videos — even as if the handwriting was of someone who had learned Arabic recently or had very poor handwriting. The shahada in those banners may even have been made in magic marker. This slow down in propaganda and decline in quality together with the arrest of five men (including a Mauritanian) suggests AQIM has moved personnel to new areas beyond its Malian safe haven, and that group is still likely on the move.

The MNLA, Ansar al-Din and the greater attention brought to the Azawad because of the rebellion may have caused them to flee north. Some reports have this having happened from late autumn or early winter 2011. It is probably the case that armed men associated with the MNLA communicated to AQIM that it was in their interest to get out of the way, out of the Azawad; if the group stayed in the area, the MNLA or some other armed faction might turn on them or give their locations to stronger powers operating in the region.

The group may have moved north or northeast to avoid confrontation with the various armed groups fight the Malian government. It may have recognised, as some others have, that the MNLA and Ansar Eddine will eventually run out of cash, ammunition, guns or even gas and face major setbacks due more to these factors than the special facility of their Malian government foes (the MNLA, the Malian government and everyone else concerned has been aware of this factor for some time). In the meantime it may be seeking to arm itself and build ties in southern Libya and reinforce others in south western Algeria (and even in northern Niger) in order to retake its safe haven in Mali at some point, returning better armed and more aggressive (though the group have usually behave more parasitically and passively in the past. (And it should also be noted that the group very well may still be active in northern Mali, especially after the kidnapping of a Malian spy for the Mauritanian military near Timbuktu not long after the last Mauritanian attack in March) For this to be a reasonable view, a few other things are worth considering:

  • If the MNLA could spook AQIM in to leaving the Azawad then this implies AQIM felt it wasn’t prepared to resist and stand its ground or wasn’t prepared to at the time. This could be due to tribal factors or a lack of comparable or sufficient arms/a willingness to use such arms at the time;
  • If AQIM needed more weapons to protect itself from the MNLA, Mauritanian Army, or others they may not be “moving north” but just falling back and regrouping and perhaps they’re plotting for revenge or to reinsert themselves into the Azawad and retake it as a safe haven, or put themselves in a negotiating position regarding operating in the Azawad with whatever group ends up triumphant in the area;
  • With the above to consideration, Belmokhtar’s presence in Libya may very well be to rearm and put AQIM in a better position to try and return to the Azawad;
  • With respect to the last point above they could also be preparing to find a new safe haven, probably in Libya (given the new government’s lack of capacity, competence and organisation), given that the situation in Mali has become so risky due to the rebellion and the Mauritanians.
  • Recent instability in Sabha (and other towns like Kufra) shows that ethnic and tribal grievances remain prominent in Libya and that the NTC government (and the population) is still learning how to deal with minorities. Perhaps more importantly, the government is still struggling to establish a monopoly of violence throughout the country. Southern Libya presents the region with the same issues northern Mali has in terms of border security and smuggling in various categories. Beyond cities like Sabha in the southwest there are even greater challenges for the government and perhaps opportunities for groups like AQIM. All this is despite whatever progress the NTC government makes on these issues in the medium-long term. But AQIM faces major challenges on this front in the same time frame based on nation, tribal and regional political dynamics, especially if the Sahel states and the Libyan government begin making more serious progress in terms of counterterrorism and border security cooperation (which is largely dependent on the ability of the Libyans to build a credible national military force that other states see as something more than a large militia from Tripoli and in the ability of Libyan leaders to establish greater trust with Nigerien, Malian and Mauritanian leaders despite issues related to the Qadhafi period and ex-regime members some of them harbor).

Explaining the emergence of MUJWA

It is worth re-considering emergence of the MUJWA group in terms of this broad context. Below are three possible explanations of the group’s emergence followed by several assumptions needed to make each explanation “work”. Along with these are questions and considerations regarding those assumptions.

  1. MUJWA is a real organisation resulting from ethnic/national and/or ideological conflict within al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) southern katibas led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid, with non-Algerian and “non-Arab” members.
  2. MUJWA is a strategic deception on the part of AQIM’s command, designed to divert attention from the group’s strategic reorganisation or other activity.
  3. MUJWA is the product of third party infiltration or manipulation of the group’s internal/interpersonal dynamics in order to fragment the organisation.

Explanation one assumes that:

  • Grievances expressed in MUJWA’s first communiqué regarding AQIM’s operations and ideological authenticity are accurate descriptions of its members’ views of AQIM and its activities.
    • Regarding AQIM’s leaders not “seeking martyrdom” and not focusing enough on fighting as opposed to (presumably) financing the jihad or getting rich. Who are the most zealous commanders in AQIM? Who are the most zealous Mauritanians? What katibas are they in?
  • Some level of antagonism exists among Algerian leaders and members and non-Algerian recruits within AQIM.
    • Where does this come from if it exists? Is it personality, ideologically/theologically, tactically racially driven?
  • Some level of controversy exists within AQIM’s leadership and membership regarding the level of the group’s military action against hard targets and the group’s involvement in criminal smuggling networks, probably at the ideological level but possibly also stemming from personal grievances.
    • There is a scene in the Canal + series “Carlos” (about Carlos the Jackal; its politics  and format make it less accurate than it might be and this post is not suggesting it is an accurate depiction of any of the characters in it) where Wadie Haddad and Carlos are arguing over what it means to be a “soldier in the cause” and Carlos makes arguments about how he is more competent than other militants in the PFLP and Haddad scolds him saying that as a soldier Carlos should take orders without questioning or improvising, etc. There are a couple of other scenes like this, and these tensions lead to Carlos being kicked out of the organisation. Carlos’s ego is too big and Haddad is too rigid and controlling. And Carlos looks at the Palestinian struggle as an international (and individual) one whereas Haddad seems to look at the fight from the Palestinian Arab vantage point first and foremost. A Palestinian/non-Palestinian tension comes into play as well; has something like this happened in AQIM where the Algerians are still stuck in the Algerian jihad as Algerians as opposed to acting as if the fight in Algeria is an Algerian front in the global/regional jihad? Do they regard non-Algerian views of their war as less relevant or less informed?
      • Or is there influence from the central command in Algeria that makes it more difficult for the southern katibas to effectively manage their diversity and operate as something other than a money-making operation? Do the needs of the fighters in northern Algeria mean that “strategy” requires less kinetic operations like kidnappings to raise funds as opposed to killing soldiers and foreigners in the way some of the Mauritanians or other recruits might want in joining a jihadist group (?)
        • Another scene from Carlos: After taking the OPEC ministers hostage and being offered 20m USD by the Algerians for their release Carlos and his militant colleagues debate whether to take he money or kill the hostages. Carlos argues the Algerians will storm the plane and kill them if they execute any hostages, so the group should take the money; it will benefit the organisation and the “cause” and leave them with their honour. The other militants vehemently disagree, saying they should follow their orders, and kill the hostages. Carlos responds: I am a revolutionary not a martyr. Are there such dynamics within AQIM?
  • This antagonism exists in one or more of the southern katibas and efforts by AQIM’s leaders (Belmokhtar in particular) to integrate non-Algerian (or non-Arab) leaders into the leadership structure have not adequately addressed these concerns.
    • The 2010 video featuring Kheirou, and the integration of non-Algerians into Belmokhtar’s shura may have felt like tokenism and these fighters may not have been given what they thought was their rightful share in command or in the profits from the group’s involvement in smuggling, for example.

Explanation two assumes that:

  • The grievances expressed in MUJWA’s first communiqué regarding AQIM’s operations and ideological authenticity are not accurate descriptions of its members’ views of AQIM and its activities.
  • The degree of antagonism that exists among Algerians and non-Algerians in AQIM is not as strong as generally thought.
    • For the reasons laid out in detail by other analysts previously.
  • AQIM’s leadership believes it is necessary to change its disposition in the Sahara/Sahel due to internal and/or external factors.
  • MUJWA and AQIM maintain a level of coordination/cooperation and communication.
  • MUJWA is intended to fulfil some medium-long term kinetic role in its area of operations.
    • Or that MUJWA is not intended to fulfil some medium-long term kinetic role in its area of operations and will be reabsorbed/reintegrated into AQIM at some point in the foreseeable future.
  • AQIM’s leadership believes forming/using MUJWA as a tool of strategic deception (with regional states and, potentially, rival/competing) armed groups as its target) out weights possible damage done to its credibility by the criticisms/rhetoric used in MUJWA first communiqué.
    • Or that AQIM believes its organisational credibility among its propaganda’s target audiences is strong enough that the rhetoric and criticism in MUJWA’s first communiqué would not do significant damage to its reputation.
    • Or that AQIM is so desperate to deceive its enemies due to some environmental factor that it is not concerned with the degree of damage the rhetoric and criticism in MUJWA’s first communiqué might do to its credibility or reputation with its propaganda’s target audiences.
      • Does Sultan Ould Badi’s involvement in MUJWA possibly lend support to these assumptions? Ould Badi is known for his involvement in smuggling (including drug smuggling) in the Gao area (he is also rumoured to be associated with Ag Ghali and Oudl Meidou (he is also reportedly half Moor and half Tuareg). More information on Ould Badi’s biography is needed in order to form an informed perspective.

Explanation three assumes that:

  • AQIM’s counterintelligence capabilities are weak enough in the southern katibas to be penetrated by one or more regional intelligence service.
    • Which one is mostly to have succeeded in doing this? Mauritania, Algeria, Mali are likely suspects; Mauritania and Algeria more likely than the Malians given the known relationships between the Malian security apparatus and AQIM. Is there any possibility of a French or other European connection if this assumption at all holds up (supposed Italian agents were arrested in Mauritania a couple of years ago, for example, monitoring converts in mosques in Mauritania)?
  • One or more regional intelligence service has had success in penetrating AQIM and placing a provocative agent or agents within the organisation to the extent that non-Algerian (or non-Arab) members have been manipulated and developed grievances against AQIM’s leadership to the point of breaking with the organisation.
    • This assumption probably requires looking into Kheirou’s involvement in the GSPC/AQIM and the history of Mauritanians getting promoted within AQIM. Could anyone have been denied/passed up for promotions or felt they were overlooked? Or were there any who were more fanatical and less patient than the average?)
  • Ethnic/national and ideological grievances within AQIM’s membership are acute enough to be manipulated by external agents, and that one or more regional intelligence service has been competent enough to detect and exploit them.
    • This is obvious but requires a lot of thinking in terms of how and when and so on and so forth.
  • Vulnerabilities in the quality of personnel among non-Algerian AQIM members are stronger than previously thought.

So there are still more questions than answers and probably more interpretations of the situation worth considering.


14 thoughts on “General Thoughts on the Tuareg rebellion and AQIM

  1. That was a long post. Regarding Libya – toubou won’t accept having bearded algerians and mauretanians building camps on their land; remember what happened to El Para (did you see this interesting video btw? – ).
    And neither would the arab tribes of Libya endure being led by algerians. But they will happily sell MBM arms – although I doubt he went personally to Libya. No proof for that, eh?

    It is the same problem for Aqim with recruiting to the Malian camps, there are many Mauretanians and black africans who resent being led by algerians. See interviews with defected Aqim recruits. And there has been (well grounded) accusations of racism, since most (all?) of the suicide bombers deplyed have been dark skinned..
    I thought the MUJWA was started as a reaction to that, probably in combination with a wish to go into business for themselves.
    But then the bombing in Tamanrasset was claimed by MUJWA and it seemed more likely that Droukdel was trying to divert attention from north Algeria, where they are under pressure. And MUJWA was a decoy.
    Now I hear MUJWA also claimed the taking of Gao? Too many rumours. Impossible to know what is going on.

    I asked a year or two ago about AQIM exit strategies for when the Malian desert would become too hostile for them, and that may be what we are seeing now. I said then that north Nigeria should be tempting, and now they are there. I expect to see a spread of AQ inspired jihadism over WA, with cells in larger cities such as Kano where they can operate without being seen. Which as you wrote will mean that they will change their appearance and may not be wearing long beards and robes anymore.
    Whether they will be successful remains to be seen. There’s talk about counter strategies where even Morocco and Algeria will cooperate; that would be new start, no?

  2. Hi Kal. So glad to read your insights: you fill a tremendous void on serious and non-polemical writing on these problems.

    Just to complicate this picture further, Baba Ould Cheikh’s name was mentioned as among those who were set to attack Gao city last week leading his Bourem-based Maure smuggling gang (now “militia”). His name was mentioned in the same sentence as “MUJWA” (all as people “converging” on Gao, with a host of other nonspecific descriptors and no indication of connection, though the writer clearly believed they were all one mob).

    If there is no relation — and there is probably only one of business colleagues at rival firms — then Gao and several other of these “rebel” operations appear more like a smash and grab, taking advantage of the power vacuum left by the collapse of the Malian Army.

    The problem is that negotiations may also create a political vacuum — one that will dwarf the hulking absence of the state seen since the 1990s. The behavior of the jihadist group who were on Sunday reported still holding the small barracks by the governate in the south of Gao city-center, added to some muddled evidence from Kidal and Gao, may show an inclination of these people to stay on and practice a little social experimentation beside their business pursuits.

    None of these little authorities are likely to last, any more than certain Touareg tribes control over Tombouctou or Gao is likely to persist. But to the point of your article, the current absence of any legitimate — or even military — authority in the northern half of Mali may create attractive opportunities for a whole host of groups to stay on, and fragment as each leader grabs his bit.

  3. Besides the Tuaregs, where are these fellas who have been doing GWOT since 2004? AQMI and its subsidiaries are just left growing. Wondering for example where all these people fighting Mali refuel their 4×4.

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