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09.22.12

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: North African Menace

The investigation into the deadly Libya attack continues, but the spotlight has fallen on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Bruce Riedel on the terror cell’s North African menace.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, long the global jihad’s weakest link, is now thriving across North and West Africa. Its exact role in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 is still unclear. But the perception that it was involved in the revenge killing of an American ambassador is already developed in the jihadist underworld.  

AQIM was created about five years ago from the remnants of an Algerian terrorist group dating back to the 1990s. It started with a big bang, blowing up a United Nations building in Algiers. Then it faded into a small terror gang engaged in kidnapping and extortion in Mali, Niger, and other Saharan states. AQIM had no role in sparking the Arab Spring in Tunisia in early 2011. But it has skillfully exploited the chaotic openings that followed in Libya and Mali.

Al Qaeda has deep roots and connections to associated movements that date back to the 1990s. Al Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan for years has also included a sizable Libyan faction with strong connections back home. Among these was Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior operative who was killed in a drone attack this summer in Pakistan. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Egyptian Amir of al Qaeda, eulogized him on the eve of Sept. 11 and urged revenge. Now it increasingly looks like AQIM operatives played some role in orchestrating the deadly attack on our consulate to avenge al-Libi. AQIM has publicly called the death of Chris Stevens a “blessed gift” that should be emulated by attacks on other American targets across North and West Africa, from Morocco to Nigeria, to avenge al-Libi, Osama bin Laden, and other “martyrs.”

America must redouble its efforts to reach people in the spheres of everyday life, helping them to embrace pluralism and human rights and to better associate these values with America.

In northern Mali, AQIM is building a base for orchestrating more such carnage. AQIM has built alliances with other jihadist groups in Mali to take control of an area the size of France or Texas. European intelligence services are already detecting the migration of European Muslim jihadists to training bases in Mali, just as earlier generations of jihadis went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to train with al Qaeda’s core. Moroccan government sources fear Mali is becoming the most serious threat to North African stability in decades. The weak West African states appear incapable of dealing with Mali, and they are not getting much leadership help from outside. Burdened with an economic crisis, Europe does not want to take on the challenge. Mali’s biggest and richest neighbor, Algeria, is disappointing its friends by taking a very low profile in dealing with Mali’s jihadi menace.

Al Qaeda’s mother ship has been severely disrupted in the past four years by the drones in Pakistan. But the collapse of law and order across the Arab world has given the jihadists a huge operational opportunity that it has seized with enthusiasm. A drone attack in South Asia has unintended ripples in North Africa because even a weakened al Qaeda core still can inspire violence across the Islamic world. Bin Laden’s dream of inspiring a global jihad has sadly outlived him.