From AQIM in the Sahel to Shabaab in the Horn, al Qaeda Affiliates Squabble & Fracture

Well, it seems al Qaeda has found some cracks in its foundation.  For those that believe al Qaeda’s ideology is all powerful, please read below.

The Associated Press released yet another internal document from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  This document dated October 3, 2012 details the break off of Moktar Belmoktar. Yet again, we see another Al Qaeda affiliate crumbling from internal disputes. Just like Omar Hammami’s complaints about Shabaab’s taxation policy with regards to qat, AQIM and Belmoktar quibbled about ransoms and money.  With respect to Belmoktar (aka Abu Abbas in the letter), AQIM’s Shura Council has many sharp words and accusations, noting:
The man, based on the loftiness of his ability, his precedence in jihad and his prowess, remained for more than a decade independent in opinion and autonomous in decisionmaking, linked to the organization’s leadership only by slogan. He paid no mind, gave no consideration, did not abide by and did not adhere to the principle of “hear and obey,” nor did he stick to the directives or work by the orders coming from the emirate….all tho is testimony to the fact that Abu Abbas is not willing to follow anyone, and that he is satisfied only when followed and obeyed.
Essentially, Belmoktar never really was a team player.  It seems Belmoktar followed the O.Y.O. (On Your Own) way of business I suggested last year.
The organization paid particular attention to this abduction because of the nature of the Canadian captives – one of them was the personal representative of the U.N. Secretary General.  We strove to give htis case an international dimension.  We tried to coordinate with the leadership in Khorasan [Afghanistan/Pakistan – (AQ Central)]. But unfortunately, we met the obstacle of Khaled.  Rather than walking with us in the plan we outlined, he managed the case however he liked, despite our repeated insistence that the case should be under the administration of the organization.  He chose to step outside the organization and reach an agreement in his own way, he did not follow the organization’s instructions.
Moktar Belmoktar

Moktar Belmoktar

So AQIM was trying to coordinate the high level Canadian kidnapping with AQ Central. Not only did Belmohtar blow off AQIM, he ransomed too low in the eyes of the AQIM leadership. After this, AQIM accuses Belmoktar of not pulling off any high visibility attacks.  I think the An Amenas gas plant and now Niger suicide bombings must make up for that.  I guess Belmokhtar got the message and maybe this letter motivated him.

It also seems that Belmokhtar is a “Don’t call me, I’ll call you” kind of guy.

Why do you only turn on your phone with the Emirate when you need it, while your communication with some media is almost never ending!

And Belmokhtar didn’t turn his TPS reports in on time!
We ask you also: How many administrative and financial reports have you sent up to your Emirate?

More importantly, this letter suggests 1) Belmokhtar desired to setup a separate and independent communications channel with AQ Central- Zawahiri and certain al Qaeda web forums (Maybe he did?!) and 2) AQIM struggled to maintain contact and receive guidance from a bottled up AQ Central in AFPAK (Presumably getting droned to death).

Our dear brothers, we find it a strange contradiction in your message, that idea of separating from the leadership of the Islamic Maghreb and instead connecting with the leadership in Khorasan [Afghanistan/Pakistan]. The great obstacles between us and the central leadership are not unknown to you.  They are far greater than any obstacles imaginable with the closer, local leadership that borders you.  For example, since we vowed our allegiance up until this very day, we have only gotten a few messages from our emirs in Khorasan, the two sheikhs, bin Laden (God rest his soul) and Ayman (God preserve him). From time to time, we also received messages from the two sheikhs Attiyat Ullah (Attiyah) and Abu Yahia al-Libi (God rest their souls). All this, despite our multiple letters to them for them to deal with us effectively in managing jihad here.

Last year, I noted that:

Jihadi militant group leaders have now entered the “O.Y.O.” era – On Your Own.  Militant groups are rebuilding, consolidating, finding new bases of support and new financial backers. …An upstart militant group leader .. competing for funding and popular support amongst a sea of militant groups has no reason to wait for a far off al Qaeda leader (Zawahiri for example), whom they likely don’t even know nor receive any funding from, to issue orders about who to attack.

Well, this AQIM letter confirms some of the challenges the group faced during its height noted in the first AP letter published a few months back.

We only bring this up so that our brothers understand that the idea of adhering to the central leadership rather than the local leadership is not realistic.

One more key note, the letter does confirm that there were, at a minimum, some loose connections between AQIM and other militant groups in Libya.

Two others were formed in the Sahara, under the Tareq bin Zayed Brigade.  They were able to enter Libyan territory and lay the first practical bricks there.  Their projects are still active to this day.

It seems like Belmokhtar tried to set up his own links in Libya separate from those of AQIM.  Again, I always caution, don’t overstate “links”. It seems both Belhmoktar and AQIM wanted to bring the AQ militant elements in Libya under their influence.  But, maybe the Libyan groups didn’t/don’t want to be subordinate to AQIM? Maybe they, like Belmokhtar, would like to have their own channel to AQ Central? If you are Ansar al-Sharia or some other element in Libya, why fall under the direction of AQIM; a group that is already struggling to stay in touch with AQ central?

Last quote, can’t resist this one.  It seems Belmokhtar didn’t like the restructuring of AQIM in 2006.  But AQIM noted this restructuring was because of:

the lowering number of mujahedeen and the widening territory in the north.

So when you see al Qaeda in more places or spread out geographically, it doesn’t always mean they are growing in strength.  It could mean the opposite.  And this may further illuminate the group’s decision to transform from GSPC and formally join al Qaeda – recruitment was down.

The entire letter is a fascinating primary document and again, like the earlier AP release of an AQIM letter, important for understanding what a post-Bin Laden al Qaeda looks like. The letter brings up several points for evaluating how terrorism may work in the future and what might happen “If there is no al Qaeda“.

  • The value of Bin Laden to al Qaeda:  For the second time in two years, we can see the value Bin Laden provided the Al Qaeda organization up until his death.  Bin Laden was hesitant, for good reasons, in having a formal relationship with Shabaab in Somalia.  After his death, Zawahiri pushed Al Qaeda into a formal alliance with Shabaab in 2012.  Al Qaeda Central now has an embarrassing affiliate with different factions fighting each other in the Horn Africa while also being on the retreat from Allied forces.  Ibrahim al-Afghani published an open plea to Zawahiri on a web page requesting the removal of Shabaab’s leader Godane – Zawahiri must be kicking himself.  Meanwhile, in the Sahara, we see another Al Qaeda affiliate where different leaders compete and quarrel over resources, strategic direction and access to AQ’s senior leader.  A Bin Laden led al Qaeda would not have this kind of public fracturing going on.  Bin Laden would have sent a message to these troubled subordinates – “Enough”.  And the affiliates would have listened because 1) Bin Laden maintained sustained communications up until his death 2) Bin Laden was central to the distribution of resources and 3) Bin Laden was respected for his successes.  This all leads to the next question…..
  • Is there really an al Qaeda Central and is Zawahiri really leading all these different groups?: I don’t doubt that Zawahiri still maintains public respect and that al Qaeda members will say they are loyal to him.  I also think Zawahiri has a command relationship in certain locales where he maintains physical relationships with old al Qaeda members, namely Egypt, possibly Yemen and some in Libya (Longer paper coming out on this in a while). But, if you are a young jihadi commander and, 1) you haven’t had any communication with Zawahiri in months, 2) you don’t receive any resources from AQ Central and you are entirely self-funded and 3) you only get guidance from AQ Central through intermediaries that you believe are incompetent, corrupt or both, why would you continue to wait on al Qaeda?  You probably wouldn’t! And I think that is what we see happening today in both the Sahel and Somalia.  Belmoktar has seized an opportunity to pursue his own “al Qaeda” vision and in Somalia we see Omar Hammami publicly and Ibrahim al-Afghani and Hassan Aweys more politically striking out on their own path.  Omar Hammami represents this confusion best, he wants to support AQ but he hates the local AQ leader (Godane) that he is supposed to follow. Screen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.07.53 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-29 at 9.11.02 AM
  • Resources can easily undermine ideology: In Africa, there’s more competition for resources and I’m not surprised this is where we see ideology being undermined by resource competition. In Somalia, there’s constant competition for resources, turf and control. Today, in Shabaab, Godane, Robow, Aweys and Afghani each try to morph al Qaeda’s ideology and brand to their advantage.  In the Sahara, we see something slightly different where kidnapping royalties and illicit smuggling revenues controlled by a leader like Belmoktar can increase his power vis-a-vis AQIM’s leadership.
  • Distance and limited communication breed mistrust: As the distance between al Qaeda’s affiliates and AQ’s central leadership increases and communication decreases, mistrust ensues.  Likewise, even the decentralized “Starfish” organization of al Qaeda needs leadership to achieve lasting gains.  Today, Belmoktar has solved al Qaeda’s “put up or shut up” problem.  With each spectacular attack, his influence grows.  Likewise, I would look to Jabhat al-Nusra today.  The most prolific leaders of the Syrian jihad will be the next leaders of Salafi-Jihadi militancy – something that looks “al Qaeda like” at times, but may be called something entirely different.
  • Is a live Zawahiri better than a dead Zawahiri?: Let me be clear, at the first available opportunity, I think the U.S. should kill or capture Zawahiri.  No doubt about it.  However, Zawahiri, despite being respected internationally for being a strategic thinker, might actually be preventing the emergence of the next, more effective version of al Qaeda.  Again, I don’t believe that Zawahiri is keeping a lid on violence, he needs an attack on the West in a big way in order to reassert his authority.  But, his intermittent and erratic communication with affiliates, loss of affiliate control and opportunistic piggy-backing on Jabhat al-Nusra’s success may actually be doing al Qaeda more harm than good.  I would imagine Zawahiri is plotting an attack on the West this minute and building a strategy to re-energize al Qaeda through Syria. But, his persistent involvement may actually be slowing the development of the next wave of Salafi-Jihadi militancy.

Kidnapping: Why Al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms

Yesterday, the Foreign Policy Research Institute provided me another opportunity to post on their blog Geopoliticus.  For this post, I did an extended discussion and update to a series of posts I did with Alex Thurston several years back regarding AQIM’s use of kidnapping in the Sahel.  For the old discussions of AQIM & others’ kidnapping operations see these posts and Alex’s excellent insights at these posts –  #1, #2, #3, #4 and #5.

In this new post, entitled “Why al Qaeda Needs Donations More Than Ransoms,” I discuss the trade offs and disadvantages for al Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM that are dependent on illicit funding schemes, namely kidnapping, to sustain their operations.  I conclude with the opinion that al Qaeda needs donations more than ransoms if they intend to orchestrate a comeback.  Here’s an excerpt of the post below and for the entire post, visit this link at FPRI.

“On the surface, kidnapping and smuggling appears an ideal financial engine for terror groups like al Qaeda and its affiliates. This assertion, however, ignores the inherent challenges encountered when any organization, whether terrorist group to criminal enterprise, undertakes illicit funding schemes.  Kidnapping and ransom operations introduce significant transaction costs which significantly devalue the gross sum of revenues.  Kidnapping operations create a series of internal costs for terror groups:

  • Networks Of Intermediaries –  Negotiations and payments for kidnapping operations require layers of middlemen with each network extracting a percentage of the overall take.

  • Transaction Time – The time between hostage taking and ransom payments can be significant requiring the terror group to maintain a solid reserve of capital to sustain its operations between transactions.  Essentially, time is money, and in the case of kidnapping operations, a cost to the terror group.

  • Hostage Deaths – The trauma of kidnapping and the harsh environments in which terrorist groups operate often result in the death of hostages.  The death of a hostage hurts the terror group directly in terms of loss revenues. But, even more damage occurs indirectly as the hostage death erodes trust for future ransom negotiations.

  • Infighting – In any business, transactions often lead to conflict.  This is particularly true in illicit industries where trust is constantly being questioned.  Kidnapping negotiations naturally generate friction between intermediaries and when negotiations become protracted parties may turn to open conflict.

  • Declines in Hostage Availability – As groups like AQIM continue to kidnap hostages, the availability of hostages naturally declines requiring the terror group to operate at longer distances to acquire captives.  This distance imposes significant logistical costs.

  • Undermines Terror Group’s Ideology – Inevitably, in illicit schemes and even licit enterprises, business gets messy and the terror group must make choices with regards to sustaining its resource flow.  Often times, these choices result in alienation of a terror group’s local base of popular support or hypocritical conflicts of interest between the terror group’s deeds and its words.  The recent accusations of Omar Hammami, an American foreign fighter who has fallen out of favor with al Shabaab, demonstrate how al Shabaab’s turning a blind eye to Qat distribution in Somalia for the purpose of taxation has called into question the group’s committment to al Qaeda’s ideology and Sharia law.

  • Opportunity Costs – When al Qaeda is dedicating more time, manpower and resources to illicit fund generation, they are spending less time recruiting and training new operatives, planning operations and executing attacks.”

Also, @el_Grillo1 made a point which I overlooked in the FPRI post.  Another detractor of illicit revenue generation for al Qaeda groups is the scrutiny brought on terrorists by law enforcement and the military when they conduct illegal activities like kidnapping and drug smuggling. An important point that I overlooked in the FPRI post.  Here is a quick chart I put together showing the relative value of illicit funds to donor provided dollars.



Not-so-Ideological, al Qaeda-linked, Islamist Narco-terrorists on the run in Mali

The French intervention into Mali has forced the media to try and dissect the numerous militant groups operating in the Sahel.  Newscasters have no idea what to call the groups controlling parts of Mali.  Pundits and many news readers prefer to just call them “al Qaeda” as that’s a known brand quickly associated with the 9/11 attacks.

The straight labeling of all violence in the Sahel as al Qaeda gets really tricky, really quickly.  Some northern Mali militant groups don’t necessarily believe themselves to be al Qaeda.  However, this hasn’t stopped many an ‘expert’ from using Mali as another reason to call for once again “defeating the virulent, ideology of al Qaeda that continues to spread around the world, only then can we stop terrorism.” However, many of the so-called al Qaeda linked groups pontificated on by pundits appear less committed ideologically than one might expect. This past weekend’s New York Times article “French Capture Strategic Airport To Retake North Mali” describes how local Malians were none to impressed by the religious commitment of their visiting jihadis.

Boubacar Diallo, a local political leader, said that only a few rebel fighters came at first. Later, hundreds more joined them, overwhelming the Malian soldiers based here. He said he never saw them pray and scoffed at their assertion that they would teach the Muslim population a purer form of Islam.

“They say they are Muslims, but I don’t know any Muslim who does not pray,” Mr. Diallo said.

The article noted earlier that the backgrounds of the foreign fighters varied considerably amongst the AQIM splinter group – Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).  (By the way, Andrew Lebovich has done an excellent breakdown of the groups in Mali at Jihadica see: AQIM, old GIA/GSPC, Blood Signers, MUJWA, Ansar al-Din.)

The rebels spoke many languages, the residents said. Some were light-skinned Arabs and Tuaregs, a nomadic people, while others were dark-skinned people who spoke the local languages of Niger, Nigeria and Mali.

Some analysts have been parsing the statements of these AQIM splinter groups in the Sahel looking for the smoking gun and direct ideological links that clearly reveal each of the militants in Mali as part of a global al Qaeda nexus. However, the labels placed on the fighters/militants rampaging through the Sahel change from daily. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, one man’s terrorist is another man’s mercenary, another man’s mercenary is another man’s patriot, another man’s patriot is ……..I think you get the picture.

In my opinion, when it comes to the Sahel, focus on resources rather than ideology if one wants to know the direction of militant groups. As I discussed a year ago, the play for al Qaeda to conduct long-run recruitment in sub-Saharan Africa has come from buying local support through resource distribution in the near-term as a pathway to cementing ideological commitment to al Qaeda over the long-term.  Here’s a hypothetical diagram I posted last year of what I estimate the initial recruitment cost might be to gain an adherent in Africa; represented as a combination of tangible and intangible benefits.


Here are some additional reasons why I believe AQIM and its splinter groups will have trouble sustaining their momentum over the long run.

  • RacismWhen I was doing research of al Qaeda’s initial forays into Somalia in the early 1990’s, it was interesting to see how condescending and elitist the Arab members of al Qaeda were to their African members.  In the Sahel, my impression is that the African clan/tribal groups, at least to this point, seem content to let Arab foreign fighters and folks from Algeria direct their operations.  However, in Somalia, as Omar Hammami can attest, the local clans have persistently been less than receptive to being bossed around by foreign al Qaeda leaders. In Sudan, Bin Laden paid Arab volunteers at a higher rate than he did African members and this wage discrepancy later led to Jamal al-Fadl embezzling from al Qaeda and betraying them as a witness for the Embassy Bombings trial.  It’s also important to note that when Zawahiri called in 2007 for international volunteers to support the jihad in Somalia, only a few answered the call and most were ethnic Somalis or Kenyans accompanied by only a trickle of Westerners and Arabs.  As Omar Hammami can tell you, answering that call turned out to be a bad decision as he has been expelled mostly for being a foreigner challenging local leaders. (Right Omar?) Today, I’m guessing most jihadi recruits are still more excited to join an Arab dominated jihad in Syria over a campaign in West Africa. So in the long-run, how long will local African tribes adhere to the guidance of their foreign masters while under pressure from the French?  I’m guessing not very long.  
  • Excessive violence alienates local populations – As of my writing this post, I’ve started to see reports of retaliatory violence by Malians against those who stayed in Timbuktu and became subservient to AQIM. I’m guessing this aggressive behavior likely comes in part as a reaction to the severe form of Sharia instituted by AQIM in North Mali. As noted above, the ideological commitment of these al Qaeda linked splinters (MUJWA, Ansar al Dine) appears low so the violence dished out on locals equivocates “Sharia” to “lopping off the hands of anyone that challenges the group or does something the group doesn’t like.”  Essentially, Sharia for locals in Mali feels a lot like the extortion of organized criminals, not enlightened ideologues.
  • Reliance on illicit revenues – While Belmohktar’s bold attack in Algeria likely generated needed attention and maybe appealed to a couple fanatical donors, AQIM and its splinters still really heavy on illicit financing to sustain their operations.  The Sahel is a difficult place to attract Gulf donor support and an even more difficult place to transfer donor funds.  Lacking a strong donor base and more restricted in their ability to conduct illicit financing after the French intervention, I suspect AQIM’s influence and ability to project will contract in the coming months.  This does not mean they won’t be able to conduct an operation, but I believe the pace of their efforts will have to scale down.