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.

recruitment

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.

The Sahel Heats Up: AQIM, Algeria, Mali & France

The past few weeks I’ve been focused on the Horn of Africa, but the real story in terrorism has been occurring in the Sahel.  There is way too much to talk about in one blog post. However, I’ll make a few notes here about the current situation in West Africa.

  • Sahel Experts I Listen To – As I noted in a previous post about AQIM and the Sahel, these are the folks I would recommend listening to on this topic. Also, I’ve embedded a clip from @tweetsintheME with Wolf Blitzer on CNN down below.

In general, I turn to @tweetsintheME@themoornextdoorDr. Geoff Porter@tommymiles and @Hannahaniya to keep me informed on the daily fluctuations and insecurity of the Sahel and recommend their blogs and Twitter feeds to all those wanting to stay up to speed.

  •  Most Frustrating Media Analysis Thus Far – A consistent theme in the media thus far has been that the intervention to oust Qaddafi in Libya is the reason why there’s more terrorism coming from the Sahel.  Analysts taking this line imply that the West should not intervene to oust authoritarian dictators because unforeseen events might occur in the future that are bad.  I’m also guessing these same ‘experts’ next week will be bashing administrations for not yet intervening in Syria to help topple a dictator and end a humanitarian crisis.  These flip-flopping analysts love events like this where they can trace backward to past events as causes for current conflict.  However, I don’t remember many analysts saying that the Libya intervention would lead to instability and the rise of terrorism in Mali. Most were focused on the obvious instability that would come amongst Libyan factions after the fall of Qaddafi. In general, I can’t stand analysts that take this course as they can always find a reason not to do something and their ‘Loss Aversion’ leads policymakers to pursue inaction, which also has its second and third order effects as well. Let me think real quick, has there ever been a case where a policy of inaction went awry? Oh yeah, there were those attacks on September 11, 2001.  I could go on about this forever, but I won’t.  Bottom line: Extremist growth in Mali and the Sahel has been going on steadily back to at least 2008 and results from the confluence of many factors rather than just one factor.
  • How about France! – One of the things I’ve been most impressed with is France jumping into the fight executing an intervention in Mali on the same day they attempted a hostage rescue in Somalia.  The French took casualties in both operations, but they have stopped the march of militants southwest into interior Mali. Nice to see other countries taking action against terrorists to protect their own interests.  I’ll be interested to see how long they can hold out.
  • AQIM is the new epicenter of al Qaeda! (Or is it Yemen, Somalia, Syria?) – Media analysis of the situation and Mali and Algeria is absolutely hilarious.  I’ve seen several stories discussing how the Sahara is the new top Al Qaeda threat and shows the resilience of the network and the strength of the terror group.  Amazingly the same media outlets don’t appear to research any of their own reporting.  As has been discussed here, the story of Al Qaeda growth and strength repeats every few months.  Four months ago Libya was the center of attention. Six months before that it was Yemen. And three months before that it was Somalia.  Today, one hardly hears a peep about Somalia where Shabaab’s alliance with Al Qaeda has crumbled under the pressures of clan disputes.  And in Yemen, reporting has died down to merely a trickle.  So I am curious to see how long discussion will stay focused on the Sahara.

Today, the center of attention has moved away from France’s Mali intervention, though, and rests specifically on the hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria.  This is a fascinating turn of events and leads me to several things to explore in the coming days.

  • The attack was prepared before the French intervention – I have to believe that Belmokhtar’s attack on the gas facility was prepared a significant amount of time before the French intervention. The interesting fact is that he likely prepared the attack and waited for the appropriate time to launch such that he could gain international attention and use it for his own purposes.  While this attack is significant, the timing of his next attack will be more important.  As noted in some excellent research back in 2011, its the pace of attacks, not the size of any single attack, that are indicative of a terror affiliate’s strength.
  • Mokhtar

  • Is the In Amenas attack as much about internal AQIM power plays than strategically attacking the West? – The focus for the most part has been on how the attack was spectacular and hit Westerners.  However, as was discussed here a few weeks back, maybe this attack by Belhmoktar represents his efforts to reclaim the throne as leader of AQIM.  See this post from a few weeks back.  Did Belhmoktar launch this attack in coordination with AQIM? I don’t know, but if he didn’t coordinate, this attack could be a power play for him to shore up support locally and fighters and resources globally.
  • Could Belhmoktar be the inspiring leader for al Qaeda’s next generation? – Last summer, I noted the following in a report “What if there is no al Qaeda?” -

Where are the most talented al-Qaeda veterans going? Today, analysts should seek to identify what path al-Qaeda’s most talented veterans are choosing to pursue. Al-Qaeda’s limited centralized control has likely encouraged some talented terrorists to move on to new groups. Knowing where these veterans go will be essential for anticipating future threats.

In the winter of 2011, I was deliberating as to the effect of al Qaeda losing its key international recruiters inspiring young people.

Who will lead al Qaeda’s next wave of radicalization? Al Qaeda needs a new inspirational messenger to ramp up its global radicalization and recruitment. Only a select few al Qaeda leaders have actually generated significant audience to radicalize many recruits. Three of al Qaeda’s most effective messengers, Bin Laden, Zarqawi and Awlaki, all blended a unique combination of competence and charisma to radicalize and inspire recruits.

So, is Belhmoktar, AKA Mr. Marlboro, the first new inspiring leader of a new generation of Salafi-Jihadi extremism?  He’s a bit weak on the ideological aspects, but he’s a veteran fighter with charisma and attacks under his belt.  I guess only time will tell.

Here’s the clip of @TweetsintheME on CNN.

 

 

 

AQIM Fractures: New Leaders & New Money in the Sahel

For several weeks there has been rumbling of  al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fragmenting in the Sahel.  This morning, All Africa reports:

Former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar (aka “Laaouar”) quit the group to assemble his own band of suicide bombers in northern Mali. …The Algerian terrorist (real name Khaled Abou El Abass) reportedly left AQIM after his demotion as head of the El Moulethemine katibat (“Brigade of the Veiled Ones”)

It appears Belmokhtar wants to create his own terrorist group, which I imagine will compete with AQIM for recruits, turf, weapons and money.

The new terrorist group “is headquartered in the Malian city of Gao, which is under the control of Islamists from the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), an offshoot of AQIM”….Through the creation of the new group, Belmokhtar wants “to help to consolidate Sharia rule in northern Mali, where armed Islamists are enforcing Islamic law very strictly after having driven the Malian army out in the spring,” the French daily added… Belmokhtar will finance his activities “including the purchase of weapons” by “specialising in the kidnapping of Westerners, whom he usually frees in return for large ransoms”.

So why would Mokhtar, a long-time leader of AQIM, break from the group that according to ‘Western analysts’ is becoming so strong?  Much of the recent counterterrorism analysis I have read suggests that ransoms from kidnappings, foreign fighters moving to the Sahel, weapons from Libya’s collapse has all led to unity and strength in AQIM.  But is that the case, the All Africa article suggests something different.

“One of the reasons for this dissent is the disagreement between these leaders over how to share the ransoms paid for the release of Western hostages,” said Abdalahi Ould Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Chouhoud….”As the organisation has grown and incorporated fighters of different origins, conflicts of interests have become increasingly frequent,” he added….Journalist Hamid Fekhart argued that “Droukdel’s decision was motivated by the unruliness of his junior, who is thought to have been gunning for him over the past few months. Security sources say that the supreme leader, who tried in vain to bring Mokhtar Belmokhtar to heel, simply decided to relieve him of his duties as part of a bid to reorganise AQIM.”…Fekhart noted that his successor, thirty-six year old Abou El Hammam, was reportedly “behind the kidnapping of an Italian-Burkina Faso couple in the Sahel in December 2010″.

Well, it looks like more money and fighters has led to more conflict than unity in AQIM.  Analysis suggesting more of any one terror group input (Weapons, money, fighters, etc) will lead directly to a stronger collective whole (AQIM) naively ignores the one thing that is most difficult to quantify and analyze: Human nature.

Concurrent to recent discussions of the rise of Shabaab (February-ish 2012), AQAP in Yemen (May-ish 2012) and then AQIM (Summer-ish 2012) has been the notion that al Qaeda’s ideology continues unabated, stronger than ever, and remains a binding tie that overides petty disputes within the terror group over leadership and resources.  GARBAGE! Ideology and money go hand-in-hand for al Qaeda.  Money without ideology turns AQ affiliates into little more than organized criminal groups.  Ideology without money, over time, renders al Qaeda nothing more than a poorly resourced cult drowned out by better financed Muslim Brotherhood affiliated organizations.  As Gregory Johnsen noted in his book on AQAP, what separated Bin Laden and al Qaeda from other militant groups was that:

“Bin Laden talked less than others, but he planned more.  And he had something no one else had: money.”

In June, I argued that the al Qaeda of 9/11/2001 really does not exist today.  One of the reasons I pushed this theory arises from the new state of acquisition and allocation of resources amongst al Qaeda affiliates.  Across al Qaeda’s global footprint, decentralization has led to there being more incentive for affiliates to compete than cooperate.  With Bin Laden’s death, donors spread their funds more diffusely and local affiliate illicit revenue schemes must increase. Ultimately, this change leads to al Qaeda affiliates with waning allegiance to al Qaeda Central.  As I noted in July,

As money transfers shift, influence, authority and strategic direction will drift.

For counterterrorists, Belmokhtar’s defection will hopefully prove to be instructive.  How do we replicate the conditions that led to Belmokhtar’s creation of a competing terror group?  In some cases, infrequent but well calculated drone strikes on key AQ leaders, I believe, can be very effective.  However, I think in the end it might be subtle, indirect actions that help exploit these factors.  What if the French or Germans were to only pay kidnapping ransoms to one leader of AQIM as opposed to another?  Could we use the unfortunate action of having to pay ransoms as a method/opportunity for creating dissension in the ranks of a loosely formed al Qaeda coalition?  Maybe.

Chaos in the Sahel: AQIM, Ansar al Dine & Others

I’ve been slow to discuss the fascinating turn of events in the Sahel in recent months.  Mali, considered by some a great hope for democracy in West Africa, has fallen to pieces in a combined resistance effort from the Tuareg rebellion and AQIM affiliated groups heavily-armed by weapons proliferating from the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in Libya.

In general, I turn to @tweetsintheME, @themoornextdoor, Dr. Geoff Porter, @tommymiles and @Hannahaniya to keep me informed on the daily fluctuations and insecurity of the Sahel and recommend their blogs and Twitter feeds to all those wanting to stay up to speed.  However, I’m reading a group of interesting articles and analysis to get a better handle on the situation.  Here are some of my general thoughts and recommended readings linked in each section.

  • Thankfully young AQ upstart/affiliated groups haven’t read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Much like the Taliban in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Ansar al Sharia in Yemen and al Shabaab in Somalia, Ansar al Dine has decided to make a harsh environment, Northern Mali, even harsher by instituting a tyrannical form of Sharia governance.  A refugee quoted in The Washington Post notes:
    “First they ordered women to cover up. Then they ordered us not to enter the market,” said Yatara, a food seller, her voice rising. “ I could not make money to feed my child. This is against our traditions. This is against the Islam we know.” So what’s Ansar al Dine’s endgame, if it is not to win popular support?  Here’s another quote: “There’s no work, no food. And they are restricting our freedoms,” Maiga said. “Why should we stay?”  Strategically, for Ansar al Dine, I can’t understand what is to be gained by seizing and holding Timbuktu only to destroy some Islamic shrines, displace all the residents and stunt the economy – which was likely a source for Ansar al Dine to generate operational funds.  I would hope residents of Northern Mali and competing groups will soon stand up to this group.  We’ll see as the land holds little value for refugees to return to.
  • Geography matters: Ansar al Dine is “out in Timbuktu” after all.  Some have begun speculating about whether Ansar al Dine is building a terrorist safe haven comparable to what is occurring in Yemen.  At this point, I’m skeptical as the center of the Sahara is a harsh geography from which to operate.  Westerners often speak unflatteringly about places difficult to reach as “being way out in Timbuktu”.  This isn’t just a joke!  Timbuktu is a harsh geography; a difficult place to project terrorism, generate revenue, resource operations, and attract recruits.  Sure, terrorist attacks can be generated from here, but it’s not the easiest nor best safe haven for executing global terrorism.
  • Impacts of no detention policy – Two weeks back I discussed the progressive limitations placed on U.S. counterterrorism policy and the implications of these decisions.  Well, again the lack of a detention and extradition policy/program has come to haunt the U.S.  This past weekend, Mauritania, for reasons I can’t grasp, reportedly released Mahfouz Ould al-Walid (alias Abu Hafs al-Mauritani) al Qaeda’s Grand Mufti and one of the remaining AQ senior leaders with some connection back to Zawahiri and AQ Central in Pakistan.  Again, a U.S. counterterrorism “Partner” has released a key prisoner.  Much like we’ve seen in Yemen with prison escapes and AQAP strengthening, I expect al-Mauritani has or soon will join AQIM in the Sahel and strengthen the groups connections with other AQ affiliates, provide some leadership and potentially inspire some recruitment.  Bad news all around, begging the question about how the U.S. works with CT partners moving forward.  If the U.S. can’t detain AQ operatives, U.S. partners can’t detain operatives, and drones are bad, what should the U.S. do?  Train and equip partner armies and militias?  Oh yeah, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Initiative?  Right.
  • Great Info Map of Current Sahel: Lastly, I saw this post at the Arabist, which shows an excellent map from Monde Diplo diagramming current Sahel related activity.  I’ll repost it here.

 

Porter’s take on the Morocco bombings & AQIM

The Marrakech suicide bombing today killed 14 people and targeted mostly foreigners in a popular cafe. A stunning turn in North African events when compared to the uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.  Morocco has witnessed suicide bombings before and produced a large number of foreign fighters to Iraq (particularly martyrs).

I think a big question on everyone’s mind now is: who did it?  AQIM? a self-starting group of AQ affiliated foreign fighter veterans?  A totally separate extremist group emerging from the ashes of the Moroccan Islamic Fighting Group?    I just launched the poll asking about capabilities and threats of different AQ affiliates and thus far AQIM had not gotten many props.  I imagine this might change.

Within just a couple hours, Dr. Geoff Porter sent me an outstanding initial take on the bombings, its origins, and its implications.  Porter is a certified knowledge ninja in my opinion and I’m always counting on him for North Africa analysis.  Thankfully, Geoff granted me permission again to post his take on this blog.  Thanks Geoff!

From Dr. Geoff Porter:

“An explosion at Marrakech’s popular tourism destination, Jama’a al-Fana, killed 14 and wounded 20 others on 28 April. If the explosion is credited to Islamist terrorists, the attack will be the first Islamist terrorist attack in Morocco since the 2003 simultaneous bombings in Casablanca.

Despite Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) activity in neighboring Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, Morocco has been free of terrorist attacks in recent years. The 2003 bombing in Casablanca was carried out by the Moroccan Islamic Combatants Group (GICM), a domestic salafi jihadi organization that did not have transnational ties. Following the 2003 attacks, the Moroccan government stepped up its counter-terrorism efforts and arrested 6000 people in connection with the attacks. With an ever more challenging environment in which to operate, the GICM decamped and moved most of its operations to Spain, where it participated in the 2004 train attacks in Madrid. The GICM never reconstituted itself in Morocco. Other Islamist extremist groups, like Al-Sirat Al-Mustaqim, were unable or unwilling to carry out attacks. There were intermittent acts of Islamist violence in 2007, but the perpetrators’ affiliations were never clear and the attacks did not cause any casualties, except to the attackers themselves.

Although no group has yet claimed credit, the attack is likely linked either directly or indirectly to AQIM. AQIM’s activities in over the last two years have been contained within the Sahara and Sahel states. The group has undertaken sporadic attacks against Mauritanian military installations and it has carried out kidnappings of foreigners in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, many of whom they have ransomed for significant sums.

Importantly, AQIM’s stated objectives are to move north out of the Sahara and carry out attacks in Morocco and Algeria. Their desire to move out of the Sahara is also reflected in the names AQIM chooses for its terrorist units and in its members’ noms de guerre. For more on this, see my article on “AQIM’s Objectives in North Africa” in the February 2011 issue of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel http://geoffdporter.com/articles.php.

While the attack is not likely to signal the launch of a sustained terrorist campaign in Morocco, the implications for Morocco’s economy are dire. Morocco is heavily dependent on tourism and experienced an uptick in visitors following instability in Tunisia (a comparable destination). Tourism, though, is fickle and tourists flee at the slightest possibility of violence. The 1997 terrorist attacks in Luxor Egypt had a devastating impact on the Egyptian economy. The attack could not have come at a worse time for Morocco because peak tourism season is rapidly approaching. For more on this see Tourism Meets Terrorism in Morocco http://tinyurl.com/3sh2koc.

The loss of tourist revenue will spell economic trouble for the monarchy, which is already experiencing widening budget deficits because of high oil and food prices. The king’s socio-economic policies were viewed as unsustainable and wildly unrealistic and the attacks will make them even more unlikely to be carried out.

On the political front, however, Moroccans will rally around the king. Moroccans are frustrated by the slow pace of democratization and the limited impact the king’s economic reforms have had on their daily lives, but they are even more afraid of Islamist violence. The majority of Moroccans see the monarchy as the guarantor of security and stability and this sentiment is likely to become more engrained.

Regarding security, the government will intensify its already rigorous counter-terrorism programs. The Moroccan police are ubiquitous and their public profile will be more conspicuous. The police also operate without many of the constraints that structure counter-terrorism investigations in Europe and the US. Consequently, it is expected that the government will claim to have identified and captured individuals associated with the cell in the coming weeks if not days. In the long term, Morocco is not likely to become a hotbed of terrorist activity. The country will still face political and economic hurdles, but the generally good security environment is unlikely to worsen.

Geoff”

AQIM: Rescues vs. Ransoms at Sahelblog

I just saw this post by Alex Thurston at Sahel Blog and I’m looking forward to reading more on AQIM’s kidnappings.  He’s started recording kidnappings and has some good charts.  I’ll follow up more later but wanted to get this out so others can take a look.  I had addressed this topic quickly in a previous post, but Alex is applying much needed rigor and expertise to the topic.

Overall, I’m against ransoms entirely and almost always against rescues.  My BLUF is: if you want to travel to Timbuktu and study ancient texts, you’re on your own!  Good luck and don’t lose your head out there!  (I’ll expand more on this later.)

AQIM, Kidnapping, and French Interdiction in the Sahel

AQIM/Bandits/Evildoers kidnapped two Frenchmen from a Niamey (Niger) restaurant last week.  The French government, exhausted by AQIM’s repeated kidnappings, launched military forces to prevent the kidnappers from vanishing into AQIM’s safe haven.  Unfortunately, French engagement resulted in the captors executing the two hostages.  AQIM’s taking of French hostages has been relatively lucrative, but I’m more convinced everyday this tactic is evidence of AQIM’s weakness rather than strength.

Sometimes, AQIM outsources the kidnapping to loosely aligned clans harboring disagreements with Sahel central governments and their Western backers.  Affiliated tribes, either acting on AQIM desires or with a couple AQIM members embedded in the clan, roam Niger and Mali looking for easy Western targets.  When Western prey appear (AKA “Frenchmen in the Open”), clans snatch up the targets sweeping them quickly into the deepest realms of the desert.  AQIM exchanges cash with the clans for the hostages and then initiates ransom negotiations with Western governments via third party governments and illicit networks.  These negotiations persist for months until both AQIM and the Western government/MNC establish a fair exchange price.

In the beginning, AQIM’s kidnapping program occurred rather easily.  Western tourists and workers floated into interior Mali and Niger as part of a Timbuktu history expedition or multi-national corporation (MNC) mineral extraction project.  However, each kidnapping resulted in increased security from Sahel central governments and the West as well as fewer prey floating into the desert.  To sustain the kidnappings and subsequent revenues, AQIM must then move further from the desert into more urban areas (Niamey) to secure more Western hostages.  AQIM’s long lines of logistics result in greater operational risk, more intermediaries between kidnapping and safe haven, and greater costs due to distance and graft.  Ultimately, French forces have more time to deploy and intercept the kidnappers.  Unfortunately, the French couldn’t stop this one but kudos to the French for trying.  For AQIM, kidnapping operations, in my opinion, weaken their capability and credibility as a terrorist organization for several reasons.

1. Kidnapping revenues are imprecise and unpredictable-
While the bounty for hostages remains high, AQIM kidnappers likely don’t know when or how much they will receive for their hostages.  The longer hostage negotiations persist; the lower the profit to AQIM.  Other illicit activities, like drug smuggling, likely provide more predictable, long-run revenue without bringing as much Western counteraction.

2. Kidnapping weakens AQIM’s ideological credentials-
AQIM states publicly the Western hostages will be killed in the name of global jihad.  However, everyone knows Westerners are chosen for their monetary more than symbolic value.  Each ransom paid lowers AQIM’s credibility as a terrorist group and raises its profile as a criminal syndicate.

3. Hostages are needy-
Unlike other illicit activities, hostages require lots of care; especially in the Sahel.  Sahara traveling with Western hostages is no picnic. I recommend Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King for an 1815 historical account of shipwrecked American sailors being drug through the Sahara by Moor caravans.  Western hostages are physically weak, eat up resources, and often times die in captivity.  Unlike Colombia where captors tuck hostages in fixed locations with supporting infrastructure (they do move them around a little but its not a desert), the Sahel requires AQIM to constantly be moving and resupplying over extended distances in austere conditions.  Hostages equal higher logistical costs, larger operational constraints, and constant distraction.

What really comes of these AQIM revenues?
Repeated AQIM kidnappings and ransoms have resulted in no apparent increase in AQIM capability.  I’ve heard many warnings of expanded AQIM action resulting from European ransom payments.  Instead, AQIM seems more motivated by money than ideology; more criminal than terrorist.  Maybe, millions of dollars still can’t buy AQIM much if they’re confined to the Sahara.