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.

More AQIM Kidnapping in the Sahel

A 56-year old Italian woman was kidnapped in Southern Algeria.  Andrew Lebovich provides a good overview of this most recent Sahel kidnapping.  Andrew notes that the initial kidnappers may have been cigarette or drug smugglers that then turned the hostage over to AQIM.  I noted in an earlier post that the kidnapping supply chain is one of opportunity more than strategy.  If you are European and float into the Sahel, then someone will likely try to kidnap you.  After that, the kidnap victim floats to the highest bidder, which appears to be the most capitalized organization; AQIM.  Whether the kidnappers are initially AQIM or smugglers, I don’t know and am not sure that it matters.

Alex Thurston posted a really excellent analysis on the options for dealing with kidnapping. He describes the pros and cons of five different options and ultimately settles on a hybrid of all of them.  Alex’s discussion is really good and I encourage all interested in the kidnapping debate to check it out.  Ultimately, I am still of the opinion that Westerners should be advised not to travel to the region under any circumstances and that no ransom should ever be paid.

I respect Alex’s points on development and extending military capacity in Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.  However, the West has tried economic development and government capacity improvement in the Sahel for fifty years without success.  Military capacity strengthening can also turn into militia arming or warlord development.  With the U.S. engaged and trying to solve problems in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now North Africa, I don’t see how the U.S. could execute a large-scale coordinated effort in the Sahel.  If there is any progress to be made, I think the Europeans must lead as they know the terrain and its their people that are being kidnapped.

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.