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: 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.

Coordinated or Competing, AQAP & AQIM

Recent AQIM related reporting suggests that there is far more than AQAP going on in the terrorism world.  The MoorNextDoor posted last week (Nov 5) on the Mauritanian military move into Mali as a pre-emptive attack on AQIM. Then on November 10, the French arrested 5 individuals tied to AQIM that were allegedly prepared for a suicide operation in France.  This correlates with Bin Laden’s recent statements calling for an attack on France.  Also, Italy arrested 16 members of a terrorist facilitation network consisting of Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians and a couple Italians.  These three counterterrorism actions appear to represent a well-coordinated disruption strategy against AQIM.  Within a week, the Mauritanians disrupted AQIM’s safe haven in the Sahel, Italy broke up a facilitation network and France may have stopped an operational cell prepping a Western target.

U.S. coverage of these CT efforts has been slim.  Compared with AQAP’s attempts on the U.S., AQIM’s infiltration into Europe, should this prove to be a serious plot, represents a complex operation requiring significant planning and resources.  AQAP has not shown this type of operational reach choosing instead to pursue solo and unaccompanied bombings that were sophisticated but still long shots.

While the growth of these two groups was foreshadowed by the foreign fighters to Iraq from 2004 to 2007, the larger question is whether these two affiliates (AQIM and AQAP) are coordinating their efforts for maximum effect or competing with each other to emerge as the next big terror group.

While the senior leadership gets droned to near extinction in Pakistan, is AQ Central still training, coordinating and directing efforts to strike at the West? Or is the latest surge in AQIM and AQAP action the result of two emerging groups trying to outshine the other in an effort to attract more prestige, recruits and resources?

I’m curious what will emerge in the near future in both North Africa and Yemen.  Both of these groups seem determined to raise their stature through successful attacks on the West.  Thus far, the West and its Middle East/North African partners have shown major progress in CT.  I can quickly think of a half-dozen coordinated CT successes in the past two months.

Looking forward from a CT perspective, terror group competition may be worse than terror group coordination in the near term.  Competition is more likely to increase the pace of terrorist action, incite further terrorist risk-taking, and inspire a pattern of groups one-upping each other to reach the top rung of AQ Global’s helm.

Busy Week in Counter Terrorism

Counterterrorism efforts around the world hit peak levels this past week. The flurry began with reports last week of potential “Mumbai Style” (not to be confused with “Hunan Style” which would be breaded and deep-fried) terrorist attacks in Britain, France, Germany and maybe the U.S.  The pace thickened with several significant counterterrorism actions.  Here is a quick recap. I may be missing some events so chime in if I left something out.

  1. Background: July 2010: A German citizen of Afghan origin from Hamburg was captured in Afghanistan.  Prior to his capture, Ahmed Sidiqi had traveled to Waziristan and received weapons training.
  2. Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010: German officials believe up to 70 Germans had undergone training in Pakistan and up to 40 fought in Afghanistan.  German nationals have been reported leaving Europe to join the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.
  3. Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010: A French citizen of Algerian origin, Ryan Hannouni, was arrested in Italy near the Naples train station allegedly carrying bomb-making materials.
  4. Saturday, Oct. 2, 2010:  Kenyan anti-terrorism units detain a German convert to Islam near Mombasa.  The German, Sascha Alessadro Bottcher, penned a letter to his mother saying he “would never return alive” and allegedly wanted to join al Shabaab in Somalia. Kenyans deported him back to Germany on Tuesday, October 5.  (This one’s probably unrelated but still interesting)
  5. Sunday, Oct. 3, 2010: U.S. State Department issues a travel advisory for Europe warning of potential terror attacks in European cities.
  6. Monday, Oct. 4, 2010:  Between three and eight German Nationals were killed in a drone stike in the town of Mir Ali, FATA, Pakistan. “The militants were said to be members of Jehad al-Islami and their deaths follow reports that a group of jihadists from Hamburg is at the center of an al Qaeda plot for coordinated terrorist attacks in European cities.”
  7. Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010: French police arrest 12 people in two separate raids.  Three are suspected of providing false papers for jihadists returning from Afghanistan, while eight are being held for trafficking firearms and explosives.  The contact information for three of the arrested men came from the cell phone of Ryan Hannouni, caught in Naples on Saturday, Oct. 2.
  8. Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010:  French authorities issue a travel warning to their citizens that the risk of a terrorist attack in Britain is high. (Ohh the French, nothing hurts worse than a retaliatory travel warning, take that Britain.)

Wow, so what do we make of this?  Here are some of my thoughts and questions.

1)    Significantly improved counterterrorism efforts

Yes, I believe recent events illustrate massive improvement in counter terrorism.  I know, I should stay with the “Terrorism Fear Posse” (TFP for short). But, this week’s actions represent a global disruption effort across at least seven or more countries; hitting operational safe havens with drone strikes, rolling up known al Qaeda logisticians, and preemptively arresting those that can facilitate foreign fighter returnees from AFPAK.  This past week, effective information sharing between multiple countries produced rapid action against a decentralized al Qaeda related threat.  Finally, we are getting there.

True, there could still be an attack (in fact, there will ultimately be another attack in the West, we need to accept that). But deliberate, simultaneous CT actions in Pakistan, France, Britain, and Germany will put any terrorist plot that might be in motion into disarray.  I see this recent counter terrorism flurry as a positive sign.  We’re much closer to defeating al Qaeda.  However, one last step remains, the most challenging one; derailing al Qaeda recruitment.

2)    Lessons learned in countering violent extremism

Al Qaeda and affiliated groups will survive as long as they can replenish their recruitment pool.  Countering violent extremism (CVE) and disrupting al Qaeda recruitment remains the biggest challenge. German national villages emerging in Pakistan.  German nationals training and fighting in Afghanistan to then return and attack in Europe.   Big problems!

Why German nationals? Some are radical converts but most are of Turkish descent from what I’ve read.  The UK, Germany and France provide forces to ISAF in Afghanistan.  Does this really radicalize such a large number of European recruits?  If so, why so many Germans; more than Brits and French it seems?

I don’t know the answer to these questions but I do wonder how each country’s approach to CVE has affected their indigenous recruitment to al Qaeda.  From my limited knowledge, it appears each country chose a different CVE strategy post 9/11.  The Brits established relationships, funded organizations, allowed open dialogue and tried to work with Muslim groups to build bridges.  France constructed an organized council of Muslim groups tied directly into the government.  Meanwhile, Germany appears to have rejected any and all dialogue; banning entire Muslim groups from the country and disengaging from vulnerable populations.

I don’t know enough to accurately gauge how Germany’s CVE approach relates to the current surge in German recruitment, but I do believe the U.S. should examine these three countries to identify the risks and rewards of utilizing different CVE techniques in the States.

3)    The government had to issue travel warnings

Stop crying! The media and public bashing of the U.S. government for issuing a European travel warning is ridiculous.  They have to issue a warning.  If they don’t issue the warning and an attack occurs, then the American public would be outraged that the government wasn’t “doing anything” or “wasn’t aware” of the terrorist threat.

“Well, it was too vague, what should I do, wawawawa…”

Look if the U.S. government knew there was a terrorist plot at a specific place, on a specific day, at a specific time, they wouldn’t issue a warning.  They would just go stop the plot.

So, stop crying about the warnings, the government is doing the best they can, and they are getting a lot better at counterterrorism.  So be happy, not angry!