Local Networks Key to AQIM’s West African Expansion

Ivorian men demonstrate against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb after it launched an attack on the Etoile du Sud hotel. Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast. March 20, 2016. (Sia Kambou/AFP/Getty Images)

Ivory Coast officials are counting the cost of a March 13th attack by jihadist gunmen that killed 19 people at a popular tourist resort in the town of Grand Bassam. Only a few weeks prior, attackers stormed venues popular with foreigners in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso, killing 20. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for both attacks, stating that it targeted the two countries because of their support of the ongoing French-led military campaign in northern Mali. AQIM also pledged to continue its deadly march through West Africa.

While recent growth in jihadist activity in Mali—particularly in regions bordering Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast—made these recent attacks somewhat predictable, the rapid and overwhelming expansion of AQIM beyond Mali’s northern regions is noteworthy. What exactly is driving its expansion?

AQIM’s leadership has never hidden its ambitions of expanding further into West Africa, partly due to the pressure from an aggressive counterinsurgency campaign by the government in its native Algeria. But it has long failed to achieve this goal. For a long time, only northern Mali and parts of neighboring Niger were easily infiltrated, due to their significant security vacuums. Here, notorious AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar established thriving smuggling networks in the late 1990s and orchestrated kidnappings of Western nationals for ransom, helping to fund militant operations. Born in southern Algeria and operating for years in northern Mali, Belmokhtar recognized the importance of local ethnic sensitivities to the smuggling trade, and cemented ties with the region’s tribes through marriages. The ethnic diversity of his katiba (“brigade”), whose many fighters would later join the al-Mourabitoun group, increased the access to exclusive lucrative trafficking flows in the Sahel region.

Meanwhile, the relationship between AQIM’s ruling Algerian elite and the new recruits from “black Africa” remained strained for years, with the latter complaining of marginalization. This resulted in a split and the subsequent formation of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa in January 2012. This group comprised Malian, Mauritanian, Nigerien, and other West African nationals. In the meantime, Belmokhtar also split from AQIM to form his own Katiba Al-Mulathameen (“Masked Brigade”) at the end of that year, with the two groups eventually merging to form al-Mourabitoun in 2013.

These defections, coupled with a French counterinsurgency campaign in northern Mali, significantly weakened AQIM’s position. Between 2014 and the first half of 2015, it failed to gain any significant ground, and instead focused on launching guerrilla-style attacks against French troops and United Nations peacekeepers along the border of Mali and Algeria. At the same time, al-Mourabitoun significantly strengthened its influence in Mali and proved its ability to target foreign forces and civilians, with recruitment of locals—including among the Tuareg and Fulani ethnic groups—playing a major role in this rise.

In early December 2015 these contrasting fortunes saw AQIM announce a reunification with al-Mourabitoun. The group has since established a foothold in Mali’s central and southern regions, largely through the help of its local branches and allegiances with local allies such as the Tuareg-dominated Ansar Dine and Fulani-based Macina Liberation Front (MLF).

Ansar Dine has closely cooperated with AQIM since its formation in December 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a Tuareg from the local Ifoghas tribe. MLF is much more recent in origin and pledged allegiance to Ansar Dine at its formation in early 2015 by radical preacher Ahmad Kufa. Nonetheless, the group is ambitious, with an ultimate stated goal of restoring an ancient Fulani Caliphate. This provides it a strong ideological recruitment tool. MLF is thought to be at least partially funded by Ansar Dine and serves as its operational arm in southern and central Mali.

Besides its cooperation with local allies, AQIM has continued recruitment among West African communities. Its effective creation of networks was confirmed by the head of its Saharan Emirate branch, Yahya Abu al-Hammam, in an interview from January this year. Al-Hammam said that brigades and battalions composed of “black brothers” from Fulani, Bambara, and Songhai ethnic groups had been formed to pursue AQIM’s radical agenda. Due to such recruitment he said the group no longer needed “to send its fighters to the south.” This statement could indicate that such cells may even operate independently from AQIM’s central leadership, while still under its general jihadist umbrella.

The recent attack in Ivory Coast provides several indications that this is the case. First of all, unlike after the Splendid Hotel siege in Burkina Faso, AQIM’s declaration after the Grand Bassam attack did not specify the specific branch responsible. This was despite the ethnic composition of the assault teams in the two attacks being similar, with two of the three assailants in each coming from the Fulani.

Second, AQIM’s al-Andalus media channel seemed unprepared for the Grand Bassam attack. Updates disseminated through an AQIM-affiliated social media account relied on information and images posted on other accounts, rather than on field reports from its own operatives. Once again, this was in contrast to the Splendid Hotel siege, where al-Mourabitoun media channels carried a live audio message claiming responsibility, which was followed by a massive propaganda campaign. All of this suggests AQIM’s Algerian core may have had little to do with the attack, despite claiming responsibility for it.

While the investigation into the Grand Bassam violence is ongoing, the existence of cells affiliated with AQIM further west of Mali has far-reaching consequences for regional security. Local networks allow AQIM to extend its influence without placing a significant burden on its human and financial resources. Greater assimilation within their countries and regions of origin makes its cells even more dangerous. The amount of these cells could also continue to grow in 2016, strengthening the ability of AQIM to inspire and mount deadly attacks in West Africa.

Olga Bogorad is a security expert specializing in Islamist groups and organized crime in Africa. Follow @Bogorad_Olga