[Editor's Note: Jihadica is thrilled to welcome Andrew Lebovich, one of the very few people who specializes in North African jihadis. This is the first of a four part series on the jihadi chess pieces at play in the current Mali/Algerian crisis. Tomorrow's post will be on the splinter group founded by the mysterious Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reportedly behind the assault on the oil and gas installation in Algeria.]
The brazen assault and hostage taking in southern Algeria has brought about a sudden surge of interest in the region’s jihadist groups, especially given the complex history of the man reportedly behind the assault, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. This, in turn, has led to a good deal of questioning about Belmokhtar’s past, his “new” jihadist group, and the other militant groups currently occupying northern Mali. Here’s a quick explainer:
The best-known of the groups operating in northern Mali is almost certainly al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, led by Abdelmalek Droukel (Abu Musab Abdelwadud). Renamed in 2007 after officially merging with al-Qaeda, AQIM was previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC in French), itself created in 1998 as a rejection of the brutal behavior and takfirist stance of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA in French). The GIA was the first Algerian jihadist group to send fighters (including Mokhtar Belmokhtar) to the Sahel, though it was the GSPC that first truly implanted itself in the region and in northern Mali in particular. There it recruited fighters, set up training camps, sowed deep ties with some local communities, got deeply involved in local and regional smuggling networks, and kidnapped foreigners for ransoms (the first such operation took place in southern Algeria in 2003). The GSPC also engaged in military activities, notably the 2005 attack on a Mauritanian military base in Leimgheity. Among the many young Mauritanians who joined the organization after police crackdowns in 2004 and 2005 was Younis al-Mauritani, who helped facilitate the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda in 2006 and was a key operational leader in al-Qaeda Core in Pakistan until his arrest in Quetta in 2011.
After a rush of deadly AQIM activity in northern Algeria in 2007 and 2008, Algerian authorities gained the upper hand and were progressively able to restrict AQIM to isolated and mountainous areas east of Algiers. AQIM’s kata’ib (battalions) in the Sahel, however, expanded, as Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid (a senior AQIM commander) began a run of audacious kidnappings that led to an estimated tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments (more, according to some sources)–money reportedly bolstered by income from cigarette smuggling and taxes from the region’s growing drug trade. AQIM’s southern groups, believed before 2012 to number several hundred fighters, also continued operations across the region, killing tourists, conducting attacks (including suicide bombings) against regional and foreign militaries and government facilities. AQIM fighters are believed to have been heavily involved in fighting in northern Mali after the outbreak of the Tuareg rebellion in January 2012, and have largely controlled the city of Timbuktu since April.
AQIM has for years enjoyed good relationships with some local populations, having strengthened its roots in northern Mali through marriage and business ties. Recently the group announced the creation of a new battalion to be led by a Tuareg, as part of a larger rearrangement of personnel and leadership. The battalion is said to be leading the fighting under the command of Abou Zeid around the town of Diabaly against Malian and French troops. AQIM holds 7 foreign hostages.