Extreme poverty, lack of opportunities, mistrust of democratic institutions representing the state and religious radicalisms that take advantage of these dramatic conditions are some of the reasons that create the ideal breeding grounds for the emergence and development of terrorist organizations.
The Maghreb is a region in northwest Africa that includes the following countries: Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and the non-self-governing territory of Western Sahara. The official religion of these countries is Islam, mostly Sunni, with minorities such as Jews and Christians. According to the anthropologist Abdelmahid Hannoum (2021), the Maghreb is a French invention associated with cartographic needs in order to exercise colonial power.
This paper aims to analyze the origin, structure, functioning, financing, ideology, most prominent leaders and the presence in this region of one of Al Qaeda’s affiliates. Although its radius of influence has not been limited to this geographical area, the name by which it is known is “Al Qaeda in the lands of the Islamic Maghreb” (AQIM).
The embryo of this terrorist organization, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) of Algeria – a spin-off of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) – also contributes in the conformation of its structure that allowed it to project itself in the region. According to Echeverria (2013), the links created with the Tuareg and Arab tribes through alliances based on marriages of terrorists with the daughters of the chiefs has allowed them to operate more easily in the region. Basically, in its actions it has combined terrorist activities with illicit trafficking of all kinds and kidnapping of foreigners; the beginning of its operations was recorded in January 2007.
Al Qaeda’s structure pursues a clear objective, which is the proclamation of a universal caliphate using Islam as a political and religious reference as a strategy. However, groups such as AQIM appear less structured since their objectives are not only political through terrorism, but also criminal, which practically turned them into an organization with a bandit structure. In spite of having a relationship of loyalty with Al Qaeda, it is possible to indicate that the same does not happen with their command relationship, since AQIM functions by itself. In this part of the analysis it is also important to point out that most of the weapons used by AQIM are of Libyan origin.
In order to talk about the functioning and financing of this terrorist organization, we must refer to one of the largest illicit businesses today: drug trafficking. According to data obtained from studies carried out by specialized organizations in South America, the value of 1 kilogram of drugs produced in Colombia is approximately USD 1000, the same kg in the USA costs USD 50 000USD and USD 125 000 in Europe and Australia, costs that exceed the logic and legality of licit activities.
Colombia is the largest producer and exporter of drugs in the world, since the state policies of Spain and Portugal controlled the entry of the alkaloid; the routes had to be modified for its entry into Europe. One of the options was for the drug to pass through North Africa, as long as there were groups willing to help the merchandise reach its destination. That is when AQIM, a relatively small group that had been gaining political and media attention for the effective way of achieving its objectives, offered its “services” for this new activity. The other forms of trafficking would come over time as the organization gained experience. In this way, confused between terrorists and bandits, financed by the kidnapping of Westerners and by the “tolls” of trafficking of all kinds, this terrorist organization still operates today.
The ideology attributed to AQIM is jihadist Salafism, due to the roots described above. However, from the sources consulted it can be deduced that most of its members do not know nor have studied Islam, which proves that beyond the existence of a consensus for the imposition of religion as a powerful expression of its ideology, it could be said that this would pass into the background considering the disputed aims of the organization. The Koran is normally available in classical Arabic, and people with limited knowledge of this language depend on third parties to read and translate it for them. With members who do not have an established background in Islam, there are limitations to their ideological concepts.
Among its most prominent leaders is Abdelmalek Drukdel; he was the emir of AQIM from its creation until his death in 2020, he called himself Musab Abelwadud. He started his activities in 1993 in the GIA and was one of the founders of the GSPC in 2004; he later declared his adherence to Al Qaeda and in 2007 he unveiled the group’s new name: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
After the death of its founder, Abou Obeida Youssef al-Annabi, an Algerian from the region of Annaba, took over the command of the organization. It is known that his terrorist life has developed in the same way as his predecessor. In early June 2021, the U.S. State Department offered a reward of up to USD 7 million for information leading to the location or identification of the AQIM leader.
In 2013, operation “Serval” was conducted by the French army and AQIM forces were seriously decimated, however, the terrorist threat remains latent, even more so, as their illicit operations extend to other interests in the region. As long as the lack of future prospects, poverty, exclusion and almost no state presence are the common characteristics in such a conflictive region, this threat remains and continues to be a global concern.
Ecuadorian Army Colonel Xavier Riofrío Játiva assumed the position of military advisor to the Program for Friendly Nations (PNMA) for the United States Southern Command in March 2021. Col. Riofrío, a native of Quito with 35 years of military service, is one of 11 PNMA military advisors.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any U.S. government agency, Diálogo magazine or its members. This Academia article was machine-translated.
Echeverria, Carlos. Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb and other groups around it: a complex network of violent character. IEEE.ES,2013.
Castillo, Rodrigo. AQIM in Mauritania: the origins of the terrorist group. IECAH, 2012.