Timbuktu is often referred to as “The City of 333 Saints,” a moniker deserved for a city where historical households can be found on almost every street and which is home to over 100,000 ancient manuscripts. In the last decade, however, much of that history has been destroyed. Historical shrines and mausoleums have been under attack by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a local branch of the larger Al Qaeda terrorist organization. The attacks on Timbuktu appear to be only the tip of the iceberg for this rapidly growing organization. While the United States has committed over a trillion dollars to fighting Al Qaeda in the Middle East, its oft-neglected younger brother, AQIM, has been gaining power.


AQIM, a Mali-based terrorist organization, was first formed in the 1990s after members of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) separated from the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) due to opposition to practices like beheading. However, after the GSPC began to suffer structural problems like a lack of recruits and the alienation of the Algerian populace, the group decided to ally with Al Qaeda in 2003 in order to improve its recruitment, relevance, and financing. In the last decade, the organization has been rapidly gaining power, especially in North Africa. AQIM currently has bases in Algeria along the Mediterranean coast, as well as in Niger, Mauritania, and Mali. In 2010, AQIM began expanding its reach to the Sahara and Sahel and is currently a predominately Sahel and Saharan organization, operating mainly out of Niger, Mauritania, and Mali, with less activity along the Mediterranean coast. Alliances with groups like Ansar Dine, an Islamist militant group based in Mali that helped Tuareg rebels launch a rebellion in early 2012 against the Malian government, have also helped shift the centrality of power of the organization towards the Sahara and Sahel. As the fastest growing faction of Al Qaeda, the question is whether the expansion of AQIM into the Sahara and Western Africa is a legitimate threat to both the people of those regions and the stability of local governments. The newly formed alliances of the organization, compounded with its rapidly growing regional stronghold, are cause to wonder whether AQIM is going to start establishing itself as a legitimate long-term threat in the region.


The reasoning behind the geographical movements of the organization is instructive for identifying and understanding which regions of Africa will be potential targets for AQIM and whether terrorist activities in those regions will escalate. The most likely theory behind why these geographical shifts occurred relates to the military power of various governments in the region: Algeria’s military is relatively strong compared to the militaries of Saharan and Sahel governments like Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.

The military budgets of those countries are only a fraction of Algeria’s, creating a power vacuum in the region. This arrangement makes it much more beneficial for AQIM to shift its operations away from Northern African areas like Algeria and towards the Sahel. This geographical shift in focus is evidenced by the group’s activities in recent years, including the kidnappings of various Western citizens in the Sahel and other lower level activities in the region. These new focuses of the organization stand in harsh contrast with previous activities that often included large-scale bombings of Algerian cities. This military vacuum also creates an eco- nomic incentive for AQIM to change bases, since although these lower-level activities, like kidnapping, might leave the organization with less political clout, they do bring in substantial financial resources through ransom payments. An article published by the Jamestown Foundation indicates that due to “ineffective control of the states,” there exist a large number of illicit business opportunities, and targeted kidnappings of Westerners in the region are much easier to execute. An estimated US$65 million in cash has already been handed over by Western nations to AQIM in exchange for the release of hostages since 2008. In addition, AQIM benefits financially from the drug trade in the region, as much of the Sahara has become a transit point for Latin American cocaine and Afghan heroin. It appears that the reason for AQIM’s shift was both to avoid the strength of Algeria’s military, and to seek out more profitable yet smaller-scale activities in the Sahel and Sahara.


AQIM will probably never permanently outgrow its tactic of isolated attacks in the region and actually maintain the coordinated large-scale, long-term domestic terror- ism it has recently displayed, largely because of internal fragmentation within the organization. In fact, in a letter to the Algerian daily publication Echorouk, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of AQIM, describes several internal issues that exist within the organization: Droukdel states that many of the terrorists in the organization act randomly and without orders, and that they often lack respect for their commanders. Droukdel continues by describing how morale is in decline in the organization, due to discontent with the fragility of the organization’s leadership. Internal conflicts are common, as many AQIM leaders and top commanders are often rivals and will operate in small, autonomous groups. One explanation for these internal divisions is a regional and generational split in the actual makeup of AQIM: because of the recent regional shifts in the organization, there is a split between the younger members from areas like Mauritania and the older, Algerian leaders.

The younger members are often impatient and overeager to fight and believe that the leaders are too hesitant to engage in violent activities. In fact, the younger AQIM members will often refer to the Algerian leaders as qa’idun, which roughly translates to “those who sit.” This kind of generational and regional split could pose a huge problem as tensions between the leadership and membership of the organization are already running high. The most revealing evidence of the severity of factionalism within the organization is the fact that various members are already splintering away from AQIM and forming separate organizations. One prime example of this splintering effect is the organization Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MU- JWA), which was started by former AQIM member Sultran Ould Badi after ideas for reorganization of Saharan AQIM branches were rejected. Though often times these splintered organizations retain connections with AQIM, the fact that they are not under a single centralized leadership makes it more difficult to coordinate large-scale attacks. In addition, the splintering also has important effects on AQIM’s numbers. AQIM is estimated to have only a couple hundred members, which makes it extremely difficult to establish a large domestic base. This lack of numbers compounds the fact that AQIM has been relatively unsuccessful in uniting African terrorist groups, making it extremely unlikely that AQIM will be able to establish the long-term stability necessary for large-scale domestic attacks.


In the context of the recent attacks on Algeria and Mali, many are wondering whether AQIM actually does have the capability to launch strategic attacks and pose as a legitimate threat in the region. Recently, Belmokhtar, a former commander for AQIM operating mainly out of the Western Maghreb, claimed responsibility for the attacks in Algeria. In order to better understand whether the attacks in Algeria should be attributed specifically to Belmokhtar as an individual or AQIM as an organization, it is important to analyze Belmokhtar’s complex relationship with AQIM: Belmokhtar always held a reputation within AQIM, not for his adherence to the ideology, but for his criminal work.

This reputation contributed to his demise in the or- ganization as he was passed over for several leadership positions in the organization and finally split from AQIM in October and formed al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima, which translates to “Those Who Sign with Blood.” There is still much confusion about the level of connection Belmokhtar still holds with AQIM and the larger Al Qaeda umbrella organization. Though many argue that Belmokhtar’s ac- tions were coordinated with AQIM, the falling out between Belmokhtar and AQIM in October, whether it was due to ideological differences or not, seems to make it unlikely that Belmokhtar remains loyal to AQIM. It seems more likely that the Algerian attacks were orchestrated solely by Belmokhtar, and though AQIM has also claimed a role in the attacks, that role was not necessarily a major one. It is important to not let sensationalist media blindly convince us that attacks associated with Belmokhtar should automatically be associated with AQIM, when in reality, the situation and relationships at hand are much more complex and remain poorly understood.

Even if the blame of the attacks should be attributed to AQIM, the argument that AQIM is starting to gain a stronghold on North and West Africa, as proven by the Algerian attacks, fails to hold up. In addition to the Algerian attacks, earlier this month AQIM forces gained control of Konna, which left only one town between the fighters and Bamako, the capital of Mali. It is likely that the AQIM’s attempts to takeover even more territory in Mali earlier this month, combined with the recent Algerian attacks, have severely overextended the organization. The combination of events has posited the organization as a focal point of attention for French military forces, and airstrikes launched by the French quickly drove AQIM out of the recently captured Konna and various bases in Northern Mali. The deployment of 3700 French troops, backed with support from Britain and air support from the United States, is an immediate threat to AQIM’s reign. An article published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace indicates that French military intervention will likely “drive radical Islamist combatants out of Mali’s main cities and urban centers and into the massive desert mountains near the Algerian border” where cooperation from the Algerian government could spell defeat for AQIM. In addition to the threat of military response, the dichotomy between the moderate Islam practiced by the populace of the Mali-Algerian region and AQIM’s more extremist Salafist Islamic law makes it difficult for AQIM to actually establish a stronghold in the region from which to conduct similar attacks in the future.


This kind of ideological difference is exactly what led to the downfall of Al Qaeda in Iraq, as Al Qaeda leaders and Iraqi tribal sheikhs disagreed on issues like burial rituals and the division of funds between local and Al Qaeda leaders. An article published earlier this month in the Guardian elaborates on the problem by pointing out that “the number of individuals who can effect that critical fusion of criminal and jihadi elements with the local elites needed to retain local support, and thus a relatively secure base, is extremely limited.” The fact is that AQIM does not have enough negotiators and leaders to successfully establish enough of a stronghold in the region to conduct more major attacks in the future. It appears that the supposed “success” of the AQIM militants in Algeria and Mali may actually lead to their downfall.

Despite the seeming upcoming halt of AQIM’s rise in Africa, some experts argue that there is a very real and dangerous potential for AQIM to become an international force to be reckoned with, especially within the context of the Benghazi bombings. Because of its strategic location near European countries like France, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, has stated that he hopes AQIM will “be a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders and their allies.” In this regard, AQIM has as yet completely failed and, aside from isolated kidnappings, has not successfully established an imminent terrorist threat to either country. In fact, AQIM’s regional movements away from Northern Africa, especially Algeria, make it questionable whether international expansion is even a serious goal of the organization in the first place. Most examples of international terrorist activities by AQIM, including its involvement in the Benghazi bombings, are not actually centralized efforts coordinated by the AQIM organization itself but rather are attributable to members to which they are loosely linked. It seems that AQIM either does not have the motivation or the resources to become a dominant international presence. In the end, AQIM has been a rapidly growing organization whose growth has been catalyzed by recent mergers with other various regional terrorist groups. However, the lack of structure within the organization, the potential external problems it faces, and the lack of international expansion likely means that AQIM will remain a local terrorist organization that uses the Al Qaeda brand as more of a symbol than an actual tool.


In the war on terrorism, it is important not to forget about organizations like AQIM. Often, small, overlooked terrorist organizations can rapidly expand and serve as safe havens or launching pads for the broader movement. However, in the case of AQIM, it appears that the recent expansion has been more the mark of luck than of power. While AQIM still remains a serious threat to many Northern African communities and military strategy is necessary to ensure that this expansion does not go unchecked, it is important to realize that the threat is not as bad as many make it out to be: in the war on terrorism, it appears that AQIM will not become much more than a schoolyard bully.