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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Northwest Africa braces itself for possible Al-Qaeda retaliation for Bin Laden’s death


A man shouts slogans after performing a mass standing prayer organized by Islamic Groups to honour al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (File Photo)

A man shouts slogans after performing a mass standing prayer organized by Islamic Groups to honour al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. (File Photo)
Northwest Africa stands a good chance of providing the arena for possible Al-Qaeda retaliation for the killing by US Navy SEALs of Osama Bin Laden.

Although in many ways the most independent and least internationalist of the groups associated with Mr. Bin Laden, Al-Qaeda’s northwest African affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is best positioned to launch a major operation and has the greatest interest in doing so.

While revelations that the Al-Qaeda founder was unarmed at the time his death are likely to fuel jihadist fervor for revenge, the group needs to demonstrate its post-Bin Laden operational capability to maintain credibility.

That is perhaps nowhere more true than in Northwest Africa where much of its operational territory has been relatively untouched by the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

The protests that racked Algeria in early 2011 have subsided. Morocco is largely a blind spot for AQIM and the group has failed to turn the crisis in Libya to its advantage. Sahel countries such as Mali and Niger have so far remained on the sidelines of the protests.

French officials fear that the fate of four Frenchmen captured last September in Niger’s uranium-mining town of Arlit in one of AQIM’s most daring attacks to date is at heightened risk. The group is reported to be demanding a ransom of $120 million for the release of the Frenchmen. France has rejected the demand, raising the specter that they could be executed in retaliation for the death of Mr. Bin Laden.

These fears notwithstanding, AQIM is likely to opt for a more spectacular operation than the killing of hostages it already holds. The group is unlikely to want to risk French military retaliation at this stage of the game. It will also not want to drive countries like Mali and Niger into closer military cooperation with France that could involve a stepped up French military presence in the region.

A more spectacular operation would also better serve the group’s needs. Such an operation would emphasize the group’s continued operational capability in a far more stark way than the execution of hostages would. The group’s two major attacks in the last eight months—the kidnapping of the Frenchmen and an attack in April 2011 on an Algerian military base in which 14 Algerian soldiers were killed—were bold in nature and intended to demonstrate AQIM’s ability to strike across a broad swath of territory.

To be sure, while AQIM has turned hostage taking into a lucrative business, it has at times killed its captives such as in the case in 2009 of British national Edwin Dwyer. Two Frenchmen kidnapped in January 2011 during a raid on a bar in the Niger capital Niamey died in a French attempt to free them.

AQIM’s need to reassert its credibility stems in part from the fact that it has local support in parts of the Sahel where tribesmen bear grievances against central governments as well as French uranium producer Avera, whose employees were kidnapped last September. The tribesmen as well as local NGOs in Niger accuse the company of bribing Tuareg rebels, polluting underground aquifers, aggravating a chronic water shortage, and exposing its employees to uranium contamination.

AQIM seems better positioned to be the standard bearer in possible retaliation for Mr. Bin Laden’s killing than its counterpart in Yemen, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Like AQIM, AQAP enjoys a degree of local tribal support. However, unlike AQIM, AQAP has to reckon with the fact that hundreds of thousands of Yemenis have been demonstrating for the past three months in a bid to force President Ali Abdullah Saleh from office.

Like in other Arab states racked by anti-government protests, Yemenis have opted for non-violent resistance to press for political and economic reform and have refused to embrace jihad as their modus operandi. With the exception of some smaller attacks on Yemeni military targets, AQAP has largely remained on the sidelines of the Yemeni crisis.

AQIM’s need to assert its operational capability is also rooted in the fact that it, unlike other Al-Qaeda affiliates, is far more fractured and as much a militant Islamist organization as it is a crime group. Kidnapping is but one of AQIM’s lines of business.

The successor of Algeria’s Islamist Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), AQIM built its network in the Sahel on that of the GSPC, which was long engaged in smuggling a mix of drugs, weapons, and illegal immigrants. US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents in the first sting operation against an Al-Qaeda affiliate, in 2010 arrested three AQIM operatives in cooperation with Ghanaian authorities. The three were flown to New York were they were charged with cooperating with Latin American drug syndicates.

Successful retaliation for Mr. Bin Laden’s death may reaffirm Al-Qaeda’s operational capability, but is unlikely to resolve the existential challenge it faces. Like in Yemen, the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa threatens to leave the group on the garbage bin of history.

If Al-Qaeda’s image was tarnished by the killing of innocent Muslims and Arabs in attacks in the past decade on among others residential compounds in Saudi Arabia and luxury hotels in Jordan, its failure to adapt its ideology and strategy to a new world in which non-violence and pluralism have become the name of the game has deprived it of much of the popular empathy it once enjoyed.

A spectacular operation in Northwest Africa could accelerate rather than reverse that process.

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