AQIM under siege
By Raby Ould Idoumou for Magharebia in Nouakchott 13/01/12
Sahel-Saharan terror groups region are in real trouble. Their leaders are busy with internecine disputes, their resources are drying up and - in the wake of the Arab Spring - their violent methods are seen by citizens as less effective than peaceful struggle.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is facing a major internal rift, particularly among the Sahara brigades, Algerian daily Ennahar reported on January 2nd.
Mohammed Ghadir (aka Abdelhamid Abou Zeid), the "Tariq ibn Ziyad" katibat boss, and Khaled Abou El Abass (aka Mokhtar Belmokhtar, or "Laaouar"), who runs the El Moulethemine battalion, are vying for control of AQIM's Sahara emirate.
[AFP/ATV] A 2010 Al-Qaeda video shows foreign workers kidnapped in Arlit. Division of ransom revenues is a new cause of internal strife in AQIM.
[AFP/HO] AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel's two top Sahel battalion commanders are vying for control.
[AFP/Issouf Sanogo] Under a December 2011 security agreement, Nigerien troops will conduct joint border patrols with their Algerian peers.
Each is blaming the other for the failure of arms smuggling operations and the decline in ranks.
After the recent spike in the number of repentant terrorists – with several surrenders reported in December - Abou Zeid accused Laaouar of failing to control his followers. Tips provided last month by the former fighters allowed security agencies to interrupt terror operations while they were still in the planning stages.
Abou Zeid has long sought to undermine AQIM chief Abdalmalek Droukdel (aka Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud) to control al-Qaeda in the desert, while the less confrontational Laaouar prefers negotiation and dialogue.
Laaouar took advantage of the war in Libya to secure a stockpile of Libyan arms, a move that placed him on equal footing with Abou Zeid in the balance of power.
Droukdel's appointment of a new emir – Abou Alghama – only aggravated the infighting. Belmokhtar accepted Droukdel's decision. Abou Zeid did not.
"AQIM is in despair now," says Mauritanian journalist Mohammed Ould Sidi al-Moctar. "If its battalions take action, they become a target for Sahel countries' fire. If they keep to their hideouts, they won't get supplies and won't be able to carry out operations."
"The recent campaigns in Mali, Algeria and Mauritania to arrest al-Qaeda provisioners only aggravated the terrorists' sense of their critical situation," al-Moctar adds.
Rivalry between katibat commanders, attempts by terror leaders to co-opt ransom money, the growth in crime and drug trafficking networks and the conflicts over leadership are taking a toll.
It is harder than ever before to convince young people to carry out suicide missions, especially when the recruits see their leaders focused on money and power.
Compared to the wave of violence in the region between 2001 and 2008, the number of terror attacks attributed to AQIM has fallen sharply, according to a 2010 report by the Thomas More Institute, an independent European think tank.
The terrorists found something else.
"AQIM has collected about $130 million in less than a decade by kidnapping at least 50 foreign nationals and hiding them in Mali," Jemal Ferchichi wrote last month in Tunisian newspaper Assabah.
But the group's focus on abducting foreigners for money may be its undoing, suggests Sidi Mohammed Ould al-Mustafa, a journalist who covers religious news in Nouakchott.
"This turns the terrorist organisation into a group of mercenaries that has nothing to do with the 'religious war in the name of Lord' with which al-Qaeda has tried to win the sympathy of Muslim societies," he tells Magharebia.
"It invalidates the concept of sacred duty that some rash young people sought and joined al-Qaeda to perform," he says.
Terrorism analyst Hamadi Ould Dah agrees that "al-Qaeda has suffered a real setback".
"In the past, it used to attack military barracks and enter into bloody confrontations that claimed the lives of soldiers," he explains. Later, he says, the terrorists opted for kidnapping unarmed westerners and relief workers. More recently, al-Qaeda has seen divisions in its ranks and differences among its leaders because of money.
"If we draw a curve of al-Qaeda's violence, we will notice that it has actually dropped over time," he says.
The organisation has been broken, Ould Dah says, in part by increased "security co-ordination between Sahel countries and Western allies' support of efforts to uproot the terrorist groups that threaten peace in the region".
He also credits the newest ally in the fight against al-Qaeda – the Touaregs.
That tribal or ethnic communities, such as the Touaregs, are prepared to help combat al-Qaeda is proof that the terrorist group is under siege, Ould Dah says.
Just a few weeks ago, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azaouad (MNLA), a Touareg separatist group in northern Mali, said it would fight the terror group.
"The willingness of everyone to fight it means that it's moving towards its end," Ould Dah adds.
AQIM has also suffered defections, such as that by Jamat Tawhid Wal Jihad Fi Garbi Afriqqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). The previously unknown group on December 10th claimed responsibility for abducting three European NGO workers last October from the Rabuni camp near Tindouf.
Coupled with the leadership dispute between Laaouar and Abou Zeid, the fundamental structure of the terror group appears unstable.
Sahel countries are capitalising on the strife and working to tighten the noose.
Mauritania recently created three security zones, deploying troops to the southern, south-eastern and north-eastern borders to prevent any possible infiltration by terrorists or criminal trafficking gangs. Algeria strengthened its intelligence apparatus near the southern desert border, and Mali gave Algerian and Mauritanian soldiers the right to chase criminal groups onto Malian soil.
"This active response by affected states, along with recent internal conflict in AQIM, will eventually lead to the end of al-Qaeda as a terrorist apparatus and to the birth of new organisations, the features of which are not yet known," analyst Issa Ould al-Yadali tells Magharebia.
These new organisations, however, will have a "difficult time trying to destabilise the region," he adds.
One reason, says journalist al-Rajel Ould Omar, is that poor communities in Sahel countries already have an aversion to terrorism. Al-Qaeda has thrown their children into an unknown future by using the promise of money to involve them in smuggling, kidnapping and other crimes, he says.
"There is no doubt that there are signs about the imminent disintegration of al-Qaeda in the Sahel and Sahara, especially after the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and also after Afghanistan's Taliban started political bargaining," notes Mohamed Saleck Ould Dahi, a researcher in Islamic groups.
"Small terrorist groups in the Sahel are affected by blows dealt to the parent al-Qaeda organisation," Ould Dahi says. "Resorting to kidnappings is a proof of despair. In addition, Muslim youths have found what they want in the current peaceful Arab revolutions and have even become the ones who make them."
The idea of "a co-existing Islam has prevailed over a belligerent Islam" and young people who once sympathised with al-Qaeda's extremist ideology have started to shun it, he says.
"This means that al-Qaeda's supplies of new young people who go to camps will now stop. Instead of being triggering a bomb, young people prefer to be positive actors in the social change machine," the Islamic researcher notes.
"The loser in all of this is AQIM."
Raby Ould Idoumou is a Nouakchott-based writer and terrorism analyst. He also serves as a communications director for the Mauritanian Human Rights Association (AMDH).
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