Just about a year after the last time and two-and-a-half years after the first time, the New York Times for a third time July 10 treats al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to some lurid front-page publicity, “Qaeda Branch Steps Up Raids in North Africa.” The story alarmingly fails to mention the US military advisors that have been dispatched to the region in supposed response to the AQIM threat, but does say that “Algerian security forces [are] now offering military and intelligence support to poorer neighboring countries like Mali, where the insurgents have sought refuge.”
Like most such Times accounts, the report is based largely on quotes from anonymous officials—such as “a senior French counterterrorism official” who said AQIM “are now part of the global jihad.” One one-the-record quote is from US Africa Command chief, Gen. William E. Ward: “Is there a threat? There sure is a threat.”
The report focuses on a litany of AQIM’s recent audacious attacks—some of which we already noted. In late May, AQIM killed a Briton, Edwin Dyer, a day after its second deadline for meeting its demands expired. Dyer had been kidnapped on Jan. 22 along with a Swiss citizen and two other tourists in Niger and was held in Mali. In return for his life, AQIM had demanded the release of Abu Qatada, a Jordanian-born Palestinian cleric held in Britain, as well as $14 million. (Qatada’s release was also sought by the militants in Iraq who took members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams hostage in 2005.)
About two weeks later, gunmen in Timbuktu, Mali, killed a senior Malian army intelligence officer who had arrested several suspected AQIM members. Within days, Malian armed forces retaliated, capturing a militant base near the Algerian border and killing more than two dozen fighters. On June 23, assailants in Nouakchott, Mauritania‘s capital, killed Christopher Ervin Leggett, an American aid worker, in what authorities called an attempted kidnapping. In Algeria about the same time, militants using roadside bombs and automatic rifles ambushed a convoy of paramilitary police forces about 110 miles east of Algiers, killing 18 members of the security forces. And last weekend, presumed AQIM fighters attacked a Malian army patrol in that country’s northern desert, killing nearly a dozen soldiers and capturing several others.
AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdal has also threatened a “flagrant war” against France in retaliation for an effort by France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to ban burqas. Times sources conjecture that the “mayhem may be partly a result of a vicious rivalry” between two AQIM subcommanders in Mali, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, “a clash that underscores the kind of autonomous jihad cells that counterterrorism officials say are particularly hard to combat.” The rivalry may exist, but the attacks seem to be directed at common enemies, not fellow militants.
Lauren C. Ploch, an Africa specialist with the Congressional Research Service, said AQIM’s ideology is unlikely to win much sympathy with the populace of the Sahel states. “Nevertheless,” she said, “the vast spaces in northern Mali, Mauritania, Niger and southern Algeria are extremely difficult to police, so it’s quite possible that we may see surges in extremist activity in certain countries depending on how well their neighbors are able to control their own territories.”