The Cipher Brief: Where does al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb maintain its primary base in northwestern Africa (Sahel region)?
Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck: It is hard to map jihadist groups in the Sahel region because organizations such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are often comprised of several factions, which are themselves divided into semi-autonomous brigades, battalions and sub-battalions. Furthermore, extremist groups operating in the region, such as AQIM, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Ansar e-dine, adapt depending on countries’ counterterrorism strategies.
In 2012, the three aforementioned groups established a base in northern Mali and proceeded to conquer territory in the country until they nearly reached Mali’s capital Bamako. To stop these gains, the French military intervened in 2013 and pushed these groups north towards Libya and east towards Niger. Porous borders enabled the jihadist groups to move from one country to another and expand their scope of action. MUJAO, for instance, extended its sphere of action into Niger, where it perpetrated several acts of violence, such as an attack on Nigerien military base in 2013 and the more recent attack in Bani Bangou last November.
TCB: Why did the AQIM select this area for its base? What advantages or disadvantages does it provide?
DGY: At first the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the predecessor of AQIM, was pushed by southward by the Algerian military. AQIM’s movement southward also became a matter of conjuncture as it sought to unify all jihadist groups operating in the Sahel region, including the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. In 2009, AQIM leader Abdel Malek Droudkel decided to open its Sahelian front with several kataib (battalions): Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar served as the emir of the western part, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid of the eastern part, and Yahia Djaoudi of the north.
The Sahel is a vast region that covers between 4 and 5 million square kilometers. The topography of the Sahel region and a history of de facto autonomy in some countries such as Mali, Mauritania and Niger, makes government control hard to exercise. Sovereign functions of the state, such as providing assistance, security and protection, development, and public services, are insufficient and lead to a marginalization of populations that in many cases lack education and employment opportunities. This leads to tensions with the central government and contributes greatly to the radicalization of many youths. Islamist militant and jihadist groups thrive on that.