Al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is occasionally described as an operational branch of the global al-Qa`ida structure. Yet AQIM should not be viewed as an external al-Qa`ida force operating in the Sahel and Sahara. For years, AQIM and its offshoots have pursued strategies of integration in the region based on a sophisticated reading of the local context. AQIM and its offshoots leverage money, guns and prayers to establish their presence in poorly governed areas in the Sahel and the Sahara. Their use of religion is of particular importance in an area where the local governing administration, to the degree that it exists, is generally perceived by the domestic population as corrupt, whereas AQIM and affiliated Islamist militants present themselves as honest and pious Muslims. This is especially the case in northern Mali.

As a result, even if the recent French military intervention in Mali has pushed back the Islamist rebels and secured control of the northern cities of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, a number of challenges remain.[1] The Islamists have not been defeated. Apart from the loss of prominent figures such as AQIM senior leader Abou Zeid and the reported death of Oumar Ould Hamaha,[2] the rest of the leadership as well as many of its core fighters are alive and motivated to fight. They do not seek a negotiated settlement, and they still have the capacity to resist and execute attacks inside towns under French control. While capturing the major cities of northern Mali may have been a swift, successful French military operation, controlling the vast territory of the Sahel and preventing AQIM’s reemergence is a much more daunting challenge.

Based on fieldwork in Mali and close coverage of the field of insurgencies in the Sahel for almost a decade, this article argues that AQIM is best understood as a complex and multi-dimensional group that combines a Salafist ideological orientation with a pragmatic approach to integrate itself into local communities and conflicts. The article provides background on the Tuareg, explains how AQIM gained influence in northern Mali, and examines the links between AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Mokhtar Belmokhtar. It finds that AQIM’s strategies of integration in northern Mali are key to its longevity, and these same strategies could be employed by the group in other regions of the Sahel and the Sahara.

Background on the Tuareg of Northern Mali
Northern Mali, home to the country’s Tuareg minority, comprises the broad part of the Sahel-Sahara that borders Algeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. Conflict in this area is not new. Throughout history, many Tuaregs viewed external intervention as a threat to their traditional life of nomadic pastoralism and fought several wars to maintain these customs. When the French arrived in the 19th century, many of the Tuaregs’ religious leaders declared them infidels, and the Tuaregs spearheaded resistance to colonial rule in northern Mali.[3] By the early 20th century, however, the French had managed to establish some nominal control over northern Mali and the Tuaregs lost key privileges, including their right to collect taxes and to offer protection services for trans-Saharan caravans.[4] Today, northern Mali may seem isolated and economically marginalized, but historically it served as an important frontier region, well integrated into the global economy. In some ways, northern Mali remains integrated into the global economy even today—through the economic power of trafficking contraband, migrants and drugs.[5] Trans-Saharan smuggling operations are profitable enterprises, and it has become an integral part of a minority of Tuaregs’ livelihoods.[6] To a certain extent, the current increase in informal or illicit trade also represents a revitalization of the ancient routes of trade, commerce and pilgrimage that used to pass through the area, connecting West Africa to the Mediterranean, and to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.

The Tuaregs’ position in the northern region was turned upside down by French colonialism (1892-1960) and made permanent by the post-colonial state system. The Tuaregs, who had once seen themselves as the “masters of the desert,” became a minority in several countries.[7] In Mali, this entailed being ruled by a black population against whom they had previously directed their slave raids.[8] The Tuaregs view themselves as distinct from the other groups that constitute the Malian polity—in language, lifestyle and heritage.[9] Traditionally, the Tuaregs’ livelihood has been one of semi-nomadic pastoralism, where pastoralist activities were supplemented by trade and farming.[10] They speak their own language, Tamasheq, and their society is constructed as a pyramid, with nobles at the top and various levels of dependents and servile groups below, stratified into the imushar (warriors), ineslemen (Muslim scholars), inhaden (artisans) and iklan/bella (slaves).[11] This hierarchy was established over time based on discourse and interpretations of race as well as descent, with noble families typically from fair-skinned lineages of Berber origin, whereas the Bella were black-skinned people of slave origin.[12] Regardless of how solid this social pyramid may have been (and to a degree still is), the Tuaregs have never constituted a coherent polity. Historically, they have been divided between a number of sultanates, ruled by different royal families, sometimes in cooperation with each other, but also experiencing violent conflict among themselves.[13] It is important to recognize this aspect of the Tuareg social structure, as it continues to inform their society and influence processes of social change.

The first Malian Tuareg rebellion took place in the early 1960s, and the second in 1990.[14] The 1990 uprising ended with the National Pact of 1992, although that agreement failed to placate all of the Tuareg factions and a new rebellion emerged in 2006.[15] The 2006 rebellion was initially a relatively small affair in Kidal organized around the now deceased Ibrahim ag Bahanga and concerned with local discontent. Yet that dynamic changed when Tuaregs began to return from post-Qadhafi Libya with new supplies of arms.[16] This gave fresh momentum to the idea of a larger rebellion, and a new Tuareg movement was formed in 2011: the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Whereas Tuareg independence and nationalism had been more rhetoric than a concrete goal in previous rebellions, the MNLA declared full independence of Azawad[17] from Mali in April 2012.[18]

What little that may have existed of Tuareg unity, however, quickly disappeared. As MNLA fighters looted and plundered the north,[19] and the Malian army fled and committed the March 21, 2012, coup in Bamako, other forces stepped in and effectively sidelined the MNLA. These forces were the Tuareg Islamist organization Ansar al-Din,[20] led by Iyad ag Ghaly, a veteran Tuareg fighter from the 1990s, and two other regional movements: AQIM and MUJAO.[21] The latter two groups are not Tuareg movements per se, but their senior members have been present in the area since at least 1998.[22] Thus, perceiving these Islamist fighters as part of a new and foreign invasion force is not accurate.

How AQIM Gained Influence in Northern Mali
AQIM originated from Algeria’s civil war, which erupted after the military leadership annulled the election results in 1992 after it became clear that an Islamist party would achieve victory. This resulted in a devastating civil war between the military and the armed Islamic opposition known as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). Officially, the civil war in Algeria ended with the amnesty of 1999,[23] but some fighters were unwilling to lay down their arms. Those who continued fighting currently form the core of AQIM.

The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), AQIM’s predecessor organization, was formed by Hassan Hattab in 1998 as a breakaway faction of the GIA, mainly as a reaction to the immense and senseless violence of the GIA in the latter years of the Algerian civil war. Rooted in the Salafist tradition, most GSPC commanders and rank-and-file were committed to a Qutbist form of Salafism that justifies violence.[24] Officially, the GSPC moved into northern Mali in 2003-2004, but they already had rear bases in the area since 1998.[25] The relationship between the GSPC and al-Qa`ida is opaque, as there is a history of statements of mutual collaboration but also of conflict. When the GSPC was established in 1998, the organization expressed support for al-Qa`ida, only to claim that it had broken away from al-Qa`ida in 2001.[26] The GSPC reaffirmed its loyalty again in 2003, was blessed by al-Qa`ida in 2006, and then finally adopted the al-Qa`ida banner in 2007 when the GSPC changed its name to AQIM.[27]

The GSPC may have adopted al-Qa`ida’s name for ideological reasons, but more pragmatic brand concerns also likely played a role. The GSPC’s members had lost the war in Algeria and some members were on the run in the deserts of northern Mali. Neither the Algerian government nor the international community wanted to negotiate with them, thus no settlement, not even an honorary surrender, was possible. The organization felt they had little to lose and something to gain by officially joining al-Qa`ida: local communities would perceive them as more “global” and powerful than the reality at the time.

When AQIM began to materialize in northern Mali in 2007, it had more than just al-Qa`ida’s brand name. AQIM also had money. The group’s source of wealth originated from kidnap-for-ransom, particularly the kidnapping of 32 European tourists in 2003.[28] These tourists were captured when traveling through the Sahara and were held hostage for several months before they were released.[29]

Money matters in the context of northern Mali, as the traditional role of the chef du village (traditional chief) has diminished rapidly, yet new systems of governance have not replaced traditional rule.[30] The history of AQIM’s mission creep in the region of Timbuktu is therefore instructive as it reveals that its ability to embed locally not only derives from its use of force, but also on its ability to create order based on a religious-ideological framework. Already in 1998, GSPC members started to arrive in the Timbuktu area[31] and they portrayed themselves to the local population as honest and pious traders. In one example, when they wanted to buy a goat from the locals, they paid the owner double his asking price.[32] They bought themselves goodwill, friendship and networks by distributing money, offering medicine, treating the sick and providing cellular phone access.[33] They also married locally—not into powerful families generally,[34] but poor local lineages, deliberately taking the side of the impoverished.[35] Thus, in some ways, the GSPC/AQIM acted as an Islamic charity, with the exception that they carried arms and did not hesitate to use them if needed.

AQIM’s penetration of the Timbuktu area has, therefore, been underway for more than a decade, but its tactics also gradually changed from distributing money and small benefits to aggressively promoting its interpretation of Islam. This became particularly evident after they gained territorial control in northern Mali in 2012. To facilitate this, AQIM also established alliances with some local marabouts (religious teachers) and encouraged them to preach AQIM’s version of Islam.[36] AQIM thus utilized a pre-existing traditional structure of cultural importance for its own purpose. Yet while the marabouts historically did not have much power, AQIM empowered them by supplying “their marabouts” with vehicles, money, weapons and bodyguards.[37] After the MNLA offensive, AQIM also offered locals protection. In Timbuktu, for example, AQIM communicated a “green” cell phone number that people could call if they were harassed by MNLA members or ordinary bandits.[38]

AQIM’s strategy was a careful and gradual one of integration and penetration into local communities based on a combination of military, political, religious, economic and humanitarian means. The latter component was clearly facilitated by the money that AQIM leaders had at their disposal due to their involvement in smuggling and kidnap-for-ransom. Therefore, AQIM should not just be viewed as a predatory, external force in northern Mali, but also as an actor that has managed to integrate into local communities over time.

This is also partially true for MUJAO. There was undoubtedly some local support for the group in and around Gao, but its style of governance was also more violent than AQIM’s. As a much younger organization—essentially a splinter movement of AQIM, formed in late 2011, comprised of non-Algerian elements from Mali and elsewhere in the Sahel—it consists of various factions that need to demonstrate their Salafi-jihadi credentials. It is, therefore, no coincidence that whereas AQIM only carried out one amputation as part of its implementation of Shari`a (Islamic law) in Timbuktu, MUJAO carried out 15 in Gao.[39] Even if MUJAO is more of a youthful firebrand insurgency, its ability to carry out attacks in Gao after French forces took control of the town indicates a certain level of civilian support (particularly in Peul communities) because these attacks were reportedly made possible through arms hidden among the civilian population.[40]

The Relationship Between AQIM, MUJAO and Mokhtar Belmokhtar
The relationship between AQIM and MUJAO and the role of Mokhtar Belmokhtar has been the center of much debate and speculation since MUJAO emerged in mid-December 2011.[41] Initially, some observers claimed that the formation of MUJAO was due to the dominant position of an old guard of Algerian nationals and other Arabs in AQIM.[42] These observers pointed to MUJAO’s West African rhetoric and reference to historical figures of West African jihadism and anti-colonial struggle, such as Umar ibn Said al-Futi Tall, Usman dan Fodio and Amadou Cheikhou (Seku Amadu).[43] This analysis, however, is challenged by interviews conducted by the Italian scholar Luca Raineri in Gao in November 2013 that corroborate previous interviews made by this author suggesting that a majority of MUJAO’s ranks were comprised of Arabs and Moors from Mauritania, Algeria and Western Sahara—not “black” Africans from other parts of West Africa.[44] Thus, another possible hypothesis is that the rift in AQIM that led to MUJAO’s formation was based on other disagreements, but that the West African rhetoric and reference to West African jihadism was used to legitimize the formation of a new insurgency with a broader regional platform than that offered by AQIM. Internal disputes between AQIM and MUJAO were not only about the role of religion, military tactics and social strategy, but also about money. In particular, disagreements arose on how to share funds generated through kidnapping and smuggling.[45] Some ambitious jihadists who did not belong to the hardcore AQIM leadership that originated from the GSPC may have craved more autonomy and decision-making power.[46]

Exactly what role Mokhtar Belmokhtar played in the emergence of MUJAO is still unclear. Yet even prior to the establishment of MUJAO, it was evident that there were internal divisions within AQIM and in particular between Abou Zeid and Belmokhtar. The two senior AQIM figures were divided over issues concerning leadership and strategy, but also over money.[47] These divisions eventually led to the departure of Belmokhtar’s katibat (battalion) al-Mulathamin (The Veiled Ones)  from AQIM.[48] Therefore, even if the circumstances surrounding Belmokhtar’s departure from AQIM are not known, it is clear that there was a great deal of rivalry between Belmokhtar and Zeid. This may have been purely about strategy or money, but it may also have been about leadership. Perhaps Belmokhtar never really accepted AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel’s decision to appoint Abou Zeid as his main Sahel amir over him.[49]

Belmokhtar’s decision to merge with MUJAO elements that he already knew in Gao (such as Hamada Ould Muhammad Kheirou) would give him a larger platform than what he could achieve only with his own katiba.[50] The subsequent merger between MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s katiba to form al-Murabitun (Those Who Remain Steadfast) is likely just another attempt by Belmokhtar to gain dominance in the region.

Belmokhtar’s moves may have negative consequences for the future sustainability of AQIM. Nevertheless, AQIM has always had more depth beyond Belmokhtar and his katiba. AQIM operatives were also present in Gao, whereas the Timbuktu region was controlled by the katiba of Tarik ibn Ziyad loyal to Abou Zeid. There are no signs that these and other AQIM structures have followed Belmokhtar into a merger with MUJAO.

Moreover, the original AQIM leadership and cadre have survived similar infighting in the past.[51] Some of these disputes were resolved over time, while others were not. Yet none of these past disagreements have prevented AQIM from continuing to function as an insurgency with a proven ability to integrate into communities and tap into local conflicts and grievances.

AQIM and its offshoots are no longer in control of cities and territories in northern Mali. Nevertheless, they have not been defeated. Apart from the death of Abou Zeid and the reported death of MUJAO commander Hamaha, the leadership remains intact, and most of its rank-and-file fighters have survived the French intervention. Some have returned to their homes or moved elsewhere to seek out other opportunities (not necessarily violent ones).[52] Some have left for other areas of the Sahel to continue their struggle, whereas others are hiding in northern Mali in the desert or among local populations.[53] The ability to blend in with the population is possible due to a combination of local support (based on their previous strategies of integration) and uncertainty about the future. As long as French forces remain, few local inhabitants believe that AQIM will return to the same level of control it had in 2012 and early 2013; however, many locals also understand that the French presence on the ground is only short-term. The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) remains understaffed and few Malians have much hope in the national army’s reform process.[54] As a result of these factors, accepting the presence of AQIM figures in the local community is one strategy to hedge against the future.

These illustrations of AQIM’s approach to the region indicate that it is an organization with an understanding of the local context. AQIM and its offshoots make use of a combined strategy of force, trade and the distribution of other benefits, while maintaining the image of honesty and piousness; this is in contrast to the corrupt local officials of the state whom they replaced. This strategy served AQIM well in northern Mali. Therefore, as AQIM searches for new safe havens in the Sahel and the Sahara, such as the southwestern Fezzan region of Libya,[55] it can be expected to once more employ its strategy of guns, money and prayers to integrate into new local communities.

Morten Bøås, Ph.D., is Research Professor at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). He has conducted extensive fieldwork in West and Central Africa, including Mali, and traveled widely on the African continent. Dr. Bøås’ work has appeared in academic journals, books, and policy reports. His published books include African Guerrillas: Raging Against the Machine and The Politics of Origin in Africa: Autochthony, Citizenship and Conflict.

[1] France’s military intervention in Mali is known as Operation Serval. The operation, which began in January 2013, is still ongoing.

[2] “Leading Militant Killed in Mali, Military Officials Say,” New York Times, March 14, 2014.

[3] Gunvor Berge, In Defense of Pastoralism: Form and Flux Among the Tuaregs in Northern Mali (Oslo: University of Oslo, 2002), Ph.D. thesis.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The increased popularity of these routes across the Sahel-Sahara is a consequence of more stringent border controls in Europe as well as recent technological advances that have made desert travel much easier. Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation devices, satellite and cellular phones, and four-wheel-drive vehicles have become standard equipment for desert travelers, making it possible to travel from Kidal in northern Mali to Tamanrasset in Algeria in about one day without ever traveling on a marked road. Some of these routes run up and down dry riverbeds, whereas others are little more than camel paths. Ordinary commodities are transported on these routes, but also contraband such as cigarettes, drugs and weapons, and these same routes are used for the trafficking of people seeking to reach Europe. The cigarettes, mainly but not exclusively Marlboro, used to come in presealed containers from Zouerat in Mauritania to Kidal, where the cargo was off-loaded and split into smaller lots and taken across the border to Algeria on four-by-four pick-up trucks. Some were sold locally in Algeria, while other shipments made their way across the Mediterranean to the European market, where they were sold at a lower price than non-smuggled cigarettes—even after a number of middlemen took their cut. The trafficking of people across the Sahara has also increased, but it is impossible to estimate the number. Until the town of Gao was captured by French forces in early 2013, however, Gao had been an important informal hub for Congolese, Cameroonians, Liberians, Nigerians and others who sought to leave the African continent. Once in Gao, migrants were picked up for a Sahara crossing through Kidal into Algeria. Other main routes for human trafficking through the Sahara include a route through Mauritania, Western Sahara and Morocco to Spain, and a route through Tunisia to Italy or Malta. Considering how much attention this topic is given by European media, it is quite remarkable how little is actually known about the number of people using these routes and how these operations are organized. See Morten Bøås, “Castles in the Sand: Informal Networks and Power Brokers in the Northern Mali Periphery,” in Mats Utas ed., African Conflicts and Informal Power: Big Men and Networks (London: Zed Books, 2012), pp. 119-134. This chapter is based on interviews conducted by the author in Mali between 2008-2011.

[6] Latin American cartels are increasingly using West Africa as an important transit point in their attempt to penetrate the European market with cocaine and cannabis. The route through northern Mali has not been the most important route for trafficking drugs, but since about 2006 it has been a part of the trans-Sahara trade in contraband and illicit goods. According to information received from local sources in Kidal, a successful trip across the border from Mali into Algeria with a load of cocaine could earn the driver as much as 3,000 euros. This is a considerable amount of money in a place with scarce resources and few employment opportunities. According to information obtained from sources in Kidal prior to the Islamist takeover of the area in 2012, the smugglers were organized in small gangs, numbering 10-15 people, and these gangs were connected to local authority figures (state and nonstate) who were paid to ignore these operations. Some of the Islamist insurgents who roamed this area (such as Mokhtar Belmokhtar) were also at times involved in these operations, either directly or indirectly through informal taxation. It is important to stress, however, that these interactions were fluid and pragmatic and not based on relationships other than business. Also see Bøås, “Castles in the Sand: Informal Networks and Power Brokers in the Northern Mali Periphery.”

[7] Not all Tuaregs share this view, but it is a fairly widespread sentiment. See Bruce Hall, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa 1600-1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[8] Berge.

[9] Jennifer Seely, “A Political Analysis of Decentralization: Co-opting the Tuareg Threat in Mali,” Journal of Modern African Studies 39:3 (2001): pp. 499-524.

[10] Hall.

[11] Iklan is the Tuareg name for this group, whereas bella is the Songhay term. The latter is much more commonly known in Mali. Bella is therefore not a separate ethnic category, but a collective term for people of slave descent. See Jon Pedersen and Tor Arve Benjaminsen, “One Leg or Two? Pastoralism and Food Security in the Northern Sahel,” Human Ecology 36:1 (2008): pp. 43-57.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Baz Lecocq, “Unemployed Intellectuals in the Sahara: The Teshumara Nationalist Movement and the Revolutions in Tuareg Society,” International Review of Social History 49:S12 (2004): pp. 87-109.

[14] Berge.

[15] Bøås, “Castles in the Sand: Informal Networks and Power Brokers in the Northern Mali Periphery.”

[16] Ibid.

[17] The term “Azawad” originates from a large dry river bed in the Timbuktu area, but it is also used as a common denominator for the supposedly historical homeland of the Tuareg. In the Malian context, this territory would include most of the area of the country north of the Niger River.

[18] Lydia Polgreen and Alan Cowell, “Mali Rebels ProClaim Independent State in North,” New York Times, April 6, 2012.

[19] “Human Rights in Occupied North Mali,” International Society for Human Rights, April 9, 2012.

[20] Ansar al-Din has been alternatively translated as Ansar Eddine, Ansar ed-Dine, and Ansar al-Dine.

[21] When the MNLA rebellion began, elements from AQIM and MUJAO supported the MNLA, and Ansar al-Din also had a tactical alliance with the MNLA. When the MNLA rebellion devolved into looting and sexual  violence, however, the Islamist factions used the opportunity to chase the more secular MNLA out of most of northern Mali.

[22] Although AQIM was not formed until 2006/2007, the militants who now fight with AQIM used to fight with the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). These same militants have been active in northern Mali since 1998. See Morten Bøås and Liv Elin Torheim, “The Trouble in Mali – Corruption, Collusion, Resistance,” Third World Quarterly 34:7 (2013): pp. 1279-1292.

[23] A referendum was held after the 1999 elections that approved the Civil Concord Initiative. The initiative pardoned many political prisoners and granted thousands of members of armed groups exemption from prosecution under a limited amnesty in force until January 13, 2000. This was followed by the 2004 Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation approved in a referendum in September 2005. This charter offered amnesty to most guerrillas and members of government security forces for acts conducted during the civil war.

[24] There are different variants of Salafism. Some Salafists are non-violent, while others pursue violence to achieve their goals. See “Understanding Islamism,” International Crisis Group, 2005.

[25] Bøås and Torheim.

[26] “Islamist Terrorism in the Sahel: Fact or Fiction,” International Crisis Group, 2005.

[27] See John Rollins, Al Qaeda and Affiliates: Historical Perspective, Global Presence and Implications for U.S. Policy (Washington D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2010).

[28] “14 Tourists Kidnapped in Algeria Head Home,” Los Angeles Times, August 19, 2003.

[29] The German government reportedly paid a ransom of five million euros ($6 million) to secure the release of the 32 mostly German hostages. The German government has denied that it ever paid any ransom money, but according to local sources the Salafists had a lot of money to spend after the tourists had been released. See “Newspaper: Berlin Paid Ransom to Free Hostages,” Deutsche Welle, August 6, 2004.

[30] Due to a combination of external shocks such as increased climatic variability and the penetration of the modern state, the traditional systems of governance are less useful than they used to be. Even if the modern state is more present in people’s daily lives, it is most often perceived as a nuisance or a negative factor because it has failed to respond adequately to people’s needs.

[31] “Understanding Islamism.”

[32] These details are based on personal interviews conducted in Bamako in February and March 2013 with a number of people who lived in northern Mali when the Islamists controlled the area. Also see Bøås and Torheim.

[33] Ibid.

[34] One exception is Mokhtar Belmokhtar. At least one of his four wives comes from a prominent family in the Timbuktu area.

[35] Bøås and Torheim.

[36] Ibid. Some needed encouragement in the form of the incentives that AQIM provided, but this was not the case for everyone, as some also started to embrace the Salafist ethos either due to AQIM’s influence or on their own.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] This is based on interviews conducted in Bamako with doctors and hospital staff who lived in Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal in 2012-2013 when these towns were controlled respectively by AQIM, MUJAO and Ansar al-Din.

[40] This is based on conversations with a Malian colleague who conducted fieldwork in Gao and the surrounding areas between the Malian elections in the autumn of 2013. The reason why MUJAO managed to recruit more extensively in Peul communities is still not entirely clear. It may be that people in this community already had started to swing religiously and ideologically in the same direction as the discourse of MUJAO, but there are also other possibilities. One is that this kind of allegiance was used to gain the upper hand in local rights-based conflicts over access to land, pasture and water.

[41] In this video, MUJAO declared its existence and claimed responsibility for the October 23, 2011, kidnapping of three European hostages from a refugee camp in Tindouf, southern Algeria, presumably under the control of the Polisario (the insurgency that still fights for the independence of the Western Sahara from Morocco).

[42] See, for example, “Mali’s Irrevocable Crises,” al-Jazira, April 16, 2012.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Luca Raineri, MOJWA: Complex Dynamics Between Armed Groups and Organized Crime in Northern Mali, 2014, unpublished manuscript. This finding is not based on an accurate headcount of MUJAO’s ranks, but on interviews with people present in Gao during MUJAO’s rule who were asked about the group’s composition.

[45] See also Ould Idoumou Raby, “Al-Qaeda Splinter Group Reveals Internal Erosion,” Magharebia, December 30,  2011.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Rukmini Callimachi, “Rise of Al-Qaida Sahara Terrorist,” Associated Press, May 28, 2013.

[48] In this regard, it is important to note that AQIM in northern Mali and the Sahel has always consisted of and hosted semi-independent groups under the AQIM banner. These have included, in addition to Belmokhtar’s group, Yahya Abu al-Hamam’s (also known as Jemal Oukacha) al-Furqan Squadron, al-Ansar (headed by Abdelkrim el-Targui, who is Iyad ag Ghaly’s cousin), and the Youssef ben Tachfine brigade (headed by Abu Abdelhamid al-Kidali). See also Raineri.

[49] Callimachi.

[50] See also Oumar Jemal, “In Aménas Attack Magnifies Belmokhtar, AQIM Rift,” Magharebia, February 7, 2013.

[51]  See, for example, Raby Ould Idoumou, “AQIM Under Siege,” Magharabia, January 13, 2012. Also see the detailed analysis of collaboration and fragmentation among Algerian Islamists in “Islamism, Violence and Reform in Algeria: Turning the Page,” International Crisis Group, 2004.

[52] This conclusion is based on interviews conducted in Mali in February and March 2013, and a number of follow-up conversations with Malian colleagues, diplomats and other scholars who follow the region, and staff members in the United Nations and other international organizations involved in Mali and the Sahara-Sahel.

[53] Ibid.

[54] See, for example, Boubacar Ba and Morten Bøås, The Mali Presidential Elections: Outcomes and Challenges (Oslo: Norwegian Centre for Peacebuilding, 2013). Also see Bruce Whitehouse’s blog, Bridges from Bamako, available at

[55] The Fezzan region of Libya is one area that has caught AQIM’s attention in the aftermath of the fall of Qadhafi. This region is another borderland of the Sahel where the state exercises little influence, and local groups compete for control of the region’s few resources. For details, see “Fresh Blood and New Safe Haven for Jihadists: Libya,” Today’s Zaman, October 27, 2013.

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