Symbolism plays an important role for al-Qa`ida and its related groups. Each attack is typically conducted according to a symbolic date and against a symbolic target. Most attacks fit within the organization’s internal ideology. Al-Qa`ida and its affiliated groups use ancient symbols and medieval Islamic references. As a result, events or signals that might seem random to outside observers in fact possess a logical and internal coherence. Deciphering al-Qa`ida’s messaging is important when making political or military decisions, and analysts must avoid falling into ethnocentric interpretations when trying to comprehend this phenomenon.

Al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) provides a useful case study of this ancient symbolism. From the outside, AQIM’s actions appear to reveal internal leadership schisms. Analysts frequently suggest that AQIM’s leaders are competing for power, without providing sufficient evidence proving that genuine leadership disagreements exist. This article contends that what may look like leadership differences to outsiders are in fact part of AQIM’s tribal allegiance system, which is found at the heart of all al-Qa`ida affiliates.

An Outside Perspective of Proxy Terrorism
On September 11, 2006, al-Qa`ida announced the allegiance of the Algerian militant group the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). On January 24, 2007, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the Algerian leader of the GSPC, responded to the announcement by changing the name of the group to al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb and by increasing terrorist activity in the name of al-Qa`ida and Usama bin Ladin in North Africa and the Sahel.[1] From this date forward, many of AQIM’s activities seemed to occur without any real coherence when viewed from an outside perspective. Since different AQIM leaders claimed responsibility for the same attacks, certain analysts assumed that competition or division plagued the group.

For example, on September 16, 2010, five Frenchmen and two Africans working at the Arlit site of the French uranium group Areva were kidnapped in Niger. On September 21, Salah Abu Muhammad, the official spokesperson for AQIM, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping by praising Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, the Algerian leader of the sub-group responsible for the kidnapping: “Following the promise of our emir, Abu Mussab [Algerian Abdelmalek Droukdel], a group of heroic mujahedeen last Wednesday, under the command of Shaykh Abu Zeid, succeeded in penetrating the French mining site at Arlit in Niger.”[2]

To prove that this claim was true, the recording was accompanied by photos of the hostages sitting in a circle with Shaykh Abu Zeid under a tree in the Mali desert.[3] On the recorded audio, the hostages introduced themselves but did not specify any conditions for future negotiation. Despite the French government expressing its willingness to enter into discussion for the release of the hostages, Usama bin Ladin released an audio message on October 27, 2010 claiming responsibility for the kidnapping, the first time he claimed credit for a kidnapping undertaken by AQIM. In the message, Bin Ladin demanded that France withdraw its troops from Afghanistan to avoid terrorist attacks on French soil and to save the lives of the hostages: “The only way to safeguard your nation and maintain your security is to lift all your injustice and its extensions off our people and most importantly to withdraw your forces from Bush’s despicable war in Afghanistan.”[4]

Two weeks later, on November 18, AQIM’s leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, responded to Bin Ladin in an audiotape aired on al-Jazira. In the recording, Droukdel appeared to have understood the al-Qa`ida chief’s message. In addition to repeating the message verbatim,[5] he directed the French government to negotiate with Bin Ladin concerning the hostages: “Any negotiations over the release of the hostages should be carried out directly with the Lion of Islam, our leader Usama bin Ladin.”[6]

Many analysts did not understand the reason for this shift in responsibility between the leader of al-Qa`ida and the leader of AQIM, as well as the leader of the Sahara Brigade, Abu Zeid. When the spokesperson of AQIM, Salah Abu Muhammad, paid tribute during the September 21 statement to both Droukdel and Abu Zeid, he phrased it in a way to express the hierarchical link between the two leaders. Droukdel is presented as the originator of the operation and Abu Zeid as the executing officer. Some analysts believed this showed internal division, suggesting that a war of succession could explode within AQIM.[7] Others suggested that it was a propaganda exercise aimed at putting Bin Ladin in the international media spotlight. These views, however, are external and ethnocentric interpretations that rely on conjecture. Instead, the statements represent an internal oath of allegiance that linked the two organizations and laid down certain rights and duties between the two individuals. The same trend occurred with al-Qa`ida in Iraq when Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi and then later Abu Hamza al-Muhajir continued to announce allegiance to Bin Ladin.[8] Al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s leaders act in the same way.[9]

An Inside Perspective of Proxy Terrorism
Internally, the pledges are a sign of a renewal of allegiance and a confirmation of obedience via an action. Therefore, in the September 21, 2010 AQIM message claiming responsibility, Abdelmalek Droukdel’s spokesperson was claiming responsibility for the action of Droukdel’s southern commander, Abu Zeid, in pursuit of the oath of allegiance that the latter took during Tariq ibn Ziyad’s nomination as leader of the unit. This oath means that all actions performed by Abu Zeid and his unit are done in the name of and on behalf of Droukdel, even if he does not actually participate in the direct order.

Similarly, in his October 27, 2010 message, Bin Ladin was reminding AQIM that they must obey him and that the hostages belong to him in accordance with the hierarchy of allegiance. Bin Ladin achieved this without even mentioning the name of AQIM’s leader, Droukdel, or the name of the person who carried out the operation, Abu Zeid. Three weeks later Droukdel confirmed this interpretation by issuing a message that confirmed the allegiance. This allegiance runs from Bin Ladin down to the lowest leader in the field without there ever being any contact or orders given. How can one explain the power and efficiency of this system of implicit command? To understand this process, it is necessary to examine the roots and functioning of allegiance within Middle Eastern tribal societies.

The Roots of Proxy Terrorism
Since AQIM operates in such a large territory, there is not really an established hierarchy or a stable command but rather a shifting leadership based on the oath of allegiance taken between influential individuals: Droukdel in the north, Yahya Abu Ammar in the south, Abu Zeid in the southeast, Belmokhtar in the southwest, Abu Anas al-Shingieti in the southeast, and Abdelkrim “the Touareg” in the Kidal region.[10] The actions of each loyal combatant and of each local leader are executed in the name of Bin Ladin, and then he can claim responsibility since all members of the organization follow the same rules of allegiance. These implicit allegiance rules, internalized by all members, are from ancient Arabic tribal practices and possess a cultural and historical foundation. They are historically founded on the oath of Hudaybiyya (bay`at al-ridwân), taken by Muslims before the Prophet Muhammad to renew their trust and loyalty to him. This oath is mentioned in the Qur’an: “Indeed, those who pledge allegiance to you, they are actually pledging allegiance to Allah. The hand of Allah is over their hands. So he who breaks his word only breaks it to the detriment of himself. And he who fulfills that which he has promised Allah—He will give him a great reward.”

Several authenticated stories show that the pledge of allegiance can take on several forms and can be passed between people of different backgrounds and sexes or even between entire groups who choose a leader to represent them.[11] The Nigerian group Boko Haram pledged allegiance to AQIM on October 2, 2010 during an announcement calling Nigerians to wage jihad via AQIM’s media division al-Andalus.[12] It was actually the leader of the group, Shaykh Muhammed Abu Bakr Bin Muhammed al-Shakwa who pledged allegiance to the AQIM leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and by doing so incorporated his group into Bin Ladin’s circle of influence, although his allegiance was actually in response to the offer of help made by the AQIM leader several months prior. This offer is not just symbolic but practical, and was of importance to the organization.

Until now, AQIM has grown within the African Sahel without anyone knowing what was driving it. There are of course a number of political, social, economic and military factors that could explain in part such expansion, but it seems that the continuous desire of AQIM leaders to “please” Bin Ladin and to prove their capacity to engage in global jihad through the allegiance mechanism is the main factor driving this branch of the organization today. Their growth seems to be directly related to their “desire of recognition” from the top command of al-Qa`ida. The latest terrorist attacks in the region and the declarations made by top al-Qa`ida leaders shed light on the reason for this movement. It essentially stems from the tribal roots of the organization that are based on the oath of allegiance.

This highlights two fundamental aspects. First, pledging allegiance seems to be imposed on all al-Qa`ida members, linking each individual indirectly to Bin Ladin himself. Second, since the punishment for violating this oath is death, one can understand the driving force behind the loyalty displayed by these individuals. The utmost importance should be placed on understanding the goals of these pledges. Generally, al-Qa`ida, and particularly AQIM, expects all its members to be loyal and faithful because they are fighting in the name of Allah. The pledge reminds the members of their personal duty (fard `ayn, or individual jihad) of fighting and dying for the Muslim religion. This pledge is not magical, and it plays an important symbolic role in furthering AQIM’s violence and operations.

Dr. Mathieu Guidere is currently professor of Islamic studies at the University of Toulouse, France and the Scientific Director of the Descartes Institute for Security and Crisis Management in Paris. He is also a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington, D.C. and authored Al Qaeda Conquest of the Maghreb (2007) and The New Terrorists (2010).

[1] To understand the roots and evolution of AQIM, see Stephen Harmon, “From GSPC to AQIM: The Evolution of an Algerian Islamist Terrorist Group into an Al-Qa`ida Affiliate and its Implications for the Sahara-Sahel Region,” Concerned Africa Scholars, June 2010.

[2] “Al-Qaeda Claims French Kidnappings,” al-Jazira, September 22, 2010.

[3] Edward Cody, “‘Emir of the South’ Abu Zeid Poised to Take Over Al-Qaeda in NW Africa,” Bloomberg, October 20, 2010.

[4] “France Threatened in Alleged Bin Laden Tape,” CNN, October 27, 2010.

[5] “Al-Qaeda Branch Warns France,” al-Jazira, November 19, 2010.

[6] “AQIM Demands Afghan Withdrawal in Return for French Hostages,” Reuters, November 18, 2010.

[7] See, for instance, Olivier Guitta, “Turmoil and Dissent in North Africa’s Al Qaeda,” The National, December 27, 2010.

[8] See, for instance, the article on the forum al-Qimmah: “From the Secrets of History: Zarqawi as I Knew Him,” available at Also see “In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency,” International Crisis Group, February 15, 2006.

[9] For Yemen, see Abdel Ilah Haidar Shae’e, “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” Yemen Times, March 20, 2010. For Somalia, see “Website: Somali Militants ‘Officially’ Pledge Allegiance To Bin Laden,” CBS News, June 12, 2009.

[10] See, for instance, the jihadist forum at

[11] See Ibn Hisham, Sira 1/141-143, 1/213, 2/40-42, 2/47-56; Maqrizi, Imtâ‘ Al-Asmâ‘, pp. 274-291; Ibn Taymiyya, Minhâj Al-Sunna Al-Nabawiyya 5/330-331.

[12] Note that the failed Christmas Day bomber in 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, was a Muslim of Nigerian descent. “Boko Haram Releases Eid Al-Fitr Address Via Al-Qaeda in North Africa’s Media Division Calling on Muslims to Wage Jihad,” Arabic Media Monitor, October 2, 2010.

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