December 15, 2012

AFRICOM's Coverage of AQIM Mixes Fact, Fiction

Last week The Trench reported on the political and military movements of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and present commander of El Moulethemine katibat ("Brigade of the Veiled Ones"). A significant portion of this information was retrieved from Magharebia, a Pentagon-run site dedicated to covering events in North Africa, and independent information confirms the overall agenda of Belmokhtar. Now Magharebia has reported on a video statement from Belmokhtar announcing the "Signers in Blood," a suicide squad presumably designed to greet an international military coalition in northern Mali.

However the headlines of "breaking away from AQIM" appear to deliberately mislead an overview of the situation.

That Belmokhar has experienced a heavy share of confrontation with AQIM chief Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (Abdelmalek Droukdel) is well-documented. Various explanations of AQIM's internal strife have been advanced over recent years: divisions between Algerian and Mauritanian leadership, personal rivalries, and the distribution of Western ransoms and drug profits. Leadership schisms are a natural product of regionally-networked militant groups, as the need to decentralize across borders and cultures often erodes a firm hierarchy. Those groups that enjoy permanence at the top usually function as symbols of national power: the Taliban's Mullah Omar or Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah.

At the same time, a foreign intervention of northern Mali stands a good chance of closing the Islamists' ranks, at least until the momentum swings against them and the alliance is forced to scatter across northern Mali.

Belmokhtar's recent announcements illustrate the dilemma facing Western and African capitals. While "One Eye" cannot be expected to obey every command of AQIM, he has pledged to abide by the decisions made collectively by AQIM, the local Ansar Dine outfit and the regionally-minded Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). His group will allegedly specialize in kidnapping Westerns and extorting ransoms to fund the Islamic alliance, thereby dividing their labors. Belmokhtar has relocated his base to Gao, where MUJAO has established its headquarters and oversees the Islamists' campaign in northern Mali.

Reinforcing the line of communication between groups is MUJAO's military planner and Bekmokhtar's deputy, local Tuareg Omar Ould Hamaha.

Abdalahi Ould Ahmed, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Chouhoud, gives a more comprehensive explanation for AQIM's proliferating offshoots: "As the organization has grown and incorporated fighters of different origins, conflicts of interests have become increasingly frequent.” This process carries its advantages and disadvantages. Given an increase in funds and territory, turf battles become inevitable in the war for jihadist hearts and minds. Purely commercial elements flock to West Africa's flow of cash and cocaine, undermining the Islamists' overall message and corrupting personalities from the lowest to highest ranks.

Militant groups must also network and decentralize to some degree in order to survive the short-term precision and long-term pressure of joint-government operations. In AQIM's particular case, the group is undergoing rapid expansion after northern Mali opened a huge amount of territory and influence to its sub-commanders. This fragmentation allowed AQIM personalities to establish their own local units under the mothership's flag, pursue their own interests and quickly seize all available power in the region. Accordingly, a group of Barabiche tribesmen from Timbuktu have formed a "new"  faction at the urging of AQIM's leadership, with the intention of developing relations with Libya's self-styled Ansar al-Sharia. 

The fourth manifestation flying the "Partisans of Islamic Law" banner (after Tunisia, Libya and Yemen), Ansar al-Sharia will now operate out of Gao as they attempt to build a logistics network through neighboring Niger. Their alleged objective: establish a base in eastern Libya to facilitate attacks on Western and African targets in response to Mali's planned intervention.

"Their aim is to establish a foothold in Libya from which to launch attacks against Western targets, as well as gaining access to the large stockpiles of weapons – including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles – that were looted by Libyan rebels during the fall of Colonel Moamer Kadhafi's regime at the end of last year," The Telegraph reported on December 4th. "In return, AQIM is offering to provide Libyan Islamist groups with training and finance."

As Mauritania's al-Akhbar notes, Gao's branch of Ansar al-Sharia raises the number of Islamic militant groups in Mali to five: AQIM, MUJAO, Ansar Dine, Belmokhtar's "Masked Brigade" and Ansar al-Sharia. Pentagon intelligence and independent reporting has also collaborated the presence of Nigeria's Boko Harem in Gao. All of these groups operate as loose fronts for "the Base", waving the flag to attract recruits and acting semi or totally independent. The efficiency and inefficiency of this cooperation generates the double-edged sword of netwar.

So long as AQIM, Ansar Dine and MUJAO collectively wield influence in northern Mali, its splinter factions shouldn't cause an excessive amount of friction between the alliance. Scattering will become its own strategy if they are initially overrun, and division won't pose a fatal problem if Mali's internal woes and regional deficiencies in governance are left unresolved.

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