Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Assessing Autonomy and Opportunistic Expansion

We are pleased to have the opportunity to publish an article today written by a guest contributor to Foreign Intrigue.

Clayton Henry is a former intelligence analyst in the United States Army. Clayton served three years in total and deployed to eastern Afghanistan for a year in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. He is currently a graduate student studying U.S. foreign policy and national security in the Department of History at The American University in Washington, DC.


Eric Jones
Managing Editor 
Foreign Intrigue


Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Assessing Autonomy and Opportunistic Expansion


Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is not part of an organic, grassroots Al-Qaeda (AQ) organization, nor is it directly controlled by AQ leadership. Rather, an experienced Algerian terrorist group merged with AQ in early 2007, taking its internationally recognized name while remaining autonomous and regionally focused.

  • However, the group still poses a significant threat to western interests in the region and is capable of international coordination. AQIM was implicated in the U.S. consulate attack in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, which killed four U.S. citizens, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Retracing AQIM’s history reveals that failing or transitioning states derived from periods of political instability and war have provided the opportunity for Algerian terrorists to expand across northwestern Africa and the Middle East.

  • Algerian and Maghreb radicals expanded into Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s, Algeria and the Maghreb region post 1990, Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003, Libya during its coup in 2011, Mali during its coup in 2012, and possibly Syria in its current crisis. These opportunistic expansions connected northwestern African and Middle Eastern terrorist networks, which ultimately culminated with the AQIM merger.


AQIM Objectives

Broadly speaking, AQIM seeks to overthrow the secular government in Algeria, replace it with an Islamic government, and rid the region of foreigners, particularly from the West. AQIM is also financially motivated, with much of its activity in kidnapping for ransom, smuggling, and extortion. However, assessing AQIM’s more specific objectives is difficult, considering loosely connected terrorist groups comprise the organization, “who may not be bound by command or shared goals, and whose motivations and capabilities may diverge significantly.”

AQIM Origins 

AQIM’s origins lay in Algeria’s Civil War during the 1990s. Following political turmoil from the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) collapse in 1988, Algeria spiraled into civil war. The 1990s have been termed the “black decade,” during which time upwards of 200,000 Algerians were killed, mostly civilians. Islamic radical groups led the insurgency, seeking to overthrow the secular government and establish an Islamic State. The Islamic Armed Group (GIA), which formed in 1992 with approximately 2,000 – 3,000 militants, sustained one of the most effective insurgent campaigns. The GIA targeted the government, civilians, and successfully conducted terrorist attacks against the French, which included hijacking a French plane leaving Algiers in 1994 and the 1995 metro station bombing in Paris. Algerian radicals targeted the French because of both their colonial history with Algeria and their continued presence and influence within the region. Some GIA members had preciously joined Afghan jihad against the Soviets during the 1980s, thus rooting their first contacts with bin Laden’s immerging network. This relationship continued in the 1990s, though the two organizations remained separate. Between 1997 and 1998, the GIA factionalized into local militias, disbanded, and then reformed into the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The GSPC remained an active terrorist organization, operating mainly in Algeria and northern Mali, until its merger with AQ in 2007.

The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 strengthened ties between the GSPC and AQ, which ultimately led to their merger. Abdelmalek Drukdal, the new GSPC leader, viewed the Iraq war as an opportunity to expand its terrorist ambitions internationally. Working with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the GSPC began funneling Maghreb terrorists into Iraq to conduct anti-U.S. jihad. Proving beneficial, Drukdal’s international expansion provided the GSPC with a much larger pool of volunteers across northwestern Africa and elevated their status and legitimacy in the region. The GSPC coordinated with both AQ in Iraq and AQ in Pakistan, culminating with Drukdal publically pledging “allegiance to bin Laden in September 2006 (in this way celebrating the fifth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States)” and changing their name to AQIM in January, 2007. 

AQIM Activity

GSPC’s transition to AQIM escalated the scale and frequency of the organization’s attacks, increased its use of suicide bombings, expanded its activities to neighboring countries, and amplified its anti-western jihadist rhetoric. The GIA had not utilized suicide bombings during the 1990s, and the GSPC adapted them only after increased collaboration with AQ during the Iraq War. Following its fusion with AQIM, however, suicide attacks became one of the organization’s staple tactics. In April, 2007, AQIM conducted a well-coordinated suicide bombing in Algiers that left 33 dead and injured more than 200, simultaneously targeting three separate government facilities. The group executed another suicide bombing in Algiers during December of the same year, “which struck both the Algerian Constitutional Court and the regional seat of the United Nations,” killing 41, 17 being UN employees. While AQIM’s most violent attacks were carried out between 2007 and 2008, which include “guerilla-style raids” and assassinations, suicide bombings remain one of their most used tactics.

Kidnapping for ransom is AQIM’s most lucrative terrorist tactic, which has elevated their status to “al Qaeda’s best funded, wealthiest affiliate,” according to a statement in July, 2013 from General Carter Ham, “the head of the U.S. military’s Africa Command.” The current Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, David Cohen, recently claimed that “kidnapping for ransom [is] our most significant terrorist financing threat today.” AQIM has kidnapped citizens from France, Great Britain, Canada, the United States, and other western nations, reportedly accumulating more than $50 million since 2003. AQIM uses its funds to remain self-sufficient and expand its network across the Maghreb, encompassing many smaller, local militias to create a conglomerate of loosely tied, semi-autonomous terrorist groups. Many AQIM kidnappings, for instance, have been carried out by these affiliates, the proceeds possibly being shared by core AQIM members and the local group that executed the kidnapping. AQIM recently killed three Americans during “a four-day terrorist hostage seizure at a natural gas compound in southeastern Algeria in January 2013.” The group is also connected with government/business extortion and a wide range of smuggling activities in the region, such as cigarettes, weapons, and drugs. AQIM’s cigarette smuggling success earned Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of AQIM’s top leaders, the nick name “Marlboro Man.”

While the GSPC’s transition to AQIM changed its tactics, such as with suicide bombings and kidnappings, and expanded its operations from Algeria into the Maghreb, the organization has remained autonomous from AQ control. AQIM is completely self-sufficient, including its funding, supplies, and militant forces, has maintained organic leadership from within the previous GIA/GSPC organizations, and has not conformed to AQ’s global terrorist agenda; instead, its operations have remained focused in northwestern Africa. AQIM’s recent hostage crisis that killed four Americans and its possible association to the Benghazi attack on September 11th, 2012 explicates that AQIM still poses a significant threat to western interests within the region. There is little evidence, however, to suggest that AQIM is engaged in AQ’s global terrorist activities. Furthermore, the Maghreb organization split under two leaders in 2012: Drukdal in the northeast and Mokhtar in the southwest. This split, coupled with many of its militants being tied to local interests, further blurs the concept of a unified AQIM following a single set of goals and whose loyalties lie with core AQ leadership. Rather, AQIM’s incorporation of local militant groups and recent fractionalization suggests it is a network of loosely tied organizations across the Maghreb whose objectives and loyalties may differ between its subgroups.

Regional/Western Response to AQIM

AQIM amassed an estimated “30,000 members at its height,” though increased Algerian counterterrorism efforts coupled with public repudiation from its violent tactics significantly reduced the group’s numbers to a few thousand and pushed them into the outlying “mountainous northeast region…southern Algeria…and the Sahel region of West Africa.” AQIM expanded operations into Libya in 2011 during Gaddafi’s overthrow and, in collusion with other regional terrorist networks, recently took control over parts of northern Mali following political instability derived from a military coup in 2012. Both examples demonstrate AQIM’s continued expansion during times of opportunity afforded by destabilizing countries. Responding to terrorist gains, France intervened in northern Mali with a combined ground/air assault in January, 2013, that quickly restored local power. AQIM, however, still largely operates out of northern Mali, southern Algeria, and northeastern Algeria.

The U.S. has taken a less kinetic approach against AQIM compared to its other counterterrorism efforts across the world. Since 2005, the United States has provided more than $1 billion in foreign aid to African countries in the Maghreb and Sahel region through the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership. Politically unstable countries, however, are ineligible to receive funding, which currently include Mali,Mauritania, and Niger. More aggressively, the U.S. logistically supported the French intervention in 2013, and recently “established a base in Niger to conduct drone surveillance of the broader region.” The U.S has officially refrained from kinetic strikes and direct military interventions, opting instead to support regional and other western counterterrorism efforts.


AQIM’s historical analysis exposes two key points: AQIM operates more as an independent organization rather than an extension of AQ; and terrorist expansion in the Maghreb has largely been facilitated through political instability in failing or transitioning states. While posing a significant threat to western interests in northwestern Africa, and to a lesser extent in the Middle East, AQIM has remained focused on a regional agenda. Therefore, U.S. counterterrorism policy should increase its supportive role in both preventing outbreaks of instability in Maghreb/Sahel Africa while augmenting regional or European interventions, such as with France in January, 2013. Considering both points on AQIM’s autonomy and opportunistic nature, refraining from direct military and/or political action will provide less opportunity, motivation, and support for a shift towards AQ’s western-focused agenda.




(Featured photo courtesy of Magharebia and Wikimedia Commons)


About the author:

Clayton Henry is currently a graduate student at The American University studying United States foreign policy and national security in the Department of History. He served three years as a military intelligence analyst prior to graduate school and deployed to eastern Afghanistan in 2011-2012.