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AQIM

A year after Libyans rose up against Colonel Mu`ammar Qadhafi, Western governments and observers continue to watch the security situation in that country with trepidation, concerned with instability in the wake of Qadhafi’s ouster but also watchful for a possible spread of al-Qa`ida in the sparsely populated, oil-rich country.

This article provides an overview of the history of Libyans in jihadist organizations (including al-Qa`ida), an assessment of al-Qa`ida and affiliated media activities following the Libyan uprising, an analysis of available evidence of a potential al-Qa`ida presence in Libya, and an evaluation of the possible role the group could occupy in a new Libya.

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One of the biggest questions and worries the past year in Western counterterrorism circles has been about how the MENA uprisings would affect al-Qa’ida. Many pointed to the uprisings as evidence that the citizens of the MENA were not only shedding off the yoke of tyranny, but also discrediting al-Qa’ida. On the other side of the debate were those that believed that it would provide the impetus for jihadis to take over. Throughout the past ten months I have maintained that one would see something more in between these two visions and that one should focus on the internal dynamics of each country. The three countries that have worried me the most are Yemen, Syria, and Libya. Gregory Johnsen has done a great job keeping everyone updated on al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s evolution and advances in Yemen. Additionally, I have a forthcoming post at al-Wasat about the potential for jihadi penetration in the Syrian theater if the country does indeed devolve into a civil war. This post will therefore only focus on Libya and al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib’s (AQIM) outreach to Libyans since the beginning of the Libyan uprising in February.

Co-editor of al-Wasat and specialist on AQIM and North Africa, Andrew Lebovich, has written some excellent pieces related to AQIM, the Libya conflict, and the seizing of weapons, which you can read here (4/4/11), here (6/19/11),here (9/8/11), and here (9/27/11). Lebovich’s two main arguments stated:

It is far more likely that AQIM would hold onto the weapons to defend against raids from helicopter-borne special forces troops, from France or elsewhere, which have been known to operate in Niger and Northern Mali and have staged at least two operations against AQIM forces, in July 2010 and in January 2011 … AQIM is using the chaos not to fight against the Qaddafi regime, but to build up their supplies and further reinforce their safe havens far from the Libyan jihad. (4/4/11)

The place where these weapons really could make a difference is northern Algeria, where AQIM has conducted a persistent IED campaign for years against Algeria’s army, police and gendarmerie. (6/19/11)

Indeed, I believe Lebovich’s argument has many merits, yet it is only one aspect of the broader picture. It is also worth noting AQIM’s media strategy since the beginning of the Libyan conflict. It is also necessary to re-visit and reassess how the Iraq jihad played a role in the Libyan jihadi community. Although AQIM is known for its history in Algeria and its attempts in recent years to infiltrate and gain influence in Mauritania, Mali, and Niger since the beginning of the MENA uprisings AQIM has zeroed in on Libya as if they smell blood in the water. Prior to the MENA uprisings AQIM (to my knowledge) never released anything dealing with Libya specifically. Since the beginning of the MENA uprisings, AQIM has released seven statements and/or videos related to the uprisings. Four of which dealt with Libya, two on Tunisia, and one related to Algeria (see chart below). It is crucial to point out that the releases on Tunisia and Algeria were all published in January. Therefore, all of AQIM’s focus on the MENA uprisings since late February — when they released their first statement on the then impending Libyan civil war — has solely dealt with Libya. This shows a genuine interest by AQIM in the Libyan theater and potentially, though not definitely, a calculation that they could make inroads.

At first, I had trouble accepting that AQIM could possibly make any inroads in Libya. One of the main reasons has to do with the Algerians’ checkered past with the Libyans during the 1990s in the age of the local jihad. It is beyond the scope of this post to get into detail about it, but I would suggest reading Camille Tawil’s excellent book Brothers In Arms: The Story of al-Qa’ida and the Arab Jihadists, which provides rich detail of the issues between the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) and the LIFG (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group) during the Algerian civil war. To put it mildly the Libyans had a bitter taste in their mouth toward the Algerians. Another reason that led me to initial skepticism was that the LIFG underwent revisions in the latter half of the previous decade, which to a certain extent moderated the leadership and members who were jailed in the group.

It also does not also necessarily account for Libyan foreign fighters in the Iraq jihad, though. According the Sinjar Records, which should be taken as a random sample of foreign fighters at the height of the Iraq jihad, the average age of the fighters were 24‐25 years old and the median age was 22‐23 years old. This would suggest that the Libyan fighters that survived the fight and did not become a suicide bomber or die in battle and returned to Libya were too young in the 1990s to get caught up in the arrests and sweeps against the LIFG. It would also suggest that the LIFG did not necessarily have sway ideologically on this new generation of Libyan jihadis. Moreover, the revisions were done with explicit coordination with the Qadhafi regime, which in the current environment calls into question those that engaged with that regime. It will also test al-Qa’ida’s current amir Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri’s theory that the revisions by the LIFG as well as others in Egypt and elsewhere were insincere based on pressures from various regimes. Either way, it could be argued that two ideological trends were taking hold simultaneously within the Libyan jihadi community. The first generation of Libyan jihadis were “moderating” their doctrine while the second generation was exposed to the virulent ideology of al-Qa’ida in Iraq. This twin phenomenon would have been masked by Qadhafi’s suppressive policies, which have only been exposed since his fall.

It should be noted that this does not necessarily provide wholesale proof that there is going to be some type of jihadi takeover of the Libyan government. That said, there are new data points that should be analyzed in light of the previous paragraph. It was pointed out to me Sunday on Twitter by al-Jazeera journalist Gregg Carlstrom that the admin of the official Facebook page of the Libyan uprising (17 February Intifada) posted AQIM’s most recent video message from Shaykh al-Hasan Rashid al-Bulaydi. This is no doubt a worrying sign.

       Additionally, this past Friday a picture in Benghazi that showed the old al-Qa’ida in Iraq flag hanging over a court building raised some alarms in the media. My initial reaction was that it most likely was a souvenir from the Iraq jihad and that it may not seem as much of a provocation as many would think since it has the shahdah (Muslim testament of faith) on it, which could signal the renewal of Islam in society. On Sunday the jihadi forums posted two videos of a caravan of cars and then marchers carrying similar flags as well as others linked to AQ. This made me rethink my initial reaction to the flag controversy, which led me to what I believe is a more nuanced take in the paragraph above that outlines how Libyan foreign fighters were exposed to AQI’s ideology. Although the LIFG’s trajectory following the Libyan uprising appears to conform to their moderation during their revision process since they have changed their group name to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change, the second generation of jihadis now that Qadhafi is dead are slowly flexing their muscle in a society rife with violence, revenge, and potential tribal war. There are still many blind spots and it is too early to conclude anything definitive, but further influence of AQIM should be watched closely.

Last night, Tout sur l’Algérie published an article titled “Aqmi affirme que ses éléments ont été tués dans ce raid” (“AQIM confirms that its members were killed in raid”). The article stated that they received through anonymous sources a new statement from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb that said that some of AQIM’s fighters were killed in an accidental NATO airstrike on rebels this past Friday. Although it is quite possible that this occurred, there is reason to be skeptical. First, the statement has still not been released to the forums (at least sixteen hours have passed as of 1:25PM US Central Time). I also do not recall a time when AQIM released a statement to anonymous sources in the past. Second, the article provided a screen shot of the top of the statement and it did not conform to the normal style, color, and font of previous AQIM statements.

Screen shot of Tout sur l'Algérie's screen shot of AQIM's statement

The top part with the black text (the basmallah) and the golden text (AQIM’s name in Arabic) are normal. The green text below it, though, is where the authenticity of the statement comes into question. In the past, AQIM has never used that font or green color for its statement titles. Rather, they have used red. Here are some examples of previous officially released AQIM statements:

Example 1

Example 2

Example 3

Based on the above examples and when one compares it to the one posted by Tout sur l’Algérie one can see a clear difference. Further, the green text appears to be photoshopped on top of the alleged AQIM statement.

There are other indications that it is not real. The first line of green text states the basmallah again, which does not make much sense since it is already articulated above, which suggests the individual who created it and tried to pass it off as real did a poor job trying to copy previous AQIM statements. The second line is the alleged name of the statement and translates to “Obituary of the Mujahidin in the Battle of “Bariqah.” Using the word obituary appears off and does not sound similar to jihadi lingo. One would think they would use the word shuhadaʾ (martyrs) instead.

This raises the question then, who and why would one want to perpetuate such a poorly executed hoax? Three countries came to mind: Algeria, Libya, and France. I asked al-Wasat’s co-editor Andrew Lebovich, a specialist on France and the Maghreb who works for Peter Bergen at the New America Foundation, in a private conversion what his thoughts were and who might be behind it. Lebovich does not believe the French passed the information along since they would have no reason to do so. With regard to Algeria, Lebovich stated that the Algerians are not too happy about the intervention because an unstable state next door is not good. He continued: “I think they are in a tough bind; their lives would be better with Qaddafi gone, but for the sake of their own internal security I think they would like to avoid more revolutions.” That said, he is still skeptical that they would forward such information because “if anyone should know what these [AQIM] documents look like, it’s the Algerians.” Lastly, Lebovich suggested that the Libyans may be behind it since “they’re smart, and know the Algerian press would take a statement like this.”

Since there is no clear evidence of who is behind this alleged statement and it has not appeared on the forums nor has AQIM released a statement refuting the information in the Tout sur l’Algérie article, at this point it would be unwise to point fingers. That said, based on what we know about AQIM there is strong evidence that the statement being trotted out was not actually from AQIM.

The most recent issue of Terrorism and Political Violence was released in January. As usual, it had an excellent collection of articles. In particular interest to me was the one written by Manuel R. Torres Soriano “The Road to Media Jihad- The Propaganda Actions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.” I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss it briefly since it somewhat dovetails with the spirit of this website.

Soriano provides a descriptive analysis of Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) media strategy from 1998-2009. This article fills an important lacuna in the literature since many in the Anglosphere have not focused much on GSPC and AQIM. As such, it provides a solid foundation for future researchers to build off of it. One can divide GSPC/AQIM’s media output into three phases: (1) under the leadership of Hassan Hattab and Nabil Sahraoui following the break from Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), 1998-2004; (2) under the leadership of Abdelmalek Droukdal prior to the merger with al-Qaeda, 2004-2007; and (3) post-merger with al-Qaeda 2007-2009.

Soriano adroitly points out that following the GSPC split from the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), unlike the GIA who were producing a lot of materials through its networks in Europe, the GSPC did not sustain these efforts. This was because Hattab was more interested in consolidating leadership and acknowledging the break with the GIA due to its very toxic actions in the latter half of the Algerian civil war. Therefore, the media component of the organization was not important to him. The GSPC’s first media output was in 1999 when they released a poor quality VHS tape that showed an ambush of Algerian soldiers. In 2003, Hattab was removed as the leader and the reigns were given over to Sahraoui who was only in charge of the group for a short period (September 2003-June 2004). Sahraoui was more concerned with stemming fitnah (discord) within GSPC than building up a media arm.

The second phase of GSPC/AQIM’s media endeavors began with the ascension of Abdelmalek Droukdal as the amir(leader) of GSPC. According to Soriano, “[he] accorded to the Propaganda Actions of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb group’s propaganda actions. The organisation’s new head had a much more ambitious vision of the role of communication within the overall group strategy.” At first, Soriano points out that the media operation did not change much due to lack of skilled individuals. That said, in October 2004, GSPC created its first website jihad-algeria.net. There was a huge gap between these efforts and the explosion of Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s, amir of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) at the time, online presence during the same time period. Soriano points out a plea online from Abu Yasser Sayyaf, GSPC’s web-master, for any type of help, such as, uploading content and using different programs, which shows how far behind GSPC was technologically. Further proof of this amateurism was GSPC’s second video release “Apostate Hell,” released in September 2004. The video was only three minutes long and due to its lack of know-how, the watermark of the software they used, Honestech, was glossed over the video. Sayyaf’s excuse for this dismal media output as well as others in video and audio form was due to their remote locations in the mountains of Algeria.

Soriano notes that 84% of GSPC/AQIM’s releases have been written communiqués and 85% of those have been less than two pages. Unlike other groups that wrote long doctrinal texts of their aqidah (creed) GSPC did not have much religious legitimacy or heavyweights in their group especially since traditional Muslim clerics like Yusuf al-Qardawi, Salmon al-Awdah and Safir al-Hawali produced fatawa (legal rulings) delegitimizing the jihad in Algeria. Furthermore, as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where there were actual “crusader” militaries those conflicts took the limelight away from the Algerian theater. One example Soriano provides is the lack of excitement over GSPC’s creation of an online magazine al-Jama’a (the group) attempting to follow the model of the successfulSawt al-Jihad (voice of jihad) magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) that at the time was strictly in Saudi Arabia and had yet to merge with al-Qaeda in Yemen, which occurred in January 2009. al-Jama’awas not highlighted by the key online jihadist websites. Soriano also points out that its biggest deterring factor was because the magazine mainly focused on Algerian issues versus the international problems of the ummah (Islamic nation) and other theaters of jihad.

Another issue was with the credibility of the messaging from GSPC. Sometimes the forums published content that purported to be GSPC propaganda that actually was not directly from GSPC’s media wing. Soriano expanded upon this by stating: “A lack of coordination and the problems of communication between the different cells, the lack of authority exercised over certain elements that had split from the group or ‘‘orbited’’ around it, and the repercussions of the ‘black propaganda’ waged by the Algerian intelligence services forced the group to issue public denials of the authenticity of content broadcast in its name on several occasions.” As such, although GSPC’s efforts during the second phase to broaden its media apparatus allowed it to release more content than in the first phase, they still ran into a lot of difficulties along the way.

GSPC’s media fortunes began to turn around when al-Qaeda central (AQC) officially announced a merger with GSPC and they became AQIM. Immediately, AQIM’s media apparatus produced more content with better quality. Soriano attributes this change to AQIM following AQC’s model of “untiring” media output. Another key factor was the influence of AQI. Soriano also surmises that more media production could have been compulsory for GSPC if it were to merge with AQC as an official branch. That said, the steep upward tick in production value might have also to do with AQIM outsourcing its media production to Europe similar to GIA in the 1990s since the above examples I am unsure completely explain the huge change in a relatively short period of time. Lastly Soriano says that it was also a way for leadership to assert its power over some dissention that was going through the ranks that were not consulted and were also against the merger with AQC.

Furthermore, AQIM started to cultivate relations with top online jihadist fora to release their content as well as the jihadist distribution company al-Fajr (dawn) Media. Nevertheless, AQIM was still plagued with issues of unauthorized messages being released under its name. As a remedy, in October 2009, AQIM created al-Andalus Institute for Media Production to better authenticate their content so individuals couldn’t post information that wasn’t directly from AQIM. Soriano concludes the article by drawing a comparison between AQIM and AQC when they created their own media production apparatus As-Sahab (clouds) Institute for Media Production, also as a way to breathe new life in their media efforts and communications strategy.

This article provided important descriptive insight into the nature of GSPC/AQIM’s media strategy between 1998-2009. There are some areas, though, where further research could build off of this by either Soriano or another researcher. To go a step further, it would be worthwhile for one to look deeper into the content produced by AQIM and provide a textual analysis of their variety of communications over the years. Another interesting project might also try and compare descriptive analyses of the media histories of AQC, AQAP and AQI and determine whether there are any tipping points for each groups emergence as a larger player in the jihad field as well as other metrics that could help researchers and governmental officials measure the importance or impact of a rising or fading jihadist organization. That said, overall, Soriano’s article “The Road to Media Jihad- The Propaganda Actions of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” is an excellent first step in developing more empirical research as it relates to the media jihad and further detail of AQIM in the English speaking world.

AQIM Pic2.jpg

In the wake of Tunisia’s popular uprising this past week, some are debating whether Twitter,WikiLeaks, or even George W. Bush might have played a role in enabling the historic protest movement. But one thing seems clear: The jihadist movement, which has long defined itself as Arab governments’ staunchest and most authentic opposition, had nothing to do with it. Jihadists’ non-involvement in organizing, encouraging, or even participating in the Tunisian protests suggests that the jihadist current has been largely irrelevant to Tunisia’s popular uprising. For as long as jihadists have been in business, one of their main goals has been to overrun an “apostate” Arab leader such as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But with the possible exception of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s 1981 assassination, they never came close. That Tunisia’s protesters succeeded where the jihadists so often fail, and appear not at all driven by anything close to jihadist ideology or even general religious grievances, has left members of the online jihadist community unsure how to respond. The uprising, after all, fulfills a top jihadist goal, but it also rebukes their belief that only violent and pious struggle can bring down a man like Ben Ali.

Two days before Ben Ali’s ousting, the amir (leader) of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud, released a statement titled “In Support of the Intifadah of our People in Tunisia.” He appealed to Tunisians, selling AQIM as an ally in their protests. “I found it a fit chance to inform you, on behalf of my Mujahideen brothers in the Islamic Maghreb, our partisanship and consolation with you. And our stand alongside you in your problem and uprising, with advice, inspiration and affirmation,” he wrote. “Your battle you fight today isn’t alienated from the general battle the Muslim Ummah is engaged in against its external and domestic enemies. … And I encourage our people in Tunisia to be ready and prepare preparations and send their sons to us to train on weapons and gain military expertise. … My Muslim brothers in Tunisia: your Mujahideen brothers are with you, and your problem is our problem and your happening is ours, and the bereaved isn’t like the adopting.”

The statement, an effort to attach AQIM to the Tunisians’ cause, has had no appreciable effect. After all, AQIM’s jihadist ideology, which has never been very popular in Tunisia anyway, has next to nothing in common with the protest movement. What small role Tunsians have played in the jihadist movement, and that the movement has played in Tunisia, only underscores their irrelevance in the country. On September 9, 2001, two Tunisians working with al-Qaeda helped assassinate Ahmad Shah Massud, the leader of the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Between August 2006 and August 2007, thirty-three Tunisians, just 5.5 percent of the total foreign fighters, joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to the recordsrecovered by U.S. coalition forces. Earlier this month, a Tunisian member of AQIM threw an explosive at a French embassy building in Mali, “lightly injuring” two people. A U.K.-based terrorism researcher, who asked to remain anonymous because his work has not been publicly published, estimated that Tunisians only account for 1-2% of the members in AQIM, which he said has “very limited operational capacity that they could project into Tunisia.”

As the protests mounted, jihadist activists outside of Tunisia have tried, and failed, to assert a role in the historic uprising. In the days before Ben Ali fled, Abu Tariq al-Tumi, a member of the Arabic-language jihadist forum the Majahidin Electronic Network (MEN), urged the “brothers” to contact friends in Tunisia over Facebook and make them aware of the importance of implementing Shari’ah law once the Tunisian regime fell. A video produced by Sharia4Belgium called for establishing a Tunisian Caliphate. Once Ben Ali left, forum members such as Ashaq al-Hur al-Tunisi, ecstatic that longtime enemy Ben Ali was finally defeated, also argued that now is the time to organize a Caliphate in Tunisia. Others, such as al-Khalifa al-Qadim, expressed shock that non-jihadist Tunisians could and would topple the secular Ben Ali. Azaf al-Rasas, another MEN member, downplayed the protests’ importance, predicting that little would ultimately change in Tunisia. In one particularly disturbing message, member Ri’bal posted a video educating Tunisians on the weapons and tactics they could use against “apostates.” Abu al-Munthir al-Shanqiti produced a fatwa for the influential Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad asserting that the Tunisian government’s “fight against Islam” was one of the main factors that led to the uprising.

At another prominent forum, the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum, members have been overjoyed at President Ben Ali’s deposing and excited for what they see as an opportunity for the jihadist movement to make its mark on Tunisia. Khadijah al-Afghaniyyah urged Tunisians to “raise the banner of Islam” as seventh century Arab generals had in their “fatah” (conquests) of North Africa. Another member, Bint al-Sahabah, expressed hope that Tunisia would soon become the “Islamic Emirate of Kairouan,” named for the Tunisian city, founded by Arabs in 670 CE, which has become what some consider the fourth holiest city in Islam. One member asked whether mujahidin would step in to lead the uprising into a mass “jihad fi sabil illah” (jihad in the way of God) across North Africa and the Middle East. Another ominously warned that AQIM would be coming to Tunisia.

There’s not much credibility to these threats, though, as groups such as AQIM have little reach in Tunisia. But it’s telling that the members would be so eager to claim ownership over the protests, especially given how little involvement they actually have. Although jihadists have been passing around a YouTube videoextolling the creation of a Caliphate in Tunisia, scarcely any Tunisians, and no significant Tunisian organizations, have shown any real interest in replacing Ben Ali with such a government. Reading the jihadist forums, one often gets the sense that its memberships live in denial, believing that the righteous mujahidin are always one campaign away from toppling secular Arab dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali. As the jihadists watched a non-religious uprising finally succeed where they had failed for so long, it’s unsurprising they would retreat even further into visions of grandeur. In Tunisia at least, the jihadist call to arms has rarely seemed less relevant.

Friend of the blog Nasser Weddady, a native Mauritanian, summarized and provided local knowledge analysis of AQIM’s most recent video release “On The Occasion of Ramadan Fighting is Ordained for You” to me through twitter. He said:

  • watching the video the dudes in the first minutes are Mauritanians with a clear Hassaniya accent..figures we’re more literary
  • one of the guys was reciting a hassaniya poem
  • it’s funny to see Mauritanians reciting Qur’an in Hafs instead of warsh.. so alien to us.. clearly Saudi influence in action
  • minute 30, showing an Afro-Mauritanian preaching in Halpulaar (fulani) very worrying sign..
  • minute 33 a Touareg preaching in his language face uncovered.. another alarm sign
  • minute 41, Guinean preaching in Portuguese..
  • min 43 AQIM dude preaching in .. Haussa..
  • part one of the new video is basically AQIM bragging about the diversity of its recruits and a show of success recruiting touaregs
  • beginning of video 2 AQIM emphasizing their diversity i.e trying to spread the msg & grow it beyond Arabs
  • min 43, in the hassaniya poem the guy says in rhyme that the group in that location has 14 fighters.
  • the Hassaniya poem in part 2 shows a good deal of sophistication trying to appeal to Moorish youth. psy-ops
  • the propaganda is designed to appeal to young moors warrior ethos.. not to be confused with jihadism..much more complex sociology
  • minute 60 of the video: gives previously unknown names of 4 Muaritanian AQIM members gone KIA.

Obviously one cannot take everything in a propaganda video at face value, at the same time, AQIM is trying to show it has diversified its ranks and is no longer a strictly Arab movement or for that matter completely run by Algerians. As Weddady mentions above this is a worrying sign because it opens the playing field to operations and potential safe havens in other countries. It appears that although AQIM was fairly silent on the media front in 2009, over the past several months they have stepped up their media operations. Something to look for in future statements or video messages is whether AQIM is able to infiltrate networks in Morocco and recruit Moroccans. Also, whether there is a shift in messaging to more a Global Jihadist ideology where they focus less on local and regional issues and more on reclaiming territory occupied by Spain since in the past it was part of Muslim territory (al-Andalus).