It appears that this year’s Ramadan was one of the least violent in the nearly two decades of jihadi activism in Algeria. While this period is hailed by militants and their leaders as the most propitious one for jihadi attacks, Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was not able to wage a major operation. The threat is still vibrant in the organization’s mountainous strongholds east of Algiers, but AQIM’s ability to strike the capital has been significantly reduced. (By contrast, the relative calm of Ramadan in 2007 was followed by the combined suicide attack against the UN headquarters and the Constitutional Court in Algiers, on December 11). This evolution fits the general trend, documented by Hanna Rogan (see also Thomas’s post on April 3), about the decreasing violent record of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), the Algerian jihadi organization that turned into AQIM in January 2007.
Going global was obviously the option adopted by the GSPC leadership to reverse this trend, but the Al-Qaida boost was only temporary. And Abd al-Malik Drukdal, AQIM’s emir, failed to live by his commitment to energize an “Islamic Maghrib” dynamics: Moroccan and Tunisian jihadi networks are operating out of his realm, while Libyan activists are looking East. So AQIM had to rely on the jihadi networks that the GSPC had already developed in the Sahara, especially in Mauritania. But the control exerted by the AQIM leadership on those desert commandos is debatable: the killing of 4 French tourists in Eastern Mauritania on the eve of Christmas in 2007 probably jeopardized the more ambitious planning of a terror attack against the Paris-Dakar car-race, that was then cancelled.
AQIM dreams of striking the French or Spanish “Crusaders” on their own turf, while Al-Qaida central fuels the anti-European intensity of the jihadi propaganda. But Spanish and French security are well aware of this, and a large number of the jihadi networks dismantled North of the Mediterranean had Algerian connections (Javier Jordan concluded that 13 out of the 28 jihadi cells neutralized in Spain in the four years following the Madrid bombings were linked to GSPC/AQIM). So AQIM, frustrated so far in its “infidel” plotting, and contained in its Algerian safe havens, increasingly looked southward. After years of abducting Western tourists in the Sahara and releasing them against ransoms (quite a profitable activity for a relatively poor organization, see the jihadica posting on February 24), AQIM decided to sharpen its “jihadi” profile and executed a British hostage, at the very end of last May. AQIM also intensified its activities in Northern Niger, and even more in Northern Mali, where it suffered heavy losses in July at the hand of the regular army.
AQIM is therefore facing quite a dilemma: emir Drukdal is focusing his public attacks against the “Crusaders” and what he describes as their puppet or “apostate” regimes in North Africa. His mid-2008 New York Times interview was a fascinating and delusive piece of global rhetoric.
But the organization has to find a way to address the growing confrontation with local forces in the Sahel. Although AQIM has already proclaimed “jihad” against the Mauritanian regime, it is much less vocal about Mali and Niger. The opportunistic logic of global jihad, which exploits any available room to maneuver, can prove hard to package.