Friday, September 17, 2010

Gangsters in Algeria?

By Peter Henne

While most of the world's terrorism-related attention is fixed on Afghanistan and Pakistan, North Africa is far from quiet. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a local franchise of the core al-Qaeda group, has launched attacks throughout the region, and has taken up kidnapping-for-ransom as well as bombings. The continuing threat this group poses is evidenced in two stories this morning; Frances believes AQIM has kidnapped five French nationals, and Algerian authorities claim that ransom money from such kidnappings is a key source of funding for the group.

These terrorist activities grow out of the horrific Algerian civil war in the 1990s. AQIM was originally the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a slightly-less brutal offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), who tactics -- which included the massacres of entire villages -- upset even Osama bin Laden. Both groups had ties to AQ, and the GSPC officially merged with AQ in 2006, becoming AQIM.

Since merging with AQ, AQIM has mostly concentrated on Algeria -- where its most destructive attacks occur -- but has spread into nearby countries, including Tunisia, Mali, and Mauritania. The group threatened to attack the 2010 World Cup and claimed responsibility for an August attack against a military installation in Mauritania. At the same time, its increasing reliance not only on kidnapping, but kidnapping for profit, is a bit out of line with the globalizing "jihadist" group AQIM seems to claim to be. It is possible, then, that -- whatever the ideological justifications that launched the GSPC's activities -- AQIM's main mission now is not to create a regional Caliphate, but to survive. If this can be accomplished by launching dramatic attacks against government installations to gain international publicity, AQIM will launch them. If it can be accomplished by extorting money from families and governments of hostages, AQIM will take hostages.

The future of transnational terrorism may come to follow the path of AQIM, a mix of pragmatism, ideological appeals, and gangster-esque behavior. It is very likely the Taliban in Afghanistan are coming to resemble this model, a development that would have significant implications for US counterinsurgency strategy. Aggressive military actions against these groups will provide an ideological veneer to their warlord-ism, but withdrawing from international commitments will only give them more of an opportunity to terrorize the populace. We must ensure our response to issues like AQIM's activities in North Africa are as nuanced as these situations are complex.

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