* “AQIM and its offshoots leverage money, guns and prayers to establish their presence in poorly governed areas in the Sahel and Sahara… AQIM flourished in Mali and the greater Sahel because of their sophisticated understanding of ‘the local context.’ To truly defeat AQIM and other jihadists, a better understanding of that local context must be forged to address the root problems that fester and spark instability and violence that has plagued North Africa.” *
Recent reports of the demise of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) are not only greatly exaggerated, the growing chorus of speculation that the terrorist group has been rendered more or less impotent in Mali is a dangerous, and likely false assumption. The New York Times penned an article last week entitled: Keeping Al Qaeda’s West African Unit on the Run. The article doesn’t go as far as saying that AQIM is dead — though the question plays a starring role in the lede —but the idea of an AQIM on the wane lacks some essential nuance and focuses on the wrong indicators.
The French intervention in Mali, which began in January of 2013, has indeed been militarily successful. As the New York Times article notes:
Since the beginning of March, French forces have killed more than 40 jihadists in Mali belonging to the affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or its associates. They have killed at least three important leaders, including the father-in-law of the most wanted of all African jihadists, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as well as the successor to Mr. Belmokhtar’s mentor, Abu Zeid.
Belmokhtar himself has fled to Libya, and although he’s said to be plotting future attacks, his organization has been greatly limited in its capacity to commit large-scale terror attacks in the last year. In Mali, jihadist activities have been largely limited to kidnappings of foreigners and minor rocket attacks near French bases, and they are reportedly not able to maintain any significant territory.
But the assertion that AQIM “is no longer the pre-eminent threat to the fragile states in West Africa’s Sahel region,” overlooks the fundamental problems that allowed jihadists to gain a foothold in northern Mali in the first place. A report released that same week by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, goes into greater depth on how, in the eyes of many Malians, the government had managed to make AQIM appear to be the ‘good guys’ by comparison [emphasis mine]:
For years, AQIM and its offshoots have pursued strategies of integration in the region based on a sophisticated reading of the local context. AQIM and its offshoots leverage money, guns and prayers to establish their presence in poorly governed areas in the Sahel and the Sahara. Their use of religion is of particular importance in an area where the local governing administration, to the degree that it exists, is generally perceived by the domestic population as corrupt, whereas AQIM and affiliated Islamist militants present themselves as honest and pious Muslims.
As the CTC article notes, especially in the periphery of the country, “the traditional role of the chef du village (traditional chief) has diminished rapidly, yet new systems of governance have not replaced traditional rule.” It further describes how the immense power vacuum resulted in a “mission creep” for AQIM, as it became increasingly engaged with local society in Northern Mali. Meanwhile, any remaining jihadists are simply blending in with the local population; because for locals, “accepting the presence of AQIM figures in the local community is one strategy to hedge against the future.”
As Malian and French forces continue to uproot foreign extremists and dismantle their criminal networks, the government of new Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta must fill a similar void that AQIM exploited.
Negotiations, strongly supported by Morocco, aim to bring Malian Tuareg chiefs that played a central role in the initial phases of Mali’s civil conflict, together with the government to construct a framework for moving the country forward. Opportunity is there for Keita to bring these important figures back into the fold. The coalition of Tuareg rebel groups — National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar al-Din — are divided by their separate visions for the future, and alliances with AQIM dissolved in a rather violent fashion.
Assuming a deal is struck between Bamako and Tuareg leaders, development initiatives to rebuild faith in the government will be crucial to preventing another influx of foreign jihadists. Improving basic services for Malians throughout the country, initiatives such as the Moroccan Sufi Imam training program, and economic development projects and accords with neighboring countries, are better indicators of the future of Mali than a year-on-year dip in terrorist attacks. Crucially, the inevitable exit of French forces imposes a looming deadline for efforts to rebuild relations with the North of the country. Mali has a great deal of work to do if they want to win back hearts and minds.
AQIM flourished in Mali and the greater Sahel because of their sophisticated understanding of “the local context.” In order to truly defeat AQIM and other jihadists, a better understanding of that local context must be forged in order to address the root problems that fester and spark the instability and violence that has plagued North Africa. Mali appears to be targeting these issues, but time is not on their side. Meanwhile, reports of AQIM’s near-death are most certainly premature.