The Present and Future of Security in the Maghreb and Sahel: AQIM, ISIL, and the Rest

Caitlin Dearing Scott, MAC
September 22, 2014

Caitlin Dearing Scott, SVP, Research, Projects, and Programs, MAC

Caitlin Dearing Scott, SVP, Research, Projects, and Programs, MAC

As the latest coalition of the willing finalized its preparations, and the first US airstrike hit in Iraq, yet another terrorist group pledged its allegiance to ISIL from more than 3,000 miles away. On September 13, the Djound Al-Khalifa en Algerie – based in central Algeria – announced its split from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed emir of the so-called “Islamic State.” This of course wasn’t the first defection from Abdelmalek Droukdel’s group, and it certainly won’t be the last. The latest defection followed that of Abu Abdullah Osman al-Assimi this summer, not to mention Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s split from the group in 2013.

The news only further substantiates rumors about serious divisions within AQIM’s leadership, which has refused to recognize the Islamic State.  Some sources have claimed that the disagreement within the movement may force Droukdel out, while others have simply noted that the divisions are a sign of the group’s weakness in the aftermath of the French intervention in Mali and the rise of other, sometimes competing groups operating in the region.

Such statements about AQIM’s demise are overblown. The group may be down, but it is certainly not out. Just last week, AQIM terrorists kidnapped five members of a Touareg family in Mali, blaming them for providing information to French troops. Also last week, five Chadian soldiers from MINUSMA were killed in a bomb explosion in the north of the country. Reports about AQIM links to drug traffickers have also been increasing in recent weeks, suggesting that the group will not be short of funding anytime soon.

Moreover, regardless of what banner it’s under, the terrorist threat to the region remains real. There are growing concerns about ISIL’s reach, particularly since the group announced just days ago a plan to establish itself on the Algerian/Libyan border. In addition, thousands of Maghrebi fighters are estimated to be fighting with ISIL, with plans to return home to continue the fight. And who knows what the ever-elusive Mokhtar Belmokhtar is up to.

Surprisingly, the countries of the Maghreb and Sahel have thus far been absent from strategy meetings on how to confront ISIL, even though, as members of the Arab League, they have pledged to do so and have demonstrated counterterrorism experience. 3,000 miles from Iraq isn’t exactly close, but if we look at the links that have been forged between terrorist groups (AQIM, Boko Haram, MUJAO, etc.) over the last five years, it’s not far enough away either. No longer can we afford to address terrorism only on a regional basis. There has to be joint cooperation between the Middle East, Africa, and the West to develop a multidimensional approach to the terrorist threat, whether it’s led by ISIL, al-Qaeda, or others.

Caitlin Dearing Scott is Senior Vice President of Research, Projects and Programs at the Moroccan American Center.




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