Al-Qaida in North Africa Seeks to Expand Its Influence
PARIS (AP) — Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb wants to put its footprint on the Arab Spring now that violence is fueling the uprisings, and in a two-part video is trying to lure new followers for revolt by jihad.
The push comes as the group has sought to expand its operations beyond its Algerian base and desert outposts to countries around Africa, from Nigeria to Libya, after the death of Osama bin Laden and after being sidelined when the Arab revolts erupted earlier this year.
During the mostly peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the al-Qaida offshoot kept up sporadic attacks on Algerian security forces in its bid to overthrow the government and install an Islamist state. But the world was looking elsewhere.
Now, with Arab uprisings meeting increasingly violent resistance from autocratic regimes in countries such as Libya and Syria, AQIM wants to be seen as an alternative force.
Seeking a peaceful change of leaders is "like giving aspirin to a cancer patient," a member of AQIM's military board, Commander Abu Saeed al-Auresi, says in the lengthy video, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. SITE has made the video available and said it was posted Aug. 3 on jihadist forums.
AQIM has entered a new phase and is no longer on the defensive, says Mathieu Guidere, an expert in strategic monitoring and al-Qaida specialist.
Despite repeated threats, the group has provided no evidence it is capable of striking across the Mediterranean into Europe. But with bin Laden's death, Guidere said, AQIM promised to lead a military and media offensive in the north, south, east and west of the African continent.
And, he argues, that is happening, with stepped up attacks on soldiers in Algeria — the north — in Mauritania — the west — as well as in Libya — the east — where the movement allegedly sent a "minimal" number of fighters.
To the south, AQIM offered training, men and weapons in January 2010 to a feared Islamist sect in Nigeria called Boko Haram, the local Hausa language for "Western education is sacrilege," according to an AQIM statement provided by SITE. It was signed by AQIM's leader, Abelmalek Droukdel, using his nom de guerre Abu Musab Abdul Wadud, who evoked "the duty to support Muslims everywhere."
Boko Haram has significantly raised its profile since the offer with numerous deadly attacks.
There is no sign of a formal AQIM partnership with Boko Haram. British authorities said this month they were investigating a video claiming an unspecified al-Qaida group was holding a Briton and Italian man kidnapped in Nigeria in May.
AQIM stepped up deadly attacks in Algeria in spring and registered more attacks in July than any time this year, according to Guidere. He counts attacks throughout AQIM territory, including in the desert Sahel region south of Algeria — which crosses Mauritania, Niger and Mali, where hostage-taking is a main source of revenue. Four French hostages, captured in September 2010 in Niger, are still being held, possibly in Mali.
For Guidere, AQIM has found a new legitimacy that it had lost at the start of the then-peaceful Arab Spring. Its message is that people can demonstrate in vain against dictators or choose jihad.
"For me, this video is a turning point in the (AQIM) propaganda," Guidere said, because it is looking for a new way to reach the people.
"AQIM is an elitist organization that believes it is chosen by God," he said, adding that it always presented its heroes as "exceptional." Now, "they want to mix the images of popular revolution and AQIM to show that they are the same."
Part I of the nearly two-hour propaganda film shows protest rallies throughout the Arab world. It includes contrasting footage of various Arab leaders in clubby poses, from Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika kissing Egypt's now-deposed leader Hosni Mubarak to former French President Jacques Chirac shaking hands with the ousted Tunisian president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Part II addresses efforts by the United States, France and Algeria to counter AQIM in the lawless Sahel region, but contrasts that with a deadly July 4, 2009 raid by AQIM's southern arm in Mali that killed 29 soldiers.
For senior SITE analyst Adam Raisman, it is less the message than the medium — a video — that is a departure from previous AQIM propaganda. Audio messages supported the Tunisians as January protests forced their strong-armed leader to flee into exile.
In what could be another part of AQIM's bid to appeal to new recruits, the video shows AQIM leader Droukdel taking part in what is claimed to be an April 15 attack on an Algerian army outpost — carried out as the Algerian president gave a speech announcing constitutional and electoral reforms to calm daily demonstrations around the country. The attack near the town of Azazga, some 80 kilometers (50 miles) east of Algiers in the mountainous Kabyle region — an AQIM stronghold — left 13 soldiers dead.
It is rare to see an al-Qaida branch leader fighting alongside his men, Raisman said.
Members of jihadist forums "were exhilarated to see him participating in battle, leading the charge," Raisman said. "He's firing his gun, he's hiding behind a rock, he's talking on a walkie-talkie, issuing orders. He's defiant."
Often graying, aging fighters shown in the Arabic-language videos are filmed on their sorties through the craggy forested hills of Algeria's Kabyle region or in the Mali desert, accompanied in the videos by taped songs. As in other AQIM propaganda videos, the viewer is not spared the bloody bodies of attack victims and booty taken from the corpses, displayed and recorded almost tenderly by the camera.
The video by AQIM's media arm is titled "Assault Them Through the Gate, For When You Are In, Victory Will be Yours." Using a Quranic reference, AQIM pleads for frontal action, not peaceful uprisings, to bring change. A photo of bin Laden, and scenes of him walking in rugged terrain, punctuate the videos.
The North African al-Qaida affiliate was born in late 2006 out of the last remaining Algerian insurgency movement still organized enough to do harm, the Salafist Group for Call and Combat. Pledging its allegiance to bin Laden's operation provided new dynamism for an increasingly battered insurgency movement.
Today, AQIM, like other al-Qaida arms, claims it set the spark for the uprisings around the Arab world.