When numbers get serious

When numbers get serious

I have a number in my head/Though I don’t know why it’s there/When numbers get serious…./When times are mysterious/Serious numbers are easy to please

Reports (here and here) of a firefight between the Mauritanian military and AQIM again demonstrate the problems encountered by researchers when dealing with press reporting about terrorist organisations. Another example is estimating the size and composition of terrorist organisations. This is notoriously difficult because of the clandestine nature of such entities. Using open sources is complex due to the motivation of the entities reporting on organisation size – there is the temptation to either downplay or exaggerate size. The choice depends on whether a government is seeking support for its campaign in which case it may give inflated numbers or if it is seeking to demonstrate control in which case it will under report. AQIM is no exception, Algerian and other press reporting is contradictory and difficult to analyse, in March 2010, the Spanish newspaper El Pais cited a high ranking Algerian civil servant as stating that AQIM was 6% of its size a decade ago and that by March 2011 they will have disappeared (Cembrero 2010). A further example of the complexity of numerical estimates is a comparison of reporting on the size of AQIM, some reports suggest 400 – 600 members (AFP 2008, Cembrero 2010, Olimpio 2009) while others suggest 300 – 400 for the Sahel region alone (Irujo 2009, Ghioua 2010). At the same time Algerian press were reporting at the end of 2009 that some 300 terrorists were killed and a further 400 were arrested over a one year period (Abi 2010, Ennahar 2009, L’Expression 2009, Nacer 2009). These numbers represent almost the entire strength of the organisation.  Where in 2010, Algerian sources saw decline and the eventual disappearance of AQIM, in 2011, a ranking French intelligence official stated, “AQIM has grown in two years from 150 to 400 men, with a logistics network of 150 to 200 men” (Le Pretoire, 2011).

Media reports that AQIM has members from Algeria, Benin, Burkina-Faso, Ghana, Libya, Niger, Nigeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Tunisia (AFP 2010, Ghioua 2009, Kamel 2009, and York 2009). Despite reports of a large variety of foreign nationals operating with AQIM, it is difficult to determine their exact number. Total numbers are likely small, for example, the Algerian authorities had in detention 35 foreign nationals linked to AQIM (Agence Nouakchott d’Information 2009) out of a total of some 400 captured. The majority of the leaders are Algerian although there are indications that foreign nationals have leadership positions in AQIM (Nacer 2009, York 2009).  Ahmed Deghdegh stated in an interview that AQIM has opened up its’ consultative council to foreign nationals. This was likely reference to Brahim Ould Mohamed Ould Abdel Barka. At the time of his arrest in February 2011, Barka, a Mauritanian national, was described as a member of AQIM’s consultative council (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, 2011). Previously, El Pais (Irujo, 2009 December 20) had reported that he was a Sharia judge with AQIM.

Based on press and open reporting, it is difficult to establish with certainty how AQIM recruits but there are suggestions that some of the foreign nationals are recruited via the system of religious schools in Mauritania known as “madharas” (Agence France Press 2010, Seck 2008). In Algeria recruiting appears to be in some cases based on social networks although more recently a report suggested that AQIM was recruiting in the universities (BBC Monitoring Middle East 2010). AQIM also maintains relationships with local actors to ensure protection, depending on the area the relationships maybe coercive, for example in areas of Tizi-Ouzou, AQIM regularly take hostages which allows them to control the local population as well as acquire financing (Leslous 2009). In the Sahel the relationships are based on marriage or connections to criminal networks to which AQIM provides protection (Thiam 2010, US DOJ 2009).

What can be known from press reporting is often fragmentary, contradictory and constantly evolving. Careful research needs to take into account the fluid nature of this type of reporting and seek to triangulate statements and data to understand the both context of the data and the motivation for its release into the public domain.


Abi, S. (2010, January 21). Fassila, Hadjeras, Ghazi et Mourad… Le GSPC perd 300 de ses éléments en 16 mois. Le Jour d’Algerie.

Agence France Presse. (2008, August 20). Algérie: douze employés de la société canadienne SNC-Lavalin tués dans un attentat. Agence France Presse.

Agence France Presse (2010, January 11). Le Burkinabè dont Al-Qaïda demande la libération recruté en Mauritanie.  Agence France Presse

Agence Nouakchott d’Information. (2009, June 4). Terrorisme: Jugement de 9 mauritaniens accusés de terrorisme en Algérie. Agence Nouakchott d’Information. 

Agence Nouakchott d’Information (2011). Arrestation en Algérie d’Abou Anas Al-Chiguitty. Nouakchott Info. Retrieved from

BBC Monitoring Middle East. (2010, March 7). Al-Qa’idah seen expanding recruiting pool to Algerian university students. BBC Monitoring Middle East

Cembrero, I. (2010, March 15). ¿Es Al Qaeda ‘narcoterrorista’ El Pais

Department  of  Justice. (2010). United States Of America- V -Oumar Issa,Harouna Toure, And Idriss Abelrahman, 15 December 2009.

Ennahar. (2009, December 21. Elimination de 12 émirs de la première génération des terroristes. Ennahar.

Ghioua, I. (2009, December 22). Alors Que 25 Émirs Ont Été Éliminés Durant l’Année 2009. L’Expression. p.24.

Ghioua, I. (2010, April 24). Encore Un Kidnapping Au Sahel. L’Expression. 

Irujo, J. M. (2009, December 20). En manos del juez del desierto.

Kamel, A. (2009, May 3). Des burkinabés et des nigérians dans ‘Katibat El Feth El Moubine’. Ennahar.

Leslous, S. (2009, December 22).46 personnes ont été enlevées depuis 2005 à Tizi Ouzou. Liberté.

Nacer, L. (2009, January 06). Selon un repenti en procès à Batna le GSPC recrute des “émirs” étrangers! Liberte.

Niangaly, A. (2011, June 02). Escalades brutales aux frontières Mali- Algérie- Niger : Vers un embrasement. Le Pretoire.

Olimpio, G. (2009, December 21). Italiani rapiti in Mauritania La pista di Al Qaeda in Mali. Corriere della Sera, p.14.

Seck, A. (2008, January 23) Les familles des présumés terroristes sous le choc: Surprise et incompréhension. Le Calame.

Thiam, A. (2010, April 2). La métastase Belmokhtar. Le Républicain.