Drake observed that that ideology ‘sets moral framework within which they [terrorists] operate’ (Drake, 1998). AQIM attacks reflect an on-going debate within Sunni extremist circles in Algeria and elsewhere about who to attack and how to attack? This debate is in part ideological – a global versus a local combat (Rogan 2009a, Grignard 1998) and in part due to the historical experience of AQIM’s predecessors, particularly the GIA who attacked in a particularly brutal manner the civilian population in Algeria (Hafez 2004). Statistics analysed by Rogan (2009b) and statistics held at the NCTC (2011) suggest that AQIM has tried to change its targeting and tactics since becoming an al-Qaeda franchise.
Previous statistical analysis of AQIM’s activities has in some cases led to exaggerated results with Alexander claiming a 558% increase in terrorism incidents in the region (Alexander, 2010, 2011 p.3). More measured analysis by Rogan (Rogan 2008, 2009b) indicated that prior to the GSPC becoming AQIM; the group had carried out the majority of its attacks in Algeria, rarely targeted foreign nationals and never used suicide attacks. These types of attacks were indicative of a rural insurgency; fake roadblocks, ambushes, and what Rogan described as killing, meaning operations other than bombings. The attacks while initially geographically dispersed were increasingly limited to three provinces in Algeria – Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdes and Bouria. She found incremental changes in behaviour, showing that AQIM increased their operational tempo with a spike in 2007. Her results indicated that total casualties rose as did the number of civilian casualties (Rogan 2009b). There was also an increase in bombings as opposed to other types of attack. Finally her investigation established an increase in the targeting of foreign nationals and incidents outside of Algeria.
Analysis of WITS data indicates that the increase in attack activity observed for 2007 continued into 2008 and 2009, but in 2010 dropped back below 2007. WITS data shows that that AQIM continues to carry out the vast majority of its operations in Algeria. This is consistent with Rogan’s findings (2009b). Her research also noted a small number of activities in Mauritania, which in the WITS data continued to be an area of operations for AQIM with occasional operations or activities in Mali and Niger. Thus increases in activity outside of Algeria have occurred to the south of Algeria’s borders in the Sahel and not in Libya, Morocco or Tunisia. AQIM has been unable to plan and execute operations in the Maghreb. Further, no attacks were carried out in Europe, although there were reports of an operation in the planning stages that was disrupted by the French authorities (The Daily Telegraph, 2009, October 11; Le Figaro, 2009, October 11).
WITS data indicates that the overwhelming majority of victims (killed, wounded, hostages) of AQIM activities remain Algerian. An increasing number of Europeans are victims of AQIM activities but the majority of these are victims of kidnap for ransom operations. In terms of deaths, 273 of the 335 persons reported killed were Algerian.
Rogan (2009b) had observed the first use of suicide bombings by AQIM. The WITS data suggests that the use of suicide bombing peaked in 2008, and has been used with decreasing frequency since that date. The use of suicide bombing caused some discussion in AQIM due to the high number of civilians killed in the Algiers bombings of 2007 (Tawil 2009: pp.6, 18-19). It is unclear if that discussion resulted in a decision to reduce the number of suicide bombings or not. Nonetheless AQIM, in not using suicide bombings in the vast majority of its operations has not fully aligned itself with the al-Qaeda play-book which privileges this type of operation.
Based on analysis of AQIM’s attack behaviour and public statements it would appear that the organisations is conscious that a change of status requires a change of targets and tactics outside of its pervious repertoire. AQIM knows that the change in attack repertoire to include the use of suicide attacks has to be justified as self-defence or the use of a response that is proportionate to the aggression of the Algerian state and its allies.
Rogan and the WITS data provide insight into some changes but do not explain why or how these occurred, for example, why large numbers of Mauritanians have sought to join and participate in an Algerian group, which although now partially regional concentrates the largest part of its efforts inside Algeria? What are the mechanisms that a formerly nationalist group operating a rural insurgency, uses to attract members from outside the original conflict zone, but also external to the primary ideological ‘frames’ used to define the conflict?
Further, the reasons behind, the attack behaviour of AQIM are not clear from available data. Press interviews with militants suggest that issue of killing civilians and the use of suicide operations may have caused an internal debate which led to a choice to limit the use of suicide attacks. Sidina (La Tribune, 2009, February 11) attempted to label French tourists as members of the security forces. The reduction in the attacks could also be due to the Algerian security forces success in dismantling the networks responsible for the large scale suicide operations (Liberte, 2009, December 29).
A study which may provide an investigative context of interest is that of Helfstein and Wright (2011) who posited a model for understanding the dimensions of al-Qaeda and the success and lethality of its components. This model may have some relevance for better understanding AQIM. The analysis stated that al-Qaeda was composed of a core, periphery and movement. The periphery and movement carry-out a larger volume of successful attacks but in comparison, the core “imposes greater costs as measured by casualties”. AQIM could thus be understood as a part of the al-Qaeda periphery carrying out numerous successful attacks but many or most of which were not mass casualty. Similarly within AQIM, a similar phenomenon is possible – the core of the group executing the most lethal attacks less regularly while the periphery of the group – its Sahel elements are executing attacks or operations with increasing frequency but which are not yet as lethal as those carried out by AQIM’s Algeria-based operatives.
Alexander, Y. (2010). Maghreb & Sahel Terrorism: Addressing the Rising Threat from al-Qaeda & other Terrorists in North & West/Central Africa. Arlington: International Center for Terrorism Studies. Retrieved from
Alexander, Y. (2011). The Consequences of Terrorism – An Update on al-Qaeda and other Terrorist Threats in the Sahel and Maghreb. Arlington: International Center for Terrorism Studies.
AQIM. (2008). Interview avec le cheikh Abou Abd Al Ilah Ahmed, Président du Comité Politique d’Al-Qaïda au Maghreb Islamique.
Drake, C. J. M. (1998). The role of ideology in terrorists’ target selection. Terrorism and Political Violence, 10:2, 53-85.
Grignard, A. (2001). Historique des Groupes Armes Algériens. Les Cahiers de l’Orient, 62, 75-88.
Hafez, M. M. (2004). From Marginalization to Massacres: A Political Process Explanation of GIA Violence in Algeria. In Q. Wiktorowicz, Q, (Ed.) Islamic Activism: A Social Movement Theory Approach. Indiana Bloomington and Indianapolis: University Press.
Helfstein, S. and Wright, D. (2011) ‘Success, Lethality, and Cell Structure Across the Dimensions of Al Qaeda’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 34 (5), 367 — 382
Liberté. (2009, December 29). L’année La Moins Meurtrière. Liberté. p.2
Leclerc, J.-M. (2009). Terrorisme : un des suspects travaillait dans le nucléaire. Le Figaro.
Ould Idoumou, R. (2009). De Sa Prison, Sidi Ould Sidina déclare. La Tribune, pp. 8-9.
Rogan, H. (2008). Violent Trends in Algeria Since 9/11. CTC Sentinel, 1(12), 16-19.
Rogan, H., (2009a). Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Ideological Dissent in the Algerian Jihad. Paper presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention 2009, New York.
Rogan, H. (2009b, March 19-21). Violent Patterns: A Quantitative Study of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Paper presented at the conference “Understanding Jihadism: Origins, Evolution and Future Perspectives”, Oslo, 19-21 March 2009.
Tawil, C. (2009). The Al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb: Expansion in the Sahel and Challenges from Within Jihadist Circles. Washington: The Jamestown Foundation.
The New York Times (2008, July 01). An Interview With Abdelmalek Droukdal. The New York Times
Williams, A. (2009). French al-Qaeda suspect ‘alluded to attacks’, magistrate claims. The Daily Telegraph
Worldwide Incident Tracking System (WITS), National Counter Terrorism Center. https://wits.nctc.gov/FederalDiscoverWITS/index.do?N=0