life during wartime

life during wartime

Heard of a van that is loaded with weapons,
packed up and ready to go
Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway,
a place where nobody knows
The sound of gunfire, off in the distance,
I’m getting used to it now
Lived in a brownstore, lived in the ghetto,
I’ve lived all over this town

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
this ain’t no fooling around
No time for dancing, or lovey dovey,
I ain’t got time for that now

Transmit the message, to the receiver,
hope for an answer some day
I got three passports, a couple of visas,
you don’t even know my real name
High on a hillside, the trucks are loading,
everything’s ready to roll
I sleep in the daytime, I work in the nightime,
I might not ever get home

AQIM: An overview circa 2010

Below are notes from research on AQIM conducted in 2010, some parts of which have been previously posted as smaller excerpts. As no organisation is static the perspective(s) should be seen as an attempt to make sense of conflicting, contradictory, and downright unreliable reports available on the group(s); its motivations, activities, personalities and the many local contexts in which all of these interact.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a regional affiliate of al-Qaeda created in late 2006 from the existing Salafi Group for Call and Combat organisation (GSPC). The adherence of the GSPC to al-Qaeda represented the culmination of a number of factors; the GSPCs’ decline and problems in recruiting in the face of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s success in attracting young Algerians and North Africans (Fishman 2007; Filiu 2009, 2010a, 2010b); the need for al-Qaeda to project itself as a global organisation through regional affiliates (Filiu 2009); the victory within the GSPC of those who favoured a global combat as opposed to the older cadres who wanted an Algeria-based combat (Filiu 2009). The reality of the past three years tends to suggest that the group has struggled to project itself as a regional grouping in terms of attacks locally or regionally against international or hard targets. AQIM’s membership while increasingly international is not representative of the Maghreb and instead has increasing numbers of sub-Saharan African members. AQIM remains torn between its Algerian origins and its international ambitions.


AQIM is a Sunni extremist organisation that seeks to overthrow the Algerian regime and other regimes in North Africa replacing them with an Islamic state similar to that of the Taliban or the Islamic Courts in Somalia (AQIM Media Committee 2009). A reading of AQIM communiqués suggests that group refers to a number of Sunni scholars well known for their support of violent “jihad” including Abu Qatada (Rogan 2009a). AQIM’s current ideology is also derived from the network of Islamic groups that emerged following the “interrupted” electoral process in 1992 (Carlier 1995: 390-392, Filiu 2010b). The network of groups represented a number of views of political Islam and strategies to achieve their aims. In broad terms two lines of thought were represented – the “djazaarists” (meaning Algerians) who sought a combat limited to Algeria and overthrowing the Algerian state (Grignard 1998, Boukra 2002, Rogan 2009a). The other line is often described as Salafi and represented a more global approach that the combat should extend to outside of Algeria and to all enemies of Islam (Grignard 1998, Boukra 2002, Rogan 2009a).

The objective of AQIM is to install an Islamic state in the Maghreb in conformity with their understanding of the “sharia” and more generally to liberate the region from foreign influences. In response to a question in an interview with the New York Times (2008), Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of AQIM stated “Our first goal is the arbitration of the Lord of the world’s law, and the achievement of the servitude to God. Our general goals are the same goals of Al-Qaeda the mother, and you know them.” He went on to suggest that at a regional level “goals concerning the Islamic Maghreb, they are plenty. But most importantly is to rescue our countries from the tentacles of these criminal regimes that betrayed their religion, and their people. Because they are all secretions of the colonialism that invaded our country in the last two centuries, and enabled those regimes to govern” (New York Times 2008). Droukdel is clearly indicating that AQIM believes that western states are responsible for the maintenance of local regimes in power in the Maghreb. Droukdel demonstrates in this statement the move from an Algeria focused campaign to one that now extends to the region as well as across into Europe.

Ahmed Deghdegh, a member of the political commission of AQIM in an audio interview diffused on the al-faloja website further commented on the ideology and objectives of the organisation. He confirmed, “Yes, we are a branch of that organisation (al-Qaeda), we complete them, reinforce them, and are part of the same line. All of the mujahidin on earth have one and the same politics and their positions are coherent and are not contradictory” (AQIM Media Committee 2008).

He states that the source of the AQIM ideology is…“that the political position is built on the same base and comes from the same source: the Quran and the Sunnah according to the conception of the salaf (ancestors) of the Oumma (community). When questioned as to what this ideology would look like in practice he suggests “The experience of the Taliban in Afghanistan, that of the Union of Islamic Courts in Somalia and that of the Islamic State of Iraq, despite the fact that they were short, prove that mujahidin can apply the sharia with a minimum of resources… finally, put into place government by religion to shake off all forms of polytheism, heresy and injustice, so that people can live in a pious way…”(AQIM media Committee 2008).

Deghdegh does however leave room for AQIM to maintain some independence from al-Qaeda by stating, “However, that does not stop us from having some independence in the dealing with issues specific to this or that country, this is not of itself proof of divergences in relation to the general line or the broad lines followed by the mother organisation (al-Qaeda) (AQIM Media Committee 2008).

Expression of the ideology at the level of an AQIM member can be seen in the declarations of Sidi Ould Sidina, a Mauritanian national, in a May 2009 interview with Mauritanian press (Idoumou 2009). Sidina starts by declaring that he is a member of AQIM. The interview with him shows a mix of generalised anti-western hostility, “unbelieving crusaders” combined with more local concerns, “against the dictator-generals”. He states that the French tourists he killed were “French police on active duty” who are part of a country whose soldiers, “fight in Muslim countries, kill in cold blood, the brothers in Afghanistan and Iraq, rape veiled women, and kill children.” He argues that he killed only men and not women and children saying, “I am a soldier of the al-Qaeda organisation” adding that, if fighting those who oppress Muslims is terrorism, then he is a terrorist (Idoumou 2009).


AQIM is the most recent in a long line of violent groups active in Algeria since the mid-1980s. The violence in Algeria did not emerge from a vacuum but can be seen as the product of the interplay of a three factors; (1) a sense of genuine grievance at the beginning of the 1990s against the Algerian state that can best summarised as lack of political alternatives and very limited economic opportunities for a large parts of the population. (2) A structure that was able to mobilise and organise a nascent movement, this structure was the Front Islamiqué du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front, FIS), an Islamist organisation that was legal for a period in Algeria (Carlier 1995:340-365, Kepel 2000:249-273, Hafez 2004a:114).  (3) Groups or individuals with combat or terrorist organisation experience – the “guys with guns” factor; the “Bouyalists” and the “Afghan Arabs” (Boukra 2002:201-206, Botha 2008:32).

In 1992, elements of the Algerian state “interrupted” the electoral process when it seemed that the FIS was about to win a parliamentary majority.  The consequence of these factors was that a violent movement developed with numerous groups active across Algeria (Carlier 1995, Kepel 2000). The most notorious being the Groupe Islamique Armé (Armed Islamic Group) better known by its French acronym, the GIA. The confrontation between the Algerian state and the GIA would leave somewhere between 100 000 – 150 000 people dead or missing (Kepel 2000). The GIA was not a homogenous entity but comprised of numerous militias commanded by “Emirs” who elected an overall Emir (Hafez 2004b: 113-115). Eventually, these disputes would lead to numerous splinter groups and defections and the decline of the GIA as an existential threat to the Algerian state (Grignard 1998).

As the GIA declined, the Salafi Group for Call and Combat (GSPC) emerged and from 1998 until 2006 was the largest and best organised armed entity active inside Algeria (Sfeir 2009:99-104, Freeman 2010, 29). In contrast to the GIA – the GSPC sought to limit its attacks to Algerian state targets and under the leadership of Hassan Hattab to emphasise the Algerian nature of its combat.

Similar to the GIA, the GSPC was a collection of brigades headed by powerful commanders who elected a leader – some of these commanders by 2003 sought a change in strategic direction and Hattab was pushed out to make way for a younger more aggressive commander, Nabil Sahrawi,  who would be quickly killed in June 2004 by an Algerian military operation (Filiu 2009, Sfeir 2009: 99-104). His replacement, Abdelmalek Droukdel, was faced with two significant challenges, a loss of manpower through a national amnesty, and organisational competition from al-Qaeda in Iraq. AQIM needed to recruit to avoid decline at a time when young men from North Africa or ethnic Algerians residing in Europe were seeking to travel to fight in Iraq for a young and violent terrorist commander, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, they were not interested in the fight in Algeria. The combat in Iraq had a stronger more appealing message – come to Iraq and fight the American military – the message at that time was not yet tainted by the large scale attacks on Iraqi civilians or the knowledge that most foreign volunteers would not fight but be used in suicide attacks (Fishman 2007).

Droukdel or Abu Musab Abdelwadood as he is also known sought to make contact with al Zarqawi (New York Times 2008).  A French academic, has described the relationship between the two Abu Musabs as having been sealed in blood when the al Zarqawi organisation kidnapped and killed two Algerian diplomats – the act was publicly applauded by the GSPC (Filiu 2009).

Further indications of the move towards al-Qaeda were uncovered when Moroccan investigators dismantled a network with connections to Europe and Syria. Key suspects stated that al-Qaeda senior leaders, al Zarqawi and the GSPC had been in discussions via couriered letters to create a regional group that would be responsible for the recruitment and training of young North Africans before sending them onto Iraq to enable them to acquire combat experience. These same recruits would return to North Africa to carry out terrorist attacks there. The new regional grouping was to be called, “al-Qaeda in the Arab Maghreb” (Chimrou 2005a, 2005b, 2005c, 2005d).

Following Zarqawi’s death in June 2006, and perhaps despite reservations by al-Qaeda about GSPC capacity to overcome its Algerian focus,  Ayman al-Zawahiri and the GSPC issued statements in September 2006 announcing that the GSPC had joined Al-Qaeda (Hunt 2007: 7) to be followed by a January 2007 communiqué stating that the GSPC was now named AQIM.


AQIM is commanded by an “Emir” (literally prince but meaning leader) reported to be Abdelmalek Droukdel (United Nations 2009). He is assisted by a consultative council (majiliss shura) comprised of the heads of zones and senior commanders and another council which has the role of appointing the leader (Fellah 2010). The leadership of the group is assisted by a number of committees or commissions – political, military, and medical (AQIM Media Committee 2009, Botha 2008:42). In terms of geographical coverage, AQIM inherited the GSPC structure which it has altered (Botha 2008: 46). Initially the group was divided into nine zones covering only Algeria, AQIM has since moved to four zones, to better reflect the groups regional ambitions – east (Tunisia), south (Sahel), central (Algeria), and west (Mauritania) (Botha 2008: 50, Ghioua 2008). Despite this regional division the core of AQIM’s activities occur in, what some have termed “the triangle of death”, Bejaia, Boumerdes, Tizi-Ouzou, three provinces that form part of the Kabyle region (Filiu 2009, Rogan 2009b, Sfeir 2009). Inside the zones, commanders head “katibats” (brigades) which depending on the strength of the group are further divided into “fassila” (company) and “serayas”(Botha 2008: 46, Olimpio 2009). For example, in the Sahel (Southern Algeria, Northern Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) region, between 3 to 4 katibats are active; Tarek ibn Ziyad led by Abid Hamadou, al Forqan led by Yahya Abou el Hamam, el Mouthalmoune led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and al Ansar led by Abou Abdel Kerim (El Pais 2009, Tahalil Hebdo 2010).  Despite these formal quasi-military structures the group also uses clandestine support structures inside and outside of Algeria, for example individuals associated with AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, established a number of cells in Mauritania to carry out attacks or acquire financing (La Tribune 2008). In Algeria activities consist of providing logistical support for example, the identification and surveillance of potential targets or providing firearms or other items to the group (Echorouk 2010, Le Temps 2010).


Estimating the size of terrorist organisations 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 2010b). A further example of the complexity of numerical estimates is a comparison of recent reporting on the current size of AQIM, some reports suggest 400 – 600 members (AFP 2008, Cembrero 2010b, 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, Liberte 2009). These numbers represent almost the entire strength of the organisation.

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 (2009) stated in an interview that AQIM has opened up its’ consultative council to foreign nationals.

It is difficult to establish with certainty how AQIM recruits but there is press reporting which suggests that some of the foreign nationals are recruited via the system of religious schools in Mauritania known as “madharas” (Agence France Press 2010b, 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).

Membership outside of Algeria

Significant and sustained efforts by European law enforcement agencies since 2001 have seriously disrupted GSPC/AQIM support networks in Europe. The 2005-2006 dismantling in Switzerland, Spain and France of a GSPC/AQIM support networks was the last publicly available report of a large network in Europe supporting GSPC/AQIM activities (Guardia Civil 2005, Rossier and Zaugg 2006, Rodríguez and Yoldi 2008).  Recent contact has been individuals as opposed to networks. In January 2006, Algerian authorities arrested Akil Chraibi, a Moroccan residing in Montpelier, France for involvement with AQIM (Hunt 2007: 10). Press reported that he was suspected of providing information about remote detonation techniques to AQIM (Maroc Hebdo 2007: 8 )

These physical networks are to a limited extent being replaced to by virtual ones. In 2007, the French authorities arrested Kamel Benchentouf who had made contact with Salah Gasmi, the AQIM head of communications via the Internet. Benchentouf had acquired precursor material for fabricating explosives (Caulcutt 2009). A French national, Adlène Hicheur, was arrested for his connections to an Algeria-based AQIM member (Leclerc 2009). The AQIM member and Hicheur are alleged to have discussed terrorist activity in Europe against French interests. Hicheur although residing in France, worked in Switzerland at the CERN facility and was a post doctoral researcher at an educational institute, also in Switzerland (Leclerc 2009).

There is limited contact between AQIM in the Sahel and European-based networks and volunteers. Interactions have revolved around access to AQIM training sites for individuals seeking to move to Iraq for combat missions;  Mbark El Jaafari, a Moroccan national was arrested in Spain in early February 2007 for his activities in recruiting volunteers for “jihad” in Morocco, Iraq and Algeria and using AQIM camps in northern Mali to train volunteers (Irujo 2009a). In other cases individuals have previously resided in Europe; Tiyeb Ould Saleck, a Mauritanian national, currently imprisoned in Mauritania lived in Barcelona, Spain. (Tahalil Hebdo 2007).

Violent Activity

AQIM attacks reflect the underlying debate within Sunni extremist circles in Algeria 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 2004b). Statistics analysed by Rogan (2009b) and statistics held at the NCTC (2010) suggest that AQIM has changed its targeting and tactics since becoming an al-Qaeda franchise.

Analysis by Rogan (2009b) for the period 2001 to 2008 which includes attacks by AQIMs predecessor, the GSPC, indicates that in general the GSPC targeted security forces but killed more civilians (Rogan 2009b:4). The type of attacks carried out indicate a rural insurgency; fake roadblocks, ambushes, and what Rogan describes as killing, meaning operations other than bombings. The attacks while initially geographically dispersed were increasingly limited to 3 provinces in Algeria – Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdes and Bouria (Rogan 2009b). Rogan’s analysis shows that AQIM initially was able to reverse the decline in the number of attacks with a spike in 2007 (Rogan 2009b: 2, 6). Overall casualties rose as did the number of civilian casualties (Rogan 2009b: 3, 4). There was also an increase in bombings (Rogan 2009b: 5). Finally her analysis illustrates an increase in the targeting of foreign nationals and in incidents outside of Algeria (Rogan 2009b: 7).

Statistics available at the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System of the National Counterterrorism Center state that between December 2006 and December 2009, AQIM carried out some 402 attacks (NCTC 2010). These attacks were a combination of bombings (194) and armed assaults (159) with a small number of suicide bombings (14) for the period in question (NCTC 2010). These attacks killed primarily civilians (37%) and police (22%) over the 3 years (NCTC 2010). Only 6 attacks killed more than 20 people including the suicide bombings in Algiers in April and December 2007 (NCTC 2010).

While AQIM was founded as a regional franchise with a mandate to attack within the region as well as international targets in Europe some 86% of attacks occur inside Algeria with a further 5% in Mali and Mauritania, 3% in Niger and 1% in Tunisia. The group has yet to attack far enemy targets outside of Algeria and the Sahel.  Inside Algeria, the group has been limited since its 2007 suicide bombing campaign to carrying out attacks inside a relatively small area of Algeria, east of Algiers, a triangle comprising the provinces of Boumerdes, Jijel, Tizi-Ouzou (Filiu, 2010a, NCTC 2010).

Given the limitations on its’ ability to attack outside of Africa, AQIM has sought to target international targets locally. For example since 2008 the group has attacked the interests of SNC Lavalin, a Canadian multinational with contracts in Algeria (Agence France Presse 2008). This logic also extends to the increase in kidnapping in the Sahel region since 2008. A review of regional press reporting suggests that there have been some 4-7 failed kidnap attempts and 7 successful ones. Some of the kidnaps appear to have been the work of AQIM while in other cases there are suggestions that the kidnaps are carried out by criminal groups who then sell the victims on to AQIM. The kidnapping attempts have been responsible for the death of 10 foreign nationals in the Sahel region, including French, Saudi, United Kingdom, and United States nationals. Since 2005, AQIM activities have also killed more than 80 members of local (Malian, Mauritanian and Nigerien) security forces.

The move of AQIM into the al-Qaeda movement should have brought about a change in targeting and attack tactics. A review of attacks carried out by AQIM suggests that they are aware of the need to attack foreign, primarily western interests, and where possible targets outside of Algeria. They are also aware of the need to attack simultaneous targets and preferably using suicide bombers. However, the ability of AQIM to meet these criteria appears limited by capacity and perhaps in the case of suicide bombings by their unwillingness to alienate the local population.

Alternative explanations and narratives

A counter-narrative to the commonly accepted discourse that AQIM is an al-Qaeda-affiliated franchise is that the organisation is, at best heavily infiltrated and manipulated by the Algerian security service, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité, (DRS) and at worst completely controlled by them (Samraoui 2003, Tigha 2008, Keenan 2010). This argument has its origins in the counter-insurgency campaigns run against the GIA and GSPC, AQIM’s predecessors; for example, there is an allegation that the 1995 bombings in Paris were orchestrated by the Algerian services through an agent placed in the network, the goal being to ensure the Algerian regime of French support. French judicial sources have discredited this theory but the issue of Algerian manipulation still remains (Bruguière 2009: 297, 328). Keenan goes so far as to argue that the AQIM presence in the Sahel is the result of a joint United States – Algerian covert operation (Keenan 2010). In reality, part of the role in counter terrorist operations by security intelligence services is infiltration and manipulation. In the case of the DRS, the service was heavily influenced by Soviet and East German services; it is therefore unsurprising that this was a DRS strategy. However, it is arguable that they were able to exert total control over all of the armed groups in Algeria for the entire period in question. As Roberts (2007: 12) states the issue is whether the operations run by the DRS sought to end or prolong terrorism in Algeria. The evidence in open sources is at times ambiguous but it is doubtful that prolonging a bloody insurgency over an 18 year period is an optimal way to ensure regime survival.


AQIM was formed as a regional al-Qaeda grouping to project al-Qaeda’s message and violence across the Maghreb and into Europe.  Analysis of the groups’ ideology, attacks, and membership suggest that AQIM has not yet fulfilled its promise. AQIM remains torn between its Algerian origins and its international ambitions. Arguably there are three AQIMs ; the organisation in the Kabyle region which carries out attacks on local targets and seeks to survive constant Algerian military operations;  the units operating in the Sahel who are responsible for a spate of kidnappings and killings of foreign targets in the Sahel region and who have recruited across the Sahel but are increasingly linked to criminal activities; and the organisation as it projects itself via the internet through its al Andalus media wing;  a cohesive and powerful organisation, threatening France or addressing the cause of Nigerian Muslims. Nonetheless AQIM remains rooted in its Algerian past demonstrating similar to al-Qaeda in Iraq the limits of the al-Qaeda franchise system.


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