we’re going to be friends

we’re going to be friends

Chris Blattman on his blog, which deals with political science and economics with an emphasis on what are or are not good research techniques has this post titled, “Not only are most scientific results false, they are also pointless?”.

Obviously, a question that springs to mind is to what extent terrorism studies researchers should be shaking hands with those involved in terrorism? Or was the obvious question, is terrorism research pointless?

On that somewhat despondent note, some thoughts on the difference between how terrorist leaders portray themselves compared to how the members see the organisation and its activities. Four interviews were selected; two with Algerian leaders and two with Mauritanian militants (AQIM, 2008;  Agence Nouakchott d’Information, 2010, February 11; La Tribune, 2009, May 26; The New York Times, 2008, July 20).

There are limitations and challenges in seeking to use the interviews, Abdelmalek Droukdel’s interview was given to the New York Times and was obviously in part a propaganda mechanism. Nonetheless, the interview when compared to other data appears to be relatively truthful. Ahmed Deghdegh’s interview was an audio document posted to an online jihadist forum, al-faloja, and subtitled in French, destined to the Islamic militant community. Elements, including content and form, suggest, it is in part, a propaganda tool.  In spite of this, comments in the interview imply that it contains some accurate statements. The final two interviews were published in the Mauritanian press in 2009 and 2010. The 2009 interview was with Sidi Ould Sidina, a Mauritanian AQIM member, who was in prison awaiting trial for his role in the killing of four French tourists inAleg,Mauritania in December 2007. The 2010 interview was with Taleb Ould Ahmedah, a Mauritanian national, who had been arrested inSenegal for his alleged involvement with AQIM and extradited toMauritania. He was at the time of the interview awaiting trial. The question of why the Mauritanian press would have been able to access and publish interviews with suspected terrorists awaiting trial appears linked to the political environment at the time of publication. In the case of Sidina, he may unwittingly have served the interest of a political campaign, as the interview occurred at the time of elections during which the challenger was attempting to demonstrate the threat of terrorism. Sidina’s unrepentant statements and hostility to the Mauritanian government may have allowed the challenger to demonstrate weakness on the part of the out-going government. In the case of Ahmedah, based on the content and timing of the interview, it is probable that it was part of information campaign designed to support the dialogue initiated by the government with large numbers of imprisoned jihadists. There was a divide among those imprisoned, a hard-line faction  led by Khadim Ould Semane did not want to participate in this dialogue.  Ahmedah spends some of the interview calling into question Semane’s leadership credentials. Despite the various motivations around all four interviews, three themes of current interest in them; Leadership, Membership and Tactics and Targets

Leadership

Ahmed Deghdegh in response to a question suggesting that the transformation of the GSPC to AQIM was one without real substance argued that “even the leadership of the organisation has changed, because foreign brothers of the Islamic Maghreb have been admitted to the consultative council of the group, for the first time in 14 years.” A Mauritanian militant, Sidi Ould Sidina put the foreign nationals and Algerians as equals stating, “We and the Algerian Salafists are the same. We fight at their side and we aid them. Faith and piety unite us. We have a direct relationship with Khaled Abou Abbas [Mokhtar Belmokhtar]”. However, Taleb Ould Ahmedah, a Mauritanian militant, described activities as commanded from Mali, by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, stating that, “in 2007 I was personally commanded by the Emir Khaled Abou al Abbass to find a Westerner to target for a kidnapping”. The interviews tend to suggest that the Algerian cadres know that in order to appeal to recruits outside ofAlgeria, they need to have non-Algerian leaders. Lower level militants project a view which is more mitigated suggesting some equality but nonetheless on-going Algerian command.

Membership

Droukdel in response to a question about the number of active AQIM fighters, stated, Thank God we have enough fighters to make our enemies lose. It doesn’t matter if they were in hundreds or thousands…Nevertheless, we stress that we possess a huge inventory of men. This inventory gets wider, bigger and spreads with time…As far as the numbers that the Interior Ministry has given, the confusion and the contradiction that they contain make them unreliable and subject of ridicule between people.” He then states that, “The large proportion of our mujahedeen comes from Algeria. And there is a considerable number of Mauritanians, Libyans, Moroccans, Tunisians, Mali’s and Nigerians brothers.” He elaborates by stating that…“we do have a lot of support from our Islamic nation in the Maghreb.” Droukdel goes on to state that…“Today, we receive a lot of requests from some Muslims who want to do martyrdom operations. In Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia we see Muslim youths who support our matter, they are ready to sacrifice themselves and their money for the sake of supporting Islam.”

In terms of hard figures, no information is given in the interviews, for example, in February 2010, Ahmedah indicated that “In recent times, the number of Mauritanians joining AQIM has increased notably”. Droukdel is concerned to demonstrate that since becoming a regional organization, AQIM has members and support from across the region, the issue is seen as part of the organization demonstrating its regional credentials.

Tactics and Targets

The interviews with the militants tend to support Drakes observation that ideology ‘sets moral framework within which they operate’ .  Droukdel states the United States and its interests are a legitimate target, “…did America leave us any choice with this flagrant aggression?…it became our right and our duty to push away with all our strength this crusade campaign and declare clearly that the American interests are legitimate targets to us. We will strive to strike them whenever we can.” He justifies this in part by stating, “God ordered us to be united, [with al-Qaeda] to be allied, to cooperate and fight against the idolaters in straight lines. The same way they fight us in military allies and economic and political mass-groupings…Our project is one”.

However, Deghdegh in an interview is asked why AQIM is still concentrating on the near enemy i.e. the Algerian state which is not aligned with the far enemy (western governments which are perceived as supporting the states of North Africa) targeting of al-Qaeda. Deghdegh responds that there is no distinction between the near and far enemy and that the, “mujahidin in the Maghreb have the privilege of fighting at the same time both the far and near enemy”. Ahmedah when discussing attacks in Mauritania by AQIM states that these operations, “in the understanding of the members of the organization, were either warnings or legitimate self-defence”.

On the issue of civilian casualties Droukdel states, “the government and the press lie to the people … that the people who died in the U.N headquarters are civilians. But the truth is that more than 95 percent of the injured are associated with the U.N. headquarters and are from the crusaders and from the police and guards, eventually with a civilian dress.” Sidina in response to a similar question replies that, “in the case of the French tourists…they were French police linked to a French regime that spreads disorder in Muslim countries, killing in cold blood…raping women…killing children…we have killed men…we did not kill women or children…”.

AQIM is conscious that a change of status requires a change of targets and tactics outside of its pervious repertoire. They are conscious 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. The interviews show a keen awareness that in the Maghreb context civilian casualties are difficult to justify.

Based on a reading of interviews with AQIM leaders and lower level militants, it is apparent that there is concern in the group that it has not become a regional al-Qaeda organization in the manner initially envisaged both by its Algerian commanders and by its al-Qaeda sponsors.

AQIM. (2008). Interview avec le cheikh Abou Abd Al Ilah Ahmed, Président du Comité Politique d’Al-Qaïda au Maghreb Islamique. Retrieved from http://fr.video.yahoo.com/watch/4998804/13299714

Ould Ebnou, M. (2010). Le détenu salafiste Ould Ahmedna parle, en exclusivité à l’ANI, d’Al-Qaïda en Mauritanie. Nouakchott Info, p. 3.

Ould Idoumou, R. (2009). De Sa Prison, Sidi Ould Sidina déclare. La Tribune, pp. 8-9.

The New York Times (2008, July 01). An Interview With Abdelmalek Droukdal. The New York Times, Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/01/world/africa/01transcript-droukdal.html?_r=1