Home Terrorism in West Africa: An Analysis of AQIM’s Strategic Manoeuvres and Crippled Response of the States

Terrorism in West Africa: An Analysis of AQIM’s Strategic Manoeuvres and Crippled Response of the States

The terror attacks at Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast have alarmed the West African nations over the growing influence and stronghold of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) with its first terrorist operation in the country. AQIM, an Islamist militant organization with an objective to establish Islamic state in Algeria, is escalating its terror activities in West Africa. Three consecutive major terror strikes from 20 November 2015 (AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun attacked a hotel in Bamako, Mali), 15 January, 2016 (AQIM gunmen attacked the Capuccino and Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkino Faso) to 13 March, 2016 (AQIM attacked the town of Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast) within short gaps is a clear indication of the group’s return from the hibernation after AQIM’s suicide car bombing in 2013 in Timbuktu, Mali. In the recent Grand Bassam attack, AQIM killed 15 civilians, three soldiers of the Special Forces while wounding 33 others.[1] The region is nervous as a result of the dastardly attack which intends to terrorize foreigners and the locals who do not concur with the ideology of AQIM. This is clear by the factual evidence and the emerging reports which suggests that terrorist were selective in choosing one of their targets as the witnesses describe a long bearded man who approached two children on the beach with an intent to kill them and was heard speaking Arabic.[2] One of the children then knelt and started praying. He was spared, while the other boy was not, who seemed to be a Christian by faith.[3]

It is clear that this terror module has spread its roots beyond Algeria and Africa’s Sahel thereby opening a path for al-Qaida to shift its centre of gravity from Afghanistan and Pakistan to a new land which can be a potential launching pad for major terrorist operations. The region is rapidly turning into the world’s geographical centre of terrorism as AQIM and its affiliates have already carved out a new Afghanistan in the African Sahara, establishing a breeding ground for jihadists in Africa.[4]

This article outlines the strategy of AQIM, its growing operational capacity and highlights its paradigm shift from its previous terrorist operations. Secondly, it also exposes the shortcomings of the West African and Sahelian nations in containing these terrorist attacks.

For the last three years, AQIM was engaged in battling French and UN troops in the mountains and deserts of northern Mali and later African officials were worried that they would shift from failed states to successful ones and would hit tourist hotels and recreation centres in Ivory Coast and other democracies.[5] An analysis of the last three terror actions executed by AQIM from November 2015 to March 2016 suggests the speculations to be true and that it has brought about a paradigm shift in the execution of its operations from kidnappings, ambush of the security forces and holding hostage to mass assault at public places. The recent attacks were equivalent to suicide missions with clear intent to hold media and the city hostage, along with individuals. After the attack at Ivory Coast, AQIM was quick enough to claim responsibility. It published its claim in four languages - a sign that the group was seeking to boost its media profile to match its recently enhanced operational capabilities.[6] The brief statement in Arabic, English, French and Spanish was published as an image on AQIM's Twitter account and through the messaging app Telegram.[7] The style of propaganda appears to be similar like the one of ISIS which suggests that AQIM is preparing itself to take off for advanced media operations. This attack on Ivory Coast also reflects upon its growing operational capacity as the attack was carried out much farther from the understood operational base of AQIM.

From Algeria to Tunisia, Maurtiana to Mali and Burkina Faso to Ivory Coast, AQIM’s advances are a result of a continuous effort to inculcate deeper roots in the interior regions of West Africa. AQIM has developed integrated relationship with local communities and government officials in the region to gradually deepen its roots, extend its sphere of influence, and develop its operational and strategic capabilities. Marriage alliance with locals has proven to be an effective mechanism to develop strategic ties and cultivate allies, for achieving their operational objectives. E.g. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the AQIM commander in the region is said to have married into the local Tuareg clan to consolidate his alliances with the nomadic tribes who run smuggling operations across the region's porous borders.[8] Secondly, AQIM’s involvement with drug traffickers and smugglers, crime syndicates and rebels to augment resources and financing seems to be paying dividends. Thirdly, tourism which was once a significant industry in the region has experienced a sharp decline as a result of the nefarious acts of violence committed by AQIM. On the one hand, it has to a great extent succeeded in threatening economic activity (viz. tourism) and on the other hand it has succeeded in generating employment by engaging the localites in illegal activities, thereby aiming to undermine the economic sovereignty of the nation states of Western Africa. By cornering and damaging the agents of economic activity in the region AQIM has to a great extent succeeded in pulling the human resource for its own operations by engaging them in its own designs of employment. Desperately poor local tribesmen come to Belmokhtar's camp to ask for jobs so they could feed their families.[9] Being a non-state actor, AQIM today has the potential of undermining the sovereignty of its target countries in Western Africa which sheds lights on its operational strength and exposes the shortcomings of the victim states.

In this context it is relevant to reveal the shortcomings and operational failures of the West African and few Sahelian nations in countering AQIM. Governments in this region have failed to design a counter-strategy to rebuff AQIM’s advance. It appears that there is serious lack of co-ordination among the states as they fail to negotiate with regard to jurisdictions in case of “right of pursuit” in the areas where the borders are porous.[10] Further there is no consensus with regard to cross-border pursuit as Algeria is opposed to it and Mali and Mauritania have no specific stands on the issue. In spite of the fact that seminars and conferences have been organized, joint army and intelligence headquarters established, no substantial success has been achieved. AQIM has been wise enough to exploit this existing loophole to their advantage. Lack of resources has made conditions even more difficult for the countries in the region. There is a lacuna on the part of security forces and the intelligence community in analysing the gathered intelligence and using it to avert terror strikes. Counter-terror efforts made by the countries in the region appear to be blunt in nature and there is absence of strategic module of operation. Operational blunders like the one in July 2010, committed by French-Mauritanian forces in northern Mali where they failed to locate the suspected camp where a kidnapped French citizen was held hostage, resulted in a fiasco as AQIM retaliated by executing the hostage in a televised address.[11]

It is therefore clear that the countries in the West Africa will have to launch joint comprehensive counter-measures in order to contain AQIM’s advance. Formulation of comprehensive long-term plans should aim at preventing AQIM from developing local alliances and tactical plans need to be formulated to counter the mobility of AQIM operatives. Proper co-ordination with regard to inter-state operations and negotiations regarding “right to pursuit” the evading terrorist needs to be contemplated. Conventional modules of operation will have to be replaced by tactical and precise ones in order to avoid collateral damages. Cultivating relationships with the locals will help in gathering the required intelligence about the movement of the terrorists. Welfare programmes launched by the governments in the tribal and remote areas will also serve the purpose of strategically preventing AQIM’s appeal in the local populace, thereby restricting its integration and for this to happen the menace of corruption needs to be tackled.[12]

Economic and entrepreneurial ventures should be encouraged by the governments in the region to eliminate poverty and backwardness as they pave ground for AQIM to nurture terror. Also, governments should come up with a no-negotiation policy with the terrorists and, hand-in-hand, should develop the required infrastructure to counter them. Regional co-operation and close co-ordination among the countries may help the region in uprooting the roots of AQIM.


Views expressed by Author is personal.


[1] For details see Reuters: Al-Qaeda gunmen drank in bar before unleashing Ivory Coast attack, by Joe Bavier.

[2] For details see Aljazeera, Al-Qaeda claims deadly Ivory Coast attack on resort, 14 Mar 2016.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For details see Mohamed Elshinnawi (2014), Sahel Terrorism Draws International Attention,19 March 2014 URL : http://www.voanews.com/content/sahel-terrorism-draws-international-attention/1874559.html

[5] For details see: Gunmen Carry Out Deadly Attack on Ivory Coast Beach Resort by Drew Hanisha.URL : http://www.wsj.com/articles/gunmen-carry-out-deadly-attack-on-ivory-coast-beach-resort-1457883860

[6] Analysis: Mina al-Lami, BBC Monitoring, for details see URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35798502.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For details see URL: http://www.upi.com/Top_News/Special/2010/10/05/Algeria-upset-by-French-push-on-al-Qaida/65291286300338/

[9] For details see Reuters: Al Qaeda gets help from Mali officials - ex-rebel.

URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/uk-security-qaeda-sahara-idUKTRE67B3BD20100812.

[10] Africa Security Brief, West Africa’s Growing Terrorist Threat: Confronting AQIM’s Strategy by Modibo Goita.

[11] Ibid.

[12] OAG Report of the Malian Government. For details see URL: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/160132.pdf(Section 3

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Harsh Kumar Upadhayay

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