Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had high hopes for the African Islamist group that held Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay captive for months before releasing them along with two tourists last week. Earlier this decade, violent Islamism was floundering in North Africa. Government crackdowns and amnesty programs in Algeria had weakened the once-powerful Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group, whose murder of civilians had already dried up much of its popular support.
And so, like a struggling independent business looking for ways to stay afloat, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat sought out the patronage of a wealthier and more powerful terrorist conglomerate: al-Qaeda. The first messages seeking an alliance were sent to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda’s deputy in Iraq. This was a natural partnership, as hundreds of North African Islamists were already joining the jihad against American forces there. In June 2005, U.S. Central Command claimed that up to 25 per cent of suicide bombers in Iraq were North Africans, mostly Algerians. But the North African Islamists in the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat were also looking to partner with al-Qaeda’s central branch, headed by bin Laden and likely located in Pakistan.
In June 2006, an Islamist strategist named Azzam al-Ansari—who has been identified by a confidential source with connections to American intelligence agencies as a Saudi national and al-Qaeda affiliate who spent time in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation—published an online article describing Africa as an “unexplored gold mine for global jihad.” A few months later, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri announced the formal alliance of al-Qaeda and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. He prayed that the North African group, which soon adopted the name al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would be a “thorn in the neck of the American and French crusaders and their allies, and an arrow in the heart of the French traitors and apostates.” Zawahiri also asked God to help his North African allies “hit the foundations of the crusader alliance, primarily their old leader, the infidel United States.”
For a time, it appeared as though al-Qaeda’s newest franchise, which operates in half a dozen countries across the vast, sparsely populated and poorly governed Sahel region of North Africa, would live up to Zawahiri’s expectations. Members expanded their attention to international targets, murdering French tourists in Mauritania and bombing a United Nations building in Algiers. In early 2008, AQIM attacked the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania—all this in addition to ongoing assaults against Algerian government and military targets.
The group’s public pronouncements also took on the themes and rhetorical flourishes of international jihad, most notably as AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud pledged his loyalty to Osama bin Laden. “Our beloved sheik and commander, only God knows how much we miss you, and how hard it is for us to be far from you,” he said in a January 2007 speech that was distributed on the Internet. “In the name of God, if we could be carried by birds, we would come to you. We remember you in our hearts and visualize you in our minds. We ask God to reunite us, after missing you for so long.” He went on in this vein for some time.
Western intelligence agencies were duly concerned. The Armed Islamic Group had carried out a number of bombings and an attempted hijacking in France during the 1990s. The Madrid bombings of March 2004 were executed largely by Moroccan immigrants, including at least one member of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. Now, North African Islamists were gathering under the umbrella of an al-Qaeda franchise with an explicitly international agenda. “There is no doubt that the extension of what one might call the al-Qaeda franchise to other groups in other countries—notably in Algeria—has created a significant upsurge in terrorist violence in these countries,” said Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, in a November 2007 address to journalists. “This sort of extension of the al-Qaeda brand to new parts of the Middle East and beyond poses a further threat to us in this country because it provides al-Qaeda with access to new centres of support, which it can motivate and exploit, including in its campaign against the U.K.”
But for all their professed solidarity with jihadist insurgents from Iraq to Chechnya, AQIM militants of late have appeared more like members of a desert biker gang than vanguard holy warriors poised to restore an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East. They are deeply involved in smuggling, credit-card fraud, and car theft. Kidnapping of foreigners is also a priority. Fowler and Guay might have been their most high-profile victims, but there have been many more. At least two European tourists taken by AQIM are still captive.
Kidnapping foreigners arguably advances AQIM’s Islamist political aims by driving out foreign investment and thereby weakening the supposedly apostate governments the group is hoping to overthrow in the region. But money appears to be a prime motivator behind the practice. Most AQIM kidnappings of foreigners end with large ransoms being paid and released captives, rather than in gruesome beheadings that are filmed and then posted on the Internet, as was often the case in Iraq.
Dell Dailey, coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department, has claimed that AQIM is so engaged in financial crime because it has been largely cut off from al-Qaeda’s central branch and a source of money and recruits. J. Peter Pham, an Africa specialist at James Madison University who consults regularly for the U.S. and other governments, agrees that AQIM is suffering from a lack of funds and fighters. “It has taken some hits in the last year. It is on the defensive and seeking resources,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s. “The Algerians really ramped up operations against them. Algerian government forces took a lot of casualties, but so did AQIM. And as a result, AQIM is much reduced in numbers.” Separately, the Moroccan government has rolled up much of AQIM’s financing. “They need to regroup and rearm,” Pham says.
Kidnapping has been lucrative. In 2003, when AQIM was still calling itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, it kidnapped 32 European tourists travelling in the Algerian Sahara. Algerian commandos freed 17 in a raid. One hostage died in captivity, apparently of heat stroke. Estimates regarding the amount of money paid in ransom for the release of the remaining 14 hostages top $10 million. A precedent was established that has been difficult to break. Two Austrian tourists were released by AQIM late last year after some eight months in captivity. Their kidnappers demanded a ransom, which Austria denies paying despite reports to the contrary.
Fowler and Guay were in Niger on a UN mission to mediate between the government and armed rebels. Tuaregs, indigo-robed nomadic herders who thrive in the harsh Sahara desert, have been fighting for more autonomy in the north of the country. It is believed that Fowler and Guay were initially captured by Tuareg tribesmen, who then sold them to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They were seized at a spot a short drive from the Niger capital, Niamey, in what is generally considered a safe area of the country where AQIM does not operate.
“The Tuaregs, who don’t have the international cachet and resources to negotiate, will capture Westerners, and the Tuaregs will then sell the prisoners to AQIM, which, because of its name brand, its links to terrorism, and the fear that it excites, will command a higher ransom,” says Pham. “It’s a win-win proposition for both sides.” Some of the Tuaregs who engage in kidnapping are simple criminals, Pham says. Some have political grievances of their own with the governments of Mali and Niger. And sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference.
Pham, who has close contacts with senior members of the governments and security services of both Mali and Niger, says that money and prisoners were at the heart of negotiations for the release of Fowler and Guay as well. Pham has not been in touch with his sources in Mali and Niger for a few weeks, but he says he had a good window into the state of negotiations at the time between Canada, the United Nations, Mali, Niger, and the kidnappers.
The parties were at an impasse, Pham says. Canada and the United Nations refused to pay a ransom to AQIM. The kidnappers wanted the governments of Niger and Mali to release AQIM prisoners in their custody. And Niger and Mali were reluctant to release prisoners without getting something in return. Pham has no proof, but he suspects some sort of “package deal” was struck that would see Mali and Niger receive some sort of political or financial compensation in exchange for releasing prisoners to AQIM, which would then free Fowler, Guay, and the two European tourists.
He notes that European governments have been willing to cough up ransoms for their captured nationals in the past, and he suspects Germany and Switzerland might have done so in this case as well, perhaps with the understanding that the payment would unofficially cover the ransom demanded for Fowler and Guay, thereby leaving Canada able to say it did not pay for their freedom. According to the Algerian El Khabar newspaper, an unnamed European country paid about $8 million following a “complex deal” to release the hostages.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has denied paying a ransom, and Kory Teneycke, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, told Maclean’s Canada did not make any concessions to the governments of Mali and Niger to persuade them to exchange prisoners with al-Qaeda. “The government of Canada did not give any money or considerations as part of a deal to get these two hostages released,” he said.
Even if AQIM profited financially from the kidnapping of Fowler and Guay, Pham cautions against imagining that the group is morphing into nothing more than a criminal enterprise. Yes, AQIM is engaged in fraud, extortion, and petty crime. But getting the money is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, he notes. “The group itself, the core group, remains committed to its ideological roots, as well as its objective of overthrowing the governments of Algeria and other Maghrebi states,” he says.
According to AQIM’s leader, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, who is also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel, the group’s commitment to jihad extends far beyond North Africa. “We see that it’s our duty to join al-Qaeda so that we can have our fight under one flag and one leadership in order to get ready for the confrontation,” he said in an audiotape in response to questions sent to him by the New York Times last summer.
Wadoud listed a litany of offences he believes have been committed against Muslims by the “Jew-crusader ally,” in Gaza, Jerusalem, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, and he promised to fight back. “If the U.S. administration sees that its war against the Muslims is legitimate, then what makes us believe that our war on its territories is not legitimate? Everyone must know that we will not hesitate in targeting it whenever we can and wherever it is on this planet.”
Despite forays into the grubby business of racketeering and extortion, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has global ambitions. Whatever Robert Fowler and Louis Guay’s kidnappers got in exchange for freeing the Canadians, they’re not going to disappear into the desert. We’ll hear from them again.