AQIM is the regional affiliate of the global terrorist network. It emerged from the more radical Islamist groups that were born during 1990s in the Algerian civil war, particularly the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). In 2005, Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri declared an alliance with the GSPC, and the group changed its name to AQIM in 2007. Algeria has been active in counter-terrorism efforts throughout its borders, but AQIM members were able to escape into neighboring countries through the largely uncontrollable Saharan Desert. AQIM built enduring partnerships with Islamist organizations throughout the region. It thus remains a fluid, evolving network whose reach and influence continues to spread.
AQIM in Mali
Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. intelligence community and the Department of Defense have been working closely with Algeria, Morocco, and other regional powerhouses to eliminate terrorist cells in the Maghreb and Sahel regions. While successes have been achieved in defeating Al-Shahbab – the Islamist terrorist group affiliated with AQIM in Somalia – the network has continued to grow inland to other unstable and difficult to govern states, most notably Mali. During a military coup d’etat in March of 2012, in which soldiers who were displeased with Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré’s handling of the insurgency by Tuareg rebels in the north of the country, overthrew the government. The Tuaregs had mobilized themselves under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in October 2011, and after a series of battles starting in earnest in January 2012, gained control over much of the northern territory of the country, and, on April 6, declared the independence of the state of Azawad.
The MNLA initially worked in coordination with Ansar Dine, an Islamist movement with alleged ties to AQIM that seeks the imposition of sharia law across the entire state of Mali, but once Azawad had been declared independent, the two groups broke, as Ansar Dine did not support the fracturing of Mali. The two groups eventually took up arms against each other, competing for control of northern Mali. A third group, known as the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWAS), entered the fray in June 2012, battling the MNLA for control the city of Gao. MOJWAS, which broke off from AQIM in late 2011, supports violent jihad across all of West Africa and uses more traditional terrorist tactics, including the capturing and executing of officials from the Algerian consulate in Gao in April 2012. The MNLA, MOJWAS, and Ansar Dine all claim control of northern Mali, although the three groups have divergent goals. Ansar Dine is the only one that is believed to have direct links to AQIM, but MOJWAS has similar goals to the regional terrorist network. The border regions of Algeria, Mali, and Mauritania constitute one of the most inaccessible and least governable areas of the world, and AQIM affiliates continue to operate in this area, focusing on narcotics smuggling, kidnapping, and attacks on foreign officials in the region.
Following the unrest in Mali, the European Union, the United Nations, and the African Union promised to establish a permanent presence in the region and proposed military and intelligence coordination with both Mali and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to return law and order to Mali and to eliminate the terrorist threat. The U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) has been working directly with countries of the Maghreb and the Sahel through Operation Enduring Freedom–Trans-Sahara (OEF-TS), the Department of Defense’s component of the U.S. government’s Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP). The TSCTP works directly with the governments and militaries of 10 countries of the region – Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tunisia – to improve regional security. OEF-TS is the U.S. government’s third counter-terrorism priority, and through it, AFRICOM provides training, equipment, assistance, and advice to the militaries of its partner countries in the region.
Operation Enduring Freedom, however, is the most unconventional of wars, as it faces an unconventional foe that has no centralized headquarters. Its fighters are only loosely affiliated with command structures, new member organizations come and go at will, and when one high-ranking leader is eliminated, several more can immediately replace him. The U.S. cannot hope to fight this unconventional threat with conventional warfare, conventional thinking, or – perhaps most importantly – conventional allies. In North Africa particularly, countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Mali may be committed to fighting terrorism, but states and their national forces do not think or act like non-state actors: they operate strictly within the realm of the international nation-state system. The OEF-TS, however well-intentioned, will only have moderate success if it continues to partner solely with foreign militaries.
New partners: The Polisario Front
AFRICOM and civilian U.S. agencies participating in the TSCTP must thus seek out more unconventional allies who can provide more effective assistance in Operation Enduring Freedomg. One such ally that the U.S. would do well to work with is the Saharawis’ Polisario Front. The Polisario has operated a cluster of five refugee camps outside of Tindouf, Algeria, since the mid-1970s, when the majority of the Saharawis fled their homeland of the Western Sahara in the face of the encroaching Mauritanian and Moroccan armies. Tindouf is located near the borders of Mauritania, Algeria, Mali, and the Western Sahara, and in exchange for the land that is currently home to the refugee camps, the Saharawi People’s Liberation Army (ALPS), assists the Algerian military in patrolling the region and the border. The ALPS also controls, patrols, and trains in approximately 30 percent of the Western Sahara, which is under the control of the Polisario. It has, on multiple occasions, tracked down and apprehended both terrorists and narco-traffickers attempting to pass through its military zones. After 15 years of guerrilla warfare that ended with the signing of a ceasefire with Morocco in 1991, the ALPS has intricate knowledge of desert warfare and the paths used by illegitimate groups in the region. The Polisario has much at stake in the elimination of the terrorist threat in the area, for it continues to attempt to convince the international community that it would be willing and able to stabilize the Western Sahara if it were to become an independent country under Saharawi control.
Morocco, which controls the other 70 percent of the Western Sahara, and its international allies have unsuccessfully tried to fabricate links between the Polisario and AQIM. The Polisario, however, whose entire strategy for regaining the control of the Western Sahara is focused on building international support for its cause, is not so foolish as to ally itself with the U.S. most avowed enemy. It is also willing to work with militaries, intelligence organizations, and diplomats from any Western country to fight the terrorist threat in the region. Its abilities are somewhat limited by its current presence on Algerian soil, but the Algerian government’s 37-year support for the Polisario cause would make working with the Saharawis possible.
In October 2011, members of MOJWAS infiltrated the Saharawi refugee camps and kidnapped three European humanitarian aid workers. The hostages were released nine months later after the kidnappers claimed that a ransom had been paid by the European governments. The Polisario immediately prosecuted Saharawis it suspected of participating in the kidnapping, and the ALPS followed the MOJWAS kidnappers deep into the desert. The U.S. and the Polisario thus have common enemies in the region, and Saharawi leaders have publicly and privately stated their willingness to work with the CIA and the Department of Defense to fight the terrorist elements in the Trans-Saharan region.
If the U.S. Administration is serious about winning the War on Terror, it must begin to foster partnerships with non-state actors. The development of such partnerships must be undertaken with the full knowledge of the governments of the region, but their opposition must not prevent the U.S. from taking the steps necessary to combat extremist elements. The U.S. is rightly reluctant to cooperate with non-state actors such as the MNLA in Operation Enduring Freedom, but it must also be able to distinguish between terrorist and non-terrorist organizations. It should be open to working by, with, and through legitimate actors that have never had links to terrorist organizations and that respect international law.
The U.S. has forces specifically designed for partnering with such non-state actors, including the U.S. Army Special Forces and the Special Operations Group (SOG) within the CIA’s Special Activities Division (SAD). Both groups are accustomed to working with indigenous populations where the U.S. does not want to leave a large footprint. Even if the U.S. government does not want to threaten its alliance with Morocco by training and fighting alongside Polisario troops, it would be wise to engage in intelligence sharing with the ALPS, who know the Saharan Desert better than any national force. In this unconventional war, it is time for the U.S. Administration to fully embrace unconventional tactics and allies to defeat AQIM once and for all.
Timothy Kustusch is an Analyst at 361Security