Saturday, June 27, 2009

Algeria: Taking the Pulse of AQIM

Via Stratfor (Security Weekly) -

Late in the evening of June 17, 2009, militants affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) detonated two improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against a convoy near Bordj Bou Arreridj, Algeria, which is located in a mountainous area east of Algiers that has traditionally been an Islamist militant stronghold. The convoy consisted of Algerian paramilitary police vehicles escorting a group of Chinese workers to a site where they were building a new highway to connect Bordj Bou Arreridj with Algiers. After disabling the convoy using IEDs, the militants then raked the trapped vehicles with small-arms fire. When the ambush was over, 18 policemen and one Chinese worker had been killed. Another six gendarmes and two Chinese workers were wounded in the attack.


By design, AQIM incorporated the GSPC with elements of Morocco’s Islamic Combatant Group, Libya’s Islamic Fighting Group, several Tunisian groups, most notably the Tunisian Combatant Group, and jihadists in Mali, Niger and Mauritania. However, in practice, the vast majority of the group’s infrastructure came from the GSPC, and attacks since the founding of AQIM in 2006 have reflected this. Indeed, in spite of the many high-profile Libyan and Moroccan militants who serve as part of the al Qaeda core leadership, Libya and Morocco have been extremely calm since the emergence of AQIM, and the group has remained an Algeria-based phenomenon.


The attacks in Mauritania have shown rudimentary tactics with poor planning, and the militants associated with AQIM in Mauritania simply have not displayed the ability to mount a large-scale, coordinated attack. The group’s activities in Mali and Niger are also mainly constrained to low-level attacks against government or military outposts and foreign mining sites and personnel in the northern stretches of those countries. AQIM also conducts training and engages in smuggling and kidnappings for ransom in this deserted region.

This means that, in the end, in spite of all the hype associated with the AQIM name, the group is essentially a rebranded GSPC and not some sort of revolutionary new organization. It has adapted its target set to include foreign interests, and it did add suicide bombing to its repertoire, but aside from that there has been very little movement toward AQIM’s becoming a truly regional threat.


Perhaps the AQIM militants got lucky or the Algerian gendarmes targeted in the attack made a fatal mistake. However, the increased death toll could also have been a result of superior IED design, or superior planning by the operational leader of the ambush. Such a shift could indicate that an experienced operational commander or bombmaker has come to AQIM from someplace like Iraq or Pakistan. It will be very important to watch the next few AQIM attacks to see if the June 17 attack was indeed just an anomaly or if it was the beginning of a new and deadly trend.

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