Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Oct. 3, 2016, 10:51am

ISIS’ imminent loss of Sirte, a most crucial stronghold outside of Iraq and Syria, seems to suggest that al-Qaeda’s strategy towards state-building was more farsighted and ultimately successful than its rival’s. In contrast with ISIS’ eagerness to leverage the enthusiasm of new recruits, quickly swell its ranks and expand the territory under its control, al-Qaeda committed to a plan for “jihadi-state building as a long-term endeavor that requires strategic patience.” As Long War Journal senior editor and senior expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies Thomas Joscelyn argued in his congressional testimony before the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Non-Proliferation, and Trade of the House of Foreign Affairs, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) remains a significant, albeit latent, threat to the region. While mostly remaining a clandestine presence in Libya, the group retains a strong operational capacity that should induce the U.S. and their regional partners to devote conspicuous energies and resources to uncover AQIM’s network in the Sahel.

AQIM’s origins trace back to the history of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), a guerilla Islamist movement born out of Algeria’s civil war who violently opposed the Algerian secular leadership in the late 1990s and later pledged alliance to al-Qaeda. On September 11, 2006 Ayman al-Zawahiri announced the merger, which earned GSPC new legitimacy – and therefore new adepts – but also new targets, in line with al-Qaeda’s traditional anti-Western narrative and broader mission. Since then, GSPC-turned-AQIM has consistently sought to remove Western actors and influence from the Sahel, as the strong symbolic component of AQIM’s most recent terrorist attacks has revealed. Moreover, the group has also intended to overthrow “apostate” governments in the region through Salafi-jihadi insurgency techniques and to replace them with sharia-based regimes. Ultimately, the group’s efforts at state-building, in line with al-Qaeda’s ones, aim at establishing multiple emirates that will one day unify as an Islamic caliphate.

AQIM has especially exploited its base in Mali to pursue and expand its goals in the Sahel. By operating traditionally under multiple names, including those of the groups AQIM strategically backed over the years, AQIM had greatly expanded its capabilities in 2012. In the second half of that year, AQIM-sponsored Ansar al-Dine and MUJAO ventured to implement sharia law in the northern region of Mali, a decisive step towards their longer term goal of establishing the “Islamic Republic of the Azawad”. Their rapid advance to the south of Mali in 2013 prompted a French intervention that inflicted a major blowback to the group’s newly found control over the region. However, even in spite of the disruption to the groups’ capabilities caused by the French troops, AQIM’s most recent attacks suggests that AQIM’s attack techniques are gaining sophistication. Especially in Libya, al-Qaeda has shown resilience and commitment to a longer-term strategic vision that is seemingly paying off. As stressed by AQIM leader Abu Abdul Ilah Ahmend in the seventh issue of Al-Qaeda’s Al Masra newsletter quoted by Joscelyn, AQIM has opted for backing groups aligned such as Ansar al Sharia, the Derna-based Abu Salim Martyrs Brigades, as well as several “faithful shura councils” established in many cities in Libya. As Joscelyn explained, “the group had the opportunity to establish an Islamic state in Libya, but decided such a move would be premature.” Despite the major losses sustained in Libya, the al-Qaeda network retains numerous allied groups in the country who are “pooling their resources with other organizations inside Libya.” Furthermore, Joscelyn observed, AQIM’s Libyan branches are apparently endorsing a “local face” as a legitimate candidate governing authority, Sheikh Sadiq Al Gharyani. The expert pointed out that this could be a deliberate strategy already implemented by al-Qaeda in the Malian arena but applicable to Libya, that envisions an incremental approach to state-building based on cooperation with major social and political groups in order to build popular support for AQIM’s agenda.

These signals, in addition to observed efforts to discourage Western intervention in Libya, spark concerns over AQIM’s latent threat that appears to be underestimated. Although kept clandestine for strategic reasons – especially avoiding detection and a direct confrontation with Western powers that may result into new fatal setbacks – al-Qaeda’s presence in Libya remains solidly established. Similar to the strategy pursued in Yemen and Syria, the group is broadening its local support from aggrieved populations in Libya, while Western efforts to contain its expansion have mostly failed so far. Experts tend to agree that AQIM’s increasingly advanced capabilities pose a direct threat to European and American interests in the Sahel in the medium and long term, a threat that will gain new weight in the event of Sirte’s collapse. EU and U.S. authorities cannot afford to be unprepared.

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