Al Qaeda in North Africa losing steam

A detailed analysis of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb at Stratfor says that recent developments point to the group’s “steady devolution since its founding in 2006.”  Stratfor’s analysis adds that:

the North African al Qaeda node has failed in its original objective of unifying North African militants in the Sahara-Sahel and Maghreb, remaining an Algerian-run organization by location and leadership. Despite numerous attempts to recruit militants and organize cells of Europeans of North African heritage, it also has failed to strike Europe — namely France and Spain, its preferred targets — and other Western countries. Indeed, AQIM has failed to live up to al-Zawahiri’s promise when he announced the formation of al Qaeda’s new North African node, that it would “be a bone in the throat of the American and French crusaders and their allies.

According to the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center’s Worldwide Incidence Tracking System and open-source material, the frequency and lethality of AQIM attacks in Algeria have fallen to unprecedented lows since the group’s founding in 2006. Indeed, because of increased security efforts against the group by Algerian and regional authorities, AQIM has been forced to strike softer, more vulnerable targets near its base east of Algiers in Bordj Bou Arreridj province and the so-called “triangle of death,” a mountainous area between Bouira, Boumerdes and Tizi Ouzou Kabylie.The current take on AQIM is that it hasn't lived up to its well publicized media hype. That doesn't mean that its operational capabilities should be downgraded or taken lightly.Although AQIM is still small and largely isolated, numbering a couple hundred militants based mostly in the vast desert of northern Mali, it still has carried out small to medium sized attacks in the region, ranging from bombings to kidnappings of foreigners. A recent example is the killing of a French hostage this past July.

The Maghreb-based militants have yet to show a capability to launch major successful foreign attacks like 9/11 or 7/11, but have had successful small-medium sized attacks. Most recent one being the bombings in Uganda during the World Cup.

AQIM  are widening their involvement in the narcotics trade, reaping profits that could be used  to expand terror operations. Another thing is that North African terror groups have a larger area to operate in and a wider Islamic population pool to draw from than their counter parts in other regions of the middle east and Asia.

A key fear is that as AQIM expands, its criminal and insurgent operations will continue to destabilize the fragile governments of heavily Islamic North Africa, much as it has in Mali. The Maghreb includes the North African nations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Mauritania.

Washington’s strategic interest in Africa has expanded since the war on terrorism began, which has led to an effort to prevent militants from using African nations as recruiting centers, training grounds, safe havens, planning areas and, especially, export centers. Washington has expanded its military operations and outreach in Africa.  The U.S. efforts aim to ensure that African countries are able to fight their own battles against militants or at least inform the United States of new problems and to ask for help when needed to ensure militants do not become a larger problem than they already have proven to be in some regions of the continent.

Although the world is concentrating on jihadist insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, militant activity exists — and could be spreading –throughout Africa. Many high profile al Qaeda militants come from African countries and have returned to Africa, as the continent offers militants many attractive features: porous borders, unstable and corrupt governments, large unpopulated areas and Islamic populations. In addition, advances in technology, such as satellite phones and GPS devices, allow militants to operate effectively from outlying areas while staying under the radar of local law enforcement, which has not been equipped to deal with the threat.

Though somewhat under the radar, militant activity in the North African region has been proven. Bombings in Casablanca in May 2003 were attributed to al Qaeda-linked militants, and a Tunisian and several Moroccans were arrested in the Morocco-planned Madrid railway bombing. In addition, after South Africa was identified as a militant transit point, serious concerns were raised about the potential for militants to travel undetected from the north, or from around the world. U.S. officials have expressed the concern that nations such as France, Spain and Afghanistan that crack down on militants force them to return to remote bases in Africa.

The United States began carrying out operations against militants in Africa before the Sept. 11 attacks, after to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. But Washington had not made an overt effort to train local squads to aid in this effort.

Following the lead of the French government, which provides counter terrorism training in many African francophone countries, and of NATO, the United States launched two initiatives aimed at ensuring militants do not gain a foothold — or more of a foothold — in Africa: the State Department-funded Pan Sahel Initiative, focusing on Northern Africa, and the Defense Department’s Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA).

The Pan Sahel Initiative began in 2003 to help create a counter terrorism infrastructure in Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, all nations with predominantly Muslim populations. The State Department Office of Counter terrorism oversees the $125 million initiative, which has grown to include Senegal and may be further expanded to include Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and possibly Libya in the future.

Under this initiative, about 350 soldiers comprise the European Command’s Terrorism Mobile Training Team, which is supported by several ground and airborne special-forces units, contingency response groups and airlift squadrons that are rotated into the regions when needed. The plan is to help these countries improve border and coastal security, create aviation security programs, learn to counter extremist influences, curb militant fund-raising and money-laundering operations and track the movement of people through the largely ungoverned areas. In addition, the United States provides the funding for these countries to buy such terrorism-fighting luxuries as pickup trucks, two-way radios and global positioning devices.

The Defense Department created the CJTF-HOA in October 2002 to detect, disrupt and defeat transnational terrorism and enhance long-term stability in the region. The force, headquartered in the small nation of Djibouti in the northeastern Africa, carries out its mission in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Yemen, as well as in the coastal waters of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The task force includes more than 1,200 Marines and special operations soldiers, and 200 to 400 other U.S. military and civilian personnel at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti and other outposts in the region. U.S. Central Command officers confirm that this force has participated in operations sanctioned by host governments that have successfully rooted out militants.

So far, host governments have welcomed the operations, and the counter terrorism-training objectives have been met. Military commanders point to Kenya, Yemen, Djibouti and Ethiopia, where successful raids have disrupted potential attacks. Though scheduling is in the works for more countries to receive this type of aid, nations not in the programs, such as Nigeria and Sudan, will need to be carefully monitored to ensure they do not turn into dream locations for militants.

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