Hidden in plain sight on the semi-arid plains of one of the most lawless zones on earth, the African branch of al-Qaeda is taking advantage of Islamist insurgencies in the region to establish a new base of power.
A Sunday report in the Telegraph showed that militias linked to al-Qaeda are putting down extensive roots in Libya -- just one of many signs over the past year that North Africa is at the center of a dangerous new trend in terrorism.
This loosely organized African network is called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM; it is only one of several branches of the global terror organization headed up by Ayman al-Zawahiri. But with broader al-Qaeda leadership in disarray, AQIM is quickly becoming the division with the most potential to perpetrate ongoing violence.
It is disappointing that Libya, which is working to empower a new civilian government after decades of capricious autocracy under former leader Moammar Gadhafi, could become a haven for terrorist operatives. But given recent history, AQIM’s apparent infestation there isn’t exactly out of the blue.
Libya has struggled with security issues ever since Gadhafi was ousted last year. The various militias that helped depose the regime, many of which had Islamist aims, held onto their guns once a transitional government was established.
Still today, the young civil government lacks the power to bring these ragtag brigades together; nor does it have the resources to send out security forces of its own. Radical groups have taken advantage of the situation to cull public favor in various localities. And to make matters worse, Libya has an abundance of weapons left over from the 2011 revolution.
For terrorist groups, the lure of such an environment is hard to resist.
“Al-Qaeda regards post-Gadhafi Libya as a wonderful opportunity to expand its terrorist franchise," said a senior intelligence official to the Telegraph. “The organization will become a lot more powerful if it can form an alliance with Libyan Islamist groups.”
The risks of such alliances became painfully clear on Sept. 11 this year, when four American diplomats – including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens – were killed by terrorists in Libya’s second city, Benghazi. The top suspect is a Libyan group called Ansar al-Shariah, which has links to AQIM.
U.S. General Carter Ham, who leads U.S. military efforts in Africa, expressed his concerns at a defense gathering in Paris last month.
“There is a growing network of violent extremist organizations, and it appears to me very likely that some of the terrorists who participated in the attack in Benghazi have at least some linkages to AQIM," he said, according to Reuters.
This is far from an exclusively Libyan problem. All across Africa’s northern areas -- from the upper reaches of the Maghreb to the lower limits of the Sahel, a belt of semi-arid land that lies just south of the Sahara desert -- AQIM is making plans to settle in and branch out.
Western intervention -- often in the form of drone strikes -- has routed al-Qaeda leadership in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen over the past decade. Eliminating the terrorist threat in these areas remains impossible in the short term, especially considering that civilian deaths as a result of the program may be strengthening civilians’ sympathy for the jihadists’ cause. But the program has effectively made al-Qaeda’s old haunting grounds inhospitable as bases, and this has made Africa all the more appealing.
Mali, a beacon of stable democracy since 1992, became an improbable weak link this year -- and Libya was partly to blame.
Gadhafi had hired Tuaregs, nomads from the Sahel, as mercenary fighters in his failed effort to suppress the 2011 revolution. When his regime fell, most of those Tuaregs fled Libya and headed back West.
Having long sought to establish an independent state of their own, these Tuaregs -- now strengthened by their new weapons and training -- swept into northern Mali and set up camp. They were helped by a subsequent military coup in Bamako, the capital city. Mutinous soldiers there had hoped to seize the government in order to more effectively address the northern incursion -- instead, the instability they engendered has only gummed up the works.
The Tuaregs didn’t last long. On their heels came a new band of invaders: Islamists who quickly established a harsh version of Shariah, or Islamic law, in the region. Some of them had also been armed by the desperate Libyan regime.
The Islamists still control the Malian north, a swath of land the size of France. Training camps have been set up there, turning a formerly peaceful country into a new base of operations for one of the world’s most feared terrorist organizations.
It is important to note AQIM is different from the al-Qaeda that initiated the 2001 attack against the United States, and from the al-Qaeda franchises that attempted to hunker down in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere when NATO swept into Afghanistan.
AQIM was officially formed in 2007, but its origins can be loosely traced further back to the Islamist rebel groups who fought and lost in the bloody Algerian civil war of the 1990s. Widely spread and loosely organized, these militants have posed only a minimal threat to the outside world for most of the last two decades.
That threat is clearly growing, but large-scale alarmism would be ill-founded just yet. “I don't think today they possess a credible and imminent threat to the U.S. homeland,” said Ham in November.
For the African continent, however, AQIM already presents a serious security crisis. It is gaining broader influence as a result of its foothold in Mali. Reports this year have linked al-Qaeda to a variety of insurgent Islamist groups in Africa, including al-Shabaab in war-torn Somalia and Boko Haram in deeply divided Nigeria.
African leaders have formulated a plan to oust the Malian insurgents, which would commit 3,000 troops – supported by Western funding and training – sometime next year, pending approval from the U.N. Security Council. Reports from Mali have indicated that insurgents, having gotten wind of this news, are gearing up for a battle by increasing training exercises and beefing up their ranks.
But Ham and other diplomats still stress the potential for negotiation ahead of conflict. After all, the Malian insurgency is a fractured one; the remaining Tuaregs and some of the more moderate Islamist groups there have voiced a willingness to enter talks. A hasty military offensive could hurt more than it helps, a point Ham made clear during a Monday speech at the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University.
“Negotiation is the best way,” he said. “Military intervention may be a necessary component. But if there is to be military intervention it has to be successful, it cannot be done prematurely.”
But amid continuing reports of al-Qaeda infiltrations across northern Africa, in Libya and elsewhere, there are growing concerns that AQIM is spreading its influence quickly enough that a defeat in Mali would come too late to dismantle the broader network.
“It is a growing linkage,” explained Ham. “A growing network and collaboration and synchronization amongst the various violent extremist organizations, which I think poses the greatest threat to regional stability, more broadly across Africa, certainly into Europe, and to the United States.”