Degrees of affiliation in the global al-Qaeda franchise
16 Jun 2017|

Image courtesy of Pixabay user 422737.

10 years ago, al-Qaeda (AQ) was in shambles. Thanks to American and Pakistani-led operations, they had no training camps, limited money and few adherents. They also faced increasing challenges to their position as the inspirational leader of the global terrorist movement—in 2014, their local franchise in Iraq (which later rebranded to Islamic State) went off the rails, becoming so barbaric that AQ’s own supporters turned against it. Looking at the landscape today, however, reveals that AQ has managed to turn its fortunes around, expanding in both scale and threat.

Their most recent expansion occurred on 2 March this year, when various extremist groups operating out of the Sahel–Sahara region in North Africa announced their official unification under the banner of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In a statement released online, it was revealed that three groups—Ansar Dine (AQIM’s Sahara branch), Al Murabitoon and Katibat Macina—had merged to form Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (Nusrat al-Islam hereafter), which translates to ‘The Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims’. Ansar Dine’s longtime leader, Iyad Ag Ghaly, stated that this new group would fall under the banner of AQIM and form part of AQ’s international network. However, questions swirl around how much direct control AQ Core (AQC) maintains over their so-called affiliates—both in a general sense but also specifically for the case of Nusrat al-Islam.

Evaluating AQIM’s history offers some valuable clues as to how Nusrat al-Islam might navigate its relationship with AQC. AQIM has its origins in the fight against Algeria’s secular government in the 1990s, after the cancellation of elections that seemed likely to bring Islamists to power. In 1998, certain members of Algeria’s Armed Islamic Group expressed concern that their use of tactics such as beheadings were alienating their Algerian support base. They subsequently broke away from the group to form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). Initially, GSPC garnered support by promising to continue the rebellion (against the secular government) without killing civilians. In the early 2000s however, a government amnesty and counterterrorism campaign drove the group into disarray. After formally establishing itself as AQIM in 2007, the group expanded to parts of Mali, Mauritania and Niger, incorporating more localised groups along the way.

To mark its debut as AQIM, the group strategically changed tactics to reflect Osama Bin Laden’s concentration on the ‘far enemy’—the West in general and the US in particular—while also retaining their local and regional activities. The group began focusing on UN, Israeli and American targets in the region, and went after Algeria’s energy infrastructure, none of which had been a priority in the past. The group also expanded its primary focus to include France, as well as the Algerian regime, and began using suicide bombings and car bombs more strategically by targeting aid workers, tourists, diplomats, and employees of multinational or foreign companies.

Historically, the partnership between AQIM and AQC has been mutually beneficial. An endorsement from AQC allowed AQIM to attract greater funding from donors with deep pockets, particularly those in the Gulf. Moreover, in 2007, when AQIM was attempting to replace their more local, Algerian-focused brand with a regional one, acknowledgement by AQC ensured publicity for the group beyond its traditional borders whilst simultaneously facilitating recruitment. On the other hand, incorporating these new groups into the global AQ franchise allowed AQC to demonstrate its continued relevance and to continue to fulfill its mission of global jihad while gaining greater access to a region geographically close to Europe. Despite this mutually-beneficial history, AQIM is seen today as retaining a high-degree of independence—working with AQC ‘more as partners than as proxies’.

In a similar pattern to AQIM, the traditional focus for many of the groups within the newly-formed Nusrat al-Islam has been local, even tribal, in nature. While partnering with AQIM (and by extension AQC) will help solve some problems related to logistics, branding and recruitment; partnering with such a globally-inclined group will also change the nature of their struggle, thereby decreasing Nusrat al-Islam’s chances of appealing to their local/regional support base and achieving their local objectives i.e. control of territory. In order to control actual territory—which Daniel Byman from The Brookings Institution argues is one of the biggest transformational changes to occur amongst terrorist organisations in the 21st century—groups must now effectively run a government of their own. This includes enforcing law and order and providing certain services, all of which tether their cause to a certain region or locality.

Where Nusrat al-Islam will sit alongside AQC in the long-term remains unclear. Looking at the history of AQIM, as well as realities on the ground, suggests that, as it’s currently constituted, AQC won’t hold direct authority over this new group. Similarly, while Nusrat al-Islam may opportunistically change their tactics to reflect AQ’s more global agenda—perhaps by mounting attacks on US and French interests in the region as a means of demonstrating their usefulness to the AQ franchise—they’re ultimately more than likely to retain their local and regional focus. While we can’t be certain as to how the AQ franchise will develop following this recent addition, its evident ability to adapt to changing environments and cultivate relationships with local extremist organisations, mean it will no-doubt remain a point of interest for analysts of the region well into the future.