Turmoil and dissent in North Africa's al Qa'eda
Al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, has recently sought to raise its public profile with a series of successful kidnapping operations of western nationals. Its efforts have garnered attention not only from international terrorism analysts, but from militants themselves. After a September operation in Niger where seven people were kidnapped - including five French citizens - Osama bin Laden himself claimed paternity of this success.
Bin Laden's attention is noteworthy, but not the most revealing aspect of these strikes. For that, one needs to examine what members of AQIM are saying about their own activities, and how these tactics are creating rifts within the broader organisation.
The real mastermind behind the fall operation was Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, the head of the Sahel region. That Abu Zeid is claiming credit suggests he is looking to usurp control of AQIM from Abdelmalek Droukdel, the group's historical leader. This new situation could actually result in a war of succession inside AQIM.
This is not an entirely new development. Interestingly, Droukdel's leadership was already questioned in 2007 after the Algerian terror group GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) changed its name to al Qa'eda in the Islamic Maghreb. In fact, according to Abu Mossaab, the former head of the south who surrendered to Algerian authorities in August 2007, the dissent started as soon as Droukdel and two of his close advisers decided to join al Qa'eda without consulting the leadership and the group's base.
According to the Algerian newspaper El Watan, some of GSPC's top-echelon voiced their disagreement with the new "suicide bombers strategy" that they deemed "imported from Iraq and serving only al Qa'eda". They also wanted to keep the focus of the organisation on Algeria rather than on the global jihad.
Most of these rebellious elements were kicked out of the leadership and were replaced by hard-core elements. In turn, the risk of being physically eliminated pushed many dissenters to defect and provide the authorities with valuable information that led to arrests or killings of prominent AQIM members. This situation has been ongoing.
But the most acute threat to Droukdel's leadership appears to be coming from AQIM's rising star, Abu Zeid. Even though he is not an Afghan veteran, Abu Zeid has steadily risen in the ranks of AQIM. As early as 2004, Abu Musab Zarqawi, the former leader of al Qa'eda in Iraq, reportedly congratulated Abu Zeid for his efforts in the region.
Then in 2007, he allegedly met twice with al Qa'eda's emissaries, who gave him a personal message from Osama bin Laden, asking him to restructure the organisation and start a new entity. In any case, it seems that Abu Zeid's tactical units have been autonomous ever since, detached from AQIM's leadership back in Algeria.
With this freedom, Abu Zeid has been specialising in kidnappings that are financially rewarding and notable for their scale. For instance, in 2009, no less than six kidnappings of western nationals took place under Abu Zeid's direction. Most troubling are the results.
Unlike in the past, when all hostages would be freed unharmed after a ransom was paid, Abu Zeid is allegedly ordering cold-blooded executions, including the killing of a British hostage, Edwin Dyer, last year. This appears to be his signature.
His agenda is also expanding geographically. In 2009, Abu Zeid opened a new front by successfully organising an operation in Niger, and in April 2010, a 78-year-old French aid worker, Michel Germaneau, was abducted by Abu Zeid's fighters in Niger. In an effort to liberate him, Mauritanian forces - helped by French troops - organised a raid against an AQIM camp in Mali, killing six of Abu Zeid's men but failing to find the French hostage. After this failed operation, Germaneau was executed in retaliation.
But Abu Zeid's real moment of gruesome notoriety came when he appeared full-faced on a video along with the recent hostages taken in Niger in September. This bold gesture positioned Abu Zeid as the new face of AQIM.
Droukdel had to respond, which he did through an audiotape that specifically asked France to negotiate directly with bin Laden and withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. It appeared Droukdel was trying to reposition himself as the true AQIM leader by invoking the highest al Qa'ada authority, bin Laden, to rein in Abu Zeid. But so far that hasn't happened.
The question now is whether Abu Zeid's ambition is to take over AQIM entirely, or remain a semi-autonomous loose cannon. Only time will tell.
A number of scenarios are possible for the future of AQIM, and not all of them are foreboding. Because of perceived internal battles amid AQIM's leadership, a slew of lower-level defections took place in the last weeks of November, including the defection of six AQIM operatives in Mauritania, followed by another thirty in Mali.
In light of this internal turmoil, it is possible that a split-off of AQIM will take place in the next few months. But even if it doesn't, it's worth paying attention to who emerges to lead the way.
Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe. View his latest work at www.thecroissant.com/about.html