ATbar Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and the terror abductions

Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and the terror abductions

06/05/2010 | by Shay, Shaul (Dr.)  

The al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) is an Algeria-based Sunni Muslim jihadist group that originally formed in 1998 by Hassan Hattab, a former Armed Islamic Group (GIA) regional commander who broke with the GIA in protest over the GIA's slaughter of civilians.[1] In September 2003, it was reported that Hattab had been deposed as the emir of the GSPC and replaced by Nabil Sahraoui (Sheikh Abou Ibrahim Mustapha), a 39 year-old former GIA commander.[2] Following the death of Sahraoui in June 2004, Abdelmalek Droukdal, also known as Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud, University-educated as a science student and well known for his bomb-making abilities became the leader of the GSPC.[3] The GSPC had close to 30,000 members at its height, but the Algerian Government’s counterterrorism efforts have reduced the group’s ranks to several thousands.

The GSPC declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda as early as 2003, but Ben Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, officially approved GSPC's merger in a videotape released on September 11, 2006.[4] AQIM has since claimed responsibility for attacks under its new name. Originally, its aims included the overthrow of Algeria's secular military government and the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. The AQIM has become a regional terrorist organization, recruiting and operating all throughout the Maghreb—and beyond to Europe itself.

AQIM's vocal support of al-Qaeda and declaration of solidarity with Islamic extremists in the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Somalia, and Chechnya indicate it's broader intent. "Our general goals are the same goals of Al Qaeda the mother," AQIM's current leader, Abdelmalek Droukdal. [5]

Jihadist groups in North Africa and the Sahel states are increasingly turning to hostage-taking to fill their war chests with ransoms and for political gain. The Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat published a letter from AQIM entitled, "Call for help from the Islamic Maghreb." In this letter, AQIM acknowledged that it is suffering from a lack of operatives and most importantly that its elements have "an urgent need of cash."[6]

In economic terms, kidnapping has proved profitable for AQIM. In this regard, it should be noted that abductions have long been a favored tactic of AQIM (and GSPC before it). Most victims in the past have tended to be wealthy Algerians kidnapped for money. AQIM has made no secret that targeting foreign nationals has become one of their priorities. In Algeria, AQIM targeted U.S. and Russian contractors, and the U.N. compound in Algiers, while Western nations have warned their citizens of the risks associated with remaining in the country. AQIM also almost succeeded in kidnapping two French executives. After this incident, a number of French nationals (mostly women and children) left Algeria to return to safer grounds. The idea behind this strategy is to kill the tourism industry and dry out foreign investment in the region.[7]

The abductions since 2008, illustrate the increase in anti-Western activity by AQIM. Algeria and Mauritania in particular have experienced a rise in attacks on foreign interests and nationals. The latest abduction cases in 2009 indicate that this now also applies to other countries in the region. GSPC \ AQIM kidnappings 2000 – 2008 AQIM has a tradition of self-financing its operations mostly through kidnappings, racketeering and smuggling of all kinds.

In February 2003, the Algerian GSPC under the command of Amari Saifi, also known as Abderrazak el-Para, kidnapped 32 European tourists (including Austrian, Swiss and German nationals) in the Algerian Sahara. Seventeen of them were freed thanks to a military operation led by Algerian forces, and the remaining 14 – one hostage had died – were released six months later after a large ransom reportedly ($10 million) was allegedly paid by German authorities. This money was used to buy substantial quantities of sophisticated weapons including surface-to-air missiles, heavy machine guns, mortars, and satellite-positioning equipment. The Algerian security services seized a part of this arms in January 2004. ". Abderrazak el-Para was captured in Chad in 2004 and extradited to Algeria and Algerian courts sentenced him to death.[8]

In 2007, a group of French picnickers was killed. The gunmen were believed to be linked to al Qaeda's North Africa branch and the incident prompted organizers of the famous Dakar Rally to cancel the trans-Sahara car race.[9]

On February 22, 2008 , AQIM – kidnapped two Austrian citizens in Tunisia. The hostages were reportedly taken to Mali. and held there until released for a ransom. The AQIM first demanded the release of Abderrazak el-Para and other members imprisoned in Algeria. They then changed the request to include two Muslims imprisoned on terrorism charges in Austria. The hostages were finally released in October 2008, for ransom of $4 million paid by Vienna and the release of several jihadists held in Mauritania, including a veteran fighter named Oussama el-Merdaci.[10]

On December 14, 2008, two Canadian diplomats, UN special envoy to Niger, Robert Fowler, and his aide, Louis Guay, mysteriously disappeared while on a field trip. The fate of the two Canadians long remained shrouded in uncertainty. A Nigerian Tuareg rebel group first claimed responsibility for their abduction, but this claim was quickly retracted. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb released an online statement in which it claimed responsibility for the abduction of Fowler and Guay and other Europeans. [11]

On April 29, 2009 , Robert Fowler , Louis Guay, and a Swiss and German were released by AQIM in exchange of four jailed mujahedeen. All four had been jailed in Mali since February 2008. One of the released terrorist is an Algerian al-Qaeda member, Oussama Alboumerdassi, fought with the then U.S.-backed mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, staying on until 1992. Two of the other three terror suspects were Mauritanian, while the remaining one was either Jordanian or Syrian.[12]

At the heart of the negotiations seeking the release of the hostages were Saif al-Islam Muammar al-Gaddafi, son of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, and a relative of Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore, identified as Mauritanian businessman Abdallah Chaffei.d. Saif al-Islam, who heads the Gaddafi Foundation charity, mediated in 2008 the case of two Austrians held by AQIM in Mali.[13]

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper specifically thanked both Mali and Burkina Faso during a press conference in which he announced the Canadians' release. AQIM declared in an unofficial manner that " four of its members . . . have been delivered to the north of Mali as a result of a major transaction led by the Malian president," it said.[14]

The kidnappings of 2009

On January 4, 2009,a local criminal gang tried to kidnap a group of four Saudi tourists hunting birds in the desert region of Tillaberi in western Niger. The attack triggered a gun battle in which one Saudi Arabian was murdered and two other Saudis were wounded. The A-Sharq al-Awsat Arabic-language newspaper reported that the brigands wanted to sell them to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an elusive al-Qaeda leader who operates in the region. Belmokhtar is associated with the Algeria-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.[15]

On April 22, 2009 , four Europeans (two Swiss, one German and a Briton), were kidnapped. The four Europeans were returning from the Anderamboukane festival on nomad culture in the border area between Mali and Niger when they were kidnapped. Their three-car convoy was ambushed; the first car got away and alerted the security forces, but the second and third cars, which were carrying the tourists, stayed on the spot and the people in them were kidnapped by Tuareg rebels who sold later their captives to the jihadists. The group has demanded the release of Jordanian militant leader Abu Qatada, held in Britain since 2005, and threatened to kill the Briton hostage Edwin Dyer if the demand went unmet. The Algerian media has reported that the jihadists had demanded $14 million for the hostages and also demanded the release of 20 of its men held in Mali.[16]

The Swiss and German women were freed in April 2009 , along with the two Canadian diplomats working for the United Nations, abducted in Niger on Dec. 14, 2008. The Swiss man was released in July 2009. The Briton Edwin Dyer was murdered by his kidnappers and was the first British kidnap victim executed by al-Qaeda outside Iraq. Gordon Brown, Britain's prime minister, condemned the killing as an "appalling and barbaric act of terrorism" and said it reinforced Britain's commitment to confront terrorism. "I want those who would use terror against British citizens to know beyond doubt that we and our allies will pursue them relentlessly, and that they will meet the justice they deserve."[17]

On June 25, 2009, AQIM took responsibility for the killing of an American aid worker in Mauritania's capital city of Nouakchott. The attack has been described as a botched kidnapping attempt.

Al-Jazeera TV said it had received an audio statement from al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb in which the group said 39-year-old Christopher Ervin Leggett, an American aid worker, was killed for allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

"Two knights of the Islamic Maghreb succeeded Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. to kill the infidel American Christopher Leggett for his Christianizing activities," the group said.

Mauritania's Interior Ministry said Thursday it was investigating the death and security forces were doing "all they can to catch the criminals."[18]

On November 25, 2009 the Frenchman Pierre Camatte was snatched from a hotel in Menaka in the Sahel region of northern Mali, more than 1,500 kilometers from the capital Bamako. In a message delivered in early January 2009, AQIM threatened to kill the French hostage if France and Mali did not meet the group’s demand for the release of four militants imprisoned by Mali’s authorities. The message included a call to the French public and the Camatte family to pressure French President Nicolas Sarkozy to accept their demands if they wanted the Frenchman to avoid the fate of English hostage Edwin Dyer.[19] On February 23, 2010, AQIM released Pierre Camatte. Camatte's release follows that of four Islamist prisoners by Mali.

Algeria and Mauritania, recalled their ambassadors to protest against the prisoner swap. Algerian media said two of the freed men were Algerian, and the Mauritanian government said one was Mauritanian. [20]

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said in a statement that he was delighted that Camatte had been freed. He said he had thanked Malian President Amadou Toumani Toure for his handling of the crisis and pledged French support in the struggle against terrorism.[21]

On November 29,2009, three Spanish volunteers, two men and a women, (identified as Albert Vilalta, 35, Alicia Gamez, 35, and Roque Pascual, 50) were traveling in Mauritania in a convoy delivering humanitarian aid for the Spanish group Barcelona Accio Solidaria, when they were kidnapped .

AQIM claimed the kidnappings of a Frenchman and three Spaniards, seized in Mali and Mauritania, in an audio tape released on December 16, 2009 by Al-Jazeera television. In the audio tape Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb ( AQIM) spokesman, Saleh Abu Mohammad said:
"Two units of the valiant mujahedeen managed to kidnap four Europeans in two distinct operations,
The first in Mali where Frenchman Pierre Camatte was seized on November 25, and the second in Mauritania where three Spaniards were held on November 29. France and Spain will be informed later of the legitimate demands of the mujahedeen." [22]

On March 12, 2010, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb said in a statement posted on militant websites, that it released a Spanish woman it had held captive for 100 days in Mauritania because she voluntarily converted to Islam. AQIM said it also took into account health reasons in choosing to free Alicia Gamez. "The Spanish woman converted to Islam voluntarily after the mujahidin (fighters) exposed her to Islam and its teachings. She took the name of Aicha," the brief message said. The two male Spanish volunteers still being held captive by AQIM.[23]

On December 18, 2009, an Italian couple was kidnapped in southeastern Mauritania. 65-year-old Nicola Sergio Cicala and his wife, 39-year-old Philomen Kabouree (originally from Burkina Faso). They were kidnapped along the road from Aioun in Mauritania to Kayes in Mali. AQIM claimed responsibility for this kidnapping in two separate messages. The first message appeared on al-Arabiya TV, where a picture of the couple was shown with an audio message. The second message was posted on the Internet, where it clearly stated the kidnapping was linked to the role that Italy had in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and because of its support to the “crusade against Islam” (ANSA, December 31, 2009).[24]

AQIM had demanded in February that Mali's government free imprisoned militants before 1 March in exchange for the couple. Shortly before the deadline expired, Mr Cicala urged Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to intervene in a purported audio message posted on the internet.

In April 2010 , the AQIM freed the couple and Local officials in Mali said Sergio Cicala and Philomene Kaboure were picked up by an army patrol in the eastern Gao region. Italy's foreign minister said they were "in the hands of Malian authorities" and were being taken to a "safe place". In Rome, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said the Italians' release had been the "fruit of intense diplomatic work that led authorities in Mali to take decisive actions to reach this solution". [25]

Criminal and terrorist cooperation in the abductions

The weakness of Sahelian states and the ineffective control of their territory have played a major role in the development of the current situation. Kidnappings have taken place in Tunisia, Mali, Niger and Mauritania, usually through local criminal gangs; hostages have then been moved to northern Mali, where a complex political and security scenario pitting local Tuareg tribes against the central government has allowed various terrorist groups to establish their own bases and training grounds .There are loose agreements between AQIM and a multiplicity of groups operating in the Sahel area :[26]

* The most famous of these is the "Moulathamoun group", headed by Belmokhtar (El Watan, August 1, 2007). Belmokhtar has had several disagreements with AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel and acts in a semi-independent fashion. This uneasy collaboration was behind the kidnapping of the three Spanish aid workers who remained in the hands of al-Moulathamoun (AFP, 11 January 2010).

* The other main group in the area is the " Tareq ibn Ziyad", led by Yahia Abu Amar Abid Hammadou (a.k.a. Abdelhamid Abu Zeid), who created the group in AQIM’s 5th zone of operations (northeastern Algeria) in 2003 and subsequently moved to the Sahel area. Abu Zeid, who is allegedly responsible for the execution of British hostage Edwin Dyer, is also the leader of the Talaia al-Salafiya, Nasr Aflou and Muhajiroun groups.

The "Tareq Ibn Ziyad" branch currently holds kidnapped French national Pierre Camatte. In addition, the Italian couple is in the hands of Abu Yaya Amane, a lieutenant of Yahia Abu Amar who is probably trying to exploit this abduction to mark his own territory in the Sahel region and gain operational independence from the other two groups in the area .


Statistics kept by regional security services for 2007 show that 115 people, mostly businessmen, were abducted by Islamist groups with billions of dinars paid in ransoms.[27] It seems that AQIM is following Al-Qaeda in Iraq's modus operandi, after having imported suicide bombings to Algeria (mostly since the April 11, 2007 attacks), then recruiting teenagers, now AQIM is kidnapping foreign nationals.[28]

AQIM has claimed responsibility for most of the kidnappings across the region over the past few years. In most cases, the jihadists make political demands as well as ransoms that run into millions of dollars. The abductions since 2008 illustrate AQIM’s extended geographical reach (Tunisian, Algeria, Mali Niger). Whether the AQIM presence is direct or indirect, it has significant operational implications.

The number of kidnappings has risen since December 2008 and there are several reasons for this:
* AQIM has intensified its presence in Mauritania, Algeria, Mali,Niger and in the whole Sahel region.

* The weakness of these states and their ineffective control of the area. The security services in Mauritania, Mali and Niger do not have the equipment and the ability to fight in efficient way AQIM and other insurgents and the liberation of hostages by military means is really difficult.

* Most ransoms are paid, although governments rarely admit this is so.

AQIM's growing presence in the Sahel region and the increasing number of abductions of European tourists in Mauritania, Niger, Tunisia and Mali show that a profitable kidnapping industry has led to an increase in terrorism activity in this region. AQIM's activities were previously based along Algeria's Mediterranean coast, but security crackdowns by the Algerian military have forced the group into the largely ungoverned Sahara desert area of Mali, and along Algeria's northern border. Owing to the weakness of these states and their ineffective control of the area, AQIM militants are free to move across borders and to establish their bases in the region. This situation enables AQIM to combine its ideological goals with a series of tactical advantages. AQIM relies on local communities of the Sahara for sanctuary. This lucrative business profits local criminal gangs, which have become almost natural allies of AQIM in the region. [29]

AQIM's flexible structure in the region has led to a win-win situation where a profitable kidnapping network benefits local criminal groups, local AQIM-affiliated groups and the AQIM leadership. In this context, local criminals carry out the abductions and then sell the hostages to AQIM-affiliated groups for a profit; however, the terrorist groups then earn the highest profit, as they bear the highest risk and can extort a ransom from European governments fearful that the failure of negotiations could lead to the death of hostages, as in the Edwin Dyer case (Liberation [Paris], December 9, 2009).[30]

AQIM attacks on foreigners can be expected to grow as western companies increase investment in oil and gas exploration in the region. As long as the European states continue paying the ransom money, AQIM and it's allies in the Sahel will continue with the campaign of kidnappings. Last September, ( 2009), Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika pleaded before the United Nations General Assembly for a ban on paying ransoms to kidnappers, which he said had reached" worrying proportions."[31] Only an international comprehensive campaign that include:
Military operations against the AQIM infrastructure in the region.

Economic and military support to the local " weak" states ( Mauritania, Niger, Mali).

Decision not to surrender to the demands of the terrorist as a strategy.

Can lead in the long term to the reduction of kidnappings in the Sahel region and the defeat of the AQIM.

In April 2010 Four Sahara desert nations: Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger are opening a joint military headquarters to coordinate their efforts against AQIM.

The new joint headquarters will be based in Tamanrasset, in southern Algeria.

The countries will strengthen intelligence cooperation, and plan to move toward joint military operations against terrorism, kidnappings, and the trafficking of drugs and weapons.[32]


[1]Al Qaeda Organization in the Maghreb,Wikipedia.
Algerian group backs al-Qaeda2 BBC News, 23 October 2003
[3]Al Qaeda Organization in the Maghreb,Wikipedia.
[4]Al-Qaida joins Algerians against France", AP, 14 September 2006
[5]Interview of Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud with New York Times, July 2008.
[6] "Call for help from the Islamic Maghreb", published in Alsharq Alawsat.
[7] Olivier Guitta, AQIM new kidnappings strategy, Middle East Times, March 23, 2008.
[8] Staff writers ,Jihadist kidnappers plague North Africa, Algeria, UPI ,January 4, 2009.
[9] Al Qaeda claims slaying of U.S aid worker, CBSNEWS ,June 25, 2009.
[10] Ibid
[11] Hana Rogan, New AQIM abduction cases, Jihadica, February 24 ,2009.
[12] Niger kidnapping: mujahedeen fighters released in exchange for diplomats, Niger Watch, April 29,2009.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Staff writers ,Jihadist kidnappers plague North Africa, Algeria, UPI ,January 4, 2009.
[16] Hana Rogan, New AQIM abduction cases, Jihadica, February 24 ,2009.
[17]Staff writers ,Jihadist kidnappers plague North Africa, Algeria, UPI ,January 4, 2009
[18] Al Jazeera: Al Qaeda claims to have killed American aid worker in Mauritania, June 25, 2009.
[19] Radio France Internationale [RFI], January 11, 2010.
[20] Al Qaeda released Frenchman in prisoners swap, Alertnet, February 23, 2010.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Mark Tran, Three Spanish aid workers kidnapped in Mauritania,, November 30,2009.
[23]:"Spanish hostage converted to Islam'", Cairo (AP),March 12, 2010.
[24] Dario Cristiani, Riccardo Fabiani, AQIM funds terrorist operations with thriving Sahel- based kidnapping industry, Terrorism Monitor, volume 8 issue 4 , January 28, 2009.
[25] Al qaeda frees two Italian hostages in Mali: AFP,April 16,2010.
[26] Dario Cristiani, Riccardo Fabiani, AQIM funds terrorist operations with thriving Sahel- based kidnapping industry, Terrorism Monitor, volume 8 issue 4 , January 28, 2009.
[27] Staff writers ,Jihadist kidnappers plague North Africa, Algeria, UPI ,January 4, 2009.
[28] Olivier Guitta, AQIM new kidnappings strategy, Middle East Times, March 23, 2008.
[29] Dario Cristiani, Riccardo Fabiani, AQIM funds terrorist operations with thriving Sahel- based kidnapping industry, Terrorism Monitor, volume 8 issue 4 , January 28, 2009.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Kidnapping is lucrative for Al Qaeda in North Africa, AFP ,Dakar ,December 1, 2009.
[32] Four Saharan nations established joint anti terror command, VOA, April 21, 2010.