Splintering Militant Groups Complicate Mali Conflict

Posted: 25th January 2013

Like many of you, we’ve kept a close eye on Mali and the related attack on the Amenas oil facility in Algeria, and the conflict is only getting more complicated as militant factions continue to splinter. You may have seen our monitoring on Mali set up earlier this month, and this post will expand on those initial observations by looking for early signals of the conflict in Mali spilling into and being closely intertwined with known entities in Algeria.

Let’s start with a look at Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Salafi-jihadist militant group and U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization operating in North Africa, activities in Mali. The group traces its provenance back to Algeria’s civil war and became an al-Qaeda affiliate with broader regional and international ambitions in 2006. Communication between AQIM and al-Qaeda was separately verified by documents captured in the raid on Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad. Below is a timeline of commentary on the organization’s activities in Mali during the run up to and while the recent hostage crisis took place.

Some interesting points occur in the lead up to the attack on Amenas. A few choice notes:

  • On September 26, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb and other groups have launched attacks and kidnappings from northern Mali into neighboring countries.”
  • On November 19, Moussa Ag Assarid, spokesperson for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) said the secular Tuareg rebels who came from Timbuktu, are fighting the Islamists of MUJAO in Menaka, Mali, as well as reinforcements from al-Qaeda, in the Islamist Maghreb.
  • On December 3, Mokhtar Belmoktar announced his split from AQIM to create a movement spanning the entire Sahara desert, said one of his close associates and a local official who had been briefed on the matter on Monday.

Seeing some of these precursors to the French intervention and subsequent attacks on Amenas, we’ll want to rewind the clock a bit and see what connections to AQIM were being called out prior to the refinery attack.

One of the highlights out of the network, given the mention Qaeda reinforcements making their way into the region, is an event in Tunisia. On December 21, Tunisia’s Interior Minister, Ali Laarayedh, announced the arrest of 16 members of a terrorist cell affiliated with AQIM called “The Militia of Uqba Ibn Nafaa in Tunisia.” The cell reportedly attended “a training camp run by three Algerians close to AQIM leader [Abdelmalek Droukdel].” Laarayedh added that the cell’s members were sent to AQIM camps in Algeria and Libya for training. Three Libyans were reportedly among the arrested.

This brings us to one of the most controversial storylines to emerge out of the hostage crisis is that of ties between AQIM and Algeria’s intelligence operation Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS). Our interest in the AQIM-DRS connections include claims of a relationship between the Algerian intelligence agency with former AQIM leader Mokhtar Belmoktar.

How does this link with the arrest in Tunisia of Libyans training in Algeria? In March 2012, it was reported that Belmoktar, an Algerian operating in Mali, was in Libya buying up weapons. The below timeline outlines claims from various media outlets of relationships between AQIM and DRS:

There are reports on the relationship dating back several years. This write up from Al Jazeera back in November 2010 highlights links, the same publication wrote of DRS arming AQIM, and All Africa writes further:

In September 2006, the nondescript GSPC, with the help of the DRS and US intelligence agencies, internationalised itself by adopting the Al Qaeda brand and renaming itself as AQIM.

That’s not necessarily unequivocal evidence, but it is interesting that allegations of a relationship seem to really tail off in early 2012 when northern Mali fell under militant control. This write up from World Politics Review details the security challenges related to AQIM that emerged at that time:

One source of tension was over ownership of the AQIM problem. In spite of its expansion outside Algeria, AQIM remained an Algerian-led organization for which Algerian targets remained a high priority. As a result, Mauritania, Mali and Niger believed that Algeria could be doing more to pull its weight. Conversely, Algeria believed that Mali and Niger were particularly weak links in the regional strategy to counter AQIM activity, and that these countries allowed the group free rein to launch operations from their territories. There has also been an element of mistrust among regional states that local government and military authorities are at a minimum complicit (.pdf) in the illicit economic activity that pervades the region, and that they might compromise (.pdf) shared intelligence on AQIM operations.

One more angle to consider in analyzing the build up to the French intervention and hostage crisis is the military activity in Mali and Algeria prior to the events.

A few interesting events of note aside from the well known UN deliberations on intervention and the deployment of African led forces:

  • December 10, 2012: A Tunisian policeman was killed during clashes with suspected Islamist fighters near the border with Algeria.
  • December 22, 2012: Large exercises took place in the desert with the Algerian army is preparing for a broad confrontation with al-Qaeda.

Taking a look at the information surfaced in the open source, what do you think about claims of a relationship between DRS and AQIM? Is that irrelevant at this point given the state of the conflict and potential impact of further spillover into Algeria? Is the instability and cache of weapons contained in Libya going to further fuel the fire in Mali? You can follow the reports of conflict in Mali and Algeria using Recorded Future, and we’d be interested to hear your comments on the situation in the comments.