Monday, February 22, 2010

From the BBC today:

Mali has freed four militants from jail weeks after al-Qaeda's North African branch threatened to kill a French hostage if the men were not released.
Wait, what?

Yes, you read it correctly. Today, Mali released 4 militants belonging to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). While Malinese officials swear that they are not caving to the demands of the group, merely releasing people who had done their time, I find that highly unlikely. AQIM has been growing in strength in both Mali and neighboring Mauritania during the past year, and it appears that Malinese officials are taking an appeasing approach to growing Islamic radicalism amongst their people. From Olivier Guetta at the excellent Counter-Terrorism blog:
Mali enjoys a very good reputation around the world. It boasts a vibrant democracy with a multi-party system, a market economy and a tradition of a moderate Islam. But things might be changing: Since 2001, worrying signs have emerged— for example, the proliferation of Osama bin Laden's photo in stalls at the Bamako market and the exponential increase of radio stations preaching radical Islam.
This trend in Mali should be on every CT professionals radar. AQIM is...

...a competent, dangerous group, who appear to have established a safe-haven in the Sahel -- the Saharan region on the Mali-Algerian border (see map above left). AQIM has successfully carbombed the UN office in Algiers, attacked Israeli Embassy in Mauritania with small arms, claimed responsibility for the 2007 suicide bombing of an Algerian army barracks, and dedicated itself to continued IED attacks on energy infrastructure throughout the region. AQIM has targeted Westerners throughout the region for asasination, and has (as seen in this instance) successfully kidnapped Westerners to gain leverage with regional governments.

Furthermore, AQIM seems to be horizontally learning from groups like AQAP, Al Shabaab and Hezbollah -- embarking on a form of counter-COIN: launching a charm offensive in populations that will receive them. According to Guetta, AQIM has:
[begun] distributing antibiotics when children are sick and buying goats for double the going rate — has won the hearts and minds of many locals in the Sahel. AQIM buys off local tribes and forms alliances with them, often through marriage.
Should these efforts prove successful, expect AQIM to begin attempting contact with local Berber minorities in Mali, Mauritania, and Morocco -- as they seek to build logistical support networks to further their hold in the region. AQIM has already begun involving itself in trans-national narcotics, and, through ties of common delinquency, they have embarked on a very successful campaign of kidnapping and assassination.

The Malinese decision to fold to AQIM's demands today sets a worrying precedent, and has rightly drawn harsh criticism from its neighbors. Should the Malinese continue down this pathway, AQIM will continue to carve out its new safe-haven, entrenching itself further even then AQ's Somali or Yemeni affiliates. Should this be successful, we can safely say that we know what comes next. From the US National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC):
AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdal announced ... that suicide bombings will become the group’s main tactic.
Bad play Mali, bad play.

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