Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, had high hopes for the African Islamist group that held Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay captive for months before releasing them along with two tourists last week. Earlier this decade, violent Islamism was floundering in North Africa. Government crackdowns and amnesty programs in Algeria had weakened the once-powerful Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an offshoot of the Armed Islamic Group, whose murder of civilians had already dried up much of its popular support.
And so, like a struggling independent business looking for ways to stay afloat, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat sought out the patronage of a wealthier and more powerful terrorist conglomerate: al-Qaeda. The first messages seeking an alliance were sent to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al-Qaeda's deputy in Iraq. This was a natural partnership, as hundreds of North African Islamists were already joining the jihad against American forces there. In June 2005, U.S. Central Command claimed that up to 25 per cent of suicide bombers in Iraq were North Africans, mostly Algerians. But the North African Islamists in the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat were also looking to partner with al-Qaeda's central branch, headed by bin Laden and likely located in Pakistan.
In June 2006, an Islamist strategist named Azzam al-Ansari"”who has been identified by a confidential source with connections to American intelligence agencies as a Saudi national and al-Qaeda affiliate who spent time in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation"”published an online article describing Africa as an "unexplored gold mine for global jihad."� A few months later, on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Zawahiri announced the formal alliance of al-Qaeda and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat. He prayed that the North African group, which soon adopted the name al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would be a "thorn in the neck of the American and French crusaders and their allies, and an arrow in the heart of the French traitors and apostates."� Zawahiri also asked God to help his North African allies "hit the foundations of the crusader alliance, primarily their old leader, the infidel United States."�
For a time, it appeared as though al-Qaeda's newest franchise, which operates in half a dozen countries across the vast, sparsely populated and poorly governed Sahel region of North Africa, would live up to Zawahiri's expectations. Members expanded their attention to international targets, murdering French tourists in Mauritania and bombing a United Nations building in Algiers. In early 2008, AQIM attacked the Israeli Embassy in Nouakchott, capital of Mauritania"”all this in addition to ongoing assaults against Algerian government and military targets.
The group's public pronouncements also took on the themes and rhetorical flourishes of international jihad, most notably as AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud pledged his loyalty to Osama bin Laden. "Our beloved sheik and commander, only God knows how much we miss you, and how hard it is for us to be far from you,"� he said in a January 2007 speech that was distributed on the Internet. "In the name of God, if we could be carried by birds, we would come to you. We remember you in our hearts and visualize you in our minds. We ask God to reunite us, after missing you for so long."� He went on in this vein for some time.
Western intelligence agencies were duly concerned. The Armed Islamic Group had carried out a number of bombings and an attempted hijacking in France during the 1990s. The Madrid bombings of March 2004 were executed largely by Moroccan immigrants, including at least one member of the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group. Now, North African Islamists were gathering under the umbrella of an al-Qaeda franchise with an explicitly international agenda. "There is no doubt that the extension of what one might call the al-Qaeda franchise to other groups in other countries"”notably in Algeria"”has created a significant upsurge in terrorist violence in these countries,"� said Jonathan Evans, director general of MI5, Britain's domestic security service, in a November 2007 address to journalists. "This sort of extension of the al-Qaeda brand to new parts of the Middle East and beyond poses a further threat to us in this country because it provides al-Qaeda with access to new centres of support, which it can motivate and exploit, including in its campaign against the U.K."�
But for all their professed solidarity with jihadist insurgents from Iraq to Chechnya, AQIM militants of late have appeared more like members of a desert biker gang than vanguard holy warriors poised to restore an Islamic caliphate across the Middle East. They are deeply involved in smuggling, credit-card fraud, and car theft. Kidnapping of foreigners is also a priority. Fowler and Guay might have been their most high-profile victims, but there have been many more. At least two European tourists taken by AQIM are still captive.
Kidnapping foreigners arguably advances AQIM's Islamist political aims by driving out foreign investment and thereby weakening the supposedly apostate governments the group is hoping to overthrow in the region. But money appears to be a prime motivator behind the practice. Most AQIM kidnappings of foreigners end with large ransoms being paid and released captives, rather than in gruesome beheadings that are filmed and then posted on the Internet, as was often the case in Iraq.
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