Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 07/2010

Could Al-Qaeda Turn African in the Sahel?

Jean-Pierre Filiu

June 2010

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Since its founding in January 2007, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has continued the jihadi fi ght begun by its predecessor, the Salafi st Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), against the Algerian government. Algeria’s ability to contain the jihadis has forced AQIM to develop networks in the Sahara and to cooperate with smuggling rings there. Its mobile commandos, already active in Mauritania, now represent a serious security threat in northern parts of Mali and Niger, where they have abducted Westerners and frequently clashed with government forces. Osama bin Laden appears to have no grand plans for Africa. But the Algerian-run AQIM could help al-Qaeda central incorporate a new generation of recruits from the Sahel. This jihadi progression south of the Sahara is limited, but troublesome, especially given a recent offer by AQIM’s leader to train Muslim militias in Nigeria. However, the ethno-racial divide within al-Qaeda has kept African recruits out of leadership roles. AQIM cannot prove its commitment to “Africanized” jihad without Africanizing at least some of its leadership. Also, AQIM has partnered throughout the Sahel with criminals, not local salafi movements, limiting its appeal and preventing it from becoming a revolutionary challenger. This does not mean deterring AQIM will be easy: Mauritania, Mali, and Niger are among the world’s poorest states and will require international support to defuse AQIM’s momentum. Algeria is right to push for regional cooperation to address the threat, and discreet aid from the West is crucial to help the Sahel countries regain control of their territory from al-Qaeda forces and prevent the terror group from taking hold in Africa.