Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 08/2011

The Evolving Threat of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Andre Le Sage

July 2011

Institute for National Strategic Studies


Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) poses the greatest immediate threat of transnational terrorism in northwest Africa and is escalating its attacks against regional and Western interests. Since 2007, the group has professed its loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s senior leadership and claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks in the sub-region. These attacks have included the use of suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, kidnapping operations, and assassinations. AQIM’s targets include African civilians, government officials, and security services; United Nations (UN) diplomats and Western embassies; and tourists, aid workers, and private sector contractors. As a result, combating AQIM is the focus of substantial foreign security assistance provided by Western countries, including the United States and France, to their partner nations in the Maghreb and Sahel. In 2005, the United States created the Trans-Sahara Counter-terrorism Partnership (TSCTP) to coordinate activities by the Department of State, Department of Defense (DOD), and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat terrorism in the region. Now including 10 African countries,3 TSCTP operates with a combined annual interagency budget of approximately $120 million. At present, the threat posed by AQIM may appear manageable, particularly to policymakers concerned that additional U.S. involvement in the region may exacerbate Islamist militancy and increase regional tensions. However, as described above, events on the ground in northwest Africa indicate a serious potential that the threat posed by AQIM will continue to grow. In this context, the United States needs to be prepared to take more aggressive actions to disrupt, degrade, and ultimately defeat AQIM and should clearly determine in advance what level of increased AQIM activity would represent a direct threat to U.S. national security interests.