- - Tuesday, November 27, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

AL-QAEDA IN THE ISLAMIC MAGHREB: SHADOW OF TERROR OVER THE SAHEL, FROM 2007

By Al J. Venter

Pen & Sword, $22.95, 128 pages

In early October 2017 armed militants from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), an African affiliate of the Islamic State in Syria, ambushed Nigerien and U.S. soldiers near the village of Tongo Tongo, Niger, while they were returning to their base from what later was reported to be a covert mission.

Five Nigeriens, four American Special Forces soldiers, and an estimated 21 ISGS militants were killed and eight Nigeriens and two Americans were wounded. The Nigerien and U.S. Special Forces soldiers were reportedly participating in a mission to collect information on the whereabouts of (and possibly assassinate) Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the ISGS. The U.S. Special Forces personnel in Niger were also part of a larger American force to support France in its counterterrorism campaign in Northern Mali against the insurgency by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

While the deadly ambush of the U.S. Special Forces soldiers in Niger’s lawless countryside generated media headlines, relatively little is published about the festering and escalating AQIM insurgency in neighboring Mali — which is part of the largely francophonic region of West Africa — and the French government’s role in militarily supporting the Malian government in fighting the AQIM insurgency. Al Venter’s “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” is an important account by a veteran British journalist of this little known but significant AQIM insurgency in Mali and the French military’s counterinsurgency measures to defeat it and prevent what the author describes as the catastrophe of “becoming a ‘Failed State.’”

The book also discusses an earlier insurgency by the ethnic Tuareg people in Mali, which began in 2007, but its localized nature would have represented merely “another trouble spot.” AQIM’s insurgency in Mali, on the other hand, occurring in a country that is the fourth biggest producer of gold in Africa, would have meant the takeover of the country by an African equivalent of the Taliban, thereby ensconcing in much of West Africa a brutal jihadist-inspired theocracy, and a massive outflow of refugees in a region that is only a few hours’ flying time to the south of Europe.

What is the nature of AQIM’s insurgency? Like their Islamic State counterparts, the author writes that it engages in “an uncompromising and often ruthless approach” toward those who do not support the notion of their “new Islamic Command,” and their intent is to plunge their country “headlong back into the Middle Ages.”

To achieve their objectives, they employ guerrilla warfare and terrorist suicide bombers to detonate their explosive belts at public gatherings, as well as kidnapping foreigners for “five- or six-figure” ransoms in what has become an extremely lucrative business. It was even reported that it had dabbled in biological warfare, “with some evidence that linked AQIM to an outbreak of bubonic plague at one of their training camps in the Algerian outback.”

AQIM’s most notorious operation occurred in January 2013, when its operatives attacked a neighboring Algerian gas installation at Tigantourine, a distance of about 1200 miles from its base of operations in northern Mali. To the author, this signified the group’s great “mobility and extent of influence.” Led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, known as the “Red Beard,” the terrorists murdered 39 of the facility’s foreign workers, while taking 800 hostages. Belmokhtar, who had escaped from the scene, has reportedly continued to evade capture by his counterterrorism pursuers.

This catastrophic attack caused France to intervene militarily in Mali (with its government’s consent), launching Operation Serval in January 2013, which lasted 18 months, and which was consolidated into a larger Operation Barkhane in early August 2014, and numbering some 3,000 troops. Fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, also known as drones) were employed, as well.

The French intervention was successful, as the author explains that “After roughly ten weeks in the field the French had seven of their men killed in action; the enemy lost something like half of their estimated strength of about 2,000 fighters, perhaps considerably more.” Eventually, a United Nations multinational peacekeeping mission was deployed in Mali in early July 2013.

The author concludes that had the French not intervened militarily, Mali would have become a “Taliban state on Europe’s doorstep.” At the same time, however, he cautions that this “does not suggest they [i.e., AQIM] are vanquished: far from it, because [such a group] needs only a small number of committed and active jihadists for terror attacks to continue.”

Tragically for Mali, by 2018, due to a number of factors, such as its weak and ineffectual government, and its role as a trade route to transport consumer goods south and illicit drugs and illegal migrants north to Europe, the author cites a BBC report that the war had returned to northern Mali, with the desert area becoming “arguably more unstable now than at any time since the French intervention in 2013 and the deployment of UN peacekeepers later that year.”

Numerous photographs illustrate this short book’s text, which reads like a dramatic documentary.

• Joshua Sinai is a senior analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH), in Alexandria, Va.


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