An Insight into Jihadist Strategy in the Sahel

The revelation of documents from fleeing jihadists in Mali reveals a centrally-directed attempt to achieve all the old Al-Qa'ida ambitions: to ally with other political movements in order to hijack them.

The discovery of some documents in the abandoned headquarters of the jihadists in Timbuktu has confirmed some of the - still extant - modus operandi of those jihadist leaders who now constitute the effective 'Al-Qa'ida Core' organisation.

The documents, discovered by the Daily Telegraph, have been translated and though most of the haul were of no interest beyond the day-to-day workings of the office of Al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb (AQIM): one key document records a surprisingly bureaucratic gathering of the thirty-third meeting of AQIM's leadership. The acknowledged leader of AQIM, referred to here as 'The Prince' is Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud, a 42 year old Algerian who has revitalised AQIM in the wake of the chaos caused by the Libyan crisis in 2011. In this meeting Wadoud made it clear that while praising Ahmed Jebri of Ansar Dine for its successes in northern Mali, it was nevertheless the intention of AQIM to take control of anything Ansar Dine achieved in Mali.

Usurping Existing Movements

If these documents are genuine, they cast an important light on the latest manifestation of the Al-Qa'ida threat. The meeting to which they refer took place on 16 March - in the middle of the Tuareg rebellion in Northern Mali last year. Al Qa'ida leaders are congratulating Ansar Dine on their guerrilla tactics.  Less than a week after this meeting President TourĂ© was deposed by the Malian army for his ineffectual handling of the crisis. The Tuareg guerrillas and the jihadist Ansar Dine continued to fight together capturing the northern territories and declared independence for a new state of Azawad in April. But Ansar Dine, apparently under instruction, continued to fight to hijack the victory from the Tuareg, which they successfully did in mid-July when they controlled all the cities of northern Mali. 

It was a classic, disciplined hijack of a political movement that harks back to the Al-Qa'ida that Osama bin Laden had created.

From South Asia to the Sahel - A New Zone of Instability

The international terrorist threat has migrated from south Asia and into Yemen, Somalia, northern Nigeria and now across the Sahel. It is one of the unintended consequences of the Libyan crisis of 2011 that Mali has been destabilised by the Tuareg tribesmen who straddle the highland border areas.  What has been happening in Nigeria, Mali, Libya and Algeria has created a new zone of instability in the Sahel region running from West Africa to the shores of the Mediterranean. 

A newly invigorated Al-Qa'ida is trying to exploit this in a strategy that brings it full circle in North Africa. The core of Al-Qa'ida's foundation in the 1990s was based around the close associates of Osama bin Laden, who was a Saudi, and Ayman Al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian. Most of their early supporters were North Africans, Egyptians or Sudanese - very few at that time came from elsewhere.

In the early 1990s when Al-Qa'ida was a shadowy presence, the original jihadist target was Algeria where they fought a vicious civil war with the autocratic military regime who had overturned an Islamist election victory in 1991. 

Those early ambitions of Al-Qa'ida fighters all lay in North Africa, Sudan or Egypt and it was a second-best option for them to accept the hospitality of the Taliban government in Afghanistan when they were thrown out of Sudan, to have to run their campaign from South Asia. They were the 'Afghan Arabs' who were tolerated but never accepted by their Pashtun and Asian allies.

They effectively hijacked the Afghan government in 2001. Indeed there is convincing evidence that Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was set to have bin Laden assassinated to reverse this process, but then had no choice but to defend him after the 9/11 atrocity.

What these documents show us is a centrally-directed attempt to achieve all the old Al Qa'ida ambitions; to ally with other political movements in order to hijack them; to fight heroic guerrilla wars for disputed territory, and to build up a new Caliphate that will extend across the Middle East and far beyond. They are aims which are as old fashioned as they are chilling.


Professor Michael Clarke

Distinguished Fellow

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