Sixteen months after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda has achieved an impressive resurgence. Its “eastern strategy” of using Afghanistan and Iraq as springboards to expand in a southwesterly direction has been supplanted by a “southern strategy” of moving from the African Sahel through the Maghreb in a northeasterly direction. Key political assets in North Africa, largely overlooked in the West but well-known to North African intelligence and security officials we have interviewed, are poised to aid and abet this process. Fortunately, options are available to counter Al Qaeda’s campaign.
Al Qaeda is a Sunni jihadist movement claiming to draw inspiration from seventh-century Islamic history. But its current approach, ironically, resembles that of a Shia organization from tenth-century Islamic history. The Shia “Fatimid” movement, headquartered in what is now Iraq, determined that most urban areas were too tightly controlled by their enemies to serve as operational bases. So they dispatched emissaries far to the southwest and forged alliances with non-Arab ethnics in rural areas—while exploiting weak governments in many provinces in between. A Berber army in what is now Tunisia made its way up through the capital Qayrawan and ultimately conquered Egypt, where the Fatimid empire ruled from Cairo for approximately one hundred years.
Working at first in partnership with non-Arab Touareg Muslims in Mali earlier this year, the pro-Al Qaeda organization Ansar Dine has managed to conquer three hundred thousand miles of north Malian territory and establish a Taliban-like Islamic state of its own. Meanwhile, in the broader African Sahel region and southern edge of the Maghreb, the movement has achieved enormous strategic depth: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a nimble organization largely composed of Algerian Kabyle and Saharans, enjoys footholds in the Western Sahara, Niger, Chad and now Libya. A senior Moroccan intelligence official notes that since last year’s overthrow of Qaddafi, several AQIM leaders have moved into Libya and established a partnership with local jihadists. The latter elements have assisted AQIM in acquiring a massive amount of weapons belonging to the former Libyan regime.
Additionally, over the past decade, AQIM has benefited from rogue elements of the Saharan “Polisario” movement, an Algeria-backed separatist group laying claim to half the map of Morocco, in the acquisition of weapons and training. The Algerian government, though urged by the United States to fight AQIM and supported with American resources to do so, appears to have done little to address the problem.
These achievements by Al Qaeda conform to its familiar pattern of exploiting failed states (remember Somalia) and areas of weak central government (parts of Iraq) as areas of operation.
But moving north into Tunisia, Al Qaeda has found that even a comparatively stable, post-Arab Spring country can have provincial and outlying urban pockets in which the movement can act politically and militarily. Thus in April 2011, Al Qaeda supported the establishment of “Ansar al-Sharia” by Islamist convicts who fled Tunisian prisons after the fall of Ben Ali. The movement today controls more than four hundred Tunisian mosques, primarily outside the capital in areas like Bizerte, Sfax, Sidi Bouzid, and Jendouba. The group has also won more than forty-two thousand “fans” on Facebook.