France Kills Al-Qaeda’s Man in North Africa

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on 11 June 2020

France announced last Friday that its forces in Mali had killed Abd al-Malek Drukdel (Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud), the emir of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which covers the North Africa and Sahel areas. Paris has sometimes been unreliable on these matters, but the United States independently confirmed Drukdel was gone, as have sources within AQIM. The French also announced that on 19 May they had arrested Mohamed Mrabat, a veteran jihadist and member of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS).

DRUKDEL’s DEMISE

Abd al-Malek Drukdel, last video, March 2020 [image source]

Drukdel was killed on 3 June in Talhandak in north-east Mali, close to the Algerian border. At 50-years-old, Drukdel had been in charge of AQIM for a quarter of his life, one of Al-Qaeda’s longest-serving leaders. It seems Drukdel, who had just recently arrived from Algeria, was not identified by DNA, though French special forces—who had acted with the assistance of U.S. signals intelligence (SIGINT)—used a number of other identifiers that leave them confident they have their man, plus several other senior AQIM officials who have yet to be identified. It remains unclear what tempted—or forced—Drukdel leave the relative safety of his native Algeria. One suggestion is that Drukdel was heading to negotiations with or about Mali and by extension or by proxy with France; by the nature of such things, it is very difficult to get at any credible information, and such an explanation would raise nearly as many questions as it answered.

THE ALGERIAN ROOTS

Drukdel was born on 20 April 1970 in Meftah, a small town on the Algerian coast. It is Algeria that looms largest in AQIM’s DNA, the group having evolved from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), a jihadist formation that came to dominate the insurgency against Algeria’s Soviet-model regime in the 1990s.

Protests-cum-riots in Algiers in October 1988 resulted in hundreds of people being killed by the security forces, and it was conceded that the National Liberation Front (FLN) dictatorship would submit to an election. The nucleus of an armed Islamist movement began to take shape after the regime again massacred protesters in May-June 1991 and arrested Abbasi Madani and Ali Belhaj, two principal leaders of the main opposition party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

There was already a wing of the Algerian Islamists that did not believe in democracy and the June events convinced them that they jihad was the only path to power.[1] Such forces were buttressed by the returning “Arab Afghans”, who had, in their view, driven the Soviet Union from Afghanistan to defeat and collapse. Drukdel had been in Afghanistan to do jihad against the Red Army, and it appears he remained in the country in the aftermath to participate in the civil wars—first between the Mujahideen and the Communist government, then between the Mujahideen commanders. Drukdel thus came back to Algeria later than the other Arab-Afghans and missed, among other things, some of the intra-jihadi fighting (see below).

By the time the Algerian military cancelled an ongoing election in January 1992, when it became clear the FIS was going to win, and the popular rage spilled into an armed revolt, the Islamists were, because of their own organisation and the regime’s “strategy of tension”, well-placed to dominate it. The FIS, which had so long fought to marginalise the militant tendency in its own camp, was now thrust into a war it couldn’t avoid. FIS tried, in September 1992, to gather the various insurgent groups that had proliferated over the prior six months under its banner and command structure, headed by Abdelkader Chebouti. This was thwarted by the regime, whose security squads killed a number of the participants at the meeting in Tamesguida.

The disruption of the Tamesguida meeting derailed insurgent unification efforts because it convinced each of the groups—correctly—that there was infiltration in their ranks by the Algerian secret police, the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS). This capacity of the DRS, an intelligence service trained by the Soviet KGB, to keep the insurgency divided and to push it in self-destructive directions would become ever-more pronounced as the war went on.

In this indirect sense, at least, DRS can be said to have founded the GIA. One of the splinters that DRS scattered at Tamesguida was led by Abdelhak Layada (Abu Adlane), who joined with several other groups and announced the GIA in October 1992, rejecting Chebouti’s authority, which he had been preparing to accept a month earlier. While GIA can thus be said to have emerged out of “personal rivalries and ambitions”, as Michael Willis writes in The Islamist Challenge in Algeria: A Political History, it “swiftly developed” into something else entirely, moving in directions “in terms of ideology and strategy” that Layada never predicted and indeed regrets.

Willis explains that GIA took on Umar al-Ulaymi as its “spiritual guide” and almost immediately he expanded the category of “legitimate” targets, with a series of assassinations of junior, civilian government officials, whereas the Islamist guerrillas had to that point focused on the security forces and the senior decision-makers. Al-Ulaymi was killed in April 1993, and Layada arrested four months later in Morocco.

What followed, from mid-1993 up to September 1994, was period of turbulence at the top of GIA, though GIA was able to convince the other armed Islamists to accept its leadership of the insurgency in May 1994. As Willis puts it, GIA was, in structure, a “flexible federation of at least four ideologically similar but distinct groups operating in different regions”, and with Layda and Al-Ulaymi out of the way, the two most charismatic and powerful figures, this left the group wide open to manipulation. It is very noticeable that in this period the GIA’s radicalism intensified. Willis notes that GIA started to license the murder of those who “fight against Islamism through the pen”, leading to the assassination of journalists and writers, all of whom, one couldn’t help notice, were important, credible, peaceful critics of the Algerian regime. The GIA also began attacks on the foreign communities in Algeria, a politically devastating thing for the opposition since they needed European, specifically French, acquiescence, if the rebellion was going to be able to force serious change on the FLN regime.

In September 1994, Djamel Zitouni, a known DRS officer who had supposedly seen the light and come over to the Islamist side as the revolt got underway, took over GIA. There is every reason to doubt that Zitouni ever left the service of DRS. That the possibility of such a thing sounds like a conspiracy theory to most underscores how bizarrely underdiscussed the manipulation of terrorist groups by intelligence services remains, even in an era such as ours, where terrorism is so central a concern.[2]

In December 1994, Air France Flight 8969 was hijacked and GIA networks under the control of DRS carried out a series of bombings in France from July to October 1995, ensuring that Paris’ tentative peace processing attempts to bring about a compromise in Algeria were dropped in favour of all-out support for the Algerian regime. The GIA was simultaneously administering a fatal wound to the insurgency by attacking the FIS, and by the middle of 1996 had lost support from Al-Qaeda affiliates and clerics.[3]

Zitouni was cut down and replaced by Antar Zouabri in July 1996. All of the prior trends intensified and a year later the gates of hell truly opened. The GIA released a statement in the summer of 1997 saying that all Algerians who had not joined it were “kuffar, apostates, and hypocrites” and as such should be killed. Entire villages were eradicated; men and women were butchered with chainsaws and burned alive. In late August and September 1997, GIA murdered 600 people in three massacres—in Rais, Sidi Youssef, and Bentalha, the latter being particularly traumatic, with 400 people slaughtered.

The most benign interpretation is that the state security forces hung back and let these atrocities happen. It was impossible not to notice, even at the time, that “the massacres had taken place close to army barracks”, yet the state had not intervened. It is also quite possible the killer squads were DRS operatives in Islamist garb, as happened many times during Algeria’s terrible war. A defector from the DRS, Lt. Col. Mohamed Samraoui, would later explain: “During the massacres, the inhabitants of the first houses were deliberately spared to enable survivors say they recognised the Islamists.”

Whatever the specifics, at the cost of 200,000 lives, the Algerian junta’s ruthless cynicism worked. The GIA haemorrhaged support as the population flocked into the arms of the state for protection. Even the FIS looked to the state for shelter, announcing a unilateral ceasefire in July 1997. Usama bin Laden, who had donated about $40,000 to the Algerian jihadists as seed money to build their insurgent infrastructure, withdrew his support of GIA in late 1997, repulsed by its murderous conduct and the open secret of its penetration by DRS.

Al-Qaeda then encouraged a breakaway faction, which came together in May 1998 around GIA commander Hassan Hattab and announced itself in September 1998 as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). By then it was too late for the insurgency; it had been broken and discredited. The most GSPC could do was continue a low-intensity war with the state and put some political distance between Al-Qaeda and the total mayhem of GIA.

When Zouabri was killed on 8 February 2002, GIA was an irrelevance, militarily and politically, though it served as a useful marker for the Algerian regime as it set about shifting the national narrative to a “post-war” normalcy.

THE RISE OF DRUKDEL AND MERGING WITH AL-QAEDA

There was never much doubt about what GSPC was. About two months after replacing Hattab, Nabil Sahraoui declared in public in October 2003 that GSPC “fully support[ed] Usama bin Laden’s jihad against the heretic America”. Sahraoui was killed in June 2004, and Drukdel succeeded him in September of that year. In September 2006, Al-Qaeda’s then-deputy (now leader) Ayman al-Zawahiri embraced GSPC and in January 2007 the group was reflagged as AQIM.

Drukdel is believed to have taken Ahmad al-Khalayleh, the infamous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of the Islamic State (IS) movement, as an inspiration, and in the formation of AQIM it shows. Zarqawi had given his bay’a (oath of allegiance) to Bin Laden in October 2004; it was accepted in December 2004, and so began the “franchise” model of Al-Qaeda. AQIM was next, then the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and later Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM). Indeed, according to Drukdel in an interview with The New York Times in mid-2008, Zarqawi directly assisted in “the joining operation” between GSPC and Al-Qaeda Central (AQC).

According to U.S. Treasury sanctions, another man who “participated in the formation” of AQIM was Abdurrahman Salim (Yunis al-Mauritani). By Treasury’s account, Salim had been a member of GSPC since 2001 and “served as a communications link” to AQC, before travelling direct to meet with AQC in Pakistan to “forge” AQIM. By 2009, Salim was providing “weapons and explosives training … in Mali”.

Though GSPC had been escalating its terror attacks in Algeria through the autumn of 2006, AQIM made its formal terrorism debut on 11 April 2007 with twin bombings in Algiers, against the main government building and a police station, which killed two-dozen people, the most lethal terrorist attack in Algeria in years.

Drukdel was added to the United Nations terrorist sanctions list in August 2007. After double suicide bombing in September 2007 that nearly killed Algeria’s ruler, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the U.S. added Drukdel to the terrorism sanctions list. A week after the designation, on 11 December 2007, two car bombs in Algiers massacred fifty-plus people.

Drukdel, an engineer and explosives expert, a long-time bomb-maker for GSPC, is “credited” with bringing suicide attacks to Algeria in this period.

Attacks of this nature continued, with an especially gruesome attack on 19 August 2008 that murdered over-forty people at the Algerian military academy training school in Boumerdes province.

In March 2012, the Algerian despotism sentenced Drukdel and eight co-defendants to death on terrorism charges, specifically related to the April 2007 attack in Algiers.

BEYOND ALGERIA: BUILDING A REGIONAL MENACE

From 2009, under Drukdel’s leadership, AQIM underwent a “Sahelization”, beginning with the formation of a “Sahara emirate” under the leadership of Mokhtar Belmokhtar (Abu Khaled), about whom more in due course. AQIM’s cadres married into Sahelian communities and tribes, embedding themselves in the social and economic life of areas that were under-governed or otherwise neglected, providing needed services and security, while exploiting the porous borders that the region’s weak states—like Mauritania, Mali, and Niger (along Algeria’s southern border)—left untended.

Drukdel was involved in the deliberations within Al-Qaeda in 2010 about a truce with the Mauritanian government. The proposal, which was to be kept secret, was for a one-year deal that could be renewed under which AQIM would refrain from terrorism and kidnaping in Mauritania, and in exchange Nouakchott would pay up to 20 million euros to compensate this gap in revenue from ransom payments, while agreeing to release all jihadist prisoners and “not carry out any hostile attack against the brothers”. This would allow Al-Qaeda’s forces to focus on Algeria. There is no documentary evidence the deal was consummated, and the Mauritanian government denies that any such negotiations took place. But the circumstantial evidence is suggestive. As Reuters reported in 2016, Mauritania had freed jihadist prisoners, indeed it had “faced international criticism” for doing so, while “others have escaped in opaque circumstances”, and “Mauritania has enjoyed relative freedom from AQIM attacks …, especially since 2011”.

In late May 2010,[4] Bin Laden sent a letter to Jamal al-Misrati (Atiyya), appointing him day-to-day manager of Al-Qaeda, and instructing him to appoint Abdurrahman Salim, a Saudi deliberately given a kunya (“Yunis al-Mauritani”) that “does not divulge his nationality”, as the official “responsible for external work in Africa and west Asia”. Salim remained in the role until he was arrested in Quetta in September 2011 by a Pakistani military-intelligence establishment desperately trying to recover credibility after Bin Laden was found in a massive compound a stone’s throw from their installation in Abbottabad.[5]

The letter gives a fascinating glimpse of how Bin Laden managed his affiliates. Plucked from his role training AQIM members with AK-47s and RPGs in Mali, Salim was in some ways made more powerful than Drukdel, not just as AQIM-AQAP coordinator, but as head of “external operations” (foreign terrorism). Bin Laden said that Salim should encourage Drukdel to communicate with the then-AQAP emir, Nasr al-Wuhayshi, who would later become Al-Zawahiri’s deputy, that Salim should find a “secure method of communications and coordination” between the two regional leaders and between them and Salim, and to “hint to the brothers in [AQIM] that they provide [Salim] with the financial support that he might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros”. Bin Laden went on to stress the absolute secrecy of Salim’s new role in coordinating the regional branches of Al-Qaeda, even within the organisation, and the “importance” that AQAP—at that time the most active Al-Qaeda affiliate when it came in foreign terrorism—be made to understand that it was to coordinate all such operations, even those “within the territorial waters of the [Arabian] peninsula”, with Atiyya, i.e. AQC.

One of the last things Bin Laden was doing was considering a name change for Al-Qaeda after the IS movement in Iraq had sullied it with atrocities of a kind even Al-Qaeda found repulsive. This process went nowhere, but it did set in place a strategy of trying to hide Al-Qaeda’s hand while the network rebuilt and re-gained popular support. An official with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, a prototype of this new approach, albeit one that was actually an Islamic State front in origin, once explained this strategy: “We would show our values, deal with people well, and then after a while we’d tell them, ‘The Al-Qaeda that was smeared in the media? This is it. We are it. What do you think of us [now]’” Al-Shabab had been under Bin Laden’s command structure since late 2009, but only publicly swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda in February 2012.[6]

Sayfallah Ben Hassine (Abu Iyad al-Tunisi), the leader of Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia (AST) while it operated from 2011 to 2013, was a member of AQIM’s shari’a committee and a subordinate of Drukdel’s, though as Aaron Zelin explains in his new book, Your Sons Are at Your Service, that relationship was a lot more iterative and complex over time. Simultaneously, AQIM’s tentacles extended into Libya, with its branch of Ansar al-Shari’a (ASL) and later supporting groups like the Majlis Shura Thuwar Benghazi (Benghazi Revolutionaries’ Consultative Council) and the Benghazi Defence Brigades.

Bin Laden’s letters show the remarkable extent to which he was managing, even micro-managing, his franchise right down to the end. On 3 December 2010, Bin Laden wrote to Atiyya to instruct AQIM how to handle hostage negotiations for five Frenchmen,[7] not to spread itself too thin, and to prioritise targets—the Americans, then the French, “currently the head of Europe”, specifically their Embassies and “commercial interests”. Bin Laden then says that AQIM and Al-Shabab, at this point still a secret branch of Al-Qaeda, should avoid Muslim casualties and even “be careful not to injure non-targeted Crusaders and idolaters”, while working “patient[ly]” with local jihadist groups and “approaching them [in a] good natured [way]” in order “to obtain pledges and oaths of allegiance from those who support their jihad and establishment of a caliphate” where possible.

MALI AND THE FRENCH INTERVENTION

By the beginning of 2012, AQIM was “flush with cash” from inter alia hostage ransoms and had been able to fortify itself with training and weapons from bases in southern Libya and elsewhere. A coup in Mali on 21 March 2012, partly triggered by a rebellion in the northern Azawad region by the Tuareg ethnic group and accelerating that rebellion, provided an opening for AQIM. In addition to the security vacuum was the ideological priming: within Mali, a Salafist/Wahhabist movement had been built, furthered by nominally apolitical groups like the Tablighi Jamaat. With these conditions, the secessionists were soon overtaken by a jihadist group, Ansar Dine, which denied any connection to Al-Qaeda but at a minimum worked in close coordination with AQIM, if it was not an outright front-group. In April 2012, an AQIM splinter, the Movement for Unity/Monotheism and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA or MUJAO), joined Ansar Dine and occupied the city of Gao for the next eight months. Ansar Dine held Timbuktu, Kidal, and other towns. In all, the jihadists held an area the size of Texas in Mali. In November 2012, Ansar Dine and MUJWA were brought openly under AQIM’s leadership.

France launched Operation SERVAL on 11 January 2013 to retake northern Mali from the jihadists. Timbuktu and Kidal were liberated by the end of January, and Gao a week after that. The French mission was renamed in July 2014 as Operation BARKHANE, with a mandate to suppress Islamist terrorism in the Sahel—in this case covering Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. France has over 5,000 troops in theatre to this day for the BARKHANE mission.

Drukdel was based in northern Algeria during the Mali crisis and stayed silent during the French intervention. When Drukdel finally spoke on 17 March 2013, it was not a confidence-inspiring occasion for the jihadists. Drukdel’s message to Muslims in North Africa, particularly Tunisia where the confrontation was coming to a head that would see the jihadists banished from the state a few months later, was that they should join the jihad locally, rather than going to Syria and Iraq to join IS, whose status within the jihadi universe was at this point still ambiguous; most people understood IS to be a branch of Al-Qaeda. Drukdel’s call went largely unheeded, especially in Tunisia.[8] Drukdel’s propaganda output thereafter would remain periodic and somewhat old-fashioned.

Still, for Al-Qaeda, the January 2012 to January/February 2013 Mali experience was fruitful as a learning experience in governance. By this time, there was the catastrophic example of IS in Iraq (2005-8); the two rounds in Somalia, with the Islamic Courts Union in 2006 and then Al-Shabab from 2009 to August 2011; and AQAP in Yemen grabbed two major cities, Ja’ar and Zinjibar, in the Abyan governorate in March and May 2011, respectively, before pressing on to capture, Shaqwa in the Shabwa governorate that August, with this self-declared “emirate” rolled up May/June 2012. There was also the Tunisian case, where Al-Qaeda had not governed territory, exactly, but had, since early 2011, grown considerably in influence with a dawa-dominated, gradualist approach in de facto collaboration with the (Islamist) state authorities.

AQAP’s emir Nasr al-Wuhayshi has written to Drukdel as Al-Wuhayshi’s emirate experiment in Yemen was drawing to a close in mid-2012, echoing Bin Laden’s counsel of patience in December 2010, telling Drukdel he must “take a gradual approach” in order to win over populations unused to jihadi strictures; the tribes and others have to “feel that their fate is tied to ours”, said Al-Wuhayshi. Drukdel clearly took these instructions on-board and had shortly afterwards wrote to the Ansar Dine leadership, essentially his field commanders in the jihadi-ruled areas of Mali, remonstrating with them for their efforts to impose harsh shari’a straight away, likening the Malian population to a baby who “has not yet stood on its two legs” and who must be assisted to crawl before it could walk. In November 2012, Drukdel wrote to Belmokhtar criticising him as someone who behaved according to “slogans”, even as he put a “veneer” over conduct that was hardly religious and acted in ways “harmful” to the cause. Worried about the “extreme speed” Belmokhtar and the others on the scene had imposed the shari’a, Drukdel implored them to reconsider, not least because they were likely to provoke an external intervention that AQIM could not hold off.

AQIM and its surrogates were unable to resist France’s military pressure, and their cultural vandalism and the brutal imposition of the Holy Law meant they had already lost ground before the intervention. By 2014, AQIM would be stripped entirely of regional territorial holdings. But the political defeat of AQIM in Mali—the contest for “hearts and minds”—was not completed. The government’s inability to provide basic human security and services—it is said some areas of northern Mali had more access to electricity under AQIM—has meant there is a “nostalgia among some for the occupation by AQIM”.

BELMOKHTAR, BANDITRY, AND BAY’A

Of all of Al-Qaeda’s branches, AQIM is the one most marked by its interaction with, and use of, organised criminality to raise revenue. Some of this is geography: the international narcotics networks from South America land in West Africa on their way to Europe, for example, and simple protection-rackets to allow that trade gain jihadists significant cash. There are also well-entrenched arms- and people-trafficking routes in the Sahel, enmeshed in their varying ways with official patronage and corruption networks. The European governments’ practice of paying ransoms for hostages gave Al-Qaeda $125 million between 2008 and 2014, much of it via AQIM, though coordinated at times with AQAP and Al-Shabab. AQIM also receives “financial and logistical assistance from supporters residing in Western Europe”, albeit “limited”. This fragmented structure of AQIM, with small groups or cells that have little practical connection most of the time spread out over vast expanses of territory, is part of what has made it so easy for DRS to infiltrate and even flatly generate AQIM factions that can then be used for Algiers’ purposes.

Bluntly, with AQIM, the jihadi-bandit distinction is not-infrequently one without a difference. The above-mentioned Mokhtar Belmokhtar is a case in point. A cigarette, drug, and anything-else-he-could smuggler, Belmokhtar did this as part of revenue-generation for GIA and then GSPC, which he joined at the founding in 1998. Belmokhtar was GSCP/AQIM’s regional commander in the south of Algeria and northern Mali from 2003. When AQIM’s top spot opened up in 2004, Belmokhtar was in the running and remained bitter at being passed over. Over the first half-decade of Drukdel’s reign, a considerable part of his job was managing Belmokhtar, who could not be simply dismissed since his criminal networks generated the funds that kept AQIM in business; the strategy ultimately adopted by Drukdel was to break up the area Belmokhtar was responsible for and appoint trusted loyalists to manage fiefdoms pried away from Belmokhtar.

Belmokhtar split from AQIM in December 2012 and created Katiba al-Mulathamun, a.k.a. Katiba al-Muaqiun Biddam (The Brigade of Those Who Signed in Blood), though he did not rescind his bay’a to Al-Zawahiri.[9] Five days after the French intervention in Mali, Belmokhtar’s group besieged the gas plant near In Amenas in south-east Algeria, taking 830 people hostage, 130 of them foreigners. After four days, the Algerian security forces stormed the plant, killing thirty terrorists. At least double that number of hostages, the majority of them foreign, were dead at the end of this episode—some murdered before the security forces came in, and some definitely not.

Despite their clear displeasure with some of his conduct, Al-Qaeda never expelled Belmokhtar and even during his schismatic, recognition-seeking phase, Belmokhtar continued to work cooperatively with AQIM. The most excitement, really, was and is provided by the periodic question of whether Belmokhtar was still among the living (very possibly, being the current answer).

Within three years of ostensibly striking out on his own, Belmokhtar had resolved all ambiguity and come fully back into the fold. Al-Mulathamun and MUJWA merged in August 2013 to form Al-Murabitun, which formally re-enlisted within AQIM in December 2015. Belmokhtar’s decision was doubtless influenced by the polarisation of the moment: the Islamic State (IS) had declared its caliphate in June 2014 and began creating international wilayats (provinces), a number of which were simply Al-Qaeda groups IS poached from their network. One such was the faction of Al-Murabitun that broke away under the leadership of Lehbib Yumani (Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi) from the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara and declared itself loyal to IS in May 2015. Belmokhtar thus found himself in a months-long competition, apparently physical as well as ideological, and by the end of 2015 he found safety by officially rejoining AQIM. Belmokhtar retained some autonomy for his remnant Al-Murabitun, which was then among the jihadi formations that merged to create Jamaat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimeen (JNIM) in March 2017.

JNIM, led by the former Ansar Dine emir Iyad Ag Ghaly, has an ultimate bay’a to Al-Zawahiri (and by extension to the Taliban) and also a more direct, local bay’a to Drukdel, making plain that JNIM was loyal—and subordinate—to AQIM. JNIM’s main feature was that it allowed AQIM to extent south, navigating some of the ethnic barriers an Arab-dominated group had had in black Africa.

The French said Drukdel was on Al-Qaeda’s “management committee”, presumably the extant version of what Al-Qaeda once called Al-Qalim, or locations, a system that envisions regional managers: AQAP’s Khaled Batarfi (Abu Miqdad al-Kindi) for Yemen and Saudi Arabia,[10] Drukdel for the Maghreb and Sahel, and Ahmad Umar (Abu Ubayda) has a separate command to Drukdel’s for Somalia and East Africa,[11] though the AQIM-Shabab-AQAP networks are reasonably cohesive.[12]

THE ISLAMIC STATE CHALLENGE

Drukdel, having overseen a transformation of AQIM from an Algerian-centric organisation to a regional one—and really transregional, because of the close working relations with Al-Shabab and AQAP—would be challenged most significantly from within the jihadi family.

As the Islamic State rose and expanded in 2014-15, it tried very hard to have AQIM switch its allegiance to them. Even after AQIM was the earliest Al-Qaeda affiliate to condemn the caliphate announcement, less than a week after its proclamation, and in the strongest terms, IS persisted. A senior IS official, Abu Ubayda Abd al-Hakim, wrote a letter to Drukdel to lay out the strategic and theological reasons why AQIM should come into the IS camp—and to argue for the permissibility of breaking the bay’a Drukdel had to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Drukdel was unmoved, but he could not prevent defections from further down his networks in Africa.

Yumani’s section of Al-Murabitun, mentioned above, had “seemingly fell dormant” later in 2015, after its pledge to IS, Jason Warner has written, and IS did not even accept Yumani’s pledge of allegiance for a year. Only at the end of October 2016, after a series of high-impact terrorist attacks over a period of eight weeks, was Yumani’s group de facto accepted into IS and became known as ISGS, albeit without formally becoming a wilayat. From these modest beginnings, however, ISGS would make steady gains. As part of its expanding operations, for example, it was ISGS that ambushed the American special forces on 4 October 2017 near the village of Tongo Tongo in western Niger, north of Niamey, close to the Malian border, killing four of them.

In this same period, IS was peeling away another jihadist group within Al-Qaeda’s orbit in Africa, namely Jamaat Ahl al-Sunna Li-Dawa wal-Jihad (JASDJ), universally known as “Boko Haram”. As Jacob Zenn has explained in detail, Al-Qaeda, specifically in the form of AQIM and later Al-Shabab, had a “significant impact” on Boko Haram, in three key phases—during the founding in 2002-03, at the onset of Boko Haram’s jihad in 2009-10, and with the introduction of suicide bombings by Boko Haram in June 2011.

After the initial uprising by Boko Haram in July 2009, its leader was killed and replaced by Abubakr Shekau. Boko Haram then went underground, only to re-emerge in September 2010, remarkably well-organised and deploying novel tactics, recommencing its jihad, with much greater success this time. Zenn argues, persuasively, that training from Drukdel’s AQIM was the key variable in this change of fortunes. Boko Haram’s decision to launch a massive offensive and land-grab in Nigeria in February 2013, just after the French came into Mali against AQIM and its affiliates, when the “structural factors did not vary significantly” from the period before this, bespeaks external influence, Zenn argues.

The rapid territorial expansion of Boko Haram after 2013 was enabled in large measure by AQIM-trained operatives, but Al-Qaeda would largely not profit. By early 2015 the territorial tide was turning against Boko Haram, and some of these same operatives helped arrange for Shekau to swear allegiance to IS in March 2015. The next month, Boko Haram was renamed the Islamic State’s West Africa Province (ISWAP).

Shekau had faced dissension before,[13] unsurprising given his erratic nature, and IS Centre soon tired of him, dismissing him in a decision announced in public in August 2016, in the 41st issue of Al-Naba, IS’s weekly newspaper. Habib Yusuf (Abu Musab al-Barnawi) was named as ISWAP leader.[14] Shekau was ejected from ISWAP’s ranks and took with him about 1,500 of the group’s 5,000 fighters to lead a rump Boko Haram.[15] ISWAP and Boko Haram would lose much of the territory they had grabbed since 2013 by the end of 2016. IS had experienced disruptions with its Somali division by the end of 2016, and lost Sirte, its main town in Libya, where IS had constructed a clone branch. After this ebb, however, came the flow, particularly as IS Centre suffered.

IS consolidated its African operations in March 2019. First, it removed Yusuf as head of ISWAP,[16] accusing him of being in contact with Al-Qaeda, and replaced him with Ba Idrisa (Abu Abdullah ibn Umar al-Barnawi). Immediately afterwards, for the first time, IS formally recognised Yumani’s bay’a, before folding his ISGS into ISWAP. It was at roughly this time IS announced its expansion with a Central Africa Province (ISCAP), operating in both eastern Congo and northern Mozambique.[17]

Perhaps not-coincidentally, IS advertised its growing presence in the Sahel in Al-Naba in March 2019 and at the end of that month, after it had settled accounts within ISWAP, claimed responsibility for murdering Kirk Woodman, a Canadian geologist, in Burkina Faso, in an article that boasted of ISWAP’s expansion in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, specifically in the tri-border area between those states. A month later, Mali and Burkina Faso referenced in the caliph’s last speech. To the present, IS takes care to highlight operations in the West Africa Province every week.[18]

THE CURRENT STATUS OF THE JIHAD IN THE MAGHREB AND SAHEL

Drukdel’s replacement will likely be an Algerian from AQIM’s Shura Council or Council of Notables, the head of the latter, Abu Ubayda Yusuf al-Anabi, sanctioned by both the U.S. and the U.N., seemingly a prime candidate. The transition might well be smooth, but there are clear signs of trouble for Al-Qaeda. AQIM, despite its regionalisation in the last decade or so, remains an Algerian-led organisation and at core no more than Maghrebi, with JNIM handling the Sahelian front to the south. The ethnic, regional, and personal tensions underlying these networks have to be managed, and it is difficult to imagine any candidate will “be able to match [Drukdel’s] legitimacy and authority” in handling this, as Julie Coleman and Méryl Demuynck pointed out at ICCT. This leaves the Islamic State with an opening.

Contrary to a bizarrely presented report in at the end of February, the trendline is toward intensifying intra-jihadi competition between IS and Al-Qaeda in Africa.[19] Despite this competitive dynamic, the jihadists are gaining overall. The other clear trend, without underestimating how deeply rooted AQIM/JNIM is in Sahelian communities, is that IS is on the upswing. The less hostile relations of ISWAP’s leadership with the Shekau-ruled Boko Haram remnant assists this IS surge in the region.

The heavy involvement of France is providing some hindrance to the jihadists, as evidenced by Drukdel’s downfall, but there are limits to what Paris—even with U.S. assistance, while it lasts—can do. As Jacob Zenn puts it, “ISWAP around Lake Chad is too strong to be defeated militarily unless an Iraq- and Syria-style coalition against the West African Province is formed, which is currently implausible”. Moreover, even the local coalition of states ranged against ISWAP is showing signs of fragmentation—and their cohesion would not necessarily help. The local partner regimes are the major drag factor in the BARKHANE mission, with Burkina Faso and Niger furnishing only the most recent examples of the indiscriminate cruelty that can make the jihadists seem like a viable alternative.

Drukdel had begun his career in North Africa with the GIA, which pushed people to seek shelter behind the heinous official terror apparatus in Algeria. Perhaps in this sense Drukdel had closed the circle: by the time of his death, the jihadists understood where the redlines were in dealing with the local populations—but it is the IS-loyal jihadists beyond his control who seem to be best-placed to reap the benefit of those lessons.

 

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

 

UPDATE: AQIM officially confirmed Drukdel’s death on 18 June in a short video by the head of AQIM’s media committee, Abd al-Ilah Ahmad, but no successor was named.

 

*                  *                  *                  *                  *

 

NOTES

[1] There were two significant armed Islamist formations in Algeria by the end of 1991: one drawn mainly from the returning “Arab Afghans” grouped around Mansouri Meliani; and the other was the Armed Islamic Movement (MIA) or “Bouyali Group”, named for its founder Mustapha Bouyali, which could trace its origins back to the underground Islamist scene of the 1980s.

[2] The Tsar’s Okhranka brought these methods up to a very high standard more than a century ago and the successor Bolshevik regime perfected them, beginning with the TRUST operation in the 1920s. The more recent successes in this area have almost all been services trained by the Soviet KGB and its predecessors—the UDBA in Jugoslavija, Algeria, and Asad’s Syria.

[3] GIA’s killing two of FIS’s respected officials, Muhammad Saeed and Abdurrazak al-Rajjam, in November 1995, after they joined the GIA in an attempt to calm the fitna (strife), and Zitouni declaring open war on the FIS in January 1996, were turning points. Libyan jihadists from the Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) who came into Algeria were slaughtered. In June 1996, LIFG publicly ceased all “support and assistance” to GIA, saying “there was a noticeable change in [its] characteristics” after Zitouni became leader. A few months earlier, the Qaeda-loyal jihadi cleric Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini), one of GIA’s most enthusiastic supporters, based in London (obviously), had finally withdrawn his support of GIA after the massacre of the Trappist monks—an atrocity that, like many others, might well not be quite what it seems.

[4] The letter, “SOCOM-2012-0000019”, has a number of clues about the timing. First, it opens by lamenting the death of “Shaykh Sa’id”, an Egyptian whose real name is Mustafa Abu al-Yazid [or Mustafa Abu’l-Yazid] and who also used the kunya Saeed al-Masri, and telling Atiyya, a Libyan, referred to as “Shaykh Mahmud”, that he has “been appointed successor to the departed Shaykh Sa’id for a period of two years”. Al-Yazid was killed in a drone strike in Waziristan on 21 May 2010. Second, Bin Laden notes the death of Hamid al-Zawi (Abu Umar al-Baghdadi), the Islamic State of Iraq leader from 2006 until he was killed on 18 April 2010, also clearly recent. Third, the new ISI leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been appointed, along with his deputy, Al-Nasser Lideen Allah (Numan al-Zaydi), which happened on 16 May 2010, though Bin Laden does not yet know much about him and asks Atiyya to sound out Ansar al-Islam about “where they stand on the new emirs”. And finally, in a section advising that suicide bombers be sent in twos because the “psychological effects” of sending them alone has led to a “very low” “success” rate, Bin Laden says: “The most recent of which was the operation in which our brothers targeted the British Ambassador in Yemen”. This event occurred on 26 April 2010.

[5] Arrested alongside Salim was Abdul Ghaffar al-Shami and Messara al-Shami. In terms of Pakistan’s culpability for Bin Laden, the strongest the accusation against the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency has been put is by Carlotta Gall in her book, The Wrong Enemy (2014), pp. 248-9: “According to one inside source, the ISI actually ran a special desk assigned to handle the al Qaeda leader. It was operated independently, headed by an officer who made his own decisions. He did not have to pass things by a superior. He handled only one person: bin Laden. What he did was of course wholly deniable by virtually everyone at the ISI. … This revelation explained a lot. For example, there were things that did not make sense about bin Laden’s hideout. He had no escape route or priest’s hole to hide in, in case of a search party or raid. … CIA officials thought of the same thing. As they watched his compound, they realized there was no back door, no tunnel. They concluded bin Laden was relying on being forewarned to evade capture. It was one of the reasons they decided not to bring the ISI in on their planning for the raid.”

[6] Bin Laden wrote to the Shabab emir Ahmad Abdi Godane (Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr) on 7 August 2010 advising him to establish an Islamic state on the ground, but to avoid announcing an “Islamic Emirate of Somalia” and to keep Al-Shabab’s “unity” with Al-Qaeda likewise under wraps. Bin Laden says Al-Shabab members should affirm “simply a brotherly Islamic connection and nothing more” to Al-Qaeda. Though “enemies will find out inevitably”, wrote Bin Laden, avoiding the public embrace of Al-Qaeda will prevent mobilisation against Al-Shabab, as “happened … in Iraq or Algeria”.

[7] Bin Laden said that holding a woman (Francoise Larribe) was “awkward”, so AQIM should ransom and release her as soon as possible—which AQIM did in February 2011. Bin Laden instructed AQIM to try to indoctrinate the four male hostages and to use them in propaganda videos encouraging the West to pull out of Afghanistan—which AQIM also did before the captives were freed in October 2013. Bin Laden had also instructed AQIM that if French President Nicolas Sarkozy refused to negotiate about Afghanistan, they should murder one of the hostages, “the one with the lowest rank”, a week before the April 2012 French Presidential Election.

[8] In Your Sons Are At Your Service, Zelin describes in detail the long-standing, robust recruitment networks IS had from Tunisia, the way much of AST drifted to IS’s violent vision of jihadi revolution after the failure of their dawa-first enterprise, and the calamitous miscalculation of Abu Iyad, who saw no problem in his cadres joining IS and even encouraged Al-Zawahiri to transfer his bay’a to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after the caliphate declaration. Abu Iyad realised his mistake within two months, writing in August 2014 that Al-Zawahiri should “consider my proposal and advice as if it had never existed”, but by then it was much too late.

[9] Just as with the Tamesguida meeting twenty years earlier, there had been an attempted in late 2012 to unify the Islamists; Drukdel had dispatched an envoy to patch things up with Belmokhtar, but DRS intercepted him.

[10] The original leader of AQAP when it was announced in 2009—it having evolved out of the remnants of the jihad against the House of Saud earlier in the decade that had been pushed into Yemen—was Nasr al-Wuhayshi, and he served as the “general manager” or de facto deputy of Al-Zawahiri, who was/is Masul al-Qalim within this system.

[11] Jacob Zenn, an expert on African jihadism, a Senior Fellow on African Affairs at The Jamestown Foundation and author of Unmasking Boko Haram, among other things, explained Al-Shabab’s position in the network this way: “Al-Shabab only has a pledge [of allegiance] to Dr. Al-Zawahiri, from 2012, after Usama bin Laden died. There’s no local oath to AQIM; just a general co-affiliation to AQIM. Nor is there a local oath to AQAP, despite [Al-Shabab having] closer interpersonal/historical relations [with AQAP]. JNIM is definitely more of a ‘sub-affiliate’ of AQIM … Notably, AQIM’s pledge to UBL was only formally accepted by Al-Zawahiri, not Bin Laden himself.”

[12] Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), IS’s leader from May 2010 to October 2019, had the responsibility of Al-Qalim for Iraq, according to Al-Qaeda’s version of the contested historical narrative over IS-Qaeda relations, until Al-Qaeda expelled IS from its ranks in February 2014. There is also the murky case of Al-Sham (mostly Syria but covering Lebanon, too), where Al-Qaeda’s representative initially, as of 2013, was Muhammad al-Bahaya (Abu Khaled al-Suri). Al-Bahaya was part of Ahrar al-Sham, a jihadi-Salafist insurgent group that has not publicly sworn loyalty to Al-Qaeda, albeit Ahrar worked closely alongside the Syrian group that had, Jabhat al-Nusra. After Al-Bahaya was killed by IS in early 2014, Al-Nusra’s leader, Ahmad al-Shara (Abu Muhammad al-Jolani), became Al-Qaeda’s undisputed man in Syria—until 2016, when a rebranding exercise began that culminated in Al-Nusra being renamed Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), ostensibly breaking command relations with Al-Qaeda, and triggering the creation of a splinter that is loyal to Al-Qaeda known as Tanzim Hurras al-Deen. The information operations being run and the definitional opacity of a clandestine terrorist group make interpreting Al-Nusra/HTS’s relations with Al-Qaeda at present difficult, though it can be said that the group is still “part of Al-Qaeda’s school or orbit”.

[13] Ansaru, a more globally focused and Al-Qaeda-loyal group, broke away from Boko Haram’s more Nigeria-first jihad in January 2012, but the trouble between Shekau and Al-Qaeda/AQIM had been building for some time. Ansaru was responsible for a number of the AQIM-directed kidnappings of European hostages in the 2011-13 period, and some of the money for these hostages was used by “Ansaru or Ansaru-aligned militants in Boko Haram who were trained … by AQIM and al-Shabab” as part of the 2011-12 suicide bombing campaign. Some Ansaru members returned to Boko Haram, accepting Shekau’s leadership, after the French intervention in Mali, and they brought with them skills from AQIM that assisted as Boko Haram expanded its territorial holdings.

[14] Habib Yusuf is the son of Muhammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s founder, who was killed in July 2009 and replaced by Shekau.

[15] Since the Shekau-led jihadi faction continues to exist, and he has never formally renounced his allegiance to IS, it has led to some confusion over Boko Haram and ISWAP, since the terms are (and in a sense can be) used interchangeably or in combination for both factions. In this author’s opinion, it makes most sense to refer to the IS-recognised faction as ISWAP and to Shekau’s faction as Boko Haram, but simple force of habit makes this somewhat difficult to police.

[16] Habib Yusuf’s fate is not clear; while the initial accounts suggested he had been killed, subsequent reporting suggested ISWAP’s leadership is holding him under some kind of house arrest.

[17] The jihadist group in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has come under ISCAP was known as the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group founded in the mid-1990s with Al-Qaeda startup funds that remained within Al-Qaeda’s orbit. ADF was in the process of establishing relations with the Saddam Husayn regime when it was overthrown in 2003. The Iraqi Ba’th regime agreed a budget for ADF. That ADF was trending into the IS camp was obvious about six months before the formal announcement, when it was found that IS financial facilitator Waleed Ahmed Zain had made payments to ADF.

[18] The “Battle of Attrition” (Ghazwat al-Istinzaf) announced on 15 May is actually the third campaign for which IS has used this name; the ISWAP operations since then mentioned in Al-Naba have been incorporated under that banner. There has been: the claim to kill and wound thirty Nigerian soldiers, complete with a gruesome picture of one of them, and to have attacked military barracks in Niger and Chad (Al-Naba 235, 21 May), murdering two “spies” from the Chadian Army, attacking two military barracks in Nigeria, and crossing the border into Cameroon for a raid that killed eight Cameroonian soldiers at a base, before burning several cars and stealing weaponry (Al-Naba 236, 28 May), and raids on military bases in the Borno state of Nigeria and in Niger (Al-Naba 237, 4 June)

[19] In the 233rd edition of Al-Naba on 7 May, IS accuses (p. 11-13) Al-Qaeda of being part of the French-led “Crusader” forces in the region and describes intense clashes with Al-Qaeda (JNIM) in Mali that spilled over the tri-border area into Burkina Faso and Niger, with implications beyond.

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