Leiden Safety and Security Blog

Labeling Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): A case of terrorism, insurgency or organized crime?

Labeling Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): A case of terrorism, insurgency or organized crime? Photo by Thierry Ehrmann

After several bloody attacks on hotels in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast in late 2015/early 2016, no more spectalar attacks by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have occurred. Nonetheless, as all media attention is captivated by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, violence by AQIM and its affiliates is increasing steadily in Mali. While AQIM suffered significant losses during France’s Operation Serval in early 2013, it has since returned with a vengeance. The notorious Mokhtar Belmokhtar has rejoined the group, attacks on Malian and MINUSMA peace-keepers continue to rise, and southern Libya offers the group a new safe-haven.

Much has been written on AQIM; how it executes terrorist attacks against the far enemy (Western interests) and the near enemy (the local, often autrocratic regimes), how it  governed northern Mali during the fall of 2012 and that some of its commanders have links with organized crime. The labeling of AQIM as a terrorist organisation, an insurgency or a crime syndicate is more than just an academic exercise. In each case, the designated label channels a policy reaction that is anchored in the very different fields of counterterrorism, counter-insurgency (COIN) or law enforcement. Each is centred around its own principles, dogmas and common practices, and executed by different organisations with their own mandates, modus operandi and cultures.       

By using a framework developed by Isabelle Duyvesteyn and Mario Fumerton, terrorism and insurgency can considered as two distinct strategies of irregular war. This concept, although not undisputed, therefore centres around the choice of an organisation to conduct a strategy of terrorism or a strategy of insurgency. The two differ significantly. First, terrorist organisations and insurgencies have different political objectives, with the former aiming to provoke a response through violence to achieve a political effect and the latter striving to force political change through control of a territory and its population. Secondly, as a direct consequence of this, their organisational structures differ. Terrorists generally operate in small and secret conspiracies, while insurgencies often run a large and open shadow state structure. Thirdly, for organisations following a terrorist strategy, active involvement of the population is not essential, but for an insurgency it is.

By taking a long view on AQIM’s development and its history, before and after Operation Serval and using Duyvestyen’s and Fumerton’s framework, more conceptual clarity can be brought to the debate. Looking at AQIM’s past actions, most indicators point to a strategy of terrorism. Once it controled northern Mali in the Autumn of 2012, it had difficulties in adapting to a strategy of insurgency, and ultimately lost the support of the local population. While earning siginificant revenues from criminal activities such as hostage-taking and possibly drugs protection money, AQIM’s primary operational activities appear to underwrite its radical Slafi-jihadist agenda.

For the full analysis, read: Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: Terrorism, Insurgency or Organized Crime?

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