Al Qaeda displays firepower in Africa to defy Islamic State group
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The terrorist attack that struck the capital of Burkina Faso last week was claimed by al Qaeda’s north African branch. Experts worry it was a show of force in response to the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group on the African continent.
If global jihad were a race, it would be hard to deny that the IS group is leading the pack of murderous extremists.
The IS group has taken control of large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, orchestrated brazen attacks and video executions and, in the process, grabbed the attention of global media.
In a relatively short amount of time, the IS group – sometimes referred to as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh – has also exported its brand by rallying other prominent terrorist groups, like Boko Haram in Nigeria, to its cause.
However, the IS group now looks set for some stiff competition. The most recent merger between radical Islamist groups in Africa does not include the group, and in fact represents a strategic setback for the group’s so-called caliphate.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in December announced that, after several years of fraught relations, it had reunited with Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar and his Al-Mourabitoune group.
The January 15 siege on an upscale hotel in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou was quickly claimed by AQIM, but carried out by Al-Mourabitoune militants, as if to serve as proof that the two groups were really back together.
The attack, which lasted 12 hours and claimed the lives of 30 civilians from at least seven countries, also served to convey another message: AQIM will strike Western targets in Africa that lie beyond the Maghreb – the expansive region between Libya and Western Morocco that has largely defined its territory in the past.
The carnage in Ouagadougou is not the first bloody upshot of the new al Qaeda-Al-Mourabitoune union and its expansionist drive. The attack on the Radisson hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako in November 2015 was already a joint operation.
Wassim Nasr, FRANCE 24’s expert on jihadist movements, says Belmokhtar’s decision to rejoin AQIM is closely linked to his personal antipathy towards the IS group.
He was excluded from the al Qaeda branch in October 2012 for insubordination, setting up Al-Mourabitoune as a result of the split. But in May 2015 he was himself confronted with mutiny when one of his top deputies defected to the IS group.
The number of Al-Mourabitoune jihadists who defected with the dissident commander is unknown. Nevertheless, three months later, the Libyan branch of the Islamic State group issued a notice calling for Belmokhtar’s “elimination”.
Since its founding in 2007, AQIM has resisted carrying out attacks outside northern Africa, reportedly one of the disagreements that led Belmokhtar to temporarily leave the terrorist group. The attacks in Bamako and Ouagadougou would appear to indicate the question of expansion is no longer a matter of debate.
“The fact that al Qaeda claimed the operation in Ouagadougou proves that the organisation has accepted this expansion,” Nasr said. “This decision is of course part of a struggle for influence, namely with the IS group.”
With the battle lines between the two jihadists groups drawn in Africa, AQIM is now eager to show it is still a force to be reckoned with.
“AQIM wants to display its firepower in defiance of both Western forces and the surging Islamic State group”, said Nasr, adding that the two militant Salafist groups were engaged in a gruesome “one-upmanship”.
That is not to say the two groups have adopted the same mode of operation on the ground.
While the IS group aims to sustainably establish itself in a particular territory, such as in Libya or in Nigeria (with the help of Boko Haram), al Qaeda’s priority is carrying out anti-Western operations.
“AQIM’s enemy is the West, not local regimes,” Nasr pointed out. The attack on Ouagadougou’s upscale Hotel Splendid and the nearby eatery Le Cappuccino seems to be a case in point.
The two places were known to be very popular with foreigners, especially among French soldiers stationed in the region. The victims included six Canadians, three French, two Swiss and one US national.