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January 19, 2011 |  1 comment |  Print  Your Opinion  

Olivier  Guitta

Al Qaeda's War of Succession in the Maghreb

Olivier Guitta: Al-Qaeda has been raising its profile in North East Africa recently, mainly due to lucrative kidnappings of Westerners. However, a power struggle among various different offshoots in the region is at play. The consequences of this war of succession could threaten to destabilize the surrounding area.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has recently very much raised its public profile thanks to successful kidnapping operations of Western nationals. In fact, after a recent operation in Niger where seven people were kidnapped including five French citizens, Osama bin Laden himself claimed paternity of this success. But the real mastermind behind this operation is Abdelhamid Abu Zeid, the emir of the Sahel region. Because of his new aura, Abu Zeid is actually threatening Abdelmalek Droukdel, AQIM’s historical leader. This new situation could actually result in a war of succession amid AQIM.

Interestingly, Droukdel’s leadership was already questioned in 2007 after the Algerian terror group GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. In fact, according to Abu Mossaab, the former emir of the south, who surrendered to Algerian authorities in August 2007, the dissent started as soon as Droukdel along with two of his close advisors decided to join al-Qaeda without consulting the different branches leaders and the base.

According to El Watan, some among GSPC’s top echelons voiced their disagreement with the new "suicide bomber strategy" that they deem "imported from Iraq and serving only al-Qaeda." They also wanted to keep the focus of the organization on Algeria rather than on the global jihad. Most of these rebellious elements were kicked out of the leadership and were replaced by hardcore elements. Also the risk of being physically eliminated pushed many dissenters to defect and provide the authorities with valuable information that led to arrests or killings of prominent AQIM members. This situation has been ongoing and just this past October, Droukdel had his military advisor and right-hand man, Ahmed Djebri, killed because the latter wanted to surrender.

But the most acute threat to Droukdel’s throne comes from AQIM’s rising star, Abu Zeid. Even though he is not an Afghan veteran, Abu Zeid has steadily risen through the ranks of AQIM, focusing on the Sahel. As early as 2004, AQ in Iraq’s former leader Abu Musab Zarqawi allegedly congratulated him for his hard work. In 2007, he allegedly met twice with AQ’s emissaries who gave him a message from Osama bin Laden asking him to restructure the organization and start off a new entity.

In any case, since then, it seems that Abu Zeid’s katiba (unit) has been autonomous and totally detached from AQIM’s leadership back in Algeria. And Abu Zeid has been specializing in kidnappings that are very financially rewarding and bringing lots of attention. For instance, in 2009, no less than six kidnappings of Western nationals took place under reportedly Abu Zeid’s helm. While in the past, all hostages were freed unharmed after a ransom was paid, Abu Zeid is allegedly behind the cold-blooded execution of a British hostage, Edwin Dyer in 2009. This was clearly his signature: a bloody, ruthless and brutal fanatic who will stop at nothing to advance his agenda. Also in 2009 Abu Zeid opened a new front by successfully organizing an operation in Niger. In April 2010, a 78-year old aid worker French national, Michel Germaneau, was abducted by Abu Zeid’s katiba in Niger. In an effort to liberate him, Mauritanian forces helped by French troops organized a raid against an AQIM camp in Mali, killing six of Abu Zeid’s men but failing to find the French hostage. After this failed operation, Germaneau was executed in retaliation.

But Abu Zeid’s real moment of fame came when he appeared full-faced on a video along the recent hostages taken in Niger. This bold gesture positioned Abu Zeid as the new face of AQIM. And Droukdel had to respond, which he did through an audiotape that specifically asked France to negotiate directly with bin Laden and withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. In a way Droukdel tried to reposition himself as the true AQIM leader by invoking the highest authority, bin Laden, in order to rein in Abu Zeid. But at the same time Droukdel seemed to be asking for bin Laden to decide who should be in charge. The question now remains whether Abu Zeid’s ambition is to take over AQIM or remain semi-autonomous loose cannon. 

In any case because of this internal battle amid AQIM’s leadership, a slew of defections took place in the last weeks of November. First it was the case of six AQIM operatives that surrendered in Mauritania followed by another thirty in Mali. In light of this internal turmoil, it is possible that a split-off of AQIM as such will take place in the next few months.

Olivier Guitta is a security and geopolitical consultant based in Europe. You can view his latest work at


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Very interesting and well researched. Thanks for the article!

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