During the overnight hours of May 8-9, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a threat against Western, and particularly French, companies that operate in the area “from Libya to Mauritania”.
While the threat is not new but rather a reiteration of an existing and proven one, its release in the lead-up to the holy month of Ramadan is indication of a heightened risk of al-Qaeda attacks against Western companies and interests in North Africa and the Sahel region over the coming weeks.
Please be advised
During the overnight hours of May 8-9, the al-Andalus Foundation, the media wing of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), published a “Statement for French and Western Companies”.
In the statement, AQIM threatens to attack Western, and particularly French, companies that operate in the area “from Libya to Mauritania”.
The publication further states that “85 percent of the wealth in this region is controlled by the French, while the rest is in the hands of traitors” and that the “French occupation prevents the prosperity of the region and has corrupted society”.
The statement concluded by warning Muslims to stay away from Western companies’ sites for fear of being hurt by collateral damage in an attack.
Assessments & Forecast
AQIM’s statement does not denote a new threat to Western operations and presence in Africa, but is rather a reiteration of its main strategy: driving Western influence away from what AQIM perceive as their areas of influence, with the intention of consolidating its control and later expanding it while facing diminished resistance. AQIM and organizations that are directly affiliated with it, such as Jamaat Nusratal-Islam Wal Muslimeen (JNIM), have conducted several high profile attacks as part of this strategy. These most notably include the March 2 attack against the French Embassy in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; the October 25, 2017 attack against a French firm in Soumpi, Mali; and the March 18, 2016 attack against the Krechba gas facility in Algeria that was jointly operated by an Algerian government-owned company, and Norwegian- and British-based companies.
This strategy is also the main reason for AQIM’s threat particularly addressing French companies, as the French-led “Operation Barkhane” in the Sahel in support of the G5 countries (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger) is currently the main threat to AQIM and its direct affiliates’ operations. This threat was recently exemplified by French operations on February 14 in Mali that resulted in the deaths of six JNIM leaders, including that of Hasan al-Ansari, co-founder of JNIM, later confirmed by the group itself. However, as noted in AQIM’s latest statement, the threat extends to all Western companies, all perceived as “crusaders” in AQIM’s narrative, which it would attack given the opportunity, as underscored by the March 2016 Krechba attack that targeted Algerian, Norwegian, and British firms. That most of the attacks thus far have been directed against French interests is largely due to the outsized French presence among potential targets in the region and France’s lead role in regional counter-militancy operations.
The references made to the negative impact of the French presence on the region’s economy and society underscores an inherent part of al-Qaeda’s strategy as a whole, and that of AQIM in particular. AQIM, unlike certain other jihadist groups such as the Islamic State (IS), is willing to be more flexible in the implementation of its religious ideology in order to not only gain the support of, but also embed themselves in the local population. Thus, by appealing to material interests such as the state of the economy and society, AQIM is seeking to create an image of “us against them”, rallying as much of the local population as possible in opposition to foreign influence. While this may boost recruitment for the group, this is not the main goal in this case, as al-Qaeda favors quality over quantity with its fighters. The goal is rather to enhance the group’s freedom of operation within the population, which it will utilize to launch attacks and, later, to go into hiding as well as to facilitate logistical support.
FORECAST: Currently, AQIM and its direct affiliates maintain a presence, either of offensive operations or for logistical support, in parts of Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger, putting these countries at a high risk, which also corresponds with the message threatening Western companies “from Libya to Mauritania”. Given the current strategy and deployment of the group, as well as precedent, we assess that of these countries Algeria, Mali, and Burkina Faso are at the highest risk. Nonetheless, this foothold could, depending on developments and the dynamics of the situation in the region, be exploited to launch attacks into neighboring countries if needed.
FORECAST: It is important to note that while AQIM’s threat is not new, but rather a reiteration of an existing and proven threat, it does come ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, currently slated to start on May 15. This period of the year historically is when jihadist groups attempt to increase their rate of operations and conduct more high profile and notable attacks, so as to capitalize on the symbolism of the holiday. Accordingly, it is possible that the timing of AQIM’s latest message was similarly motivated, thus highlighting the elevated potential for al-Qaeda attacks against Western interests in North Africa and the Sahel region over the coming weeks.
Western companies operating in the North Africa and Sahel regions are advised to evaluate security procedures pertaining to attacks against installations, and emphasize guideline to their staff.
Examine behavioral patterns of local employees on site to mitigate potential risks arising from influence by Jihadist propaganda.
Monitor MAX Intelligence’s reports, as well as local publications to remain abreast of the dynamics of the threat posed by Jihadist groups in your areas of operations. Potential indications of a change in the level of threat include the rate, scope and rhetoric of Jihadist publications and their attacks, changes in modus operandi, scale and sophistication of attacks, and changes to areas of operations and influence of different groups.