Also known as:
- Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
- Al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
- Armed Islamic Group (GIA)
- Gruppo Islamico Armato (GIA)
- Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM)
- Le Groupe Salafiste Pour La Predication Et Le Combat (GSPC)
- Organization of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
- Salafist Group for Call and Combat
- Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat
- Tanzim al-Qa’ida fi Bilad al-Maghrib al-Islamiya
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a jihadist terrorist group based in North Africa. As a formal al-Qaeda affiliate, the group is dedicated to dismantling regional governments and implementing sharia (Islamic law) in areas where it operates, primarily in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia, and Niger. In December 2015, AQIM linked up with its former offshoot, al-Mourabitoun, to carry out attacks throughout the Sahel region. The groups carried out a series of deadly terrorist attacks, including the November 2015 attacks in Mali, the January 2016 attacks in Burkina Faso, and the March 2016 attacks in Côte d’Ivoire.
On March 2, 2017, AQIM merged with local Salafist groups Ansar al-Dine and al-Mourabitoun to form Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), led by Iyad Ag Ghali, Ansar al-Dine’s former emir. While operating under a new name and new emir, JNIM appears to remain under the direction of AQIM and AQ central. Ghali pledged allegiance to both al-Qaeda central and AQIM emir Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud. In 2017, al-Qaeda-linked groups were responsible for 276 attacks in Mali and West Africa, comparable to the number of attacks its affiliated groups launched in 2016.
AQIM finds its roots in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an Islamist movement founded in Algeria in the early 1990s. GIA leader Hassan Hattab split from the GIA over ideological differences, and he later founded the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). In September 2006, GSPC merged with al-Qaeda, formally rebranding itself as AQIM in the months following. In Mali, AQIM is known for its de facto war with the French government beginning in 2013, as well as its extensive history of kidnapping and extortion.
AQIM aligns its movement with al-Qaeda’s broader goals to institute sharia (Islamic law) in all its areas of operation. Then-leader Abdelmalek Droukdel told the New York Times in 2008 that “Our first goal is the arbitration of the Lord of the world’s law [Sharia], and the achievement of the servitude to God. Our general goals are the same goals of Al Qaeda the mother, and you know them.”
AQIM perceives all non-Islamist governments as illegitimate and, accordingly, seeks to replace the various governments in the countries in which AQIM operates. According to Droukdel, these governments “are all secretions of the colonialism that invaded our country in the last two centuries, and enabled those regimes to govern. Therefore, they started governing for its account and on behalf of it. They implement its programs and protect its interests and fight Islam on its behalf.” Moreover, the group specifically targets what it sees as continued Western influence in the region. According to Droukedel, “We seek to liberate the Islamic Maghreb from the sons of France and Spain and from all symbols of treason and employment for the outsiders, and protect it from the foreign greed and the crusader’s hegemony.” Regarding attacks on American interests, Droukdel said that, “We will strive to strike them whenever we can.”
Like all al-Qaeda outfits, AQIM has a distinct hierarchy, with a leader or emir at its head. The former emir was Abdelmalouk Droukdel. AQIM also has a central decision-making body, the Majlis al-Ayan (Council of Notables), its own media wing, Al-Andalus Media Productions, and a Sharia Council that governs Islamic legal matters. French troops killed Droukdel in Mali on June 4, 2020. On November 21, 2020, AQIM released a video that showed the body of its former leader while also announcing Abu Ubaydah Yusef al-Anabi—the former leader of AQIM’s Council of Notables—as the group’s new leader.
After al-Mourabitoun re-joined AQIM in 2015, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri allegedly ordered a regional division among his commanders. Droukdel was placed in charge of Algeria, al-Mourabitoun leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar of Libya, and Djame Okacha (a.k.a. Abu Yahya al-Hammam) of West Africa. The Tunisian branch of AQIM has carried out a series of attacks in recent years, particularly in Tunisia’s Kasserine region. This regional division reflects the early organization of AQIM, which was divided in katibas (brigades) that both cooperated and competed with each other.
In March 2017, AQIM announced the formation of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) in a merger that included Ansar al-Dine and al-Mourabitoun. JNIM announced Ansar al-Dine’s former emir, Iyad Ag Ghali, as its leader. Ghali claimed that the factions had united “into one group” operating under “one emir” after al-Qaeda “sought unification according to Sharia law.” While operating under a new name and new emir, JNIM appears to remain under the aegis of al-Qaeda. Ghali paid bayat (allegiance) to al-Qaeda central and AQIM emir Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud. Thus, the relationship between AQIM and Ansar al-Dine and al-Mourabitoun has shifted from one of collaboration to a structured hierarchy with AQIM at the top.
AQIM acquires a significant portion of its funding through kidnapping and extortion. The State Department’s 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism noted that, in addition to kidnapping for ransom, the group also engages in criminal activities to finance its operations. Specifically, AQIM reportedly raises funds though “protection rackets, robbery, people and arms trafficking, money laundering and smuggling and increasingly, the facilitation of drug trafficking from South America into Europe.” Lastly, AQIM also successfully fundraises globally. This includes supporters residing in Western Europe, who “provide limited financial and logistical support.”
AQIM is also allegedly supported by foreign governments. According to the Anti-Defamation League, “The Algerian government has accused Iran and Sudan of funding the group. Al Qaeda also provides material and financial support to AQIM. In addition, AQIM has many members abroad, the majority located in Western Europe, who provide financial and logistical support.”
An April 2007 report by Lianne Boudali of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center suggested that the GSPC merged with al-Qaeda in part due to declining recruitment. Rebranding as AQIM and broadening their focus outside of Algeria and Tunisia made it easier for the group to recruit informants, logisticians, and militants. As part of this plan, GSPC trained and sent fighters to join Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—then the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq—in 2005. The increased scope and scale of attacks after 2007 suggests that AQIM successfully recruited some of these Iraqi fighters after Zarqawi’s death.
As AQIM shifted its focus away from Algeria and toward the more vulnerable west African countries of Mali, Niger, and Côte d’Ivoire, it increased its recruitment efforts within these countries. By 2016, Malians had reportedly replaced Algerians as the most prominent nationality within the group. This change is visible in the March 2016 beach resort attack in Côte d’Ivoire, in which all of the terrorists involved were sub-Saharan Africans.
Most of AQIM’s leadership first trained alongside Osama bin Laden during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the mid-2000s, GSPC trained recruits in the desert in temporary bivouacs which they moved after a few days. However in 2006 reports emerged suggesting that AQIM had sent men to train with Hezbollah in Lebanon. By the late 2000s, AQIM began training Boko Haram fighters in the construction of IEDs. According to internal documents seized from bin Laden’s compound, AQIM divides its training into two parts: “practical training and… theoretical training, which is less beneficial.”