“Anyone who tries to destroy our villages and cities, then we are going to destroy their villages and cities. Anyone who steals our fortunes, then we must destroy their economy. Anyone who kills our civilians, then we are going to kill their civilians.” — Osama bin Laden
‘We do not negotiate with terrorists’— US/UK Governments
“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb
Last week we looked at the imperial expansion of Russia and China into Africa. It is their intent to exploit as many manufacturing and natural resources as they can without actually calling it imperialism. There, I said it! When push comes to shove, none of the great powers are in this for the general welfare of the rest of the world. Both Putin and Xi Jinping are on a quest to “Make Russia and China Great Again!” It appears that a primary field of their respective imperial goals is Africa.
This week we will look at their primary competitor in Africa: al Qaeda. Frankly, I was surprised to discover this myself. The al Qaeda imperial playbook has some differences from the Russian and Chinese playbooks. The Russian’s is about influence through military might, and the Chinese influence is about money. Al Qaeda’s playbook is about influence through relationships and manipulation. This will be an ongoing struggle long after you and I are dead.
Last week we saw how the Russians established their foothold through the infiltration of state sponsored mercenary groups such as the Wagner Group. We saw how the Chinese are investing heavily, buying up land and allegiance. This week we will see the long game of al Qaeda and how they are establishing their presence.
We will do a quick analysis of the rapid expansion of al Qaeda across north, middle, and south Africa by looking at a recent article published based on a 7-year study of al Qaeda in Africa. The research was conducted by Caleb Weiss, a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.
It is not my intent to make you an expert Africanist. By evaluating Caleb Weiss’s research, I want to demonstrate a couple of things. First, al Qaeda is not dead. Even though you may not currently be hearing about them in the mainstream media, they are still very much alive and active and they are playing a very strategic long game. Second, the Imperial Playbooks by the Russians, Chinese, and al Qaeda are eventually destined to collide. The Russian Wagner Group and the Chinese Private Military Companies (PMCs) exist to thwart the militaristic impact and influence of al Qaeda. Both Russia and China are entering into their own Vietnams, Iraqs, and Afghanistans. They will spend billions of Rubles and Yuans before it is all over. Inevitably, they will walk away from Africa having shed much blood, spilled much of their own blood, and provided al Qaeda with an enormous, albeit expensive, training exercise before either committing horrific atrocities to extricate themselves or just disappearing from the African scene during one dark night.
All three of these players have entwined themselves into a gordian knot, unable to extricate themselves with honor or without much pain and cost to both themselves and others. These imperial strategies have the potential to upset the global world order in ways that one can barely imagine. It is foreseeable that the Russians and Chinese will partner in many different ways to accomplish their strategic goals in Africa. However, I foresee a serious falling out between the Russians and Chinese, both of whom are unlikely, in the end, to share the head seat at the imperial table. It is very likely that their ultimate aims will clash and that they will separate into two completely different directions, even though it will be after they have established inter-African infrastructures and partnerships. The best one can hope for is a comity agreement, which will lead to a push for what nobody will call colonization. But if it walks like a duck and squawks like a duck…
Al-Qaeda’s “playbook” in Weiss’s report shows that the expansion of al Qaeda is composed of five fundamental tactics. These are key to understanding the al Qaeda Imperial Playbook.
- Befriending or creating militant groups operating in the midst of conflict.
- Integrating themselves into communities where those militants exist.
- Exploiting grievances of those communities to gain sympathy.
- Addressing internal or external dissent either passively or aggressively.
- Looking toward new theaters once their base is solidified.
“In 2021, the United Nations noted the newfound threats of the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), a branch of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), that extended into Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast, stretching farther yet into Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Had an observer in 2006 had this information presented to them, they might have scarcely believed it. That year, in which AQIM was formed, the group was a thoroughly North African organization and based primarily in Algeria. Fast forward 15 years, how did AQIM end up nearly 1,300 miles away, now posing immediate threats in the states of littoral West Africa? al Qaeda and its branches and allies in North and West Africa have followed the “al Qaeda Imperial Playbook,” as they have sought to expand their areas of influence southward. Al Qaeda’s “playbook,” is composed of the five fundamental tactics as outlined above. Al Qaeda has subsequently utilized this playbook to expand southward from its Algeria base in five distinct historical periods: from 1992- 1998; 1998-2006; 2006-2012; 2013-2017; and 2017-present. Al Qaeda and its affiliates in northern and western Africa are likely to continue to use this playbook as they continue their contemporary expansion into West Africa.
To be clear, al Qaeda has not used the exact same tactics—or the exact same iterations of these tactics—for expansion in each of the five time periods. Indeed, various periods saw the use of either variations of these tactics or, often, different or additional tactics as compared to its previous or subsequent historical eras. Depending on the needs of the organization to continue its expansion southward, different approaches were considered. All in all, however, each tactic fits within what Weiss refers to as “al Qaeda’s Imperial Playbook” for expansion throughout West Africa.
As such, al Qaeda’s history in the Sahel can be broken down into five basic chapters based on the aforementioned historical periods in order to understand how and why AQ moved southward in each period.
Beginning in its first time period (1992-1998), al Qaeda first moved into the Sahel around 1993 and 1994 as it supported the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in its fight in the civil war in Algeria. The connections between the GIA and al Qaeda were first formed in Afghanistan but were predominately forged and solidified in both Sudan and Niger. Moreover, as the GIA sought a safe rear base and a steady supply of weapons, money, and support, it utilized al Qaeda’s networks in the Sahel in addition to forming its own in both Niger and Nigeria. The networks established by the GIA were later taken over and subsumed by its splinter group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC).
Al Qaeda’s second time period of expansion (1998-2006) was marked by intense ideological battles that eventually overtook the GIA, which prompted the creation of the splinter group GSPC with al Qaeda’s assistance. Much like its predecessor, the GSPC initially looked to the Sahel as a viable rear base for its Algeria-focused mission. However, when its Sahel-based commanders (and this is key) began marrying into local tribes and families, bankrolling construction and offering other social support to locals, and establishing deep and lasting relationships with local powerbrokers, politicians, and criminals,
The GSPC began to take in flocks of local Sahelian recruits and collaborators. This influx of Sahelians significantly shifted the GSPC’s character away from being an Algeria-specific organization, to an outfit focused on both North Africa and the Sahelian grievances more generally. With this shift, the GSPC’s leadership saw the Sahel as a viable space for kinetic operations, starting with its attacks in Mauritania in June 2005.
In the third period of al Qaeda’s West African expansion (2006-2012), the GSPC officially became al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2007, with its focus remaining on expanding in the Sahel. Local efforts to establish a Mauritanian branch were made the same year, while the group also began to target Malian troops in 2009. It was in Mali that we first saw Russian mercenaries begin to flood in by the thousands. Further social integration within the Sahel also meant more local recruits, which was reflected in AQIM establishing several local brigades in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
As Tuareg rebellions occurred in the Sahara in the mid-2000s, AQIM took the opportunity to further integrate itself within the society of northern Mali. When a Tuareg rebellion inside Mali catapulted that country into conflict in 2012, AQIM took its newfound weaponry from the chaos in Libya to initially support the Tuaregs in taking over half of the country in mid-2012. Eventually, AQIM would turn on its one-time allies and rule over northern Mali alongside its local front organization and allies with its strict interpretation of sharia law. Around the same time in 2012, AQIM assisted in the creation of a pro-al Qaeda group inside Nigeria, Ansaru, offering al Qaeda its first official franchise in the country. Yet, the history of AQIM in the Sahel has not always been harmonious, as seen with the emergence of two splinter groups from the organization between 2011 and 2012—al- Mulathameen and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). These splinters, however, still cooperated with their parent organization, AQIM, and still operated in the Sahel in the name of al Qaeda.
Al Qaeda’s fourth expansionary time period in the Sahel (2013-2017) was marked by a period of significant rebuilding and reconstituting of its forces away from its historical areas of operation in Mali into areas such as Burkina Faso, Niger, and beyond. This was done by the merger of al-Mulathameen and MUJAO to form a new group, al-Murabitoon, in 2013, a move that was preceded by the two groups performing a large joint operation deep within Nigerian territory. For its part, between 2014 and 2015, Ansar Dine, one of the al Qaeda-loyal organizations in northern Mali, created several sub-groups across central and southern Mali. Meanwhile, in 2016, al Qaeda members in Mali assisted local Burkinabe jihadis to form Burkina Faso’s first jihadi organization, Ansaroul Islam.
The fifth and final expansionary period (2017-present) has seen al Qaeda’s widest expansion yet. By 2017, these outfits, Ansar Dine and its subgroups, AQIM’s Saharan wing, and al-Murabitoon publicly merged to form the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM). JNIM has since expanded farther across central and southern Mali, especially by deeply ingraining itself within local conflicts and local communities in order to build public support. Additionally, its violence has continued to spread outside of the Sahel and is now threatening several littoral West African states. Meanwhile, Ansaru, which is attempting a comeback after a period of dormancy, now threatens to create a contiguous battle zone for al Qaeda across much of the Sahel and West Africa.”
At the risk of overstating the significance of what is happening, there is way more happening within the fastest-growing continent on earth than meets the eye. On one hand, there are the Russians and Chinese, both of whom want to establish a level of influence that they have never experienced before. They both intend to dominate markets through the selling and purchasing of both manufactured and natural resources. They accomplishing this by aligning themselves with, what many would call petty, corrupt governments that are only superficially aligned with Islam. They are propping up unscrupulous, nonelected, unpopular governments. They are doing so through corrupt financial schemes—buying up local warlords and deploying heavy-handed mercenaries to serve as muscle for these nefarious governments.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the equation, al Qaeda, with its exploitative Salafist Islamic code, is manipulating its way into the hearts and minds of a generally uneducated population by fanning the flames of discontent with the corrupt governments, intent on both keeping the populace uneducated and feeding them a steady diet of anti-western rhetoric and ubiquitous hyperbole.
As I stated above, al Qaeda is playing a long game. They are instilling themselves into the local populations, intermarrying with their women, and investing in localized institutions such as schools, hospitals, and local economic enterprises. They are winning the hearts and minds of the local populaces. Their intent is not necessarily for the general welfare of the people, but to subjugate the local populations to embrace the salafist Islamic shari’a-based theology of al Qaeda.
Unless something is done by someone outside these three imperial players, this has the likely potential to go on for a long time.
Clearly something needs to be done in Africa to counter the egregious effects of the Imperialist machinations of al Qaeda, Russia, and China. Western nations have already proven themselves unable to cope with the immense realities of African diplomacy and partnership. There are new initiatives emerging and hopefully they will come with some new ideas.
There are several things that need to be considered at the forefront of any partnership strategy in Africa. There are a number of reasons it is clearly within the West’s best interest to get involved in Africa and to work with Africans in a partnering—rather than colonial—relationship. Here are a few variables that need to be considered.
- Africa is the fastest growing continent in the world. The West can either help them to develop markets and infrastructure in a mutually beneficial manner, or deal with the desperate millions who will come as illegal immigrants over the next decade.
- The Africa of 2022 is not the same Africa as a century ago. It has as much to offer the world as it will require from it if it is approached as a partner and not a lesser.
- Africa needs investment partners and not simply handouts. Working together to build manufacturing, agricultural, transportation, and STEM infrastructure is critical to its development as a continent. It is a relationship that will produce an abundance of prosperity for both parties.
- Security will be a key infrastructural need for all of Africa’s nations. A joint security infrastructural approach is key if there is any hope for Africa’s future.
- Each nation needs to seriously consider its greatest asset—its youth—as it thinks about its future. Educational infrastructures need immediate assistance and development.
- Healthcare infrastructures need immediate development as well. Western nations can make a significant impact by investing heavily in the health systems of Africa.
Most of all, Africans need to be treated as equal partners and not as tools for the accomplishment of other nation’s internal economic and socio-political goals. Respect and honor will conquer the nefarious effects of the machinations of the Russians, Chinese, and al Qaeda. There is little will to compete with either the Russians or the Chinese. Western strategists can’t even imagine how to compete with the al Qaeda playbook. There are examples of successes in Africa that cannot be diminished. Countries such as Mozambique and Liberia have exceeded expectations and others such as Botswana, Ghana, and Tanzania have quietly made progress with the business of reforms.
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For your comments or questions about any of our digests please feel free to write to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
“Twenty-eighth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 15, 2021, p. 8.