With recent events in Mali and Algeria, there is a notable uptick in interest in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). One question commentators are asking is what the relationship is between AQIM and al Qaeda’s senior leadership (AQSL) in Pakistan, under Ayman al Zawahiri. The word I’ve seen employed most frequently to describe the links between the two is “murky.”
I agree with the characterization that the relationship between AQIM and AQSL is murky; but when it is translated into popular discourse, murkiness is often inaccurately understood as “we don’t know if there are ties between the two.” For example, Max Fisher writes at the Washington Post, “It’s tough to know the exact connection between leaders in the Algeria-based AQIM and those in far-away Afghanistan and Pakistan…. It’s entirely possible that AQIM’s links to al-Qaeda already are, are becoming, or will become closer to al-Qaeda than we think.” The clear implication is that there may be some connections between AQIM and AQSL, but that it is impossible to know whether they exist, and if so, to what extent. Likewise, Jason Burke writes in The Guardian, “The ties binding AQIM to the leadership of al-Qaida far away in south-west Asia have always been tenuous. The difficulties in communication, let alone travel, precluded any tight co-operation.”
But the documents captured from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad do reveal communications between AQIM and AQSL that extend over the span of four years, and include discussion of strategic and operational issues. While it is possible that after bin Laden’s death, when Ayman al Zawahiri became AQSL’s emir, these communications were crippled or otherwise ceased, there’s no reason that this should be our a priori assumption. This entry is designed to add granularity to the discussion of AQIM and AQSL through a look at the Abbottabad documents. It concludes by agreeing that the AQIM/AQSL relationship is murky, but explaining that commentators can do a better job of representing the ambiguities.
The Abbottabad Documents on AQSL and AQIM
Four of the released Abbottabad documents make referfence to the AQSL/AQIM relationship. I examine these documents in the chronological order in which they were written:
Document 11, circa early 2007. The author states that he is in in contact with members of AQIM, who are doing fine. He includes an upbeat message from AQIM (“the brothers in Algeria”) saying that “things are steadily improving: morale is rising, support is growing, and military activity has been improving recently. Every week there is a bombing, an encounter or ambushes.” The message from AQIM says that “the enemy,” presumably the Algerian military, was “thrown off by the recent strikes and have responded with continuous random shelling of the mountains. This has been very good for the brothers, as much of the ammunition has not detonated and the brothers are using it.” AQIM records five casualties within the week preceding their message.
There are tactical notes from AQIM regarding the fight against the Algerians. They state their concern “about the Russian Cobra helicopters (MI-34) with laser-guided missiles; they are impacting on the four-wheel-drive vehicles, which are indispensible in the Sahara Desert. Underlying that is the problem of badly needed money for good-quality weapons to counter these menacing helicopters; the mujahedin don’t have single one of them, nor a single missile.” The Algerians’ infrared sensors are singled out as being of particular concern.
The correspondence records that the “commander of the east” informed AQIM that they received four Libyan recruits in the past week, following a group of thirty the week before that. (Note that this precedes al Qaeda’s formal merger with the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group by around a year, indicating that Libyans were already joining AQIM before the merger occurred.) The Libyan recruits were being trained at Tabsa, which is about 600 kilometers east of Algiers, and featured in late 2006 AQIM/GSPC propaganda.
Document 19, circa May/June 2010. This letter, from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, requests (p. 26) that messages be sent to the leadership of AQIM and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) asking them to coordinate with Yunis al Mauritani (“Shaykh Yunis”) in “whatever he asks of him.” In particular, bin Laden asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should provide al Mauritani with “financial support that he might need in the next six months, to the tune of approximately 200,000 euros.” Bin Laden specifies that al Mauritani should be given a name that doesn’t divulge his nationality, and asks ‘Atiyya to set up “a secure method of communications and coordination” between al Mauritani and both AQIM and AQAP. Bin Laden stresses the need for “the utmost secrecy” regarding al Mauritani’s doings, and says that knowledge of his operations should be restricted to AQIM and AQAP’s leadership.
Document 15, October 21, 2010. In this letter from bin Laden to ‘Atiyya, Abu Yahya al Libi is appointed as ‘Atiyya’s first deputy, and a big part of his mission is providing religious guidance (“sharia research”) to both AQIM and Somalia’s al Shabaab. With respect to AQIM, bin Laden writes (p. 5): “The brothers in the Islamic Maghreb might experience divisions. To avoid this, the research that you said that you are going to prepare on dealing with the apostates should be sent to them. It should be complete and comprehensive and it should include the opinions of the scholars.”
Bin Laden also sends a messages to Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud (the head of AQIM) through ‘Atiyya, stating that ‘Atiyya should add an attached file “to the files of brother ‘Abd-al-Wadud or you can send it to them [i.e. AQIM] as part of your correspondence to them.”
Further, bin Laden advises AQIM (p. 11) that “planting trees helps al mujahedin and gives them cover” from satellites and spy planes. He notes that trees “would give al mujahedin the freedom to move around especially if the enemy sends spying aircraft to the area.” He suggests that they get trees from plantations, “or they can even create their own plantation.”
Document 10, April 26, 2011. In this letter to ‘Atiyya, Bin Laden writes about French hostages being kept by AQIM. At the time, France was involved in military operations against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Bin Laden warns that because the French are involved in this way, French hostages should not be killed because “the atmosphere after the French standing towards the Libyan people does not condone killing the French, due to what will follow of negative reflections, after it became evident that most of the common people are supporting Sarkozy.”
Bin Laden advises AQIM to keep the hostages until after the 2012 French elections; and if this isn’t possible, he wants to exchange half of them, and keep the other half (“the higher ranking and the more important ones”). He does not want the negotiations between AQIM and the French government to be public, but he does want the hostage issue to remain a political liability for Sarkozy. AQIM appears to have largely handled the hostages in a manner consistent with bin Laden’s directives, though obviously it is difficult to ascribe causality to bin Laden’s letter.
Only a fraction of the Abbottabad documents that U.S. forces captured have been released publicly. However, the limited released material indicates ongoing communication between AQSL and AQIM that goes beyond current implications in the public discourse that we do not know if they were in touch. This communication extended over several years — 2007 through 2011 — and survived changes in AQIM’s leadership and also attrition within AQSL’s ranks.
There are most definitely ambiguities within this evidence due to the fact that we’re only seeing a shadow of the overall relationship. For example, we are only seeing one side of the correspondence: in every instance, we do not know the response prompted by the letters that were sent. It is worth noting, though, that nowhere in these documents do we see indications that bin Laden thought AQIM had been unresponsive to him, nor that the length of time it took to communicate precluded effective contact or some form of cooperation between AQIM and AQSL.
Al Qaeda and its various branches and affiliates did not operate as a perfectly hierarchical organization even before bin Laden’s death. An article that I continue to recommend detailing the relationship the senior leadership had with other entities is Leah Farrall’s “How Al Qaeda Works,” which was published in Foreign Affairs in early 2011. Farrall wrote, “Due to its dispersed structure, al Qaeda operates as a devolved network hierarchy, in which levels of command authority are not always clear; personal ties between militants carry weight and, at times, transcend the command structure between core, branch, and franchises. For their part, al Qaeda’s core members focus on exercising strategic command and control to ensure the centralization of the organization’s actions and message, rather than directly managing its branch and franchises.”
The Abbottabad correspondence fits well with Farrall’s framework. One may adopt a minimalist or maximalist interpretation of what the Abbottabad documents mean. On the maximalist side:
- AQIM was sending situation reports back to AQSL, which may indicate that they sought its strategic guidance or even approval.
- Bin Laden was providing significant guidance into how AQIM should fit into al Qaeda’s plans in other theaters. Al Mauritani, for whom bin Laden was trying to ensure both AQIM and AQAP’s cooperation, was at the time preparing a terrorist plot for Europe, news of which would break later that year.
- The religious guidance that bin Laden wanted provided to AQIM in Document 15 suggests that he sees AQSL as influential enough to heal potential rifts within the group.
- One can argue that the fact the French hostages whom bin Laden wrote about in April 2011 were handled consistent with his advice may indicate his influence over AQIM.
- One can argue that Document 11 indicates that communication between AQIM and AQSL may have been relatively fast. The correspondence refers to events that were happening during the past week, which may indicate that AQIM thought AQSL would receive the missive while it was still timely.
On the minimalist side:
- One can point to the language bin Laden used to suggest that he did not consider himself to have a great deal of control over AQIM. For example, in Document 19, rather than just ordering AQIM to provide Mauritani with financial support, he asks ‘Atiyya to “hint” to AQIM that they should do so.
- One can argue that the path of the correspondence indicates that it was likely slow. Bin Laden was communicating with ‘Atiyya rather than communicating directly with AQIM, and ‘Atiyya may have in turn needed to pass the message through another intermediary.
- Further, the indirect nature of the communication may have diminished the sway bin Laden could have over AQIM through the force of his personality.
Of course, when you are seeing only a fraction of a relationship, there will be a great deal of questions about the whole. But the Abbottabad documents are indicative of long-running communication between AQIM and AQSL preceding bin Laden’s death that goes beyond the public commentary suggesting that we don’t even know if there are “ties” between them. This does not mean the AQIM/AQSL relationship isn’t murky — it is — but our discussion of that murkiness should certainly take note of the data points that are available to us.