Association of Concerned Africa Scholars Review (previously: Bulletin)
ACAS Bulletin 85: US militarization of the Sahara-Sahel: Security, Space & Imperialism

From GSPC to AQIM: The evolution of an Algerian islamist terrorist group into an Al-Qa‘ida Affiliate and its implications for the Sahara-Sahel region

June 2010

I. Introduction

Al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Algeria’s largest and most active Islamist terrorist organization, was formerly known as the Groupe salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, and usually referred to by its French acronym (GSPC, Salafist Group for Call/Preaching and Combat). It began in the late 1990s as a splinter faction of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), then fighting a bloody insurgency against the Algerian military government with the goal of establishing an Islamic state. GSPC/AQIM eclipsed its predecessor and remains active not only in Algeria but also in the neighboring Sahelian states. Best known for its raids and bombings against Algerian military bases and convoys, the group has also perpetrated kidnappings of European tourists and terrorist attacks in Mauritania and Mali. It has likewise been linked to planned strikes in Europe, as well as to smuggling and human trafficking across the vast Sahara. This article will examine the transformation of the GSPC, whose stated goal was the overthrow of Algeria’s long-ruling secular nationalist government, into AQIM, a participant in the global jihad allegedly committed to the destruction of the “Far Enemy.”

Little known outside Algeria, the GSPC burst onto the international scene in early 2003 with the spectacular kidnapping of thirty-two European tourists in Algeria’s southern desert massifs. The kidnapping was resolved after the German government reportedly ransomed the hostages. But the perpetrators, led by a mysterious GSPC amir (leader) named Amari Saïfi (a.k.a. Abdelrezak El-Para), were tracked down in a dramatic four-country chase across the desert, culminating in the capture of Saïfi in northern Chad. This joint action, reportedly given logistical support by US forces of the European Command (Eucom), was generally credited to the new Pan Sahel Initiative (PSI), the first organ of the US program of securitization of the Sahel, which involved Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Chad. Though groundwork for the PSI had begun before the kidnapping, Saïfi’s daring action and the GSPC itself quickly became the principal justifications for the American initiative. Congress subsequently expanded the PSI into the Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Partnership (TSCTP), involving nine North and West African countries, including Algeria, America’s new African partner in the War on Terror.

The US and Algeria forged ahead with their securitization programs in the Sahel despite concerns that a US military presence in the region would make the security situation there worse, not better, and allegations that Saïfi might have been abetted by elements of the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS, Department of Intelligence and Security) , Algeria’s military intelligence agency (Johnson 2009: 7). Meanwhile, the GSPC, under another mysterious desert amir, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, appeared to be moving in the direction of “hybrid” terrorist organizations, as concerned with contraband trafficking as with anti-government resistance. By early 2007 the GSPC had morphed once again into AQIM, an Al-Qa‘ida affiliate pledging loyalty to Osama bin Laden’s global jihad. It will be argued that changes in the posture of the GSPC/AQIM suggest that the organization is more concerned with its own survival than with either of its previously stated goals: overthrowing the Algerian government or advancing global jihad (Filiu 2009: 223). It will also be argued that the US and Algeria have made use of and perhaps exaggerated the threat posed by GSPC/AQIM to justify their own goals: for the Americans, a military and economic foothold in Africa; for Algeria, the continued rule of its authoritarian government.

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