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AQIM Expanding Reach in West Africa

  • Katarina Hoije

Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara, center, visits the area where gunmen attacked people in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast, March 13, 2016.

Ivory Coast's President Alassane Ouattara, center, visits the area where gunmen attacked people in Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast, March 13, 2016.

The deadly terror attack in Ivory Coast Sunday was the latest in a recent string of high-profile attacks in previously untouched parts of West Africa. The attacks have all been claimed by the same group, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, which not only appears to be bouncing back after the 2013 regional military intervention in Mali but also shifting strategy.

Sunday’s attack on a beach resort near Abidjan marked al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb’s farthest reach yet outside its traditional zone of operation.

West Africa security analyst Gilles Yabi says this expansion is not new.

He says this is definitely not their first attempt in Ivory Coast. He says Abidjan authorities said they stopped one operation several months ago. He says as long as AQIM has allies all over the region, it’s easy for them to conduct these seemingly sophisticated attacks far from their base in northern Mali and the border with Algeria. He says these kinds of attacks do not require a lot of men or resources.

Heavily armed gunmen opened fire Sunday at a popular Ivory Coast beach resort in Grand-Bassam, March 13, 2016.

Heavily armed gunmen opened fire Sunday at a popular Ivory Coast beach resort in Grand-Bassam, March 13, 2016.

Ivory Coast officials say soldiers killed three gunmen during the attack Sunday, the same number of attackers cited by AQIM in its short statement claiming responsibility.

AQIM has claimed two other similar attacks in the region – both on upscale hotels, both also done with just a handful of gunmen. The first, in Bamako in November, killed 20 people. The second, in Ouagadougou in January, killed 30.

AQIM has its roots in the 1990s Algerian civil war. The group pledged allegiance to al-Qaida in 2006. AQIM and its allies seized control of northern Mali for nine months in 2012 only to be chased out of urban centers by a French and regional military intervention in 2013.

In the past year, northerners and security officials say AQIM militants are once again becoming more visible in northern Mali, controlling roads and showing up at local community meetings.

Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga, security analyst and terrorism expert with the African Union, says he is also seeing a shift towards a more pan-African terrorist network.

He says AQIM was traditionally under the command of Algerians. Today, he says, it’s an internationalized movement with commanders from other countries as well.

However, the recent attacks have correlated with the return of fighters loyal to one of those longtime Algerian commanders.

An undated photo obtained by ANI Mauritanian news agency reportedly shows former Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaking at an undisclosed location.

An undated photo obtained by ANI Mauritanian news agency reportedly shows former Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) emir Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaking at an undisclosed location.

Mokhtar Belmokhtar broke away from AQIM in 2012. He masterminded a large attack on a gas plant in southern Algeria the following year that killed at least 37 foreign hostages.

Both the U.S. and Chadian militaries have claimed in recent years to have killed Belmokhtar in separate operations. Analysts, like Yabi, believe he may be alive.

Yabi says Belmokhtar’s experience smuggling cigarettes in the region would mean he knows routes all the way to Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. He says Belmokhtar at least helped plan these recent attacks and was definitely aware of the operations.

Analysts also offer up another theory behind this recent spate of hotel attacks. They say AQIM may be seeking to grab headlines as it competes with the Islamic State militant group for recruits.

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