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Strategic Forum №268

Strategic Forum №268

The Evolving Threat of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb by Andre Le Sage

The United States faces an important strategic question in northwest Africa: what level of activity by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) would constitute a sufficient threat to U.S. national security interests to warrant a more aggressive political, intelligence, military, and law enforcement response? AQIM already poses the greatest immediate threat of transnational terrorism in the region, and its operational range and sophistication continue to expand. Since 2007, the group has professed its loyalty to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s senior leadership and claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks in the subregion. These attacks have included the use of suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, kidnapping operations, and assassinations.

AQIM’s targets include African civilians, government officials, and security services; United Nations (UN) diplomats and Western embassies; and tourists, aid workers, and private sector contractors. As a result, combating AQIM is the focus of substantial foreign security assistance provided by Western countries, including the United States and France, to their partner nations in the Maghreb and Sahel. In 2005, the United States created the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership (TSCTP) to coordinate activities by the Department of State, Department of Defense (DOD), and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to combat terrorism in the region. Now including 10 African countries, TSCTP operates with a combined annual interagency budget of approximately $120 million.

However, the extent of the threat posed by AQIM and the appropriate U.S. response remain hotly debated in both academic and policy circles. These debates question the seriousness of the threat posed by a relatively small group of hundreds of militants operating in mountainous and arid areas of Africa, their level of ideological commitment versus their criminal and financial motivations, and even the potential complicity of regional security services in supporting AQIM.

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