Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is developing in the Sahara/Sahel countries as the recent multiple terrorist attacks and the Mali war show. Benefiting from the porous border, weak states, poverty, trafficking and insecurity, AQIM set up in this region and expanded its presence. As Al-Qaeda did in Afghanistan some 20 years ago, AQIM established sanctuaries in several countries. In regard to recent events in Mali, the organization is aiming to go further than establishing simple sanctuaries and create a real Islamic State.
Firstly an Al-Qaeda sanctuary has to offer protection to its members. It is a place where they can neither be arrested or killed by local security forces, nor monitored by intelligence services. That is why the group needs to find an area where the State is poorly present or where local security forces are powerless. Thereby, members can move relatively freely and discreetly in the region. As a result of this freedom of movement, members can take part in trafficking of guns, drugs or hostages so as to provide financial resources.
Secondly, the sanctuary must be established in an area geographically easy to defend – like mountains with caves or valleys – and close to the border of another country. So members can easily stay hidden or defend this area against a military intervention. If they happen to fail to defend the sanctuary they can cross the border and escape to another country.
Finally, a sanctuary gives the opportunity to Jihadists coming from different Islamist groups and different countries to meet each other, to train together and finally to forge links. This last element is particularly important for the future cooperation between the different groups. Indeed, most of the leaders of Islamist groups linked with Al-Qaeda met in training camps. Those links form a wide network between the different branches, groups or members throughout all of Africa.
A sanctuary – as described above – was established for years in Mali before the Tuareg rebellion. Indeed in January 2012 the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – helped by AQMI and its related Islamic groups (Ansar Dine and MUJWA) – ousted the Malian army out of northern Mali. Throughout 2012, Islamist groups controlled the main cities of northern Mali. During that period Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, the leader of AQIM, tried to implement a very ambitious new strategy in Mali in order to create what we could call a “State-sanctuary”.
According to a document found in Timbuktu entitled “General instructions about the Islamic Jihadist Project in Azawad“ written by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, northern Mali was the object of an “experimentation“. Indeed the AQIM leader gave instructions to the other Islamist groups to create a real Islamic State in Mali. This State would have been composed with all the elements of a real State as the Ministries of Justice, Defence, Education, Foreign Affairs, etc. He suggested incorporating in this State all the leaders of the different tribes. Those leaders had to be put on the front stage in order to convince the local population and powerful foreign countries of their legitimate claims. AQIM presence had to be hidden from the local population who rejects the radical Islam and obviously terrorism. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud’s advice to Islamist groups was to adopt “a mature and moderate rhetoric that reassures and calms [and avoids] any statements that are provocative to neighbouring countries and avoid repeated threats. […] Better for you [Ansar Dine] to be silent and pretend to be a “domestic” movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no call for you to show that we have an expansionary jihadist, Al-Qaeda or any other sort of project”. Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud advises the local groups to meet the expectations of the population. He had perfectly understood that to win the confidence of the population is essential for the future fight against military intervention. As we have seen in Afghanistan, population support is a crucial advantage for the Jihadist fighters. He wrote in the document: “It is difficult to find a population who support us, above all the enemy is constantly trying to work in order to deprive jihadists from their secure area“. For Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, the population and “secure area” (sanctuary) are fully associated.
In spite of this excellent plan, this strategy has never been implemented in Mali. Islamist groups did not follow the advice from AQIM leader and have violently imposed Sharia law. They started to cut the hands off thieves, destroyed some holy places in Timbuktu and persecuted women. So when the military intervention occurred, they were rejected by the population who helped the foreign troops.
However, Mali is not the only country in the region where AQIM could have set up a sanctuary. Indeed in Libya, AQIM members have close links with local Islamist groups, who are very powerful and have a political branch. The situation is critical due to the high level of insecurity, police and army are very weak and many armed militias act as warlords. In consequence the state is coming close to being a “failed state”. AQIM could try to create an Islamist State as it wanted to establish in Mali, while staying hidden behind local groups. But this time the population could be attracted by this idea.
Indeed, the frightened population could turn toward extremists, who are considered as most able to restore security justly because of their radicalism. Sharia could be a gathering element transcending tribes or militias. In Libya, Islamist political parties are directly link or infiltrated by Islamist groups and AQIM. This time the Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud strategy could work out.
 From French: Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA)
 The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and the movement of the defenders of Islam (Ansar Dine) are Islamist groups which have close links with AQIM.
Laurent de Castelli is graduated in Defence, Security and Crisis Management from the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) of Paris. He is specialized in terrorist groups in West Africa.