On March 2, several prominent North African terror groups announced their official unification with al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In a video statement announcing the merger, the leaders of several Sahel-based terror groups pledge their allegiance to al-Qaeda’s central leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, as well as AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, like reported by soufangroup.com.
The official merger of some of the region’s most lethal terrorist organizations under the banner of al-Qaeda demonstrates the group’s successful strategy of cultivating long-term relationships with local extremist organizations to expand its global network. The consolidation of the Sahel’s extremist groups into an existing al-Qaeda franchise—coming just after a similar merger of extremist groups in Syria—makes clear that this model remains highly successful for al-Qaeda.
The merger also highlights al-Qaeda’s ability to carefully navigate the complex tribal and ethnic dynamics of local militant groups while patiently building relationships based on mutual support—one of the enduring tenets of bin Ladinism. Bin Ladin had long understood the potential for al-Qaeda to make inroads in the Sahel—where local militant organizations tend to form around shared tribal or ethnic identities—and emphasized that its expansion in the region would require a keen and sensitive approach to bridging demographic divides. After more than a decade, al-Qaeda’s cultural sensitivity towards local North African militant groups appears to be paying off. While ethnic divisions among local militant groups had previously frustrated AQIM’s efforts to achieve a coherent strategy to unite the disparate local militant groups under one banner, the groups involved in the recent merger hail from a variety of ethnic groups, including Tuareg, Fulani, and Arab. AQIM’s support for these groups has been one of the few constants in the history of terrorism in North Africa, even as many groups often sought to maintain a degree of separation from al-Qaeda. Years of tactical partnerships, including shared finances and joint operations—especially during the short-lived domination of northern Mali by a coalition of extremist groups—helped cement the bonds on which the recent merger was based. Over a decade of collaboration with AQIM helped convince local militants of the group’s long-term commitment to the region, and the utility of sacrificing a degree of autonomy in exchange for the benefits of membership in al-Qaeda’s global network.
The merger in the Sahel comes just two months after al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate successfully absorbed a host of extremist Syrian opposition groups under the name Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), marking a newly branded coalition of powerful hardline rebel groups. Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate has been a major player in the ongoing civil war, often acting as an indispensable military force in a coalition of rebel groups during the most important battles of the Syrian conflict. It has also been instrumental in the destruction of more moderate Syrian rebel groups, helping to make the extremist domination of the Syrian opposition a foregone conclusion. The group’s unbridled extremist credentials, its relatively successful record of targeting the Assad regime, and its demonstrated commitment to playing the long game in Syria all served to draw other extremist rebel groups into its orbit over time. After cultivating relationships with many of these groups since the start of the conflict—including elements of the powerful militant group Ahrar al-Sham—the merger with a large portion of the Syrian opposition’s more extreme elements was the culmination of these efforts.
Al-Qaeda’s demonstrated ability to co-opt local extremist groups has been instrumental in the construction of its global franchise system, with al-Qaeda affiliates currently thriving from Africa to South Asia. With local militants in Syria and North Africa now increasingly rallying around al-Qaeda’s global terror network, the threat of terrorism—both in these regions and beyond—will only increase. While the world remains focused on defeating the so-called Islamic State, al-Qaeda is quietly exploiting the opportunity to expand its global terrorist enterprise.