Al-Qaeda targets foreign firms in Sahel states

Terrorist groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), currently operating in the Sahel and Sahara, have started to issue new threats to foreign companies operating in the region, the Abu Dhabi think tank FARAS reveals in a special analysis published this week.

This is the same mechanism  previously used by the mother organization in 2013. The Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), a main branch of the organization, in a statement issued last month, described Western companies operating in this region as “legitimate targets” and urged support for for boycotting and attacking them. This is inseparable from main variables, the most important of which is the increasing regional and international interest in supporting the G5 Sahel force and ISIS’ escalating activity in this region.

What stands out in this context is that these threats come at a time when several regional and international powers involved in the war on terrorism are making efforts to revitalize the role of the G5 Sahel force, which includes troops from Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Burkina Faso, to confront terrorist organizations operating in the Sahel and Sahara. Al-Qaeda is trying to address the move by asserting its ability to carry out high-profile operations and countering the pressures it came under.

Accordingly, the targeting of the economic interests of Western powers is among the most important mechanism it used to conduct its strikes. This is especially so because these interests receive special attention from regional states that rely on foreign investments to support their national economies.

The approaching collapse of ISIS in Syria makes the Sahel and Sahara one of the regions likely to attract terrorists fleeing the country, especially after the group of Abu Waleed Al-Sahrawi, one of the groups loyal to ISIS, announced it would be returning to the region, earlier this year.

This situation will, no doubt, exacerbate security problems in the region making it an even more attractive hotbed for terrorists, smuggling gangs and and drug rings. This would pose a serious threat to foreign companies, especially because returnees are expected to operate individually as “lone wolves” targeting these companies or their workers.

This is inseparable from plans by al-Qaeda-affiliated groups to focus some of their terrorist operations on French and international interests and forces as well as armies of regional countries. Two separate attacks were carried out against peacekeeping troops in Mali in November 2017, leaving five soldiers dead and at least 25 others, from the international forces and the Malian army, injured. Another attack hit the French embassy and the headquarters of the Burkinabe army in Ouagadougou in March 2018, leaving eight people dead.

AQIM’s keen interest in resuming the targeting of foreign companies at this specific time can be explained in light of a group of considerations of which the following stand out:

Foreign companies operating in the Sahel and Sahara represent, according to several views, a target that can be reached through movements and steps less complicated than military or vital targets that are increasingly difficult to hit due to tightening security measures. This is especially so because targeting companies does not only involve their facilities but also foreign workers on its property. One such attack occurred in In Aminas in southeast Algeria in 2013, where more than 650 people, including more than 150 foreigners of various nationalities, were taken hostage before the Algerian forces intervened to free them.

Attacking workers of the foreign companies is a main source of funding for the activities of terrorist organizations whose members carry out operations to kidnap their foreign workers and demand ransoms to release them. This occurred in several countries of the region where such organizations are active.

Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen, affiliated with al-Qaeda in Mali, published a video showing six kidnapped foreigners alive only one day before French President Emmanuel Macron visited Mali where combating terrorism was a main topic of talks he held with the officials in Bamako.

Through targeting foreign companies, and French ones in particular, al-Qaeda is trying to put pressure on states that joined the Sahel force to withdraw their troops. This is an important mechanism that may cause a decline in its power and huge material and human losses as those suffered by ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. The reason is that regional and international powers show special interest in combating its activity in the region.

Meanwhile, leaders of al-Qaeda show a special concern over ISIS’ increasing activity in this region. This was reflected in a statement issued by the organization on 12 May 2018, to claim responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks, including one on a group of U.S. Special Forces soldiers in October 2017 in Niger. This may lead to an expansion of ISIS’ influence and pushed it to adopt the conventional mechanisms to target foreign companies as part of efforts to assert its influence and ability to compete with other terrorist organizations. Based on the information available, it might be argued that recent threats made by terrorist groups affiliated with AQIM against foreign companies operating in the Sahel and Sahara region could be a prelude to a new wave of terrorist attacks focused on the interests of foreign powers showing a special interest in eliminating these threats and supporting stability in the region.

Future for Advanced Research and Studies (FARAS) is an independent think tank founded on 4 April 2014 in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. FARAS seeks to enrich public dialogue, support decision-making and enhance academic research pertaining to future trends that currently constitute a real problem in the Middle East region. In light of instability and unpredictability, the overarching goal of FARAS is to help ward off future shocks regarding these developments.

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