Droukdel’s death is merely a symbolic success and will not result in a tangible regression of terror in the Sahel.
On June 3, the French Armed Forces killed Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and some of his close partners in northern Mali. Florence Parly, the French minister of defense, announced in a tweet that the death of Droukdel is a major success in the battle for peace in the region.
However, the security climate, hugely complex in nature, reveals a distinct reality: Droukdel’s death is merely a symbolic success and will not result in a tangible regression of terror in the Sahel.
Terror is not a recent concern
The presence of terror groups in North Africa and Sahel is an old security concern. In Algeria, the foundation of the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) in 1992 aimed at creating an Islamic state that transcends national frontiers. Six years later, Hassan Hattab left the GIA to form the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC).
This is when Droukdel became a prominent figure in the history of terrorism. In 2003, Nabil Sahraoui took power over the GSPC until his death in 2004. Droukdel then dominated the scene, but the event coincided with Hattab’s acceptance to enter into talks with the Algerian government. This strategy, reconciliatory and repressive, pushed the GSPC to merge with Al Qaeda, thus forming the notorious AQIM in 2007.
In 2012, the conflict in northern Mali allowed Droukdel to integrate a new battlefield, highly promising due to chaos in the region l. In parallel, he started to get close to the circle of Iyad Ag Ghaly, a prominent Tuareg figure who had founded Ansar Dine (AD) and cooperated with various groups to capture northern Mali. Yet, his primary goal was to instate Sharia, which helped unite AD with AQIM and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA).
Droukdel and the GSIM
The relation between Droukdel and Ag Ghaly concretized in March 2017 when AQIM fused with AD, Katiba Macina (close to AD), and al-Murabitun in the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM). Al-Murabitun was itself the result of a merger between MUJWA and the Signers of Blood, under the authority of the infamous Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
Three main factors contributed to the emergence of the GSIM. First, the French intervention under the aegis of the Serval Operation (2013-2014) and the Barkhane Operation (2014-present) was highly threatening for the survival of the groups.
The operation was particularly concerned with the reinforcement of the military apparatuses of Sahelian countries, the improvement of military coordination, and the creation of a climate that inhibits the spread of terror cells. Second, the expansion of regional reach was a significant goal that motivated fusion.
In fact, the post-2011 period saw an increase in safe havens, particularly with the eruption of the civil war in Libya and Syria, and the deterioration of the security climate in the broader Middle East and North Africa (MENA).
This regional order fragmented, allowing terror groups across the region to expand their reach, and the GSIM was no exception. Third, the remarkable presence of Daesh generated serious concerns in the circles of AQIM, AD, Katiba Macina, and al-Murabitun.
In fact, the Caliphate of Daesh saw a territorial retreat in the course of the international coalition against terror. Yet, North Africa and the Sahel proved promising for the increase of provinces. Hence, the export of the Daesh project and the return of foreign fighters represented an existential threat to groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. Therefore, the creation of a group like the GSIM was a means to shrink the power gap between Al Qaeda and Daesh.
Terror in the Sahel after Droukdel
Within this complex arena, the figure of Droukdel became secondary compared to the prominent role that Ag Ghaly started to play, which raises questions over Droukdel’s significance. Put simply, his elimination will not alter the security situation in the Sahel for three reasons.
First, Droukdel’s relative retreat did not have considerable implications on peace and security in the Sahel. Since 2012, insecurity has been rapidly worsening, with daily terrorist attacks taking place along the Sahel.
According to the Failed State Index 2020, Chad, Niger and Mali respectively record 106.4, 95.3 and 96, thus occupying the alert zone.Groups like the GSIM and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have been carrying out frequent attacks on civilians, foreign/local troops, and government facilities.
Amplified by the absence of robust state apparatuses and the presence of various institutional deficiencies in Sahelian countries, the activity of terror groups resulted in the displacement of thousands of people and hundreds of school closures. Clearly, this cycle of violence corroborates the fact that Droukdel’s influence was not decisive to shape order in the Sahel.
Second, AQIM is not the sole terror group that operates in the Sahel as it is part of the GSIM. This is significant for two reasons. First, the vacuum that normally results from a leader’s death will not result in remarkable vulnerabilities within AQIM because the group is embedded in a larger group, controlled by a range of important figures.
Second, Ag Ghaly is a powerful leader and his presence guarantees the survival and the regional reach of the GSIM. Still, he is not the sole figure since Amadou Koufa, radical preacher and leader of Katiba Macina, has also proven powerful in fueling instability, particularly in central Mali. Clearly, Droukdel’s death will not cause any rift at the level of the group and or the situation in the Sahel more widely.
Those groups do not necessarily coordinate attacks in formal or ad hoc patterns because they diverge on ideology, goals, and modi operandi. In the Sahel, the GSIM and the ISGS have been engaged in a fierce competition despite pledges to embark on a formal agreement. Still, the region-wide security vacuum opens the floor for new terror groups to emerge.
COVID-19 and the conflict in the Sahel
In theory, the outbreak of pandemics mitigates the intensity of wars and conflicts. In the case of COVID-19, Antonio Guterres called for a global ceasefire to ease the transfer of humanitarian aid. However, the activity of terror groups does not fit within the UN general secretary’s demand.
Indeed, groups like the GSIM and the ISGS seem to convert a global threat into an opportunity to foster regional chaos. Moreover, the vulnerability of many communities across the Sahel is likely to give a push to terror recruitment. Eventually, financial hardships and food insecurity precede ideological sympathy in commanding membership in a terror group.
So, Droukdels’ death is a mere symbolic success that will not alleviate terror in the Sahel. True, he was the leader of AQIM and a central figure in the history of terrorism, but his demise does not jeopardize the survival of the group. If the troops of the G5 Sahel and the Barkhane Operation have been mobilized to inhibit regional collapse, the outcomes achieved indicate a complex reality that cannot be improved solely through the military approach.