Al Qaeda recruiting in the Islamic Maghreb

The high illiteracy and extreme poverty make it easy to find young recruits.

REUTERS/CONTRASTO/JOE PENNEY

Following the liberation of northern Mali by French and African armed forces in 2013, many observers wondered what happened to all of those Al Qaeda combatants. A series of tragic events revealed that the jihadists have established new strongholds in the desert of southern Libya and in the mountainous region of Jebel Chaambi between Algeria and Tunisia.

In the wake of the counteroffensive waged by French and Malian troops against the Islamic extremists, the terrorist organizations closed ranks. The long war in Libya and the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime further changed the situation radically in Mauritania where new terrorist sleeper cells are springing up. The country’s young people have been singled out by Al Qaeda as a promising source of new recruits. Low levels of education and a low socioeconomic status make them particularly receptive to sermons calling for the foundation of an Islamic State in the Sahel.

The adult literacy rate is roughly 59%, according to a 2013 United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, while some local experts maintain that the rate of unemployment is approximately 33% and that working conditions have become virtually unsustainable: precarious jobs, low salaries and a weak social security network are the order of the day in a context characterized by a complete lack of respect for workers.

 The population is subjected to constant price rises for everyday goods and necessities and all of the social classes are becoming increasingly exposed to risk and disease. These developments perfectly suit Al Qaeda’s objectives of rooting itself in the Sahel region, a geopolitically sensitive area that links the Arab Maghreb with western sub-Saharan Africa.

In Mauritania there has been a rapid proliferation of madrasas, or Islamic schools. Some appear to be edging beyond the control of the local authorities, and their ulema (Muslim scholars) are preaching that the counteroffensives by non- Muslims against Islamist groups must be stopped and that any form of involvement in the jihad against the ‘infidels’ is a sacred duty.

“We are very concerned about the situation afflicting the Sahel and, in particular, Mauritania. Some Koranic schools have been involved in episodes of terrorism and the ulema should openly report these practices that damage the image of Islam. Mauritanian society has always followed a form of Islam based on tolerance and respect and it condemns these schools that are leading the young astray”, says Ahmad Al Mihidi, a researcher with the Institute of Strategic Studies in Mauritania.

The people of northern Mali, which is dominated by jihadist affiliates of the Al Qaeda group, are prevalently of Arab or Tuareg origin and have relatives in Mauritania. In addition to speaking Arabic and Tamasheq, these people also know the territory very well and such knowledge is priceless when it comes to shortening distances between northern Mali and Libya. To exploit this strategic resource, Al Qaeda is increasing its contact with a growing number of young people in this part of the world.

Attempts by the local authorities to contain the terrorist epidemic have been hampered by the fact that many leaders of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who are active in northern Mali have Mauritanian origins. The authorities have been committed to a massive fight against terrorism since 2005 when 17 Mauritanian soldiers lost their lives in attacks on the Lemgheity military base, but the situation has become increasingly difficult to control due to the spread of the internet in the country.

New recruits are being approached not only directly but also over the internet. In the internet cafes that proliferate in the capital, Nouakchott, access to extremist Salafi material is just a click away. Websites linked to the murky networks of Al Qaeda are accessible not only in Nouakchott and other cities but also in almost the entire country. Furthermore, the sum that is being offered in exchange for joining a terrorist organization – around €1,000 – often plays a crucial role in the recruiting process, especially if the family of the young person in question is in need of money to pay off debts.

According to anonymous local sources, at least 200 young Mauritanians have been recruited since 2013. In October 2014, the local authorities broke up a group that was enrolling men for Daesh (otherwise known as IS).

On 31 April 2015, the countries of the Arab Maghreb Union met in Nouakchott and decided to beef up their internet surveillance, in particular monitoring of the social networks. This operation had no effect on the jihadists, however, and Mauritania’s civil and military authorities have proven unable to counter the recruitment of young people to the ranks of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups that continue to demonstrate their ingenuity in successfully moving forward their mission. 

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