Al-Qaeda's North African affiliate is exploiting the conflict in Libya to acquire weapons, an Algerian official told Reuters last week. Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is reportedly amassing surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank weapons, rocket-propelled grenades, explosives, heavy machine-guns and other small arms and smuggling them to lawless areas in Mali. Separately, the U.S. State Department has expressed similar concerns that al-Qaeda is exploiting the power vacuum as Libya's civil war drags on.
While the wisdom of NATO intervention is still very much in doubt, the challenge of AQIM in North Africa presents an opportunity. NATO is mobilized and operating in an important theater in the war on terror. So, as it patrols the skies for Libyan aircraft and prevents the Libyan military from bombing civilians, NATO should also exploit occasions to take out AQIM targets identified by allied intelligence.
AQIM is a high priority for NATO nations. France, in particular, has had it out for the terror group after it kidnapped several of its citizens and held them for ransom. In July 2010, French commandos, with Mauritanian assistance, killed and wounded several AQIM members who were holding hostages at a base in the Mauritanian desert. In January of this year, French Special Forces again raided an AQIM hideout in Niger to rescue two nationals who were kidnapped by the group.
France is the only country to have actively hit back at the group. But other NATO members have their own grievances. In recent years, AQIM has kidnapped Spaniards, Italians and Brits. The group sometimes releases these hostages in exchange for hefty ransoms, but in many cases, when its demands are not met, it carries out gruesome executions.
NATO members also are concerned about AQIM's significant network of financial nodes throughout Europe. The group has dozens of cells in Germany, Spain, Italy, France, the U.K., Switzerland and elsewhere. These cells derive profits from car theft, credit card fraud, document forgery and donations, then send them back to North Africa and the Sahel, where the group carries out kidnappings, ambushes against local government installations, and suicide bombings.
The U.S. military also has tangled with AQIM. The group reportedly sent more than 1,000 fighters to attack U.S. soldiers during the jihadi campaign in Iraq. The Treasury Department has targeted AQIM figures through sanction designations (such as AQIM's emir Abdelmalek Droukdel in 2007 and three other leaders in 2008), and the State Department maintains the group on its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. AFRICOM, the U.S. military's African command, has assisted African nations struggling to combat this deadly terror squad.
Canada also has trained African forces to battle AQIM. The urgency of this mission became clear after the group kidnapped two Canadian diplomats, Robert Fowler and Louis Guay, in December 2008. (They were lucky; AQIM released them after 130 days.)
In many ways, an allied air assault against AQIM's mobile bases of operation across North Africa is long overdue.
Some NATO members will undoubtedly oppose an expansion of their mandate in Libya. But military operations against AQIM should not necessarily be viewed as a separate mission. As NATO nations struggle to guide Libya toward post-war stability, these operations can ensure that al-Qaeda does not reap the benefits of Muammar Gaddafi's departure.
AQIM has already stated that Libya is a top priority. In February, the group issued a statement calling all Muslims to join the uprising against Gaddafi and to help install an Islamist regime in its place. Since then, several credible reports have indicated that jihadis have joined the Libyan opposition. In an interview with an Italian newspaper, rebel leader Abel Hakim al-Hasidi admitted that in his ranks "on the front lines in Adjabiyah" were fighters from Afghanistan and Iraq.
While the presence of jihadis among Libya's anti-Gaddaffi forces raises important questions about the wisdom of NATO intervention in Libya and its implied strategy of regime change, these countries now have the responsibility to help prevent further AQIM infiltration in Libya and across the region. This can be done with pinpoint intelligence and air strikes.
According to NATO, coalition aircraft have carried out more than 330 strike sorties since taking command of the mission on March 23. With an expanded mandate, and perhaps a few more sorties in Niger, Mali, Mauritania or other territories where the itinerant AQIM sets up camp, NATO nations can help roll back the terror group while simultaneously isolating Gaddafi.
The strikes should not take place in Libya. Rather, they should only target AQIM locales in neighbouring states where the leaders would embrace the targeting of unwelcomed terrorist fighters and their weapons caches, and only when impeccable intelligence from NATO member nations provides the opportunity. Such opportunities will only present themselves from time to time. This would not amount to a full-blown campaign.
Would NATO members embrace such a plan? The likelihood is low. But the question deserves attention. A mobilized NATO has the opportunity to weaken a deadly al-Qaeda affiliate that is now arming itself with Libyan weapons.