The roots of AQIM can be found in early 1990’s with the creation of Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA), an extremely violent Islamic organization that was active from 1992 to 1998. During the Algerian Civil War between the Algerian Government and various Islamist rebel groups, GIA conducted a series of attacks in which many Algerians citizens lost their lives. Those massacres reduced the popularity of GIA and consequently led the group to decline.
In 1998 the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat- GSPC) was found, an outgrowth from the once powerful GIA. GSPC (and GIA) was aiming to overthrow the Algerian government and institute an Islamic State in Algeria. In 2006, Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al-Qaeda, announced the union between the two organizations. Thus, the group changed its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
AQIM has traditionally been a weak node of Al-Qaeda’s terrorist network, which had mostly been engaged in kidnapping and extortion cases (although it started its action by blowing-up a UN building in Algiers). Two factors contributed in making it one of the most important strongholds of Al-Qaeda. First, the political instability in the region, after the Arab Spring and the Malian coup, played a crucial role in making Al-Qaeda a reliable partner and sponsor for the local Salafist element. Second, it is the political and geographic nature of Sahel. Since it is an under-governed area and no local state exercises effective control over it, it has been the paradise of drug trafficking, smuggling and weapons circulation.
The weakness of the regional states to exercise effective control and the current political developments have amplified the cooperation between secessionist groups (like the Tuareg), and the local Salafist element, as happened in Mali. The Malian military coup in March played a vital role in the rising of AQIM in the region.
AQIM partnered with Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) and together they have effectively taken control over Azawad in northern Mali (they control almost 2/3 of the area). This partnership is of great importance due to the nature of its components. Ansar Dine’s leader, Iyad Ag-Ghaly, has been a core contributor to the Tuareg Rebellion movement during early 1990’s. AQIM has taken advantage of the Tuaregs’ ambition to establish a self-governed state in Azawad and thus, it supported the Tuareg independence by declaring French, Algerian and Malian governments as enemies.
It is now believed that AQIM has not played a role in sparking the Arab Spring, but it tried to take advantage of the situation, particularly in Libya. To this end, AQIM has created a new partnership with another Salafist organization Ansar al-Sharia. Ansar al-Sharia was formed during the Libyan Civil War and is responsible for the attack against the U.S ambassador in Benghazi, Christopher Stevens. This attack reflects that AQIM maintains terrorist cells in Benghazi, which can use sophisticated techniques and act well-organized.
The appearance of AQIM in the region has been an increasing security threat for the neighboring countries. Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Morocco have expressed concerns about the dangers that stem from the presence of Al-Qaeda in the region. These weak African states seem to be incapable of dealing with such a menace, but the reaction from the Western world and Algeria seems to be tepid. Even if the Algerian government is the most prominent enemy of AQIM, it seems to have taken a passive position on the issue.
At first, Algiers was against a NATO-lead operation in Libya, for fear that such an attempt would unleash Al-Qaeda in the area. Second, the Algerian government did not take action during the Malian crisis. On the contrary, it withdrew its military advisers and considered the issue as an internal one. After the latest events in the Muslim world and the attack on the U.S Consulate in Benghazi, the Algerian government seems to reconsider its position.
Media reports mention that AQIM brigades in Mali have taken up defensive measures, such as digging ditches and laying landmines. Such a reaction reflects the organization’s anxiety for an imminent attack. As it seems, its fears are not totally baseless. The Economic Community of West African States (ECWAS) proposed to gather and send a 3000 soldier intervention unit to help Bamako regain control over Azawad.
After the attack against the U.S Consulate, the United States has been working on destroying the responsible for this massacre, with Washington discussing the extension of its UAV campaign over the region. Several western governments have already called on the Security Council to support an ECWAS-lead campaign.
The above developments from both fields show an imminent escalation of violence in the region. Even if AQIM does not have close ties with the central leadership of AQ in Pakistan, it seems to be a much more dangerous organization than the western policymakers thought it to be. AQIM has managed to be a reference point for organizations whose background ranges from radical Islam and secessionism to smuggling and drug trafficking. It would be interesting to see the future of the above cooperation and the western governments’ response.
All links accessed on 29/10/2012
 Bruce, Riedel, “Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb: North African Menace”, The Daily Beast, (22/09/2012), http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/09/22/al-qaeda-in-the-islamic-maghreb-north-african-menace.html.
 Annouar, Boukhars, “ Simmering Discontent in the Western Sahara”, Carnegie Endowment for InternationalPeace, (13/03/2012), http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/03/12/simmering-discontent-in-western-sahara#
 Matt, Spetalnick & Hadeel, Al-Shalchi, “Obama Vows to track down Ambassador’s Killers”, Reuters, (12/09/2012), http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/09/12/us-libya-usa-attack-idUSBRE88B0EI20120912.
 Bruce Riedel, op.cit.
 STRATFOR, “Mali: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Braces for Battle”, (08/10/2012), http://www.stratfor.com/sample/analysis/mali-al-qaeda-islamic-maghreb-braces-battle.