Al-Qaeda in North Africa Names New Leader: What’s Next?

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has chosen Algerian Yazid Mubarak as a new group leader. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist groups, Mubarak, also known as Abu Obaida Yusuf al-Annabi, has replaced Abdelmalek Droukdel, who was killed by French forces in northern Mali in June 2020 after a seven year manhunt in Africa’s Sahel region.

Al-Annabi’s Core Role in AQIM Propaganda and Operations

Al-Annabi, the leader of AQIM’s Council of Notables, which is the group’s central decision-making body, was widely expected to be appointed as Droukdel’s successor. He has regularly appeared in AQIM’s propaganda videos that are produced through the group’s own media wing, Al-Andalus Media Productions.

SITE director Rita Katz said via Twitter that al-Annabi’s appointment as the new leader of AQIM was not surprising, given that he has been featured by the group in its propaganda over the past few years and has been involved in its core activities in facilitation, finances and operation planning.

Within AQIM, al-Annabi was often considered second-in-command after Droukdel. Several reports suggested a level of rivalry between the two men over the management of AQIM as Droukdel sought to marginalize al-Annabi and the Council of Notables.

According to the Counter Extremism Project, al-Annabi demonstrated an attempt to seize power from Droukdel when he released a recruitment video in March 2010 in which he called on Muslim youth in the Sahara and the Sahel to join the terrorist group.

What is AQIM?

AQIM finds its roots in the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an Islamist movement that fought the Algerian government and army in the country’s civil war in the early 1990s. GIA leader Hassan Hattab split from the GIA over ideological differences, and he later founded the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 1998.

In 2003, Hattab was ousted by Nabil Sahraoui over his support for reconciliation with the Algerian government. In the same year, Sahraoui pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda organization and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. In 2004, Sahraoui was killed in a shootout with Algerian army forces and was succeeded by Droukdel.

Under Droukdel, GSPC merged with al-Qaeda in September 2006 and rebranded itself as AQIM in the months following. The group also expanded beyond Algeria and reoriented itself as a regional threat, particularly in the Sahel, carrying out attacks in Mali, Mauritania, Libya, Tunisia, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

AQIM’s Main Funding Sources: Kidnapping and Blackmail

AQIM’s main source of funding comes through kidnapping and extortion. According to the State Department’s 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism, in addition to kidnapping for ransom, the group also engages in criminal activities to finance its operations.

Specifically, AQIM reportedly raises funds though “protection rackets, robbery, people and arms trafficking, money laundering and smuggling and increasingly, the facilitation of drug trafficking from South America into Europe”.

AQIM vs. France

AQIM has been at war with the French government in Mali since 2013 after France launched a military operation in the west African country at the request of the government to oust Islamist groups that made gains north of the country. In response to the French military intervention, al-Annabi famously called for carrying out attacks against French interests throughout the world.

Al-Annabi also released an audio message in January 2016 in which he called on the Libyans to join the fight against the eastern Libyan army and the French forces in the coastal city of Benghazi.

France is a major backer of strongman Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, which is fighting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

Given to his support to terrorist activities, the United States designated al-Annabi as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. The UN Security Council also listed al-Annabi as an individual associated with “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, preparing, or perpetrating of acts or activities” by AQIM.

In an interview with France 24 in early 2019, al-Annabi vowed to continue AQIM attacks against the French military presence in the Sahel region, a vow that is expected to be materialized under his leadership, given that the terrorist group still retains a significant presence, particularly in Mali, and maintains an ability to carry out lethal attacks.