ALGERIA / SECURITY
“AQMI Central Region” swears allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi
In an eight-minute audio message posted on YouTube on June 26, Abou Abdallah El Âssemi, who is presented as “Qadi [religious judge] of AQMI-Central Region”, delivered a long paean of praise for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda splinter group which together with an alliance of Iraqi Sunni forces took the cities of Mosul and Tikrit in mid-June. Three days later, on June 29 – also the first day of the holy month of Ramadan – ISIS itself issued a statement proclaiming the “restoration” of the Islamic Caliphate and demanding the allegiance (bay’a) of all Muslims to its leader, Ibrahim Al-Badri a.k.a. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as the new “Caliph Ibrahim”. This was followed, in the early hours of the morning of June 30, by what is purported to be a short written communiqué from the Shura Council of the Central Region, signed by all its members, formally declaring the group’s allegiance to “the venerable sheikh and servant of God, Ibrahim Bin Awad Al-Quraishi Al-Baghdadi Abu Bakr, the Caliph of the Muslims”. These developments may have serious implications for the jihadist movement in Algeria.
Already in March of this year, a written communiqué had been published in the name of AQMI-Central Region that declared support for ISIS and exhorted its fighters to stand firm and “obey the Commander of the Believers Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi Al-Quraishi”. This came at a time when Al-Baghdadi had effectively been disowned by Al-Qaeda’s international leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri after clashes between ISIS and another Al-Qaeda affiliate, the Nusra Front, in Syria. Insofar as the AQMI-Central Region statement took ISIS’s defence, it could be seen as siding with Baghdadi against Zawahiri and, by extension, against AQMI’s own national leadership, which owes allegiance to Zawahiri. Noting that the document is difficult if not impossible to authenticate, we raised the possibility at the time that it might be a DRS fabrication. This can still not be entirely ruled out: AQMI is known to have been having trouble competing for recruits with the more “fashionable” jihad in Syria for some time, issuing a statement in March 2013 in which it implored “the Muslim youth in the Maghreb” not to leave to take part in jihad in other countries without authorisation from “the leaders of jihad in your area”, and it might be argued that from this point of view it would make sense for the Algerian authorities to amplify the successes of ISIS in order to divert Algerian would-be jihadis away from AQMI. And whether or not the DRS has had any hand in talking up ISIS, there is some recent evidence that Algerian networks, presumably without any connection to AQMI’s leadership, have indeed continued to recruit fighters for Syria.
And yet there are some grounds to believe that the various “Central Region” statements may indeed be genuine. While the DRS is undoubtedly well versed in the dark arts of false-flag operations, it is also well acquainted with the problem of “blowback”: returnees from the conflict in Afghanistan formed the backbone of the GIA and other armed islamist groups in the early 1990s and similar patterns have been repeated in numerous other countries ever since, to the point where the negative cost/benefit ratio of sending wanabee jihadis overseas has become a central tenet of counter-terrorism lore. Furthermore, it is perhaps significant that AQMI’s national leadership does not seem to have issued any statement condemning the messages attributed to its Central Region as DRS fabrications (as it might have been expected to do, preventively, if it had reason to believe that they were fakes cooked up with hostile intent). On the other hand, AQMI’s leadership has implicitly recognised the existence of sharp controversies over ISIS and its roles in Syria and Iraq and in the global jihadist movement in a slightly earlier communiqué (dated June 22) welcoming ISIS’s victories in Iraq but calling on it and rival jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq to put aside their differences and cooperate with one another and begging all “supporters of the mujahidin to cease their campaigns of carping and denigration in online forums and social media”.
There are also some indications that, although there are no known independent communications from the “Central Region” prior to March of this year, the structure itself is not imaginary. Back in February 2008, European intelligence sources suggested that, as it morphed into AQMI the previous year, the former GSPC had overhauled its internal structures, paring them down to just two zones, one covering the whole of northern Algeria and another covering a vast area extending south from roughly Biskra and taking in virtually the whole of the Algerian Sahara and part of northern Mali. At the same time, however, the European intelligence sources conceded that the AQMI fighters still seemed to be observing the old organisational forms – which suggests that the overhaul may have remained to a large extent a dead letter in practice. Subsequent (more or less well informed) reports in the Algerian media referred to a four-region structure, with the hard core of AQMI’s fighters concentrated in its Central Region. This was various reported to comprise the Wilayas of Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdès, Bouira, Béjaïa, M’sila and Djelfa (Le Soir d’Algérie, May 2008), or Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdès, Bouira and Béjaïa (L’Expression, March 2009), or just Tizi Ouzou, Boumerdès and Bouira (Al-Akhbar Alaan TV, 2012) – a shrinking footprint that would seem to be coherent with losses sustained by the organisation under the pressure of the security forces in the mid-to-late 2000s.
By Al-Akhbar Alaan’s account, furthermore, the Central Region was made up of three djounds (brigades or regiments): Djound El I’tissam, Djound El Ahouel and Djound El Ançar. Djound El I’tissam is mentioned in reports dating from 2003 on the known structure and development of the GSPC in the Wilaya of Boumerdes, which indicate that it was at some point in the late 1990s or early 2000s headed by a certain Omar Chaouch, a.k.a. Abou Khaled. By 2006, the same Omar Chaouch/Abou Khaled was said to be commanding Djound El Ahouel in the Khemis El Khechna area of the Wilaya of Boumerdes; the same reports claimed that the national Emir of the GSPC, Abdelmalek Droudkal a.k.a. Abou Mossaâb Abdelouadoud had placed one Abou Houraïra (real name unknown) in charge of a brigade operating “to the west” (no further detail). Jihadist noms de guerre are very much a mix-and-match affair, with the same elements frequently reused by various individuals, which makes identication on the basis of a konya alone something of a hazardous undertaking. It is nonetheless worth noting that signatories of both the March 2014 communiqué and the June 30 statement of allegiance to the Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi include an Abou Khaled Abderrahmane and an Abou Houraïra Thabet. Although fragmentary, these details do seem to suggest that there may be a degree of continuity between the Central Region of the GSPC/AQMI as it was in the mid-2000s and the group that began issuing statements in the name of the Central Region in March of this year.
While not altogether unheard of, appending a list of several signatories to a communiqué rather than just the name of the group’s emir or simply the name of the organisation has not been the usual practice in the Algerian jihadist movement. The inclusion of such lists at the end of both the March communiqué and the June 30 statement of allegiance may perhaps be indicative of the seriousness of the controversy over what attitude to take towards ISIS: assuming that at least some of the noms de guerre are known within the broader jihadist movement (as they might be expected to be if, as we have postulated, some are “historic” figures of the GSPC/AQMI), citing them would in itself be a sort of argumentum ad verecundiam. The slight differences between the list of signatories on the March communiqué and that on the June 30 statement of allegiance may also be significant. Four names included in the former are absent from the latter: Abou Souheïb Oussama (identified in March as the group’s Emir), Sheikh Ahmed (its treasurer), Abou Fadl Oussama (its media manager) and Abou Youssef Abdelkahar (the head of its diwan, or secretariat). The implication is that they may have been unwilling to take the final leap of swearing allegiance to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, a particularly serious step insofar as it appears to have consummated the split with AQMI: in its June 30 statement, the group no longer self-identifies as AQMI–Central Region but “Islamic Maghreb – Central Region (Algerian Front)”.
Iraq has had a special significance for the Algerian jihadist movement for a good decade. It was, after all, as a consequence of its direct contacts with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (probably established by Algerian volunteers fighting American forces in Iraq) that the GSCP’s embattled leadership opted to join Al-Qaeda in September 2006 and formally change the group’s name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in January of the following year. It is possible that Abdelmalek Droudkel chose his present konya in imitation of Al-Qaeda in Iraq’s founder and leader Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi – whose own organisation, since his death in June 2006, has evolved into ISIS. But AQMI’s national leadership and the Central Region are not merely at odds over a matter of sentimental attachment. Their dispute is evolving to encompass substantive differences over issues of tactics, strategy and even theology: what degree of priority to give to which theatre of jihad (their home turf or the more dynamic and seemingly more promising struggle in Syria and Iraq); the relevance of maintaining allegiance to Al-Qaeda’s international leadership; whether or not now is the opportune moment to attempt to restore the caliphate, in theory the ultimate goal of many if not all jihadist movements; and so on.
Working on the assumption that the Central Region communiqués are authentic, these differences already appear to have led to an organisational split between the two tendencies. To judge by the history of insurgencies in general and of the Algerian jihadist movement in particular, the logical next step would seem to be physical confrontation between the rival groups – a prospect that would be all the more likely if, as is generally assumed, AQMI’s national leadership is still based in the organisations historic heartland in the forests and mountains of Kabylia, spread across the Wilayas of Tizi Ouzou, Bouira and Boumerdes, i.e. the Central Region’s presumed territory.
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 “El Âssemi” meaning “from the capital”, indicating that he hails from Algiers.
 Abou Slimane Khaled, Abou Abdallah Athmane [clearly the same individual as Abou Abdallah El Âssemi], Abou Meriem Abdallah, Abou Amama Yaacoub, Abou Houraïra Thabet, Abou Oussama Laayachi, Abou Khaled Abderrahmane and Abou Abdallah Lokmane, “together with all the mujahidin”.
 The list of signatories is slightly longer and more detailed than for the June 30 statement of allegiance, comprising: Abou Soheïb Oussama (Emir of the Central Region), Abou Abdallah Athmane (Qadi of the Central Region), Abou Amama Yaacoub (head of the Sharia Committee), Abou Slimane Khaled (head of the Military Committee), Abou Khaled Abderrahmane Zitouni (in charge of training), Abou Meriem Abdallah (in charge of arms manufacturing), Abou Houraïra Thabet (in charge of communications), Sheikh Ahmed (Treasurer), Abou El Fadl Oussama (in charge of media), Abou Oussama Laayachi (head of the medical department), Abou Youssef Abdelkahar (head of the Secretariat of the Central Region).
 Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat, or Salafist Group for Preaching and Struggle.
 Born in Algiers in 1967, joined the islamist insurgency as of 1993.
 The “Abou X” part of the pseudonym.
 Intriguingly, Abdelmalek Droudkel a.k.a. Abou Moussab Abdelouadoud, still nominally the national emir of AQMI, has not signed a communiqué since late 2012. He last appeared in a video message issued in early December 2012.
 Thaghr Al-Jaza’ir – the word thaghr in Islamic jurisprudence designating a zone situated between the territory ruled by the Muslim community or state and the lands of the infidels