It was one of Ayman al-Zawahiri’s last victories. Just a week before the al-Qaeda leader was killed in Kabul by US drone-launched missiles, militants of the organization’s biggest ally in sub-Saharan Africa attacked the most important military base in Mali.
Were familiar with the strategy of the attack – suicide bombers blew a gap in the defense to allow gunners access to stunned defenders – but the operation marked a major escalation.
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In the more than a decade after the rebel war in Mali, al-Qaeda had never hit a target of such importance nor was it so close to the capital, Bamako.
The attack on the base in Kati underscored the organization’s persistence in Africa and elsewhere despite decades of intense pressure from a US-led counter-terrorist campaign and fierce rivalry from a separate faction in Iraq and Syria that would become the Islamic State (ISIS or IS). did. ,
“The international context is favorable to al-Qaeda, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad,” said a UN report compiled in July from intelligence supplied by member states.
Last month’s attack in Mali was a confirmation of Zawahiri’s 2011 decision to abandon a strategy of grand attacks against the West, supported by his predecessor Osama bin Laden. Instead, it directed al-Qaeda regional commanders to seek gains locally without being distracted by attempts to attack international aviation or bomb European cities.
A recent UN report warns that any area maintained by al-Qaeda or IS could be used as a launchpad for such operations in the near future.
“The threat from IS and al-Qaeda remains relatively low in non-conflict areas, but is much greater in areas directly affected by conflict or its neighbors. Unless some of these conflicts are brought to a successful resolution… one or more of them will develop an external operational capability for ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant], al-Qaeda or a related terrorist group ,” it said.
Progress in Mali confirmed another part of Zawahiri’s strategy: building support at the grassroots. Grievances from marginalized communities could be exploited, especially where the government was weak or violent, he told Allied leaders since al-Qaeda took control in 2011. Strong ties can be built with local actors through collaborations and even inter-marriages. If they use violence, allies must seek targets that would be considered legitimate.
The strategy predates the rise of IS from 2014, but the success of the rival group added momentum. While IS relied on intimidation and coercion for the local population, al-Qaeda sought to appear relatively moderate.
Al-Qaeda has suffered major setbacks – nearly wiped out in Syria and Iraq and unable to compete with IS in certain theaters such as Nigeria and Egypt’s Sinai Desert.
But in Africa in particular, Zawahiri’s strategy has paid off. The late leader personally aligned himself with al-Shabaab, the extremist movement that controls rural areas of Somalia and can raise forces in the thousands. In July 500 al-Shabaab fighters captured Ethiopian troops in an unprecedented cross-border incursion. The Somali ally is also wealthy enough to send millions of dollars to al-Qaeda’s central leadership, intelligence reports.
Climate change, political instability, large-scale displacement of the population and the recent withdrawal of French troops from Mali caused deep problems caused by competition for resources provide al-Qaeda opportunities for further expansion, analysts say. Is said.
Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali, the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), appears to have exploited the presence of the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company with links to the Kremlin to support the country’s embattled military. hired for.
Wagner has repeatedly been accused of systematic human rights abuses, including massacres of civilians, that turn local communities against the government and build support for extremists.
JNIM said the attack on the Kati base outside Bamako was a response to government cooperation with the Wagner Group.
The group explained in a statement translated by Site Intelligence Group, “We say to the Government of Bamako: If you have the right to hire mercenaries to kill defenseless innocent people, we must destroy you and target you.” Has the right to.