Changing Tack

In France’s efforts to push Al Qaeda out of Northern Mali (AQIM), a notebook was recently discovered containing ideas, remarks, and strategies enumerated by Abdelmalek Droukdel, Emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These notes show an Al Qaeda in flux, one that is not quite as rigid as its forbears in Afghanistan and Somalia. While this book may only be the thoughts of one man, it likely suggests a new adaptability in the Al Qaeda mindset.

In Somalia, Al Shabaab pursued their ideas with a single-mindedness not seen in North Africa. There are, for example, reports that Al Shabaab fighters sought to tear down all English or Somali signage in towns under their administration and replace them with Arabic versions. Of course, most Somalis do not speak Arabic so this new signage would likely be of limited effectiveness. While Al Shabaab are known for their more violent tendencies, this example of signage clearly demonstrates their unwillingness to adapt their movement for local attitudes.

In contrast, Droukdel writes:

“The current baby is in its first days, crawling on its knees, and has not yet stood on its two legs. If we really want it to stand on its own two feet in this world full of enemies waiting to pounce, we must ease its burden, take it by the hand, help it and support it until its stands. Every mistake in this important stage of the life of the baby will be a heavy burden on his shoulders. The larger the mistake, the heavier the burden on his back, and we could end up suffocating him suddenly and causing his death.”

These are the words of a man who understands that wanton cruelty and indifference to local mores will not aid their mission to set up an Islamic theocracy. Droukdel is no moderate, as former explosives expert for the Groupe Islamique Armee (GIA) in Algeria he has been involved with construction of explosive devices that were responsible for hundreds of civilian deaths. And he did not slow down as he moved upwards through the ranks until gaining control of the Groupe Salafiste pour la Predication et le Combat (GSPC) – which later became AQIM in 2004. Yet here he is preaching moderation, at least of a relative kind.

We see this moderation in the governance of Northern Mali. Not only have Droukdel’s notes been found, but so have “court” records. One case, from October, shows a man, Muhamad bin Moussa, accused of witchcraft and magic. Where Al Shabaab might resort to a beheading or some other grisly repercussion, AQIM’s courts only sentenced the man to three days in jail. This isn’t to say the courts were always moderate, women were known to be lashed for “mixing with men and the usage of foul language” as well as less gender specific lashings for alcohol use or anything else dubbed un-Islamic. Not to mention the destruction of Sufi shrines and other cultural heritage markers. Put mildly, these were not nice men.

However, there was a fascinating struggle on the part of some leadership elements, including Droukdel, to mitigate these abuses. Droukdel’s notes advise against the destruction of UNESCO World Heritage sites and public floggings, saying:

“On the internal front we are not strong… and the fact that you prevented women from going out, and prevented children from playing, and searched the houses of the population. Your officials need to control themselves.

This is not to say the militant’s rule was not brutal. It was. Cases of amputation are far from uncommon. This is not a story of a moderate Islamic group, but of an extremist group with extremist ends attempting to cover its extremist means in a sheen of moderation.

While the end goal remains the same, Al Qaeda is learning that it needs to be seen to moderate its message, or at least alter it to be acceptable in differing cultural zones. This will only make Al Qaeda a more formidable opponent in the future if it allows them to gain more local acceptance than the limited amount extant in past examples.

Please note that the views expressed in this piece do not represent the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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