Mali & Somalia: al-Qaeda Affiliates Coordinated Claims Point to Coordination with Core AQ

Analysis 11 February 2019
Mali & Somalia: al-Qaeda Affiliates Coordinated Claims Point to Coordination with Core AQ

The release of a video message from al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, on February 5 is the latest in a series of events over the past several months that indicate al-Qaeda has increased coordination among its global affiliates and is still a preeminent global threat (Jihadology, February 5).

The video itself is not out of the ordinary as Zawahiri commonly releases similar video and audio messages, but the release comes in the wake of several other notable developments, including the release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s (ODNI) annual Worldwide Threat Assessment.

The ODNI assessment noted, “Al-Qa‘ida senior leaders are strengthening the network’s global command structure and continuing to encourage attacks against the West.”[2] The assessment also noted the strength of al-Qaeda groups in East and North Africa, the Sahel, and Yemen. The coordination between al-Qaeda affiliates and core al-Qaeda leaders was again made evident in late January.

On January 15, al-Shabaab conducted an attack in Nairobi just five days before the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin—JNIM) launched an attack on a UN base in Aguelhok in northern Mali (Standard Digital, January 16; Malijet, January 20). The attacks were carried out by different al-Qaeda affiliates thousands of miles away and were not tactically similar: al-Shabaab targeted a civilian hotel and business complex popular with Westerners while JNIM targeted the Chadian contingent of UN peacekeepers. The two attacks, however, had more in common than was immediately apparent, as evidenced by both group’s claims of responsibility.

Al-Shabaab released an official statement on January 16 claiming responsibility for the attack, which the group dubbed “Al-Qudsu Lan Tuhawwad (Jerusalem will never be Judaized)” (Jihadology, January 16).  The group also claimed it carried out the attack in accordance with Zawahiri’s guidelines to target Western and Zionist interests in support of their Muslim brothers in Palestine.

Similarly, JNIM released an official statement on January 20 titled “Al-Quds Will Never be Judaized – The Aguelhok Battle…Standing in the Face of Normalization” (Jihadology, January 20). In the statement, JNIM also claimed to have carried out the attack in response to Zawahiri’s guidelines and as revenge for Chadian President Idriss Deby hosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Chad the same week.

The use of the same language in the claims of responsibility as well as the timing of both attacks is in line with the assessment that core al-Qaeda is increasing its command structure over its affiliates. While core al-Qaeda might not have a hand in the day to day operations of its affiliates, Zawahiri and other key al-Qaeda leaders are undoubtedly still pulling strings from behind the scenes. It is unclear if core al-Qaeda was involved in target selection, but the attacks and the claims of responsibility indicate that it remains capable of steering attacks and the group’s overarching narrative.

Zawahiri’s most recent video also included quotes that were used in both JNIM and al-Shabaab’s claims of responsibility. In the coming year, it is likely that there will be an increase in coordinated attacks such as these, claimed by the more mobile affiliates and those that have managed to expand their reach as of late, such as AQIM, JNIM, and al-Shabaab. Meanwhile, core al-Qaeda is likely to focus more heavily on providing strategic support for its affiliates that are waning due to competition among rival groups or overcrowded battlefields rather than drawing additional focus to them.

This article was originally published on www.jamestown.org.