Enemies, Frenemies, or Rivals: The Islamic State-AQIM Nexus

By William A. Lawrence
Submitted to Session P4955 (Rivalry, Revival, and Survival: Contemporary Algerian and Tunisian Contestations and Reconfigurations, 2017 Annual Meeting
Intl Rltns/Aff
Maghreb;
Security Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The bewildering array of collaborations, clashes, and competitions between the Islamic State in North Africa and Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continues to confuse analysts, policymakers and academics. While accounts of ramped up rivalry and staunch ideological disagreements have dominated analysis since the creation of the Islamic State in 2014, the steady migration of fighters and numerous cells between the two groups and other kinds of confusing cross-pollination feed into the narrative that the two organizations not only collaborate more than they compete, but that this collaboration is likely to grow in coming months and years. Analytical approaches to the phenomena vary according to frameworks of observation as much evolutions in the organizations and phenomena observed. For example, what might be characterized as “Islamism-confrontational” analysis tends lump the groups together as birds of a feather--brothers and sisters in arms--whereas “Islamism-accommodationist” approaches tend towards splitting and taxonomizing them as separate, even irreconcilable, groups. Based on years of intensive periodic fieldwork and analysis in Algeria, Tunisia, and five other countries--including interviews with dozens of governmental, corporate, and academic counter-terrorism experts in 2016 and 2017, in addition to analysis of a variety of militant interviews, accounts, and social media posts--this paper will argue that the Islamic State – AQIM nexus is a complex, overlapping network that features situational and opportunistic actors who are nonetheless grounded in institutional, ideological, historical, and other structural frameworks. In addition, at the discursive level, the two organizations and their rank and file membership are characterized by hybridic language and philosophies that not only borrow readily from each other, but borrow from an array of other local contestatory movements, capitalizing on local grievances. For example, AQIM recruitment preceding, during and following the 2016 Krechba, Algeria, gas facility rocket attacks featured green, pro-environmental, anti-fracking messaging not only for recruitment purposes but also to attempt to increase local legitimacy and media relevancy. Analysis of discursive hybridity will be central to the analysis and refutes both the strict taxonomy approach and essentializing analysis focused on Islamism. Primary sources in Arabic and French will be privileged. The paper will map the IS-AQIM nexus, creating a framework for grassroots level analysis of ever-changing hybridic tactics and modalities of radical Islamist groups operating adjacently, and will offer policy recommendations regarding more thoughtful and holistic approaches to understanding and addressing the challenges posed by these violent contestations.