What Mali Tells Us About Ideology and al-Qaeda

After French forces routed al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Tuareg rebel fighters in northern Mali, they reportedly recovered a strategy document written by AQIM's leader. The document discusses plans to set up a "low-profile" Islamic government in the region, while also attacking AQIM members for instituting harsh Islamic punishments and destroying local shrines. This document, and the conflict in which it was written, highlights the interplay between principle and pragmatism in AQIM's operations, and the continuing relevance of ideology in post-bin Laden transnational terrorism.

The fighting in Mali is part of a long-running insurgency by Tuaregs, an ethnic group that spans Algeria, Mali and Niger. AQIM is an Islamic militant group that has been fighting the Algerian government; it was originally known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which broke off from the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and later merged with al-Qaeda. In 2012, AQIM joined with several Tuareg groups to seize parts of northern Mali. And in early 2013, French troops launched operations against the insurgents, retaking the territory.

The strategy document has attracted some attention for what it says about possible moderation in AQIM. Given the destructiveness of AQIM, a call for restraint by the group's leaders is a welcome development. Some also think it suggests internal divisions among rebels in Mali. Neither is surprising, however; the GSPC arose in part from concerns over public backlash against its predecessor's brutality, so some pragmatism was present at the group's beginning.

What is most interesting to me is what it shows about the role of ideology in AQIM's operations. Since its creation, one of al-Qaeda's defining characteristics was its ideology -- a mix of what some call "Salafi jihadism" and global rebellion -- which propelled it and its offshoots to both conduct attacks around the world and attempt to implement conservative Islamic law when in power. Al-Qaeda's ability to conduct attacks has been seriously degraded throughout the world, however. And with the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, it lost much of its ideological power. Al-Qaeda's leaders in Pakistan continued planning operations, but it was unclear if it would be able to coordinate these abroad. And al-Qaeda franchises in other countries still wage low-level insurgencies, but without a strong central leadership it was possible they would dissipate or degrade into banditry.

Nowhere was this more apparent than with AQIM. AQIM/GSPC has been tied to al-Qaeda since its creation. And it endeavored to establish an Islamic state in Algeria. But as the Algerian government gained the upper hand in its conflict with the group, it shifted into criminal activities and kidnapping, and often fled from Algeria into neighboring countries that were less well-defended like Mali. It appeared likely AQIM would still represent a threat to the region, but one divorced from al-Qaeda's global ideology.

The situation changed with the rebellion in Mali. As noted, AQIM and their Tuareg allies didn't just seize territory; they took action against supposedly un-Islamic activities. And although the recovered document shows signs of pragmatism among the leadership, it also reveals the lack of it at lower levels. Moreover, the strategy document still called for establishing an Islamic state, just one that is not as severe.

This matters because insurgents have limited resources. They must make tradeoffs between securing their position and advancing their ideological cause; every "dollar" spent punishing adulterers is one less spent getting ready for a government counterattack. Likewise for time spent dealing with internal divisions. AQIM wouldn't focus on ideological activities unless they were committed to the ideology. The fact that they did shows that even when running criminal enterprises, waging an ethno-nationalist uprising, and losing their ideological inspiration, AQIM's ideology still affects its behavior.

What does this mean for us? Well, it's both good and bad. It's good because the extreme ideology of the group likely contributed to its downfall in Mali. It's bad because calls for pragmatism -- which would moderate its more severe violence -- may fall short. Either way, understanding AQIM's ideology -- and how it affects its members behavior -- remains an important task for those hoping to analyze and disrupt the group.