The postings suggest that the violence in Mali and Algeria has galvanized key figures in the Islamist community, which sees Mali as a primary battlefield, with AQIM leading the charge, said Jarret Brachman, a government consultant on counterterrorism and director of a security-studies program at North Dakota State University.
“Internet jihadists are demanding blood, urging one another to attack French embassies and companies, kidnap and kill French soldiers, and launch a wave of lone-wolf terror attacks inside of France,” Brachman said. Prominent militant commentators also are urging attacks against Algeria, which many view as “nothing more than a lackey for French interests,” he said.
Jihadist forums have been closely following the news of the French military intervention in Mali since it began this month, according to SITE analyst Josh Devon, and some are calling on jihadists to support the Islamist rebels in Mali in whatever way they can, including launching media and propaganda campaigns and offering financial and material support.
Even the Taliban has weighed in, offering moral support to the insurgents in Mali and urging them to “repel foreign intervention as they have done in Afghanistan,” Devon said.
Evolution of AQIM
Intelligence officials and counterterrorism experts say a re-branding of AQIM has been underway for more than a year, with roots in the Libyan uprising that overthrew Gaddafi in 2011.
AQIM’s origins can be traced to the Algerian Salafist Group for Preaching or Combat, known by its French initials GSPC. Spawned by the Algerian civil war in the 1990s, the group harbored local aims as it fought the Algerian government, ran smuggling networks and kidnapped foreigners for ransom. Other jihadist groups in the Islamic world tended to regard the GSPC as criminal opportunists and as overly brutal for killing Muslim civilians. When al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden sent an emissary to Algeria in the 1990s to try to negotiate an alliance, local jihadists threatened to execute him.
As its number of followers dwindled, however, the outlook of the Algerian network gradually shifted. In 2007, the GSPC formally swore allegiance to bin Laden and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The Mali conflict, coming in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings and the Libyan civil war, further offered AQIM an opportunity to evolve and adapt its operations, said Andrew Lebovich, a Senegal-based analyst focused on security and politics in North Africa and the Sahel region.
“It gave AQIM the possibility of becoming part of something different,” Lebovich said in a telephone interview. “I do not think AQIM’s fundamental nature changed. I think they had the opportunity to get back to more ‘traditional’ jihadist activities after years of being relatively constrained.”
Although experts still regard AQIM as primarily a threat in North Africa, the attack in Algeria and suspected links to the assault on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi showed that the risk may be larger.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, speaking about the hostage crisis in Algeria, called for an extended and international response to terrorism. Although he did not specify any new British commitments, he said Sunday that he would use his country’s chairmanship of the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations this year to push the issue toward the top of the global agenda.
“This is a global threat, and it will require a global response. It will require a response that is about years, even decades, rather than months,” he said.
Craig Whitlock and Greg Miller contributed to this report.