Branding the African War: The ‘Al-Qaeda’ That Wasn’t

Nominally 'Al-Qaeda-Linked' Factions Being Spun as Part of a Huge United Force

French officials were quick to label a hostage siege in Algeria an “act of war,” while British Prime Minister David Cameron talked up a multi-decade war across Northern Africa, insisting it was vital to confront “al-Qaeda.”

Yet it’s not really “al-Qaeda” as such, despite being spun that way. Fighters in Mali belong mostly to factions like Ansar Dine and MUJAO, a pair of Salafist groups with an eye toward a strict religious theocracy in the region. The group in Algeria’s siege called itself “Those Who Sign in Blood,” and their link with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is unclear at best.

Yet nominal ties between those groups and AQIM has been enough of an excuse to couch the whole war as against “al-Qaeda,” much as every militant faction Pakistan seems to fight is “Taliban” whether it is in the name or not.

And even though AQIM has permission to use the al-Qaeda trademark, it is an auxiliary with a deep history going back decades, starting as the Group for Call and Combat after splitting with Algerian rebel group the Armed Islamic Group, which itself was a split-off from the Islamic Armed Movement, which fought in Algeria’s on-again, off-again civil war.

Despite its regional name, AQIM has remained intensely Algeria-centric, mostly trying to forge deals with like-minded groups in nearby nations, like their loose pact with Ansar Dine. The groups didn’t necessarily get along very well in the first place, and to the extent there’s unity, it is coming as a result of the French invasion. Indeed, its seems Western policies are pushing the various factions into unifying into the huge “al-Qaeda” threat they are trying to sell the public on.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is Senior Editor for He has 20 years of experience in foreign policy research and his work has appeared in The American Conservative, Responsible Statecraft, Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Washington Times, and the Detroit Free Press.