Al-Qaeda arm takes to internet to boost support

AQIM claims to have executed French hostage Philippe Verdon. Picture: Getty
AQIM claims to have executed French hostage Philippe Verdon. Picture: Getty
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BATTERED by the French-led military campaign in Mali, al-Qaeda’s North African arm is trying something new to stay relevant: Twitter.

A new PR campaign by the terrorist network is seeking to tap into social issues and champion mainstream causes such as unemployment, in an attempt to win new followers.

It aims to allow al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, to move the fight at least partly off the battlefield by appealing to widespread concerns, such as the repression and a sense of ­injustice that galvanised the Arab Spring revolts.

“This is our only means to communicate with the international public opinion, since we are terrorists according to the dictionary of America and its agents in the region,” AQIM’s media arm, Al-Andalus Media Foundation, said as part of a recent question-and-answer session on Twitter. The remark came in response to a question about its choice to go virtual.

The al-Qaeda affiliate – known for its kidnapping raids in Mali and deadly attacks in its home ground of Algeria – has had little trouble finding an audience. In its first two weeks on Twitter, it drew more than 5,000 followers, including some journalists and scholars.

AQIM’s Algerian militants used a “soft power” strategy, including chocolates and even baby clothes, to try to gain acceptance from Malians, whose help they needed to establish a foothold in the country’s vast north, according to accounts of locals documented in 2011. They are now casting a wider net, turning the hearts-and-minds approach to countries across the region.

And as the Syrian conflict monopolises extremists’ attention – and draws jihadists – AQIM’s soft power push may be aimed at bringing its patch of northern Africa back into the spotlight.

“We need all the specialities such as medicine, chemistry, electronics and manufacturing arms and automatic media,” it said in answer to a question on Twitter, adding that it also needs “other scientific and management skills and, before all that, the students of Shariah [Islamic law] knowledge”.

Even before the Twitter account was officially opened on 28 March, statements from AQIM’s media arm had ­addressed social, not military, concerns.

AQIM emerged in 2006 from a previous movement of radical Algerian insurgents, and spread its extremism around a large area of the Sahara. By last year it reigned over northern Mali along with two other radical groups, meting out brutal punishment to those who refused its strict interpretation of Islamic law. A French-led military intervention that began on 11 January has radical leaders and fighters on the run, in hiding or dead.

In statements and tweets in Arabic and awkward English, AQIM has lashed out against “Crusader France” and the nation’s president, François Hollande, who ordered the French intervention in Mali. On its first official day on Twitter, AQIM’s media arm issued a statement announcing the death of French hostage Philippe Verdon – a fact which has not been confirmed by France – and warning that others could be killed if the roughly 4,000 French troops in Mali are not withdrawn. AQIM is holding five other French citizens hostage in Mali.

The organisation’s media arm threatened France numerous times in its sprawling question-and-answer session on Twitter, calling on “all the Muslims to target France and its interests and subjects inside and outside France”.

The media arm, in response to a question, said its new-style communications have “nothing to do with the military situation in Mali”. However, AQIM’s recent efforts to take up the causes of the people have coincided with its loss of a large number of fighters in Mali, as well as its hold over the country’s north.

The propaganda campaign has focused, above all, on AQIM’s birthplace, Algeria, where the group is in a long arc of decline and has all but lost its firepower.

Last Sunday, in their latest tweet, AQIM’s communicators linked to a statement that made the group sound more like an Algerian opposition party than a terrorist organisation. As the country looks to next year’s presidential election, AQIM’s media handlers denounced the “thieves party” of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and bemoaned “the lost confidence of those poor people who are suffering”.

It has also denounced the lack of free expression and reliable internet access in Algeria and expressed support with unemployed protesters in oil- and gas-rich southern Algeria.

“This is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring,” Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, said of AQIM’s communications campaign.

“They are less violent in what they write, more social, trying to be more connected to the problems that people might face, and specifically in Algeria.”