Desert Drift, Declining Deadliness: Understanding the Evolution of AQIM’s Suicide Bombings

For the past several years, jihadi violence perpetrated by al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its affiliated groups like Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) has contributed to renewed insecurity in the Sahara and Sahel. Despite the widespread violence that has emerged, few studies have focused on AQIM and its affiliates’ broader profiles of violence generally, or their use of specific tactics more acutely.

This report examines how AQIM and its affiliated groups have deployed suicide bombers over the past 13 years. Using a unique dataset compiled by the CTC detailing the breadth of AQIM and its sundry affiliated groups’ use of suicide bombers from March 2007 to September 2020, this report offers the most comprehensive view to date of the groups’ use of the tactic. Among other findings, it underlines the existence of AQIM’s “desert drift:” the very clear shift in theaters of operation of AQIM’s suicide bombers from North Africa between 2007 and 2012 (focused primarily in Algeria, where it focused on police and domestic military targets) to the Sahel from 2013 to 2020 (focused primarily in Mali, where it targeted international peacekeepers). Using AQIM’s “desert drift” as a dividing point between two distinct suicide bombing campaigns, the report then compares various dimensions of AQIM and its affiliates’ suicide bombing efforts across these two campaigns, including comparative metrics on lethality, injuriousness, geographies, demographics of bombers’ age and gender, targeting tendencies, use of “teams” of bombers, and patterns of failure. In the main, it shows that despite being a long-used tactic by an increasingly pernicious group, AQIM’s use of suicide bombing has declined in prevalence, deadliness, and efficacy in the aftermath of its “desert drift.”

Given these findings, the authors seek to provide new insight into how policymakers and academics understand the historical and contemporary threats posed by AQIM and its affiliates. In tracking one tactical choice of the group—suicide bombings—the authors also seek to provide a detailed analysis of how al-Qa`ida has manifested in the Sahel in a distinct form, tailoring its attacks profile to meet its evolving goals. Through these new insights, the report endeavors to provide new perspectives that will inform any response to insecurity in these regions and beyond.

Read more at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

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