In early 2013, the then Associated Press journalist Rukmini Callimachi recovered what was dubbed “The Mali al-Qa`ida Playbook” in Timbuktu, a document that provided unprecedented insight into al-Qa`ida’s strategic ambitions for the Sahel region of West Africa. The playbook was believed to be a guidance letter from the senior most al-Qa`ida leader in Africa, Algeria-based al-Qa`ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Emir Abdulmalek Droukdel, to his lieutenants in northern Mali. In it, Droukdel suggested that al-Qa`ida viewed the 2012 Tuareg rebellions in Mali as an “historic” opportunity to expand and nurture a long-term presence in the Sahel.
The missive outlined five broad goals: uniting the Azawad people, regulating the relationship with regional armed group Ansar Dine, curbing the radical activities of militants, imposing sharia law, and developing support for external al-Qa`ida activities. These objectives aligned with a directive from al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, disseminated in September 2013, titled “General Guidelines for Jihad.” In this communiqué, al-Zawahiri explained that establishing unity of effort, cultivating local support, and mobilizing populations were necessary to build up the jihadi movement as a prelude to the eventual creation of a caliphate.
In a 2013 CTC Sentinel article, Pascale Combelle Siegel argued that the AQIM playbook served as an “ominous warning” of a long-term plan by al-Qa`ida that could signal a “successful return” of the group. Unfortunately, events in the Sahel since 2013 have validated Siegel’s warning, with the al-Qa`ida network in the region methodically (albeit slowly) advancing on almost all of the strategic objectives it set for itself in the playbook. AQIM and al-Qa`ida elements have deliberately integrated themselves into the region by nurturing ties to disenfranchised tribal and ethnic groups, fighting alongside armed groups in support of local/regional grievances, fostering unity of effort, and slowly implementing their version of rule of law.