By ELAINE GANLEY
Battered by a French-led military campaign in Mali, al-Qaida’s North African arm is trying something new to stay relevant: Twitter. The PR campaign by the terror network seeks to tap into social grievances and champion mainstream causes such as unemployment, all in bid to reverse decline and win new followers.
The hearts-and-minds approach echoes an outreach program the group had been trying for years in Mali, where it provided food, services and cash to win over the locals. This new campaign is more ambitious: It aims to allow al-Qaida 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 galvanized 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 last week as part of an unusual question-and-answer session on Twitter. The remark came in response to a question about its choice to go virtual, one of dozens from journalists and others.
The al-Qaida affiliate — known for its kidnapping raids in Mali and deadly attacks in its home base in 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 by The Associated Press. They are now casting a wider net, turning the hearts-and-minds approach to countries across the region.
And as the Syrian conflict monopolizes 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 specialties like such as medicine, chemistry, electronics and manufacturing arms and automatic media,” it said in answer to a question posted on Twitter, adding that it also needs “other scientific and management skills and, before all that, the students of Shariah (Islamic law) knowledge.”
But even before the Twitter account was officially opened March 28, statements from AQIM’s media handlers 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. Now, a French-led military intervention that began Jan. 11 has radical leaders and fighters on the run, in hiding or dead.
In Algeria, Mali’s northern neighbor, AQIM was behind murderous attacks, including high-profile suicide bombings in 2007 against the U.N. mission and government buildings that left scores dead. It now manages only sporadic, if deadly, attacks.
The group has direct links to jihadist groups in northern and western Africa and to al-Qaida central, notably to Aymen al-Zawahri, who replaced Osama bin Laden as leader and who announced the formation of AQIM in 2006. The group is viewed as an ongoing threat by Western governments and nations around the region. The United States is backing the military intervention by France and a half-dozen African nations with intelligence surveillance. About 100 American troops were deployed in February to Mali’s neighbor, Niger, to man a base for unarmed drones to conduct surveillance of AQIM and other jihadists. France says it will keep a long-term, 1,000-strong counterterrorism force in Mali even after the current fighting dies down.
In statements and tweets in Arabic and awkward English, AQIM has lashed out against “Crusader France” and the nation’s president, Francois 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 — not confirmed by France — and warning that others could be killed if the approximately 4,000 French troops in Mali are not withdrawn. AQIM is holding five other French citizens hostage in Mali.
The organization’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 from The AP, 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.
Late 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 organization. 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.”
The media arm also is denouncing lack of free expression and reliable Internet access in Algeria and expressing support with unemployed protesters in oil- and gas-rich southern Algeria. A recent tweet expressed sympathy for the plight of Algeria’s municipal guards, armed citizens who once were the eyes and ears of Algerian security forces but are now being disbanded without recompense. The tweet said they will be spared pursuit by AQIM if they lay down their weapons.
“This is a direct consequence of the Arab Spring,” Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Center 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.”
The Arab Spring, the popular revolts that started in Tunisia in 2010 and ousted autocrats around the Arab world, skipped Algeria. There, citizens mainly have sought calm after a long spiral of violence that killed an estimated 200,000 and peaked in the 1990s.
With neighboring Tunisia and Libya restive after their Arab Spring rebellions, AQIM appears to think “that there are actions that they can trigger to push the situation a bit further,” Rouiller said. The organization “wants to be part of a second wave.”
The al-Qaida offshoot is older than other affiliates but is playing social media catch-up with its more media-savvy terror counterparts. Al-Shabaab in Somalia, for instance, is among designated terror groups using Twitter, although the outfit is not an al-Qaida offshoot. Syrian’s Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, which pledged allegiance to al-Qaida earlier this month, has been using Twitter during the two-year civil war; it is attracting hundreds of North African jihadist fighters, particularly from Tunisia, where a moderate Islamist government is trying to contain a burgeoning movement of ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis.
“All the focus is on Syria, and the Mali conflict is sort of in the backwater of international attention,” said Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish National Defense College. “In some strange way, it’s almost competition ... You have these two theaters that are live and hot and active and need recruits.”
Addressing that situation, AQIM’s media arm made an unusual admission in its first statement to followers since the French operation in Mali, admitting it was “in direst need” of help from jihadists in the “lands of disbelief” to support its operations in Mali and Algeria.
Rouillier and others said they doubted Twitter would become AQIM’s main recruiting tool. But the fact the account was attracting followers indicated it was filling a vacuum.
“We’re not speaking here of Rihanna,” Rouillier said recently. The number of followers “tells a lot about the impact. There’s something going on here.”