Moroccan and French leaders are now labeling the new AQIM stronghold in Mali the gravest threat to regional stability in more than a decade. AQIM leaders now are living openly in Mali’s towns and cities and supporting the destruction of the country’s Islamic heritage, which they see as a deviation from the path of true Islam. AQIM fighters are working with Ansar al Dine to terrorize and control the local population.
The combustible mix of AQIM, Ansar al Dine, and Tuareg rebels is complex and dangerous. They are all well armed, thanks to looting Libyan arms depots after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. AQIM has acquired weapons from Libyan caches that probably make it the best armed al Qaeda franchise in the world.
In Egypt, another al Qaeda jihadist stronghold is developing in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula, long a depressed and angry backwater. After the revolution, disaffected Bedouin tribes in the Sinai cooperated with released jihadist prisoners from Mubarak’s jails to begin attacks on security installations and the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline. The jihadists in the Sinai have pledged their allegiance to al Qaeda’s emir, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who replaced bin Laden. For his part, Zawahiri has endorsed their attacks on Israeli targets, although he has yet to welcome them formally as an al Qaeda franchise. Libyan weapons also have found their way into the Sinai.