Center for Strategic Communication

A “confidential letter” from Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, to his fighters in northern Mali shows that the group sought to use the country to wage a global jihad. But Droukdel instructed his followers to mask their operations and “pretend to be a ‘domestic’ movement” so as not to draw international attention and intervention.

The lengthy letter from Droukdel, who is also known as Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, was found by The Associated Press at a compound in Timbuktu that had been occupied by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Large portions of the letter are missing, but the existing pages provide valuable insight into Droukdel’s view of the situation in Mali. More importantly, they show how al Qaeda seeks to use local Islamist insurgencies to further its international goals of establishing a global caliphate and waging jihad against the West.

The letter is not dated, but was written sometime after AQIM and its allies, the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine turned on an erstwhile ally, the Movement for the Liberation of Northern Azawad (MNLA), after the groups seized control of northern Mali in March 2012.

Droukdel begins his letter with a prediction that the West is likely to intervene in Mali.

“[T]he great powers with hegemony over the international situation, despite their weakness and their retreat caused by military exhaustion and the financial crisis, still have many cards to play that enable them to prevent the creation of an Islamic state in Azawad ruled by the jihadis and Islamists,” he says.

“And so, It is very probable, perhaps certain, that a military intervention will occur, whether directly or indirectly, or that a complete economic, political and military blockade will be imposed along with multiple pressures, which in the end will either force us to retreat to our rear bases or will provoke the people against us …” he continues.

France ultimately intervened in Mali last month after the al Qaeda-led jihadist alliance launched an offensive to take central and southern Mali. The jihadists likely would have succeeded had France not intervened, as the Malian military was in retreat.

Later in the document, Droukdel urges his followers in Mali not to draw attention to al Qaeda’s international intentions lest it invite Western intervention.

“As for foreign policies, you must adopt mature and moderate rhetoric that reassures and calms,” he writes. “To do so, you must avoid any statements that are provocative to neighboring countries and avoid repeated threats. Better for you to be silent and pretend to be a ‘domestic’ movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no call for you to show that we have an expansionary, jihadi, Qaeda or any other sort of project.”

Droukdel then notes the importance of keeping Mali under al Qaeda’s sphere of influence in order to keep it as a “refuge” and a base for operations.

“Gaining a region under our control and a people fighting for us and a refuge for our members that allows us to move forward with our program at this stage is no small thing and nothing to be underestimated,” he notes. “The enemy’s constant, persistent effort now is to not leave any safe havens for the Mujahedeen. So take that into account.”

Droukdel then outlines a plan to mask AQIM’s use of Mali as a base for global jihadist operations. He tells his followers to cooperate with Ansar Dine, the local jihadist group in northern Mali. And he orders AQIM in Mali to split into two groups: one that would fall under operational control of Ansar Dine in order to administer northern Mali, and the other which would handle “external activity.” This, Droukdel says, will shield Ansar Dine from foreign scrutiny and allow it to retain control of northern Mali.

“In external activity, connected to our global jihad, we would be independent of them (Ansar Dine),” Droukdel says. “We would ensure that none of that activity or its repercussions is attributed to them, as care must be taken over negative impacts on the project of the state.”

“A portion of the Mujahedeen of al-Qaida would be set aside and put under the complete control of the emir of Ansar Dine to participate in bearing the burden of running the affairs of the liberated cities,” he continues. “The other portion would remain completely independent of Ansar Dine and its activity would be limited to jihadi action outside the region.”

Droukdel’s plan to cooperate with local jihadist groups to further al Qaeda’s ends, and mask that cooperation, is a common tactic. Osama bin Laden, the former emir of al Qaeda, instructed Mukhtar Abu al Zubayr, the leader of Shabaab, to hide Shabaab’s ties to al Qaeda so as not to draw foreign attention. Bin Laden’s order was first reported by The Long War Journal in August 2010; the report was confirmed when the US government declassified just 17 of the thousands of letters and documents seized from bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan after the May 2011 raid.

Al Qaeda has also sought to mask its operations behind the aegis of local jihadist groups in Yemen and the Middle East as well as elsewhere in North Africa. Ansar al Sharia in Yemen was formed to serve as a political front for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while Ansar al Sharia groups have sprung up in Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania, and Egypt over the past few years. Similarly, the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant was formed in January 2012 as a front group for al Qaeda in Iraq. Longtime al Qaeda operatives serve in leadership roles in all of these groups.