AQIM has expanded in the lawless hinterlands of Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Algeria in recent years and been responsible for numerous kidnappings. But French specialist Jean Pierre Filiu argues the group has only 200 to 300 members in two wings and is unpopular even with local criminal gangs, who see AQIM as “not following any rules.”
“In 2003 [Al Qaeda] detained 32 hostages. Today they have only two Spaniards left. That’s two too many, but one cannot speak of a ‘surge,’” says Mr. Filiu, a professor at Sciences Po in Paris and author of The Nine Lives of Al Qaeda.
Mr. Filiu says that Germaneau was probably killed by the group in an effort to capture the attention of Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan. The militant organization was formerly known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat before rebranding itself as Al Qaeda three years ago, and the group has been trying to gain financial and organizational support from Al Qaeda leaders in Pakistan since, who treat the North Africa branch as “a peripheral operation,” Filiu says.
In May, the US and France deployed special forces to train local armies. Some French NGOs are privately urging France to tread carefully in its former colonies. They also say that official admonitions for tourists to stay away from the vast Sahel desert region is misguided since Al Qaeda operates in the north, and is not present in the impoverished southern area that depends on tourism.