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ISIS Competition Fuels Al-Qaida Comeback In Africa


Terrorists stormed a popular beach town in the Ivory Coast over the weekend, killing more than a dozen people. Hours later, al-Qaida's arm in North Africa claimed responsibility. It's a group called al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM. Analysts worry that after months of being eclipsed by ISIS, the attack may be an indication that AQIM has decided to stage a comeback. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston explains why the group may be lashing out now.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: People woke up Sunday morning to this BBC headline.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Militants from al-Qaida's North Africa branch have turned a popular beach resort in the Ivory Coast into the scene of a mass shooting.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This week's attack marked the third time in five months that AQIM has taken aim at so-called soft targets in Africa. In November, it was a luxury hotel in Mali. In January, a hotel and a cappuccino cafe in Burkina Faso.

SETH JONES: What al-Qaida's trying to do now is to put itself back of the map, back on -in the media that it is still here and it is capable of conducting high-profile attacks.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Seth Jones is the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, and he says that al-Qaida's affiliates more generally appear to be trying to reassert themselves.

JONES: Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula has increased its control of territory in Yemen. Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria has - continues to hold significant ground. Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb does not hold the ground we see other al-Qaida affiliates have, but it is increasing its attack portfolios.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Increasing its attacks to remind the world in big bold headlines that ISIS isn't the only organization carrying the banner of jihad. The second reason for AQIM's emergence may be more fundamental. It feels threatened by ISIS in a place that used to be a stronghold - Libya.

BRUCE HOFFMAN: Firstly, Libya is this ideal target of opportunity.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Bruce Hoffman is the director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

HOFFMAN: The instability, the lawlessness, the complete absence of governance makes it a vital prize for whichever terrorist group is active there.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Libya not only offers oilfields, but proximity. It's right across the Mediterranean from Europe, and it allows easy access to neighboring Egypt, Mali, Tunisia and further into North Africa. Since 2011, the terrorist group most active in Libya was AQIM. But in the past two years, ISIS has expanded its presence there nearly tenfold, and AQIM has been battling them back. Again, Bruce Hoffman.

HOFFMAN: And I think it's really that competition between the two groups that has animated and really contributed to AQIM playing a much larger role than - at least a more obvious role than they've played in some time.

TEMPLE-RASTON: For some time now, it has appeared that al-Qaida has opted to play the long game. It was content to sit back and watch ISIS expend its energy and take the brunt of the attacks from the West while al-Qaida consolidated its forces behind the scenes. Hoffman says that that strategy may have shifted a bit.

HOFFMAN: The price of quiescence from al-Qaida's perspective is irrelevance.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Al-Qaida may have come to the conclusion that it had to do something before that happens. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dina Temple-Raston is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories and national security, technology and social justice.
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