The vulnerability of crowded places to terrorist attack has never been more apparent.
Islamic extremism has developed into a highly competitive and lucrative industry in Northern Africa, generating funds from extortion, weapons, drugs, kidnappings, and assassinations. A premier master of this tradecraft is Abdelmalek Droukdel, the de-facto emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Droukdel’s climb to emir status demanded aggressive political tactics, charisma, mainstream media coverage, and the affirmation of al Qaeda proper; however, it is difficult running an organization governed only by dominant behavior, intimidation, and fear. He is under constant threat of fratricide and capture by authorities. Meanwhile, his organization is violently engaged with law enforcement and military, and his followers lured by government amnesty programs and rival groups, who are also motivated by a desire for power and brand recognition.
From Activist to Violent Jihadist
Droukdel was born April 20, 1970, in the impoverished village of Zayane, town of Meftah, province of Blida, in Algeria.[1, 2] His father and mother are Rabah Droukdel and Z’hour Zdigha (maiden name).  His parents were practicing Muslims, with the father affiliated with an agricultural cooperative and mother an average Algerian housewife.[2, 3] Algerian’s born in the 1970’s would have grown up during a period of Arabization, social unrest, and rampant violence. The ideology of Islamic extremism was just taking root and being perpetuated by a growing Salafist movement.
Like other children in Meftah, Droukdel attended the Madjine Ibrahim primary school (9-year school).[4, 5] He was a member of the local mosque, noted for recruiting boys for violent activities and intimidating local residence into the strictest adherence of Islamism. He first became involved in Islamist activism following high school. Before becoming a jihadist in 1996, he attended the University of Blida where he earned a Bachelor's Degree in mathematics. Upon completing his transformation from activist to jihadist, he participated in murdering citizens of Zayane as punishment for civil service or suspicion of collaborating with authorities, and women for not wearing the hijab. His early methods of violence and number of deaths are unknown, but could have included everything from stoning to knives and swords.
From Violent Jihadist to AQIM Emir
Droukdel’s formal terrorism career began with his membership in the Armed Islamic Group or Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA). Founded in 1992 by Mansour Meliani, GIA was a brutal organization devoted to overthrowing the Algerian government. Conflicting information sets Droukdel’s membership in GIA somewhere between 1993 and 1996, and ending between 1996 and 1998 when he joined the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and served as a regional commander. Founded in 1998 by Hassan Hattab, GSPC splintered from GIA because of their practice of killing civilians. Ironically, GSPC would reverse this ideological distinction under Droukdel’s rule, and would kill civilians, foreigners, political figures, military, militia, and police without prejudice.
Droukdel developed an expertise in bomb-making and computer technologies during his early years in GSPC. He also adopted several aliases, a common practice for career terrorists, which include Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud, Abdelmalek Droukdel, and Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud. His first leadership role was to operate military workshops in what the GSPC labeled as the Second Zone, which resulted in his promotion to commander of the al-Quds brigade in 2001. He later took over as the emir of GSPC in 2004 following the death of his predecessor, Nabil Sahraoui, a position that he continues to hold. His mentor was Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who led al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) until he was killed by the U.S. military in 2006. A year later, Droukdel established the Battalion of Death, which specialized in suicide bombing, the first of its kind in Algeria.
The first engagement of the Battalion of Death was operation “Battle of Badr,” referencing the Prophet Mohammad’s 7th century expedition. The operation consisted of three simultaneous explosions using Suicide Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (SVBIED). The intended targets were the Prime Minister’s office and a police station in the capital of Algiers. Only two of the explosives detonated and the third was located and disabled by security forces. At least 162 people were injured and 23 killed during the attack. Droukdel would continue to model his suicide operations after those of his mentor in Iraq, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. In December 2008, the Algerian Army wounded him during an attack, but the extent of his wounds are unknown.
Droukdel’s organizational goals are as follows: “the arbitration of the Lord of the world’s law, and the achievement of the servitude to God; to rescue our countries from the tentacles of these criminal regimes that betrayed their religion, and their people; establish an Islamic State; and to destroy the Jews, apostates and crusaders.” He recently shifted the organizational culture from heavy-handed ruthlessness to one that attempts to win over the regions it occupies, which may signify a desire to become politically viable. He expressed an acceptance to the probability of defeat by considering his efforts to be a “seed to a longer-term objective;” however, this declaration may be designed to influence the personal sacrifice expected from his followers.
Following Droukdel’s rise to emir was his designation by Algerian authorities, and internationally, as a terrorist connected with al Qaeda. On January 15, 2005, the tribunal court in Tizi-Ouzou, Algeria, issued a warrant for his arrest and sentenced him, in absentia, to life imprisonment on March 21, 2007. A few years later, the U.N. Security Council Sanctions Committee designated him an al-Qaeda associate. On August 29, 2007, this designation was recognized by the Bank of England in which any financial accounts associated with him subsequently would be frozen. The U.S. followed suite and in December 2007, the U.S. Department of Treasury froze his financial assets under Executive Order 13224; however, it is unknown if any funds were seized as a result.
From AQIM Emir to Candidate al Qaeda Successor
Droukdel’s future offers a finite number of alternatives. He can continue leading AQIM until he is imprisoned by authorities or killed, or attempt to transform AQIM into a legitimate political entity through negotiations. He can resign from AQIM and go into hiding until he is assassinated by former colleagues, a common practice among terrorist organizations in Northern Africa. He had ordered the El-Feth El-Moubine Brigade to assassinate Abdelkrim Kaddouri, a former advisor to Amari Saifi, an AQIM regional commander also known as El-Para. Kaddouri surrendered to Algerian authorities, carrying with him detailed information concerning the inner-workings of GSPC, after which he was added to the AQIM hit list.
Droukdel could be elevated into the ranks of al Qaeda proper by Ayman al-Zawahiri and position himself as successor. Each day Droukdel serves as AQIM’s emir, the probability of capture or death becomes increasingly imminent particularly as the fidelity of intelligence improves through international cooperation and AQIM competitors seek territorial dominance. Rewards up to $5MIL USD offered by the U.S. Department of State also considerably raises the likelihood of his capture or death. He may continue commanding violent engagements, growing the organizations wealth, and hardening the leadership structure. Meanwhile, rival organizations compete for recognition by undertaking more dangerous and spectacular operations.
The leadership characteristics that make Droukdel a candidate senior al Qaeda leader, and feasible successor to al-Zawahiri, are evident in his transformation of GSPC to AQIM. He is a charismatic leader, which is noticeable in the word choices and carefully crafted messages delivered by AQIM’s media arm. Often, he frames the world as a battlefield in which his organization engages “the thrones of the atheists, the apostates and their supporters, and to stifle the plots of the wicked Jews and Crusaders against our Islam.”
Droukdel has surpassed the accomplishments of his predecessors with regards to incidents (greater than 4,000) and revenue generation (tens of millions). He has demonstrated repeatedly the skills and influence necessary for attaining internationalization and the creation of new funding streams with organizations, such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). In 2012, he ousted Mokhtar Belmokhtar from AQIM, citing ideological differences. This demonstrates his willingness to eliminate anyone in his ranks that stray from his directives or ideological maxims.
The career move that would most likely reduce the probability of his death would be to court al-Zawahiri for induction into al Qaeda senior leadership. This alternative would remove him from the day-to-day management of AQIM and the potential for capture from security forces in Northern Africa, assuming his new role includes relocation to a safe haven. With this notional role, he would be responsible for perpetuating al Qaeda’s ideology and shaping the collective organizational objectives, such as branding new al Qaeda entities, managing the flow of weapons and money, and preparing units for the execution of large-scale violent engagements.