Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has shown interest in Central Asia through its statement on the riots in Xinjiang in 2009 and its demand in 2012 for the release of a female Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and German Taliban Mujahideen (GTM) financier incarcerated in Germany. AQIM and IJU both aim to create a global Islamic Caliphate and share enemies, such as the U.S., Germany, France, the U.K. and China. With the migration of jihadists from the Afghanistan-Pakistan theatre to hotspots in Somalia and AQIM’s new terrain in Azawad (Mali), coordination will increase between terrorist groups in Africa and Central Asia. The cross-regional networks are already in place and Germany appears to be a hub.
BACKGROUND: On January 26, 2012, a German engineer working for a Nigerian construction company was kidnapped in Kano, Northern Nigeria. In late March, al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) provided a Mauritanian news agency with a video of the German engineer pleading for the German government to secure his release. This was accompanied by a statement from AQIM’s media outlet, the Al-Andalus Foundation for Media Production, in which AQIM demanded that Germany release “our oppressed Muslim sister [Filiz Gelowicz]” who AQIM claimed was being “forced her to take off her hijab” in the “prisons of Crusader Germany.”
Turkish-born Filiz Gelowicz was charged in August 2010 and convicted in November 2010 for providing 3,000 euro to fund IJU and GTM training camps in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and moderating the German language Ansar al-Jihad Forum. She posted more than 1,000 videos, comments and texts online, six of which specifically asked Muslims in Germany to join the IJU, GTM, and al-Qaeda. Filiz Gelowicz’ husband, Fritz Gelowicz, a German convert to Islam who trained with the IJU in Pakistan, is serving the third year of a twelve-year sentence in prison in Germany for his role as ringleader of the four-person “Sauerland Cell.” German police uncovered the cell in 2007 stockpiling vast quantities of hydrogen peroxide as part of a plan to kill hundreds of American soldiers in Germany. Fritz Gelowicz’ first exposure to the IJU was in 2006 when he traveled with Turkish-born German national and IJU recruiter Adem Yilmaz to an IJU training camp near Mir Ali in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of North Waziristan, Pakistan.
Filiz Gelowicz was released from prison several months ahead of schedule in late April 2012, possibly in fulfillment of the condition set by AQIM. However, AQIM never ordered the release of the German engineer and on May 31, 2012 five Nigerian captors killed him before Nigerian Special Forces troops killed the captors in a failed operation. AQIM released a statement on June 10 saying, “This happened at the same time when the Mujahedeen tried to compromise this case peacefully to return him back to his family in peace if the Mujahedeen demands were met.”
IMPLICATIONS: AQIM may have “bought” the German hostage from Nigerian militants connected to Boko Haram in order to pressure the German government on Filiz Gelowicz and to profit from an expected ransom payment from the German government. AQIM has reportedly trained Boko Haram fighters in the Sahel and provided Boko Haram with US$ 250,000 to kidnap “white-skinned” foreigners. Boko Haram is obliged to hand over the hostages to AQIM in return for arms and ammunition.
Filiz Gelowicz, a woman months from her scheduled release from prison, was a safe bet for AQIM to demand for release as one of the conditions in an exchange for the German hostage. AQIM has also called for the release of Abu Qatada al-Filistini, a Jordanian citizen affiliated with al-Qaeda who is currently in the midst of deportation hearings in the U.K. Like Filiz Gelowicz, he is a relatively easy target for release compared to fighters like Fritz Gelowicz, who still has a decade left on his sentence. AQIM may also have chosen Filiz Gelowicz on the orders of Abu Usama al-Gharib, an imprisoned Austrian citizen who managed to post a statement about Gelowicz on the website of the “Global Islamic Media Front,” which is a German-Austrian propaganda outlet that translates al-Qaeda statements. Employing language that AQIM later repeated in its demands, al-Gharib’s statement said, “The [infidels] presented their real face, they attacked and abused her body … The prison administration did not allow her to wear the hijab anymore.”
What is significant about AQIM’s demand is that AQIM never had any direct relation with Filiz Gelowicz. This brings to the fore the possibility that AQIM may support the IJU and other Central Asian jihadi groups by capturing nationals from “enemy” countries and exchanging them for captured Central Asian terrorists and significant amounts of cash. Germany is the most likely country to be affected by this development since its citizens have been a feeder for terrorist organizations in Afghanistan-Pakistan.
Germans are redeploying to Africa and becoming a networking link between jihadists in Afghanistan-Pakistan and Africa. For example, Emrah Erdogan (a.k.a Salahuddin al-Kurdi), a German national of Turkish origin trained in 2010 in Pakistan with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the group from which the IJU broke in 2002. He was captured in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in June 2012 after having fought with al-Shabbab in Somalia in 2011. More than 200 German citizens are believed to have trained or are currently training in Waziristan and capable of following Erdogan’s footsteps to Africa.
AQIM’s leader Abdelmalek Droukdel has welcomed the expansion of AQIM activities beyond the Maghreb region. He said in an interview with the New York Times in 2008 that “by the generosity of God we were able to transfer our jihad from the country to regional, and we were able to expand our activity…” and in response to a question about communicating with al-Qaeda leaders in Waziristan he said, “We care about staying in contact with our brothers in Afghanistan or Iraq or any other jihad site. Our project is one.” In 2009 AQIM became the first al-Qaeda affiliate to threaten Chinese interests in the Maghreb region in retaliation for China’s clampdown on Uighur protests in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province. In 2012, AQIM has again reached beyond interests in Maghreb with its call for the release of Filiz Gelowicz.
CONCLUSIONS: It will not be surprising if more German jihadists migrate to theatres in Africa as did Emrah Erdogan. They will be well-situated to serve as a link between jihadi operations in Central Asia and jihadi operations in Africa. The call for the release of Filiz Gelowicz may be one of the first indications that regional paradigms of jihad in “Central Asia” or “the Maghreb” are breaking down and that the interests of diverse jihadist organizations are functioning with greater unity. This can be expected as jihadists move from the Afghanistan-Pakistan front to Africa and exchange operational capabilities and expand their regional networks.AUTHOR’S BIO: Jacob Zenn is an international security analyst in Washington, D.C. who writes on insurgent movements in South America, Nigeria, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.