OTTAWA – Even though they are responsible for a string of atrocities and affiliated with the grand daddy of terrorist groups, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has flown largely under the radar in terms of public perception of extremists.
But that could change in the aftermath the slaughter of at least 28 people that ended early Saturday at a luxury hotel in the west African nation of Burkina Faso, an outrage that left six Canadians among the dead.
All six were from Quebec and were in Burkina Faso doing humanitarian work.
It’s not the first time Canadians have been targeted by AQIM, which has claimed responsibility for the attack. The same faction of the group was responsible for the kidnapping of Canadian diplomats Bob Fowler and Louis Guay in 2009, and its commander — Belmokhtar Mokhtar — is wanted by the RCMP.
Speaking in Peterborough, Ont. on Sunday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau led a moment of silence for the victims and condemned the attacks on the Splendid Hotel and nearby Cappuccino Cafe, which left a estimated total of 28 dead, as a “brutal act of violent terrorism.”
He spoke at a restored mosque, which was firebombed in the aftermath of deadly attacks in Paris last November.
His government is facing increased political pressure as the Conservative opposition attempted to link the events in the impoverished nation with the Liberal plan to withdraw CF-18s from the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and refocus Canada’s military contribution.
Opposition leader Rona Ambrose, in a statement, demanded Trudeau “end the ambiguity” about the country’s role in fighting ISIL and that the latest attack is “proof that decisive action is required to confront this threat.”
Defence experts say, other than sharing an overall extremist ideology and a loathing of the west, there is little that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State have in common. In fact, they can be considered rivals with some important differences.
ISIL controls territory and wants to take the fight directly to western countries around the globe. AQIM — other than a brief occupation of northern Mali — is fractured and generally does not appear interested in governing.
It is considered more a regional player interested in ousting — or influencing — Islamic governments in west Africa, according to experts at the U.S.-based Rand Corporation.
“They’ll attack western interested when it suits them,” said retired colonel George Petrolekas, of the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.
France, which considers AQIM a more immediate threat, has been carrying on a quiet, mostly effective campaign to identify and disrupt the group ever since beating back their advance by in northern Mali two years ago.
In doing a round of interviews late last year, Harjit Sajjan, the new defence minister, said part of the new government’s consideration in its reshaping of the Iraq mission is overall picture of where extremist tentacles have spread in the region.
The example he cited, at the time, was the Islamic State’s foothold in eastern Libya.
“We need to look wider than the current threats we face in Iraq and Syria, and it’s very important we get this right,” Sajjan said, referencing the government’s ongoing review.
Although Sajjan didn’t mention west Africa by name, Petrolekas said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Liberals — in offsetting criticism for pulling jets out of Iraq —considered some form of contribution to the ongoing French mission against AQIM.
It would, he said, be politically saleable in light of the weekend attack and a mission in northern Mali carries with it the added blessing of the United Nations — something that speaks to the Liberal desire to work with multi-lateral institutions.
“This whole terrorism fight is not limited to just one patch of ground,” Petrolekas said, noting that the Dutch are already part of a western African mission and that French special forces were brought in to help end the seige in neighbouring Burkina Faso.
“There’s ample room for special and conventional forces, let alone we helped the French with the C-17,” he said, referring to the Conservative government’s use of Canadian heavy-lift transports to move French troops to Mali in the early winter of 2013.
The Rand Corporation, which studies conflicts around the world, has said the successful French intervention in Mali should serve as model for future U.S. expeditionary missions.
At the moment, France has over 3,000 troops spread across five countries in Africa — Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. They conduct operations to disrupt potential militants threat across the Sahel region.
A Quebec school board, friends and media outlets said four of the victims were from the same family: Yves Carrier, his wife Gladys Chamberland, their adult son Charlelie Carrier and Yves’ adult daughter Maude Carrier, a teacher.
A Quebec City-area school, Jean de Brebeuf, identified the fifth victim as Louis Chabot, a former teacher at the school. The identity of the sixth person could not immediately be verified, but Quebec and Burkina Faso media said all six were travelling together on a humanitarian trip.