Battered by a French-led military campaign in Mali, al-Qaida's North African arm is trying something new to stay relevant: Twitter. The PR campaign by the terror network seeks to tap into social grievances and champion mainstream causes such as unemployment, all in bid to reverse decline and win new followers.
The hearts-and-minds approach echoes an outreach program the group had been trying for years in Mali, where it provided food, services and cash to win over the locals. This new campaign is more ambitious: It aims to allow al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, to move the fight at least partly off the battlefield by appealing to widespread concerns, such as the repression and a sense of injustice that galvanized the Arab Spring revolts.
"This is our only means to communicate with the international public opinion, since we are terrorists according to the dictionary of America and its agents in the region," AQIM's media arm, Al-Andalus Media Foundation, said last week as part of an unusual question-and-answer session on Twitter. The remark came in response to a question about its choice to go virtual, one of dozens from journalists and others.
The al-Qaida affiliate -- known for its kidnapping raids in Mali and deadly attacks in its home base in Algeria -- has had little trouble finding an audience. In its first two weeks on Twitter, it drew more than 5,000 followers, including some journalists and scholars.
AQIM's Algerian militants used a soft power strategy, including chocolates and even baby clothes, to try to gain acceptance from Malians whose help they needed to establish a foothold in the country's vast north, according to accounts of locals documented in 2011 by The Associated Press. They are now casting a wider net, turning the hearts-and-minds approach to countries across the region.
And as the Syrian conflict monopolizes extremists' attention -- and draws jihadists -- AQIM's soft power push may be aimed at bringing its patch of northern Africa back into the spotlight.
"We need all the specialties like such as medicine, chemistry, electronics and manufacturing arms and automatic media," it said in answer to a question posted on Twitter, adding that it also needs "other scientific and management skills and, before all that, the students of Shariah (Islamic law) knowledge."
But even before the Twitter account was officially opened March 28, statements from AQIM's media handlers addressed social, not military, concerns.
AQIM emerged in 2006 from a previous movement of radical Algerian insurgents, and spread its extremism around a large area of the Sahara. By last year it reigned over northern Mali along with two other radical groups, meting out brutal punishment to those who refused its strict interpretation of Islamic law. Now, a French-led military intervention that began Jan. 11 has radical leaders and fighters on the run, in hiding or dead.
In Algeria, Mali's northern neighbor, AQIM was behind murderous attacks, including high-profile suicide bombings in 2007 against the U.N. mission and government buildings that left scores dead. It now manages only sporadic, if deadly, attacks.
The group has direct links to jihadist groups in northern and western Africa and to al-Qaida central, notably to Aymen al-Zawahri, who replaced Osama bin Laden as leader and who announced the formation of AQIM in 2006. The group is viewed as an ongoing threat by Western governments and nations around the region. The United States is backing the military intervention by France and a half-dozen African nations with intelligence surveillance. About 100 American troops were deployed in February to Mali's neighbor, Niger, to man a base for unarmed drones to conduct surveillance of AQIM and other jihadists. France says it will keep a long-term, 1,000-strong counterterrorism force in Mali even after the current fighting dies down.
In statements and tweets in Arabic and awkward English, AQIM has lashed out against "Crusader France" and the nation's president, Francois Hollande, who ordered the French intervention in Mali. On its first official day on Twitter, AQIM's media arm issued a statement announcing the death of French hostage Philippe Verdon -- not confirmed by France -- and warning that others could be killed if the approximately 4,000 French troops in Mali are not withdrawn. AQIM is holding five other French citizens hostage in Mali.
The organization's media arm threatened France numerous times in its sprawling question-and-answer session on Twitter, calling on "all the Muslims to target France and its interests and subjects inside and outside France."
The media arm, in response to a question from The AP, said its new-style communications have "nothing to do with the military situation in Mali." However, AQIM's recent efforts to take up the causes of the people have coincided with its loss of a large number of fighters in Mali, as well as its hold over the country's north.