Recently, when Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar (also known as Khaled Abou al-Abess) gave an interview in Arabic* with the Mauritanian news service Agence Nuakchott d’Information (ANI), Western media latched immediately onto Belmokhtar’s comments that it was “normal” that AQIM had obtained weapons from Libya as a result of that country’s unrest, as well as his statement that al-Qaeda “have generally been the greatest beneficiaries of the revolutions in the Arab world.” Yet these lines reflect only a small part of what is actually an informative and worthwhile interview, one that deals in a fairly forthright manner with many of the key criticisms of AQIM activity as well as Belmokhtar himself. This is to my knowledge the first interview with a high-level AQIM commander since the group’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel (Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud) gave an interview to the New York Times in 2008.
The interview also reflects the nuanced approach AQIM has taken in its public statements about the conflict in Libya, and is riddled with homages to Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as the standard tropes of “global jihad.” While this may not be surprising coming from an al-Qaeda-affiliated leader, it is particularly interesting when spoken by Belmokhtar, a man with a long jihadist resumé (his nickname, “Belaouar” or the one-eyed, refers to an eye he lost while fighting in Afghanistan in the 1990s) who is still regarded by most analysts as being solely a criminal, a trafficker, in short “Mr. Marlboro” as he is often known. Instead, this interview reflects at least a rhetorical commitment to al-Qaeda and the tenets of global jihad, but also a similar commitment to AQIM’s leadership, including his replacements in the Sahara, Yahya Djouadi and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar also delves into AQIM’s history with al-Qaeda, a subject that gets an incomplete telling in most accounts and is due for a serious revision.
AQIM and Libya
What most major newspapers missed in their coverage of the interview is that just after Belmokhtar acknowledges receipt of Libyan weapons — though he does not specify what kinds of weapons the group has received — he adds, “but what is more important for us is to see that this arsenal returns to the hands of the Libyan people in general, and the youth of the Islamic Movement in particular, because these arms were the power by which the regime struck its own people.”*** He proceeds to warn his “brothers” against any disarmament plan, and flatly denies direct AQIM involvement in the fight against slain Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi.
Responding to a question about “intellectual and organizational” links between Libyan rebels and AQIM, Belmokhtar again prevaricates, telling his interviewer:
It is evident…that the youth of the ‘Islamic awakening’ and in particular ‘jihadists’ were the first to face Qaddafi’s battalions, in order to bring out the first spark, one that would give all of its hope and ardor to the global uprising of the Libyan people. From there, to say that they had an organizational or intellectual link with us, I believe that there is nothing wrong with a Muslim having links with his Muslim brother, it is indeed his right and a source of pride and honor for us and for them. Just as the effects of the Western occupation of our countries, like the artificial frontiers…did nothing to alter our methods and our faith, which commands a Muslim to help his brother Muslim. The Prophet Muhammad (peace and health be upon him) said: ‘Support your brother whether he is right or wrong’.
Belmokhtar dances around the question, implying support while not actually coming out and saying what the support given to Libyan rebels might have entailed. Aaron Zelin and I are planning on writing in more detail about AQIM’s messaging strategy in Libya, but in brief the organization has taken a rather careful, nuanced and subtle approach to Libya, implying but never admitting a specific role of any kind in the rebellion. And with only a few exceptions, the group has chosen not to take credit for playing a role in the anti-Qaddafi uprising.
This cautiousness could be the result of a concern that claiming a presence in Libya (whether true or not) could bring unwarranted attention or the withdrawal of Western support from the rebels; the presence of Islamists and former (or current) jihadists has already proved a source of concern in the West, and direct evidence or confirmation of AQIM participation would undoubtedly push this concern to a fever pitch. The ambiguity of AQIM’s messaging could also, of course, indicate that AQIM simply doesn’t have anything going on in Libya.
But it is still noteworthy that Belmokhtar and other elements of the organization have made the conscious decision to tone down their rhetoric, even when more actively claiming a role in Libya’s uprising would undoubtedly lend enormous credibility to a group that is already mistrusted by the jihadi community and has only recently earned widespread attention in the Muslim world and the West.
Mauritania and jihadist credibility
From Libya, Belmokhtar and his interviewer turn to Mauritania, long a source of AQIM’s attention and a subject that takes up the bulk of this interview. As ANI points out, Belmokhtar led the then-GSPC’s first attack in Mauritania, a violent assault on the Lemgheity army outpost that killed 17 Mauritanian soldiers. Belmokhtar denies being at war in a “traditional sense of war” with the Mauritanian army, before detailing at length his reasons for repeatedly striking Mauritanian targets, including the country’s leader Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Israeli targets in Mauritania in 2008. Belmokhtar tells the interviewer:
It is neither our policy nor a priority of al-Qaeda to target [Mauritania's] armies. The declared strategy of al-Qaeda is to confront the crusader Occident and the jews…and it is clear and evident in all of the interviews and declarations of sheikh Osama [bin Laden] (may his soul rest in peace) and of sheikh Ayman [al-Zawahiri] (may Allah protect him), and in all of the teachings of the Organization distributed in its publications.
He then proceeds to explain that AQIM did not behead prisoners at Lemgheity, though he later says that some soldiers were decapitated, and that, “We consider this an error as there are in all wars, and instructions were given by my brother, the emir of [AQIM] Abou Mousab Abdel Wadoud to not repeat such actions.” He also says that the attack and later attacks in Mauritania was justified by:
1) joint operations and maneuvers conducted by the Mauritanian army and American forces (Belmokhtar says that his forces freed 35 prisoners who informed him of the “comings and goings” of American forces in the region);
2) The existence of an Israeli embassy in Nuakchott, “to the disdain of the feelings and dignity, not just of the Mauritanian people, but of all Muslims.” Belmokhtar also says that the period around the attack was one of “intense Mossad activity” in Mauritania, and that his group planned to assassinate the Israeli ambassador before attacking the complex itself as well as an adjacent building, an attack that took place in 2008;
3) An increase in “tyranny” and the oppression of imprisoned religious men, as well as “the torture of numerous erudite men and preachers, without counting the encirclement of mosques,” incidents that ended in gunfire. Belmokhtar also says that veiled women were not spared, including a pregnant woman who was supposedly killed by security forces, and that “the symbols of our holy religion, the houses of Allah, were threatened with being turned into bakeries by the minister of culture at the time”;
4) The existence in Mauritania of secret CIA prisons under AQIM’s surveillance, one of which was in the control of American Marines, a case eventually brought up in the local press and political class.
Belmokhtar then continues, saying that the primary objective of AQIM operations is to, “attack Western and Jewish economic and military interests, because they pillage the resources of our nation and we consider this a new occupation,” and that anyone who tries to stop them is a legitimate target. He adds, “how could we renounce our fight against the Occidentals while it is they who make our brothers in Afghanistan, Iraq, and stolen Palestine taste the worst punishment,” at a time not far removed from the incidents at Abu Ghraib, referring undoubtedly to the photos of abused Iraqi prisoners at the American detention facility there. He then quotes the Quran, “And they will continue to fight you until they turn you from your religion if they can.”
The interview then moves to the topic of a possible halt in Belmokhtar’s and AQIM’s operations in Mauritania if the Mauritanian army were to stop attacking AQIM forces in “alien territory” – in this case, Mali, the first of which was the joint Franco-Mauritanian assault on AQIM camps in Mali in July 2010. Belmokhtar responds, saying that the Mauritanian army has never been an obstacle for AQIM . He calls the attack a “desperate attempt by the French to pull us into a war that is not a priority of the Organization…it appears clear that Ould Abdel Aziz and his army have engaged in a proxy war on behalf of the French.” He also picks up an interesting thread from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP),when discussing a February 2011 attempt to infiltrate the Mauritanian capital of Nuakchott with cars packed with explosives, an attempt that failed when the trucks were stopped and destroyed on the outskirts of the city. Still, Belmokhtar says, the attack was successful in that it passed through eight military regions undetected, achieved its military objective of forcing a withdrawal of the Mauritanian army from Mali, and that it accomplished its political objective by proving false Ould Abel Aziz’s claims to control the country’s borders and to have “taken the war to al-Qaeda in northern Mali.” In short, that failure can still be a success.
Belmokhtar continues, saying that Abdel Aziz’s efforts since February have been a series of failures, repeating AQIM claims to have destroyed a number of Mauritanian army trucks in a joint Mauritanian-Malian assault on an AQIM base in the Wagadou Forest in June (Kal at The Moor Next Door provides a good rundown and highly valuable context for that here) and alleging that Mauritanian forces killed the organization’s “brothers” in the Azawad region of Mali, killing two “Muslim sisters” and wounding others when a civilian vehicle got caught in the midst of a bombardment.
The AQIM leader also says that he would not refuse a dialogue “in principle” to a halt in aggression against Mauritania, and acknowledges an effort last year whereby the Mauritanian government freed some AQIM prisoners (again, Kal has the most comprehensive take) and proposed to send a delegation of experts, led by Mauritanian Salafist leader Mohammed Hassan Ould Dedew. He adds that despite differences with Dedew, “we are always ready to meet with a delegation of learned men…and are ready to have any practical discussion about the methods and original teachings of learned men to study the challenges facing the Muslim umma” or world.
While lengthy and tied up with Belmokhtar’s longstanding desire to operate in Mauritania (and animus towards the country’s leaders), what this section demonstrates above all else is Belmokhtar’s attempt for his operations — as well as those of AQIM — to be seen as religiously legitimate, to be conducted within a reasonable and acceptable level of violence, and to be a part of the war against the “Crusader West” and the Jews. In using this framing, he situates the conflict clearly within that articulated by other al-Qaeda figures, and implicitly challenges the actions undertaken by the Mauritanian government to combat the group.
AQIM and al-Qaeda
As he nears the end of the interview, Belmokhtar touches on what for me is the most interesting aspect of the whole segment, his relationship with AQIM and AQIM’s history with al-Qaeda. The interviewer brings up Belmokhtar’s removal from head of the Saharan emirate of the GSPC/AQIM towards the end of the last decade in favor of Yahya Abou Ammar (Yahya Djouadi) and the differences between Belmokhtar, Djouadi, and Abou Zeid, as well as the rumors that Belmokhtar had reached a truce with the Algerian military. Belmokhtar acknowledges that differences exist, based on different perceptions and experiences, but adds that the men are united by their Islamic ethic and morality as well as mutual respect. He then calls the pause in operations in Algeria part of the organization’s “strategic shift” in order to prepare for a new phase of action, after an evaluation of the experience of more than 15 years of fighting against the Algerian régime. He adds that he never entered into negotiations with Algeria, vents his anger at the Algerian government’s policy of reconciliation, and asks, “how could we abandon this divine path [i.e. that of war] when we have acquired honor, and the signs of a global conflict between Islam and unbelief become clear? We ask Allah to make us steadfast and to guide us along the straight path until we return to him.”
He then proceeds to strongly deny allegations that he opposed the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda (a story he blames on Algeria’s secret services, working through the newspapers Ennahar and Echorouk), as part of an effort to sell the government’s reconciliation process, first put forward under the “law of civil concord” in 1999. He then proceeds to essentially rewrite the history of the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda, saying that in 2000 the GSPC took steps to tighten its links with al-Qaeda as a counterpoint to the reconciliation law, taking steps that included an invitation for one Abou Mohamed al-Yemeni to visit the group in Algeria; he then says that the group also sent Younis al-Mauritani, recently captured in Pakistan, to al-Qaeda, and says that al-Mauritani was the first contact between the GSPC and al-Qaeda, the start of a dialogue with al-Qaeda’s leaders that was also picked up by “our brothers in Algeria.”
When Mauritani, an important operational figure for al-Qaeda, was picked up in September in Quetta, journalists, the U.S. government, and experts began immediately to fill in previously unknown gaps in his bio — including the fact that he had been a member of the GSPC, and had possibly even taken part in the attack on Lemgheity. Before Mauritani’s arrest and the release of biographical information about him, the standard story about the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda was that under Abdelmalek Droukdel’s leadership the organization took a turn towards the international, facilitating the movement of fighters to Iraq and entering into cordial talks with al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who then facilitated connections with al-Qaeda no. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, leading to the group’s public merger with al-Qaeda in September 2006 (with a statement from Zawahiri) and January 2007, with their first public statement as AQIM.
With Mauritani’s arrest, however, it became clear that he had played a key role in facilitating the group’s entry into al-Qaeda, and it is interesting that Belmokhtar brings up Mauritani’s position as an interlocutor, without mentioning Iraq. Mauritani’s history with both the GSPC/AQIM and al-Qaeda raises a number of tantalizing questions, especially if U.S. government reports that he returned to Mali after the merger, where he allegedly trained AQIM fighters until 2009. This evidence would imply a closer connection between AQIM and al-Qaeda’s core leadership in Pakistan than most analysts presume, especially with the group’s Saharan wing. Again, these data points are disparate, but demonstrate the desperate need for a re-think of the commonly-accepted history of AQIM’s relationship with al-Qaeda, and the influence of AQIM leaders, especially Belmokhtar (who led the raid at Lemgheity) and Abou Zeid (who heads the Tariq Ibn Ziad brigade that Mauritani was a part of during his time with the organization).
In a final nod to al-Qaeda, Belmokhtar confirms that AQIM maintains its demands that it will not free four French hostages seized in September 2010 from the northern Nigerien town of Arlit until French troops withdraw from Afghanistan. This is a direct continuation of a line of statements that AQIM leader Droukdel and bin Laden traded starting last fall; In October 2010 bin Laden endorsed the Arlit kidnapping, blaming it on French actions in Afghanistan and in North Africa. Droukdel followed in November with a tape demanding a French withdrawal from Afghanistan, and saying that all hostage negotiations would need to go through bin Laden, who subsequently reiterated in January his demand for the withdrawal in return for the hostages’ release.
It is convenient on the one hand for Belmokhtar to take this line on the hostages’ release, because a) they’re being held by Abou Zeid, and b) it sounds much better, from a jihadist perspective, to claim that French troops remaining in Afghanistan is the reason for keeping the hostages, rather than a failure to pay the reported asking price of $90 million per hostage. In fact, the transactional nature of hostage taking in the Sahel forces Belmokhtar to give an awkward answer to the interviewer’s subsequent question about the release of two Spanish hostages in August 2010 in return for notorious smuggler Omar el-Sahraoui (and a certain ransom), instead of other imprisoned AQIM members; Belmokhtar says the transaction had to be made hastily, saying that hostages Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta had converted to Islam while in captivity (along with another colleague who was released earlier), and that a deal for Sahraoui was already on the table.**
Still, we should not discount fully the importance of this statement; while the high ransom price might be holding up negotiations, reports indicate that France’s continued presence in Afghanistan may actually be delaying a deal for the hostages. And by confirming the organization’s stated position on the hostages, especially after the death of bin Laden, Belmokhtar makes a rhetorical commitment both to AQIM’s leadership and other commanders and to bin Laden’s past “orders,” again situating AQIM firmly within al-Qaeda.
Conclusions: Becoming (and remaining) al-Qaeda
While the nature of his words may surprise some who think of Belmokhtar as only a criminal, this interview fits neatly with other AQIM propaganda, which constantly tries to show the group’s devotion to al-Qaeda and the jihad against the West, in addition to regional governments such as Algeria and Mauritania. This, I believe, is at least partially an attempt to overcome the group’s image in the jihadi community, where it is tainted by its association with criminal activities and lingering beliefs since the Algerian civil war that various militant groups were infiltrated and possibly manipulated by the Algerian government. This process of favoring bin Laden and al-Qaeda with laudatory statements and a rigid attempt to place the GSPC and then AQIM within al-Qaeda’s sphere is something I call “becoming al-Qaeda,” and Belmokhtar’s statement fits that role nicely.
But this explanation doesn’t answer the question about why Belmokhtar is the one making these statements. The standard belief about Belmokhtar — that he is a criminal first and foremost, operating independently from the rest of AQIM — fails to explain why Belmokhtar insists on publicly and carefully toeing the line towards AQIM’s other leaders and paying repeated homage to al-Qaeda’s leaders and goals. And while this interview may be in part an attempt to maintain a space to operate or continue to recruit fighters, we cannot dismiss the possibility that Belmokhtar really does mean what he says.
Analysts often ignore Belmokhtar’s history when talking about him. But as Mauritanian journalist Hacen Ould Lebatt points out, he is a man who has been deeply involved in jihadist militancy since the early 1990′s, in Afghanistan, Algeria, and the Sahel, and has been actively involved in a number of both military and criminal activities over the years. And despite claims to the contrary, there is no reason to believe that he is any different from other Algerian militants, who like militants everywhere, be they Taliban, Haqqani Network, or al-Qaeda, engage in criminal activity to supplement and fund their activities.
We should not ignore the possibility that just as AQIM strenuously works to show itself as a full member of al-Qaeda’s jihad, so too does Belmokhtar. He concludes the interview by saying:
I would like, through you, to pay homage to our murdered Palestinian people and to all the Muslims for this great victory [the transfer of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit]…Homage as well to our brothers in the Mujahideen Brigades of the marty Izzedine al-Qassam, and all of the fractions in the country of Al-Isra [referring to the site from which the Prophet Muhammed is believed to have ascended to heaven, currently the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem] which we consider the true rampart of the nation against the zionist enemy, behind which is arrayed the crusader West. If this proves anything, it is that arms are all the enemy understands…I ask Allah for success, for us and for you, and that Allah reward you.
*Author’s note: All translations are mine, from the French version of the interview provided by ANI. For an English translation provided by a member of the Ansar English jihadi forum, click here (safe link).
**This difficulty reconciling AQIM’s public face and criminal operations appears later in the interview, when Belmokhtar strongly denies ties to drug and other traffickers, a trade he says is, “forbidden by Allah’s laws,” despite years of assertions that the group is tied to the drug, weapons, cigarette, and even human smuggling trade in the Sahel.
***UPDATE: In the comments below, Marwan informs us that the original Arabic word used in the interview is “Tamakun” which more closely means “control” or “self-possession.” This is an important distinction, though it’s interesting to me that both the French translator and Ansar forum user got this wrong. Still, I’m not sure that the difference between the Libyan people and specifically the youth “possessing” weapons, rather than having the weapons “returned” to them, really changes the analysis that much. Either way, in Belmokhtar’s calculation, the Libyan people now have weapons, and must maintain their hold on them. But we can have a debate about that in the comments section.