Yesterday morning, the Mauritanian news service Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) carried an announcement from the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO in French (led, according to the story, by Ahmed Ould Amer, previously identified as the group’s military commander) had merged with longtime Algerian jihadist leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Mulathimeen (“the masked/veiled Battalion”) to form a new jihadist group, al-Murabitun, an homage to the 11th-Century Almoravid Empire that founded Marrakesh and at one point stretched from southern Spain south to Mauritania, and also included parts of what is now Algeria. In the initial statement, the group spoke of the merger as part of an effort to unite Muslims “from the Nile to the Atlantic” in order to meet the “zionist campaign targeting Islam and the Muslims.” The statement also notes that the group will fall under the leadership of another emir who for the moment is unnamed, which a source told ANI is a non-Algerian who fought Soviet forces in Afghanistan as well as American forces in 2002, before eventually traveling to Mali and taking on a leadership role in fighting against French forces.
In the more complete Arabic version of the ANI article (full disclosure, I used Google Translate and got help from my blog partner Aaron Zelin for these references), the statement mentions a litany of abuses against Muslims, including the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in 2006 in Denmark, attacks on Muslims in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Northern Mali, and the rejection by secularists of all things Islamic, specifically citing the recent coup in Egypt that deposed President Mohamed Morsi. The statement calls for unity of Muslims and Islamic groups, and specifically threatens attacks against France and its interests around the world, as well as those of its allies. The statement also hailed Mauritanian ‘ulema who expressed opposition to the French intervention in Mali, and closed by affirming the group’s commitment to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and drew its inspiration from al-Qaeda and the Taliban, notably Mullah Omar, Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden. As Aaron pointed out to me, the statement specifically uses the term “Nafir” a term used by Abdullah Azzam and Abu Musab al-Suri to refer to a call to arms or to battle, in this case “to the land of jihad” — though the statement does not specifically state where this “land of jihad” is.
In another statement to ANI (so far only published in Arabic), Belmokhtar explained the decision to form the group by making strikingly similar statements to the release announcing the creation of al-Murabitun, saying that the group would operate regionally in North Africa as a first step toward uniting the mujahideen and all Muslims “from the Nile to the Atlantic” and affirming the commitment not just to Zawahiri and Mullah Omar, but to the intellectual, moral, political, and military ideas and methods espoused by bin Laden. Belmokhtar repeatedly stressed the need for unity and explained why he was not taking on the group’s leadership role in saying that it was time for a new generation of leaders during a time of “promising prospects” in the advancement of religion.
What follows are some of my thoughts about what this merger may or may not mean, what the shift specifically says about militancy in the Sahel, and how it fits into broader regional shifts and those specifically related to al-Qaeda. I should caution that these are initial thoughts, and may very well change as new information comes out related to this new venture.
Chronicle of a merger foretold
For the small group of people passionately tracking affairs in northern Mali and the broader region, a merger between Belmokhtar — who established a new katiba late last year while also taking his own katibat al-Mulathimeen from AQIM’s command structure — and MUJAO will likely not come as much of a surprise. Belmokhtar has always been close to MUJAO, and all of those who have at various times been named as MUJAO’s leaders, including Hamada Mohamed Ould Kheiru, Sultan Ould Badi, and now Ahmed Ould Amer (also known as Ahmed al-Telmassi, a reference to his origins in the Tilemsi Valley north of Gao) either worked with at various times or directly under Belmokhtar, and Ould Kheiru and Ould Amer are both reportedly very close to Belmokhtar. This closeness has been apparent for some time (I have written about it here, here, here, and here), and became all the more apparent after northern Mali fell last year and Belmokhtar chose to quite openly set up shop in Gao, the city that MUJAO controlled partially from April until June and then exclusively until they were forced out by the French intervention. Some sources have even described Belmokhtar as one of MUJAO’s original founders.
Moreover, MUJAO and Belmokhtar worked closely together, whether during the attack in Gao in which Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s forces expelled the Tuareg MNLA from the city, to when Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s forces took control of the smuggling town of In Khalil in December, and then the coordinated attacks at In Amenas in January and against a military base in Agadez and uranium mining facility at Arlit in northern Niger in May, as well as the assault on Niamey’s civil prison on June 1.
So if they were working together before, why merge now? For one thing, MUJAO has undergone a series of changes in the short time that it has existed, and may still be working its issues out. On the one hand, MUJAO has carried out or taken part in numerous successful operations (in the odd metrics often applied by jihadist groups to their own actions), including small- and large-scale suicide bombings, the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom and possibly the release of prisoners, and the administration of a city — even as it’s harsh interpretation of shari’ah helped drive people away from the group.
Still, MUJAO has gone through a series of important shifts. In October 2011 MUJAO’s stated goal was to propagate jihad in West Africa, referencing key figures in regional Muslim history in the process, yet its first operations were all against Algerian targets. After the fall of northern Mali the group was involved in the administration of Gao and increasingly the areas around it, even while staging a large suicide attack at the Algerian Gendarmerie base in Ouargla in June. With the jihadist push south (in which MUJAO took part, despite reported opposition from Kheiru) and French intervention a new phase began, one of guerrilla attacks in multiple parts of northern Mali, and the involvement of MUJAO fighters and sometimes key personnel in the In Amenas and Niger attacks.
During this time, the group has also experimented with different structures and dealt with leadership conflict; as I previously noted, it remains very unclear who actually runs MUJAO, and different leaders at different times have clashed with others over the handling of matters in northern Mali, notably when Ould Badi reportedly took his fighters to join Ansar al Din last fall in opposition to the takeover of In Khalil. The group has, by my count, reorganized its leadership and battalions at least three times before now, including Belmokhtar’s reported creation in January of a “Mujahideen shura” that would comprise fighters from MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathimeen, and the designation of Ould Badi as the head of a group specifically tasked with dealing with MUJAO’s remaining hostages.
Today’s announcement, then, appears to be the latest in a series of adaptations to changing environments in the region, and may even just be the formalization of a merger that had already happened. It could also be, as Mauritanian journalist and AQIM expert Hacen Ould Lebatt noted in an email, an attempt to give the group true leadership, which it has lacked since its founding. In that vein, it will be very interesting to see who is actually taking over this new batallion, but if ANI’s description is accurate it will be someone with extensive jihadist experience, as well as someone who mirrors Belmokhtar’s path, with a history both in Afghanistan (possibly with al-Qaeda’s core organization) and the Sahel.
It’s evolution, baby
As with many things related to Belmokhtar and the past activities of those close to him, the statements and group formation have both very local and very international registers. Over the past few years I have repeatedly expressed my support for the conception of AQIM and related groups as “glocal”, groups that often think and speak globally but generally act much more locally.
For lack of a better way to put it, the group’s announcement is a very “al-Qaeda” statement, redolent with themes and direct messages linked to the group and it’s “core” leadership. While jihadist statements often appear very similar by virtue of shared ideologies and reference points (not to mention a shared self-image), it is worth pointing out that this statement and Belmokhtar’s comments make repeated and explicit reference not just to al-Qaeda’s leadership (as well as the Taliban), but also the reference of specific concepts favored in the past by leading global jihadist figures, such as Azzam and al-Suri. Moreover, the statement explicitly threatens not just a more “global” jihadist target, in the form of France, but also situates al-Murabitun, at least rhetorically, as trying to unify and defend Muslims across the region, even papering over the decades-long disputes between jihadists and the Muslim Brotherhood to present all groups as part of a broader Islamist project, one opposed in this context by Crusaders, Zionists, and secularists.
On the other hand, the statement still fits within Belmokhtar’s past and more recent history of imbuing his speech and actions with local and more regional and international significance. Despite long being derided as a mere smuggler, a criminal, and as one paper briefly wrote after the In Amenas attack, a “One-Eyed Pirate King of the Sahara”, Belmokhtar has a long jihadist resume that includes training in Afghanistan and two decades of membership in Algerian militant groups, from the GIA to the GSPC to AQIM. He was the first Algerian militant commander since the GIA to actually stage an attack outside of Algeria (and he paid direct homage to the GIA unit that carried out those attacks), and he has for years spoken of his admiration and loyalty to bin Laden, Zawahiri, and situated his own actions and thinking within those of al-Qaeda. Before he formed al-Mouwakoune bi-Dima (“Those who Sign with Blood”), Belmokhtar’s close confidant Omar Ould Hamaha confirmed that Belmokhtar would still remain under the orders of al-Qaeda’s core command.
At the same time, while this new venture continues Belmokhtar’s and MUJAO’s rhetorical association with al-Qaeda, it also emphasizes the group’s regional focus, both in explicitly mentioning its operations within North Africa (even as the group hopes to expand, geographically) and specifically in threatening France, the onetime colonial power in much of North and West Africa. This is, in effect, still a continuation of AQIM’s mold, given that the group was given entrance in al-Qaeda to “form a bone in the throats of the crusaders” in Zawahiri’s words – notably France. And Belmokhtar’s attacks against international targets, especially at In Amenas and in Niger, have had both local and international resonance.
With this new group and announcement, Belmokhtar and MUJAO have sought to broaden their rhetorical horizons, notably through reference to hot-button current issues to jihadis current events and the struggles of Islamists in Egypt, while still retaining the focus on North Africa and presumably the Sahel, something AQIM has also done with their propaganda in recent years. One need only look at the group’s name to see this significance; the Almoravids have long featured in AQIM propaganda and group naming, providing an ideal symbol for the group (and now its offshoots), as a pious and strict Muslim Berber empire that spread across North Africa and into Andalucia (a prominent historical touchstone for jihadis).*
Belmokhtar out of the spotlight?
If you’ve gotten this far, you might ask why, if Belmokhtar is so important and central to happenings regarding MUJAO, he did not simply take command of this new group himself. The honest answer is that at this point, I have no idea. However, I do not share the surprise that some very smart AQIM watchers have expressed that Belmokhtar would not submit to someone else’s control; he has at least paid lip service in the past to his position under al-Qaeda’s command as well as that of his AQIM leadership (notably Abdelmalek Droukdel), and his problems with leadership in the past seem to have largely been specific rivalries, such as that with his fellow Sahelian AQIM commander Abou Zeid or with Droukdel or AQIM’s shura in northern Algeria. That said, it took him years to break with this structure, and only, it seems, under immense pressure from the organization itself. He also operated under multiple commanders in the Sahel, including Yahya Djouadi and Nabil Makhloufi, without actually breaking from the organization.
What is clear is that Belmokhtar likes to do his own thing, and has made wide-ranging contacts outside of his native Algeria, from Mauritania (where he has recruited fighters for years) to Mali (where he has married into at least one local family) to Niger (where he has operated and recruited) to Libya (where he spent time in late 2011 and 2012 making connections in key areas like Oubaria, connections that reportedly helped him acquire weapons and later operate). I would suggest the possibility, then, that accepting a technically subordinate role for Belmokhtar may not be a slight, but instead the chance for him to divest himself of the tasks of running a larger organization in order to focus on his operations.
This explanation is of course speculative, and rests largely on who the new leader of the brand-new al-Murabitun is. Their identity will hopefully tell us, for instance, if the emir is a friend or contact of Belmokhtar’s, another figure of the Sahelian jihad, or perhaps someone imposed from the outside. It is possible, for instance, that this maneuvering came about as a result of the now-infamous “conference” headed online by Zawahiri and involving the participation of a number of al-Qaeda leaders and the heads of affiliated or linked groups. Without knowing who participated in that conference, and in particular without knowing if Belmokhtar or anyone linked to his organization or MUJAO participated, it is impossible to say. But the identity of al-Murabitun’s chief may tell us some important things about what exactly the group wants to do, and where.
What’s the point?
I’ve explained from an organizational perspective why I think this new group may have been created. But that doesn’t necessarily explain why, on a more general level, this group would come into being. Perhaps it is as simple as needing to assert more control over an unruly organization buffeted by intense combat with French forces and pressure to scatter across the Sahel.
On the one hand, the tumult in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia could have provided the impetus to create a new group, or the appearance of a new group, in order to take advantage of the chaos and signal an intention to expand operations accordingly. The references to Egypt, for instance, stuck out to some as a direct threat to attack there. While this is absolutely possible, in light of the lively weapons and other smuggling networks from Egypt to Libya and the rapidly expanding conflict with jihadists in Egypt, the actual statement only directly threatens attacks against French targets and those of their allies. Reference to Egypt here seems much more like a rhetorical device, one that will certainly resonate with many people, but not necessarily a signal of impending attacks.
While it is also possible that this group’s creation was ordered by al-Qaeda’s central command, it is just as likely that the group is an attempt to set up a more coherent jihadist organization in the Sahel and North Africa with a more explicitly broad reach. While AQIM likely has connections with fighters in Libya and perhaps beyond, and is said by regional intelligence agencies to be playing a significant role in events in Tunisia, notably in Jebel Chaambi on the border with Algeria, its actual activities seem to have remained focused largely on Algeria. In the last months and even years, AQIM has quietly increased its activities in the north, largely concentrated around traditional tactics of IED emplacement and ambushes. Yet this still leaves space for another organization willing to engage in attacks across a wider geographical space, and in particular the kind of large-scale attacks that Belmokhtar and MUJAO executed in Algeria and Niger.
In this context, it is interesting that al-Murabitun’s leader is supposedly not Algerian, and that the group has threatened attacks across a wide front; MUJAO was purportedly created due to anger among non-Algerian members of AQIM, notably Mauritanian and Malian Arabs, that too much preference was still given to Algerians for leadership positions within the organization, and that AQIM had strayed too far from the path of jihad. The death of Abou Zeid in March, along with other AQIM leaders close to him, may have made even more space for Belmokhtar to operate.
Ultimately, this kind of analysis is an exercise in trying to read dancing shadows in a candlelit room. We do not know far more than we will know about these groups, their interactions with each other, and the interpersonal and environmental dynamics that drive them. Hopefully as more information emerges our knowledge of these moving pieces will change, grow, and sharpen. Until then, all we can do is continue to watch this space.
*As an added aside, al-Murabitun (those who do ribat), comes from the Arabic word for fortress, and denotes warriors on the edge of an empire or state who protect those inside or expand the territory. For those who have read al-Qaeda’s history, that sounds an awful lot like al-Qaeda’s original ideal, to establish a small group of fighters who would be a vanguard for a broader revolution that would sweep the Muslim umma. Thanks again to Aaron for pointing out the original meaning of the word.