Jabhat al-Nusrah and Jihad in Syria

While debates ramped up over the past two weeks among Middle East specialists over the efficacy of a possible Western intervention in Syria (see here, here, and here), earlier this week, on January 23, the online global jihadi forums posted — in jubilation — a new video message “For the People of Syria from the Mujahidin of Syria in the Fields of Jihad” from a purported new jihadi group named Jabhat al-Nusrah (The Support Front) via its new media outlet al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (The White Minaret) Foundation for Media Production. Before this article discusses the video and reaction to it from Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Syrian exiled in London, it is worthwhile to look deeper into the significance for why Jabhat al-Nusrah chose al-Manarah al-Bayda’ as the name of its media outlet. The answer is quite fascinating.

al-Fitan wa Ashrat as-Sa’ah

Although many do not look into it, there are many layers usually to why jihadis decide to choose names for their media outlets, forums, battalions, and titles for media releases. On many occasions they allude to historical figures, events, or places as well as allusions to Qur’anic verses and Ahadith. One area that is understudied is the role of millenarianism in jihadi thought. Ali Soufan covered aspects of it related to the black banners and Khurasan in his book The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda. Indeed, the name of Jabhat al-Nusrah’s media outlet al-Manarah al-Bayda’ alludes to a Sahih Muslim hadith #7015, which deals with the end of times. The whole hadith is long so I placed the entirety of it at the bottom of this article, but here is the segment that mentions al-Manarah al-Bayda’:

He (Dajjal) would then call (that young man) and he will come forward laughing with his face gleaming (with happiness) and it would at this very time that Allah would send Jesus, son of Mary, and he will descend at al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (the white minaret) in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels. When he would lower his head, there would fall beads of perspiration from his head, and when he would raise it up, beads like pearls would scatter from it. Every non-believer who would smell the odour of his self would die and his breath would reach as far as he would be able to see. He would then search for him (Dajjal) until he would catch hold of him at the gate of Ludd and would kill him. Then a people whom Allah had protected would come to Jesus, son of Mary, and he would wipe their faces and would inform them of their ranks in Paradise and it would be under such conditions that Allah would reveal to Jesus these words: I have brought forth from amongst My servants such people against whom none would be able to fight; you take these people safely to Tur, and then Allah would send Gog and Magog and they would swarm down from every slope.

The ad-Dajjal figure mentioned in the above quote of the hadith represents a false prophet that comes during the end of times. It is similar to the anti-Christ, but somewhat different at the same time. Islamic tradition states that there are several ad-Dajjal throughout history, but during the end times it is considered the “big” ad-Dajjal (false prophet). According to Jean-Pierre Filiu in his book Apocalypse in Islam, “Throughout the whole of human history, from Adam until the resurrection, no thing or person will have caused greater turmoil than ad-Dajjal.” Additionally, al-Manarah al-Bayda’ or as local Damascenes call it the “Jesus Minaret,” refers to the eastern minaret at the Ummayyad Mosque, also called the Great Mosque of Damascus.

Jabhat al-Nusrah does not directly mention anything related to the hadith and its significance in its video, but it is difficult for one not to wonder about the deeper meaning. As a result of the currently tumultuous situation in Syria and the centrality of Syria in the Islamic apocalyptic literature one would be remiss not to ponder that individuals involved with Jabhat al-Nusrah have the apocalypse on their minds. At the same time, it should be noted that millenarianism is often important for many religious hardliner groups. Without direct knowledge of why Jabhat al-Nusrah chose the name al-Manarah al-Bayda’ for its media outlet,  it is difficult to ascertain its true intent. Understanding this extra layer, though, and its significance in Islamic traditional literature can hopefully provide deeper insights into Jabhat al-Nusrah’s state of their mind versus parsing the banal platitudes they actually discuss in the video.

The Video and Tartusi’s Take

The video Jabhat al-Nusrah released was around sixteen minutes and contained pretty high quality graphics showing that its media department (or one dude in a basement) definitely has some level of skills. For about 5-8 minutes of the video there is an individual named al-Fatih (“The Conquerer) Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, Jabhat al-Nusrah’s spokesperson. More or less, al-Jawlani repeats the usual jihadi tropes. He also calls out and threatens the United States, the West, the Arab League, Turkey, and Iran for all aligning and collaborating with the al-Assad regime against the (Sunni) Muslims. There are multiples scenes of tens of individuals training with AK-47s in the woods and desert. They also take pose pictures together with large flags with the shahadah (Muslim testament of faith) on it along with either the name Jabhat al-Nusrah at the bottom or an area of operation, including Hamah. Dara is also mentioned by a small cadre pledging loyalty to the group. In a separate video that was released a few days after the official release from Jabhat al-Nusrah, a video was uploaded to YouTube that showed a small group of individuals declaring fealty to Jabhat al-Nusrah. They claim to be from Idlib and go under the banner of Kata’ib Ahrar ash-Sham (The Battalion of Free Syria). If the number of people in the videos can tell us anything, between the YouTube video and the official release there are probably at the low end twenty and at the high end forty individuals involved with Jabhat al-Nusrah.

Usually, when new groups like Jabhat al-Nusrah appear, some online grassroots jihadi activists are curious about the group’s program, legitimacy, and whether it is okay to support them. Although such questions haven’t been asked of Minbar at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s Shari’ah Committee yet, Abu Basir al-Tartusi was asked by several “brothers” about Jabhat al-Nusrah and its video message on his Facebook page al-Mu’ardah al-Islamiyyah l-l-Nizam al-Suri (The Islamic Opposition to the Syrian Regime). al-Tartusi responded by stating he had never heard of them, but had a few observations and reservations about the group. One of al-Tartusi’s larger critiques was the fact that the men in the video and specifically, the speaker, were all masked and did not show their faces, while Syrians have removed its fear of the al-Assad regime by defying the taghut (tyrant). al-Tartusi also reminds Jabhat al-Nusrah of what happened in the 1980s, which led to much bloodshed and that the mujahidin should be reassuring the masses instead of provoking fear by hiding behind masks. al-Tartusi understands that for the mujahidins safety some have to cover their faces, but a leader needs to show itself, which could hopefully help the masses sympathize with its cause. He also warns that they need to have patience, especially with the Syrians that are looking for international support. Therefore, Jabhat al-Nusrah must show kindness.

al-Tartusi also blasts Jabhat al-Nusrah for proclaiming war against “enemies East and West … it will not benefit the Syrian revolution.” It will only open the mujahidin up to more fronts and greater chance of failure. This harkens back to previous tracts by al-Tartusi on the Syrian uprising, which Joas Wagemakers touches upon at Jihadica. As Wagemakers noted: “What is clear from Abu Basir’s writings, however, is that he obviously cares about Syria. The tone of his work here is not one of fighting against ‘infidel’ rulers who fail to apply the shari’a but much more one of concern for his native land.” It appears al-Tartusi is still most concerned with the goal of seeking the al-Assad regime’s fall. Further echoing the above sentiment, al-Tartusi wonders why parts of the Jabhat al-Nusrah video is translated to English, who are they trying to speak to (al-Tartusi rhetorically asks): the US and the West or the Syrian people? Although he has many questions, al-Tartusi hopes his advice with be fruitful for the mujahidin and that they succeed.

As such, although Jabhat al-Nusrah does not appear to have large support yet, they are a group that one should keep an eye on, especially when thinking in the context of a potential Western intervention. There is much we do not know about Jabhat al-Nusrah, but again, as in other contexts of the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, it has provided space for more radical elements to breathe as regimes attempt to hold on at the center while allowing the periphery to fall out of sight. Of course, that does not mean one should support these authoritarian regimes, but rather, one should be aware of the potential short and medium term consequences that citizens of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as policymakers in the West will have to grapple with in the coming years and decade.

Sahih Muslim 7015:

An-Nawwas b. Sam’an reported that Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) made a mention of the Dajjal one day in the morning. He sometimes described him to be insignificant and sometimes described (his turmoil) as very significant rand we felt) as if he were in the cluster of the date-palm trees. When we went to him (to the Holy Prophet) in the evening and he read (the signs of fear) in our faces, he said: What is the matter with you?

We said: Allah’s Messenger, you made a mention of the Dajjal in the morning (sometimes describing him) to be insignificant and sometimes very important, until we began to think as if he were present in some (near) part of the cluster of the datpalm trees. Thereupon he said: I harbour fear in regard to you in so many other things besides the Dajjal. If he comes forth while I am among on, I shall contend with him on your behalf, but if he comes forth while I am not amongst you, a man must contend on his own behalf and Allah would take care of every Muslim on my behalf (and safeguard him against his evil). He (Dajjal) would be a young man with twisted, contracted hair, and a blind eye. I compare him to ‘Abd-ul-‘Uzza b. Qatan. He who amongst you would survive to see him should recite over him the opening verses of Sura Kahf (xviii.). He would appear on the way between Syria and Iraq and would spread mischief right and left. O servant of Allah! adhere (to the path of Truth). We said: Allah’s Messenger, how long would he stay on the earth? He said.. For forty days, one day like a year and one day like a month and one day like a week and the rest of the days would be like your days.

We said: Allah’s Messenger, would one day’s prayer suffice for the prayers of day equal to one year? Thereupon he said: No, but you must make an estimate of time (and then observe prayer). We said: Allah’s Messenger, how quickly would he walk upon the earth? Thereupon he said: Like cloud driven by the wind. He would come to the people and invite them (to a wrong religion) and they would affirm their faith in him and respond to him. He would then give command to the sky and there would be rainfall upon the earth and it would grow crops. Then in the evening, their posturing animals would come to them with their humps very high and their udders full of milk and their flanks stretched. He would then come to another people and invite them. But they would reject him and he would go away from them and there would be drought for them and nothing would be lef t with them in the form of wealth. He would then walk through the waste, land and say to it: Bring forth your treasures, and the treasures would come out and collect (themselves) before him like the swarm of bees. He would then call a person brimming with youth and strike him with the sword and cut him into two pieces and (make these pieces lie at a distance which is generally) between the archer and his target.

He would then call (that young man) and he will come forward laughing with his face gleaming (with happiness) and it would at this very time that Allah would send Christ, son of Mary, and he will descend at the white minaret in the eastern side of Damscus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels. When he would lower his head, there would fall beads of perspiration from his head, and when he would raise it up, beads like pearls would scatter from it. Every non-believer who would smell the odour of his self would die and his breath would reach as far as he would be able to see. He would then search for him (Dajjal) until he would catch hold of him at the gate of Ludd and would kill him. Then a people whom Allah had protected would come to Jesus, son of Mary, and he would wipe their faces and would inform them of their ranks in Paradise and it would be under such conditions that Allah would reveal to Jesus these words: I have brought forth from amongst My servants such people against whom none would be able to fight; you take these people safely to Tur, and then Allah would send Gog and Magog and they would swarm down from every slope.

The first of them would pass the lake of Tibering and drink out of it. And when the last of them would pass, he would say: There was once water there. Jesus and his companions would then be besieged here (at Tur, and they would be so much hard pressed) that the head of the ox would be dearer to them than one hundred dinirs and Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would supplicate Allah, Who would send to them insects (which would attack their necks) and in the morning they would perish like one single person. Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would then come down to the earth and they would not find in the earth as much space as a single span which is not filled with their putrefaction and stench. Allah’s Apostle, Jesus, and his companions would then again beseech Allah, Who would send birds whose necks would be like those of bactrin camels and they would carry them and throw them where God would will. Then Allah would send rain which no house of clay or (the tent of) camels’ hairs would keep out and it would wash away the earth until it could appear to be a mirror. Then the earth would be told to bring forth its fruit and restore its blessing and, as a result thereof, there would grow (such a big) pomegranate that a group of persons would be able to eat that, and seek shelter under its skin and milch cow would give so much milk that a whole party would be able to drink it. And the milch camel would give such (a large quantity of) milk that the whole tribe would be able to drink out of that and the milch sheep would give so much milk that the whole family would be able to drink out of that and at that time Allah would send a pleasant wind which would soothe (people) even under their armpits, and would take the life of every Muslim and only the wicked would survive who would commit adultery like asses and the Last Hour would come to them.

IN PICTURES: Somalia’s Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen, a Photo Essay Sourced from Insurgent Media: Part 4

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)

A photo essay on the Somali insurgent movement Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen
Part 1 can be viewed HERE.

Part 2 can be viewed HERE.

Part 3 can be viewed HERE.


‘Abd al-Qadir Mu’min meeting with Murusade clan leaders (April 2011)

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (Ali Dheere) at graduation of Jaysh al-Hisbah, Harakat al-Shabab’s police force, members in Lower Shabelle (Feb. 2011)

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (Ali Dheere) with captured Burundian AMISOM equipment at Dayniile

‘Ali Mahamoud Rage (Ali Dheere) at graduation of Jaysh al-Hisbah, Harakat al-Shabab’s police force, members  in Lower Shabelle (Feb. 2011)

A shari’a court run by Harakat al-Shabab in Lower Shabelle

Distribution of Aid by Jaysh al-‘Usrah (Sep. 2011), Harakat al-Shabab’s front line military force

Distribution of Aid by Jaysh al-‘Usrah (Sep. 2011), Harakat al-Shabab’s front line military force

Bay & Bakool clan leaders at meeting with Harakat al-Shabab officials in Baidoa (July 2011)

Celebration for the Children of the Martyrs in Lower Shabelle (September 2011)

Children attending a graduation ceremony of new trainees of Harakat al-Shabab’s police force, Jaysh al-Hisbah, in February 2011

Hasan Dahir Aweys at Al-Yasir Camp, Lower Shabelle (July 2011)

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah (far right), Harakat al-Shabab’s governor of Lower Shabelle, at an Eid al-Adha celebration in Marka (Nov. 2011)

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, visit to Lower Shabelle camp (Sep. 2011)

Muhammad Abu ‘Abdullah, Harakat al-Shabab’s governor of Lower Shabelle, at graduation of Jaysh al-Hisbah members in Lower Shabelle (Feb. 2011)

Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman, Harakat al-Shabab’s governor of Banaadir, with captured military equipment in Dayniile on the outskirts of Mogadishu (October 2011)

Harakat al-Shabab preacher-ideologues Fu’ad Muhammad Khalaf “Shongole” (left) and ‘Abd al-Qaadir Mu’min (in green scarf) on a visit to a refugee camp in Lower Shabelle in September 2011

Suldaan Al Muhammad, the former head of Harakat al-Shabab’s Emergency Relief Committee and head of its Zakat Office, which oversees the collection and distribution of the charity required of financially capable Muslims to aid the poor and other groups, such as soldiers,  at Al-Yasir camp, Lower Shabelle (Oct. 2011)

An Update to Hegghammer’s Preference-Based Analysis of Islamism

Much has been talked and written about in popular discourse regarding religion, Islam, and the rise of Islamists and Salafis following the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa during the past year. The elections in Tunisia and especially in Egypt upended some assumptions researchers have had regarding Salafi participation in elections. Prior to the elections in Egypt, the al-Nur Party was categorically against participation in elections. According to Salafi doctrine, democracy is considered a religion, a polytheistic one where legislators are idols that infringe upon God’s sole sovereignty over mankind. Of course, not all Salafis will necessarily break from this doctrine as al-Nur has. That said, it should make one pause when thinking about how one categorizes in a social scientific sense religious groups and religiously-inspired social movements. The uprisings have created a paradigm shift in some of the MENA societies, broken long-engrained taboos, and given space to previously unexposed ideas. It is quite possible that what one thought before regarding these movements may no longer apply or is analytically more fluid due to a change in circumstance and the potential to gain from it. Therefore, this short article hopes to look at these changes through the lens of Norwegian-based jihadism studies expert Thomas Hegghammer’s preference-based analysis of Islamism.


As Hegghammer states, it is not perfect, but in terms of robustness it is the most analytically precise categorization that one has theorized. This article will address some of these flaws below, which will hopefully encourage broader debate. For now, this article will explain Hegghammer’s preference-based analysis of Islamism. There are five rationales and each has a violent and non-violent form. Here is the table Hegghammer used in his essay “Jihadi-Salafis or Revolutionaries? On Religion and Politics in the Study of Militant Islamism,” in the edited volume Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement:

Rationale Non-violent form   Violent form  
  Manifestation Examples Manifestations Examples
State-oriented Reformism MB, Saudi Sahwa Socio-revolutionary activism GIA, GSPC, EIJ
Nation-oriented Nationalism Violent irredentism Hamas, LeT, Chechen mujahidin, Islamic Army (Iraq)
Ummah-oriented Pan-Islamism MWL
Classical jihadism Global jihadism


Arabs in Chechnya al-Qai‘da (AQ), QAP


Morality-oriented Pietism Tabligh, Madkhalis Vigilantism Unorganized hisba
Sectarian Sectarianism Violent sectarianism Lashkar-e-Janghvi, Iraqi militias

Here are Hegghammer’s definitions of the above rationales:

State-oriented: Characterized by a desire to change the social and political organization of the state.

Nation-oriented: Defined by a desire to establish sovereignty on a specific territory perceived as occupied or dominated by non-Muslims.

Umma-oriented: Distinguished by a desire to protect the Islamic nation as a whole from external (non-Muslim) threats.

Morality-oriented: Characterized by a desire to change Muslims’ social conduct in a more conservative and literalist direction.

Sectarian-oriented: Defined by a desire to reduce the influence and power of the competing sect (Shi’i or Sunni).

Obsolete or Update?

Overall, Hegghammer’s categorization still provides an important jumping off point for how one can comprehend differences between differing Islamist movements. There are a few aspects that could be adjusted and updated to the realities of the past few years in the West and in the MENA. First, it may be worthwhile now for one to account for differences between governing Islamist actors and non-state Islamist actors. Therefore, parties such as the AKP in Turkey, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP; Muslim Brothers) in Egypt, and Ennahda in Tunisia as well as hybrid state/non-state actors like HAMAS in the Palestinian Territories and Hizbullah in Lebanon would be categorized in an alternative matter.

As it relates to non-state actors (since that is what the original categorization is based on), there is one group that does not quite fit the mold: Hizb ut-Tahrir (HuT). Based on its ideology it should be considered ummah-oriented and non-violent meaning pan-Islamists, yet they are far different than the Muslim World League (MWL) in purpose and goal. Additionally, although different ideologically, in recent years, Western groups such as al-Muhajirun (AM) in the United Kingdom, Revolution Muslim (RM) in the United States, and Shari‘ah for Belgium (S4B) would fall under the same type of category as HuT. Similarly, with the onset of the MENA uprisings, new non-violent Salafi groups that focus locally, but sympathize with AQ’s global message such as Ansar al-Shari‘ah in Tunisia (AST) and al-Tali‘ah al-Salafiyyah al-Mujahidiyyah (TSM) in Egypt would fall under a similar preference-based categorization as HuT and the Western groups mentioned above. As such, similar to the violent form of the ummah-oriented categorization (classical and global jihadism), I propose that there should be a dual categorization for non-violent ummah-oriented pan-Islamists: systemic Pan-Islamists and anti-systemic Pan-Islamists. I would define them as such:

Systemic pan-Islamism: Interested in pan-Islamist causes, but accept and work within the current international system.

Anti-systemic pan-Islamism: Groups that are non-violent yet want to overthrow the current international system and world order.

Therefore, organizations such as the Muslim World League would be considered systemic pan-Islamists while the groups HuT, AM, RM, S4B, AST, and TSM would be categorized as non-systemic Pan-Islamists.

These are the basics of what could be a much longer/larger discussion and argument, but I wanted to put the main contours out there to see what others thought.

A look inside AQIM

One year ago last weekend, two young French men were seized from a restaurant in the middle of Niamey, Niger, and hustled quickly north towards Mali by members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Yet unlike the normal AQIM kidnapping, which ends in ransom demands and months of waiting, this kidnapping ended quickly and tragically, with an ambush just inside Mali by French Special Forces, and two dead hostages — longtime friends Antoine de Léocour and Vincent Delory. De Léocour was supposed to get married that week to a Nigerien woman, and Delory had just arrived in Niger for the wedding.

While the investigation into their deaths, initially attributed solely to their kidnappers by French authorities, quickly faded from the news, events this week have brought the incident back into the public eye in France. The paper Libération first broke the story Friday that a French anti-terrorism judge, Yves Jannier, interviewed in November 2011 a young AQIM member arrested in Nuakchott the previous February (his name is Mohamed al-Amine ould Mouhamedou ould M’Balle, known as “Mouawiya”).

And what a story Mouawiya told.

According to the reports, Mouawiya was part of the same katiba, or unit, as the men who took part in the kidnapping. He claims that the operation was carefully planned, and that the men of the unit rejoiced upon news that the two young Frenchmen had been seized. But then things went wrong as the three-car AQIM convoy crossed into Mali, and French helicopters carrying elite paratroopers struck. As Mouawiya tells it, the kidnappers tried to pull de Léocour from the car, but when he did not have the strength to follow an AQIM member named Faisal al-Jazairi, the latter coldly shot him several times. However, Mouawiya says, Delory was killed when the truck he was riding in, which was carrying gasoline, was shot at and burst into flames. Moreover, according to Mouawiya, AQIM did not fire the shots that set the truck on fire.

While we can’t be sure about the events as described by Mouawiya, this telling of the story fits with what AQIM said previously about the incident, and other evidence leaves some room for doubt in the official story; some months ago, France’s military released video of the rescue operation from an overhead surveillance plane, but 1 minute was omitted — the time in which Delory’s car burst into flames.

Delory’s family believes that the French army is responsible for at least his death, and allege that a lack of bulletproof vests and hastiness in staging the operation, which they believe may not have been solely a hostage-rescue operation, led to the Delory’s death. They are demanding a further investigation and possible charges of involuntary manslaughter. I’ll leave that debate for another blog post, though I will point out that that a French military source told Le Point defense writer Jean Guisnel that the operation, effected with incredible speed over great distances, was a “tactical, not strategic, failure.” This implies that one motivation for staging the helicopter raid was to deter further AQIM activity. To quote the source (my quick translation, with help from journalist Olivier Knox):

We needed to attempt this operation. The pros and cons were discussed. I’m not BS’ing you. I’ll tell you straight; if any little group can kidnap our compatriots living tranquilly in an African capital, we must put a stop to it. As soon as we had the capacity to react, we had to do it! Of course, to bring [the hostages] out alive would have been an absolute triumph. But it is to the credit of our of political leaders to to have acted as they did: their global responsibility leads them to privilege the national interest. In this affair, we have experienced a tactical failure, but I would not say the same thing on the strategic level.

Setting aside this brewing controversy, the rest of Mouawiya’s testimony seems to have passed into the news largely without commentary, testimony that is of great interest to anyone who’s ever spent time thinking about the internal structure and motivations of AQIM. And primarily, his comments help shed some light on the question of what AQIM in the Sahel really is – a jihadist organization that engages criminal activity, or a criminal organization masquerading as holy warriors.

Mouawiya, 22 when he was arrested last February, told the judge that his engagement with jihadist activities began in 2006, following a religious upbringing and a turn towards salafist ideas, jihadist hymns broadcast on the radio and poetry about famed jihadist leader Abdullah Azzam.  By 2007 he had joined AQIM at the instigation of a local religious leader, Ibrahim Ould Hannoud, which took him to a training camp near Timbuktu, in order to satisfy his desire to “wage jihad in conformity with the methods adopted by Osama bin Laden.” At the camp he trained with kalashnikov rifles, PK submachine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, Tokarev pistols, and even 12.7 mm DShK heavy machine guns.

He also disclosed some interesting details about his unit, led by the infamous “Mr. Marlboro” Mokhtar Belmokhtar (referred to in most of the pieces about Mouawiya by another name, Khaled Abou al-Abbes.) He says his unit comprised 40 individuals, mostly Algerians but with at least one other Mauritanian, and that they had several heavily-armed 4x4s, including at least one SA-7 surface-to-air missile, and around $5 million in cash gleaned from ransom payments. Interestingly, he seems to confirm what others have said about Belmokhtar, saying that MBM got along well with European hostages and treated them kindly, and that he also had little education in religious matters, but instead often talked about his great love of women.

Getting to the hostage-taking itself, Mouawiya told his interrogator that the information about the two young Frenchman’s precise location came from a Nigerian Boko Haram member. This fits with a story first reported by RFI last year that investigators supposedly found the number of a Boko Haram member and supposed “intermediary” with AQIM in cell phones carried by the kidnappers. While there has been much speculation about possible links between AQIM and Boko Haram, this information reinforces the existence of at least contacts between the group and some level of cooperation and information sharing, even if we still do not know about the extent of possible training of Boko Haram members by AQIM, or whether or not AQIM is helping supply the group with weapons, as has been alleged by the Nigerian and other governments in the past.

Yet something that is even more interesting to me (and something that seems to have gone unnoticed in media reports) is what Mouawiya’s testimony says about cooperation among AQIM’s Sahelian units. According to the timeline that the young jihadist laid out, in January 2011 he was in Gao, in northern Mali, part of the unit involved in this kidnapping in Niamey. Yet a month later, he was arrested in Nuakchott, due to his alleged involvement in a failed operation to infiltrate the Mauritanian capital with three explosives-laden trucks and attack the country’s president as well as the French embassy. Except that most AQIM specialists agree that that operation was handled by Khaled al-Chinguitti, a Mauritanian AQIM commander known to be close to Yahya Djuadi, who himself works closely with Abou Zeid, AQIM’s other key commander in the Sahel and a reputed rival of, you guessed it, Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

Now, reports about the rivalry between MBM and Abou Zeid go back several years, and Abou Zeid (along with Djuadi) were reportedly sent south to replace MBM as Emir in the Sahara sometime in 2009. But Mouawiya’s testimony implies that there is more cooperation amongst rival units than most people think, and that different units of the group are involved actively in both criminal and jihadist activities. This is not to say that these rivalries don’t exist, but I do think that this data point could show that AQIM’s Sahelian units are more interconnected than most think, to the point of sharing fighters for different operations. This is far from conclusive evidence, and I’d have to see the full transcript of Mouawiya’s testimony for more information, but it’s certainly a fascinating detail.

Either way, Mouawiya’s statements add an interesting look inside AQIM’s operations in the Sahel, and provide further proof that much of what is commonly thought about AQIM may need to be reconsidered, in light of other evidence.