Abstract and updates on MUJAO and Mokhtar Belmokhtar
August 24, 2013 2 Comments
Given the length of yesterday’s post on Belmokhtar and MUJAO and the detail I used in explaining the subject, I decided to write an abstract for those who don’t want to wade through 3,000 words on Sahelian militant groups. I’ve also added in a few thoughts since yesterday. You can read the full post here.
The Mauritanian news service ANI carried the news Thursday that two closely linked Sahelian jihadist groups, the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO in French, generally MUJWA in English) had merged with the group led by former AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, Katibat al-Mulathimeen, creating a new group called al-Murabitun after the 11th-century Muslim empire that encompassed parts of Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria, and southern Spain. While there is much we do not yet know about this group, including the identity of its leader, the post details some of my initial thoughts about the reasons behind the merger on a local and more international level, as well as what the merger might mean.
Given the close personal and operational ties between Belmokhtar and MUJAO, going back to the latter group’s founding, it is not surprising that the two merged. What is less clear is why the groups decided on a formal merger when their cooperation was so close, and why they did it now. One possibility is that the formalization of their relationship was meant to deal with organizational and leadership deficiencies in MUJAO, especially given the fact that the group has had to adapt after the French intervention in January of this year in Mali scattered the region’s jihadist groups.
Another possible explanation for the merger is that the impetus came from an outside force, notably al-Qaeda’s Core command in Pakistan. This is possible given Belmokhtar’s longstanding connections and frequent appeals to the group’s core leadership, and interesting timing in light of the reports that recently surfaced about a “conference” held electronically by Ayman al-Zawahiri with inputs from a number of representatives of al-Qaeda affiliates. Such a move could be a recognition of Belmokhtar’s high-profile attacks on the Tigentourine gas plant in southern Algeria in January, as well as the attacks on the Agadez military base and Arlit uranium mine in northern Niger in May. It could also be a sign of the continuing shifts in Sahelian militant structures, as AQIM continues to focus more on the Maghreb states while Belmokhtar and MUJAO further solidify their place as the Sahelian face of al-Qaeda. Without knowing more about the aforementioned conference, it’s impossible to say, though RFI’s report from this morning that the name of the group’s new leader may come “from Pakistan” suggests the hand of al-Qaeda’s central leadership. Either way, we’ll know more when the new emir’s identity becomes public.
Given the rhetoric used in the initial announcement to ANI as well as a statement Belmokhtar made to the paper, it would seem that the group seeks to represent a continuation and evolution of AQIM’s “glocal” position, with a possible territorial expansion based on Belmokhtar’s growing regional connections and profile as well as ongoing events of intense interest to jihadis, such as the military coup and crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. In this context, the group’s name is very evocative; it represents on the one hand a continuation of AQIM’s use of local historical figures and references, with an eye to the themes and terms that will also have resonance with the global jihadist community. Notably, while the statements reference Egypt (which caught the eye of the international media) its stated focus remains French interests and those of France’s allies, again a continuation of past rhetorical and operational practices from both AQIM and Belmokhtar.
Finally, there is the question of why Belmokhtar would decide not to take over the new group himself. If the decision was made by AQC, then he may not have had much choice in the matter. Given his taste for independent actions and flexibility, however, this arrangement would allow Belmokhtar to focus on his operational pursuits, rather than the management of a new and larger entity. Since writing the post, it appears that some analysts, notably France-based AQIM specialist Mathieu Guidère, have suggested that the merger and Belmokhtar’s language about the need to pass leadership on to a younger generation means that Belmokhtar is removing himself from the picture. While this is possible, I do not share Guidère’s interpretation. For years now, dubiously-sourced reports have circulated about Belmokhtar’s imminent plans to retire from the jihadist scene, to only pursue smuggling activity, to cut a deal with the Algerian government and more. Yet in this time Belmokhtar’s activity and status have grown, and these reports have all been proven false. So I will not believe that Belmokhtar has left the game until I see it.