May the force (of history) be with you

I’ll admit it, sometimes I’m a sucker for the kind of pop culture hot takes that are sucking up an increasing amount of social media oxygen. These have taken a particularly intense turn with the impending release of the new Star Wars movie, which has sent writers and editors scurrying into the click mines. As political scientists Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Daniel Nexon noted in their excellent piece on the relationship between pop culture and political science, “It’s as if a thousand editors cried out for clickbait, and no one had the courage to silence them.” Hear hear.

Jackson and Nexon make a series of thoughtful and important points in the article, but the most important is that many of the writers opining about the relationship between fictional worlds and contemporary politics  simply transpose a fictional world onto our own in order to reveal some ambiguous, tenuous “lesson” about our daily lives. As the authors note, “if you’re going to use a fictional universe to make an argument, you have to adhere to the basic rules of that universe. Not everyone does.”

For the authors, this failure to account for context and the fictional texts themselves means we lose the ability to read or watch them for their actual messages about politics and society. At the same time, directionless analysis that looks for lessons about politics from Emperor Palpatine (but seriously, who thinks this is a good idea?) also makes for bad interpretations of our own world. The fictional can approximate the real world, but it remains only an approximation, one that works according to the story that scribes and filmmakers want to tell. Search elsewhere for answers, you must.

But for all of the problematic constructs that Jackson and Nexon correctly document and dismantle, they are missing one important word: Anachronism. In very brief, anachronism is the act of applying one environment, context, or set of ideas to another time and place — or a galaxy far, far away — where these concepts do not necessarily apply or have the same meaning.

I have no doubt at all that the authors know and take the concept to heart. After all, what they described and critiqued in their article is anachronism in every sense. So why does the word matter? For me, the importance of the word lies in what its absence illustrates about some fundamental differences between political science and historical analysis.

I do not want to put too fine a disciplinary point on this issue, since people are not their academic disciplines, and vice-versa. Many, many political scientists appreciate and stress the value of context, deep experiences of places and people acquired through study and fieldwork, and the avoidance of choosing frameworks that overgeneralize in the quest to make larger points about political order.

However, the field itself does not place the same emphasis on avoiding anachronism as History does, and that matters. Historians are not always saints in the avoidance of anachronism, but it is widely considered a “sin” in the field, one of the worst you can commit. Historians at every level of study from high school to graduate training are inculcated in the horrors of anachronism. When I begin a class I explain the concept to my students and talk about it at length with them so that they can keep it in mind throughout the term.

Sometimes this emphasis can go too far, where historians overcontextualize or avoid frameworks for fear of omitting important details, as the historian and sociologist William Sewell wrote in The Logics of History. But the focus on avoiding anachronism  is also a key analytical strength of History. It forces students and practitioners alike to ask difficult questions about their sources, weigh incomplete and uneven information in light of what we know, what we think we know, and what we do not know, and also take note of the ways in which our experiences and perspectives can both inform and occlude our perspectives on the past and present.

This fine-grained attention is crucial both for historical and contemporary analysis, where one can only understand how things change over time with a careful understanding of different contexts at all levels of a study. And maybe, just maybe, it will cool the ardor of hot take warriors before they opine blithely on destroying far-away worlds in the name of page views.

Updates, reflections, and a few new articles

This post will be part personal update, part promotional entry, and part reflection on the past few years and resurrecting a dormant blog. When I started al-Wasat with my good friend Aaron Zelin, we intended it to be a chance to explore at length some of the niche issues that interested us. In that time, many of these issues have become less niche, while we’ve also both moved on to some different but related things.

When I went back to school in the fall of 2013 to pursue a PhD in African History, I consciously took a step back from the kind of policy-related writing I’d done in the past. I’ve stayed active (too active) on Twitter, but while I’ve continued to occasionally write articles and short essays, much of my attention has been focused on my academic work. Now I’ve finished coursework, passed my language qualifications, and begun the process of applying for research fellowships and reading for my comprehensive exams in the spring. While this is a busy time, it’s also a good one for me to reflect a bit on the relationship between academic work and more contemporary research.

In my time in academia I’ve found that while many people are more open to engagement with the world outside, even though the stereotype of the Ivory Tower academic is only partly true at best. Many people instead already do engage extensively with non-academic subjects and themes, and others want to do the same but are not quite sure how. For historians in particular, it can be challenging to relate research into the past to contemporary life. It can also be difficult to find time for this work when academic programs and job markets do not generally reward things like blog posts, articles, and media appearances.

This is changing rapidly, and there are already fantastic examples of scholars doing deeply researched, rigorous work about the past and present that remain connected to the contemporary world in interesting and new ways, whether at Jadaliyya, Alex Thurston’s Sahel Blog, Malika Rahal’s Textures du Temps, or elsewhere. These blogs and the people who run them have helped inspire my own commentary and writing for years, and will continue to do so.

Along those lines, I’m going to take more time in the coming months and years to write publicly again about the issues and parts of the world that interest me the most, namely North and West Africa. My goal is to stay engaged in current debates while also using my historical research and training in different ways. In doing so, I want to explore not just the connections between the past and the present but also how historical methods can inform analysis.

Those kinds of reflections and the personal connections to events far away were part of a piece I co-wrote with Prof. Gregory Mann for the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog on the recent attacks in Paris and Bamako. In that piece and another for Al Jazeera America, I emphasized the Malian context for the Bamako attacks and Mali’s eroding security environment. And in a wide-ranging conversation with Karl Morand for his excellent Middle East Week podcast, I talked about the history of jihadist mobilization in the Sahara and Sahel and the impact of France’s 2013 intervention in Mali, the resonance and explanations for this violence beyond a local framework, how people talk about politics and violence in Africa, and how I view the role of historical methodologies in understanding current affairs. I will continue to explore these and related ideas in some upcoming writing about Mali as well as Algeria and Morocco for different publications.

In the meantime, I’ll use this space to do some less formal writing, to flesh out ideas, and to continue the kind of dialogue I’d like to see take place about the concepts, issues, and places that are important to me. Stay tuned.

IN PICTURES: Faces of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)


See a 3-part photo essay on the late Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan leader Hakimullah Mehsud:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3



Maulana Fazlullah (Mullah Fazlullah)Maulana (Mullah) Fazlullah, the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan leader in the Swat valley who has reportedly been elected the new amir of the TTP umbrella organization.


Khan Said (Sajna) Sejena and deputy Ikhlas YaarKhan Said (Sejena, Sajna), reportedly the newly-elected amir of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (left) and his deputy, Ikhlas Yaar.

Maulana Fazlullah (Ustad Fateh) Ustadh Fateh (Ustad Fatih)Ustadh (Ustad) Fatih (Fateh), a Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan military commander in Swat (far left) with Swat Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah (center).

Mawlawi Kaleemullah (Bajaur agency)Mawlawi Kaleemullah (Bajaur agency)Omar Khalid Khorasani‘Umar Khalid Khurasani (Omar Khalid Khorasani), [center], Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan commander in Mohmand agency.

Khan Said (Sajna) SejenaKhan Said (Sejena, Sajna) of the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan.

Sejena (Khan Said) SajnaKhan Said (Sejena, Sajna), (far right) of the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan.

Shahidullah Shahid (Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan spokesman)Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan spokesman Shahidullah Shahid.

Shahidullah Shahid (Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan spokesman) 2Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan spokesman Shahidullah Shahid.

Shakil Ahmad Haqqani (Mohmand agency)Shakil Ahmad Haqqani (Mohmand agency)

Ustad Fateh (Ustad Fatih) and Mawlawi Fateh (Maulana Fateh) Maulana Fatih (Khyber agency)Ustadh (Ustad) Fatih (Fateh), military commander (left) and Mawlawi Fatih (Fateh), Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan leader in the Khyber agency.

Hafiz Sa'id Khan (Orakzai agency) Hafiz Saeed 2Hafiz Sa'id Khan (Orakzai agency) Hafiz Saeed 3Hafiz Sa'id Khan (Orakzai agency) Hafiz Saeed 4Hafiz Sa'id Khan (Orakzai agency) Hafiz SaeedHafiz Sa’id Khan (Hafiz Saeed), Tehrik-i Taliban leader in Orakzai agency.

UntitledIhsanullah Ihsan, senior spokesman of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan.

Baitullah MehsudThe late founder-leader of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, Baytullah Mehsud.

IN PICTURES: Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan’s Late Leader, Hakimullah Mehsud: Part 3

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)


See Part 1 of this photo essay HERE.

See Part 2 of this photo essay HERE.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 4

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 2

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 1

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 3

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 5

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) and Hajji Nur Islam (Noor Islam)Hakimullah Mehsud with Hajji Nur Islam (left), one of the Pashtun tribal supporters of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) and Muhammad Tahir Faruq (Muhammad Tohir Farooq)Hakimullah Mehsud and the late founder-leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Muhammad Tahir Faruq (right), who died in 2009 of wounds suffered that year from a U.S. drone missile strike.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) after drone strike (dead) body (killed)Photograph circulating on jihadi web sites purportedly showing Hakimullah Mehsud shortly after he was killed in a U.S. drone missile strike on November 1, 2013.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) dead (martyred)“By the Lord of the Ka’ba, I have succeeded!” (Saying attributed in the Sunni tradition to a Companion of the Prophet Muhammad and in the Shi’i tradition to Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib).

IN PICTURES: Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan’s Late Leader, Hakimullah Mehsud: Part 2

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)


See Part 1 of this photo essay HERE.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 2

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) Waliur Rehman Mehsud (Wali al-Rahman Mehsud) and Ihsanullah IhsanHakimullah Mehsud with Waliur Rahman Mehsud, the late deputy commander of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and head of Mehsud Taliban forces (left), and TTP spokesman Ihsanullah Ihsan.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) Waliur Rehman Mehsud (Wali al-Rahman Mehsud)Hakimullah Mehsud with Waliur Rahman Mehsud, the late deputy commander of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and head of Mehsud Taliban forces (left).

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 1

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) & Faisal Shahzad

Hakimullah Mehsud meeting with Faisal Shahzad, who traveled to Pakistan to receive training from the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan and tried, but failed, to construct and set off a working vehicle bomb in Times Square in New York City in 2010.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 1

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 2

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 3

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 4Hakimullah Mehsud leading prayers.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 5

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 6

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 7

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 8

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 9

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud)Photograph of Hakimullah Mehsud meeting with a Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan commander days before his killing in a U.S. drone strike on November 1, 2013.

IN PICTURES: Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan’s Late Leader, Hakimullah Mehsud: Part 1

-Christopher Anzalone (McGill University)


See Part 2 of this photo essay HERE.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 3

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) Abu Zarr Azzam (Abu Zarr Pakistani ( Abu Zarr Burmi)Hakimullah Mehsud with Abu Zarr al-Pakistani (Abu Zarr al-Burmi, Abu Zarr ‘Azzam), a religious scholar and preacher affiliated with both the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan.  The latter formerly was a teacher at the Jami’at Faruqiyya school in Karachi and the mentor to Qari Husayn Mehsud of the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) Abu Zarr Azzam (Abu Zarr Pakistani ( Abu Zarr Burmi) 1

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 2

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 4

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) and Usman Adil  (Uthman Adil) Usman Odil 2Hakimullah Mehsud with Abu Usman Adil (left), the late leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who was killed in April 2012 by a U.S. drone.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) and Usman Adil  (Uthman Adil) Usman Odil 3Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) and Usman Adil  (Uthman Adil) Usman Odil

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 1

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 2

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 3

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 4Hakimullah Mehsud with the late founder-leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Muhammad Tahir Faruq (far left), who died in 2009 of wounds suffered in a U.S. drone missile strike.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 5Hakimullah Mehsud with Muhammad Tahir Faruq.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) with Humam al-BalawiHakimullah Mehsud with Dr. Humam al-Balawi, the Jordanian jihadi who tricked the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and Jordanian intelligence into thinking he was working for them.  Al-Balawi, aided by the Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan and Al-Qa’ida Central, carried out a “martyrdom operation” inside the U.S. military base in Khost, Afghanistan on December 30, 2009, killing seven CIA agents, including the station chief, and his Jordanian security services handler.

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) with Muhammad Tahir FaruqHakimullah Mehsud with Muhammad Tahir Faruq and Hajji Nur (far left), one of the local Pashtun tribal figures who aid the “mujahideen.”

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 1

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 2

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 3

Hakimullah Mehsud (Hakeemullah Mehsud) 3

American Jihadi Reportedly Killed in an Al-Shabab Ambush in Southern Somalia

Al-Shabaab (Al-Shabab) Harakat al-Shabab (Mukhtar Robow, Omar Hammami)

Omar Hammami (right) with Mukhtar “Abu Mansur” Robow, a dissident Al-Shabab leader and member of the Rahanweyn clan group with which Hammami affiliated himself with on his year and a half in hiding from Al-Shabab.

American jihadi Omar “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” Hammami has reportedly been killed in an ambush in southern Somalia carried out by Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Movement of the Mujahideen-Youth).  Hiding in the forests of the Bay and Bakool region of Somalia, Hammami fell out publicly with Al-Shabab in March 2012 over issues of “strategy and shari’a [Islamic law.]”  Hammami’s killing comes in the midst of growing internal strife within Al-Shabab related to the leadership (and criticism of it) of the movement’s amir, Ahmed “Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr” Godane.  In late June, reports surfaced that Godane had ordered the assassinations of two senior leaders of Al-Shabab who were also critical of his leadership, Ibrahim al-Afghani and preacher Mu’allim Burhan.

In his last interview, with Voice of America’s Somali language service, Hammami alleged that Godane had abandoned the “principles of our religion [Islam],” which represents a form of takfir or declaration of an individual who claims to be Muslim as a non-Muslim.  In his strategic writings and audio recordings, produced both under his nom de guerre “Abu Mansur al-Amriki” and his pen name “Abu Jihad al-Shami,” Hammami argued for a strategy wedded to “pure” Islam (as defined by him), marking a puritanical streak which, as can be seen in his dispute with Al-Shabab, transcended loyalty to any particular militant group.

The Global Jihad (al-Jihad al-‘Alami) is currently eulogizing Hammami and a British militant who was also killed with a banner at the top of its main page.  The banner (below) declares that “the shaykh” Hammami was martyred, using the term istishhad, which can carry a meaning of seeking out martyrdom.  The banner includes a quotation from part of verse 156 of Sura al-Baqara in the Qur’an:

Inna li-lahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un (Verily we are from God and to Him we return).

The phrase is used by Muslims for those who have died.

Hammami killed (Global Jihad Forum eulogy, 2013 September 12)


A Violent Non-State Actors Reading List

In the introduction to her edited volume Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, Klejda Mulaj notes that, while political science scholarship has extensively examined non-state actors (most notably those whose activities are primarily economic), violent non-state actors (VNSAs) “have only recently received sustained interest amongst academic and policy circles.” The study of VNSAs is thus a young and developing academic field, and scholars examining VNSAs will experience both the joys and also the pitfalls of working on a relatively new topic. The theoretical literature is highly uneven, with some extraordinarily well developed concepts mixed with a battery of assumptions that the field may no longer adhere to in four or five years.

This semester I’m teaching a course on violent non-state actors for Georgetown University’s security studies program, the first such class that the program has offered (although it has offered courses examining terrorism and counterterrorism for many years). A number of colleagues have expressed interest in seeing my syllabus, or having me provide a reading list. Thus, to assist other scholars with an interest in VNSAs, I’ve compiled the following reading list, largely based on my course syllabus. The inclusion of a particular work does not constitute an endorsement (which should be evident to those who remember my reaction to Pape and Feldman’s Cutting the Fuse), but it means that it’s part of the relevant discussion that scholars should be having. [Note: This list was updated on July 9, 2014, following the completion of a new course syllabus.]

Part One: Theoretical Foundations

I. Violent Non-State Actors in Context

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Terrorism and the Coming Decade,” Global Brief, Oct. 2011.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Interpreting al-Qaeda,” Foreign Policy, January 6, 2014.

Derek Jones, Understanding the Form, Function, and Logic of Clandestine Insurgent and Terrorist Networks (Joint Special Operations University, 2012).

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 1.

Jacob Shapiro & Nils B. Weidmann, “Is the Phone Mightier than the Sword?: Cell Phones and Insurgent Violence in Iraq,” Dec. 18, 2011.

Lisa Stampnitzky, “Disciplining an Unruly Field: Terrorism Experts and Theories of Scientific/Intellectual Production,” Qualitative Sociology 34 (2011):1–19.

II. Defining Violent Non-State Actors and Understanding Their Strategy

Ivan Arreguín-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars,” International Security 26:1 (2001).

Jack A. Goldstone, “Toward a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science (2001): 139-187.

Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (Columbia University Press, 2006).

Carlo Morselli, “Assessing Vulnerable and Strategic Positions in a Criminal Network,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 26 (2010).

Nicholas Sambanis, “What is Civil War? Conceptual and Empirical Complexities of an Operational Definition,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 48:6 (2004): 814‐58.

The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007), pp. 3-34.

III. Recruiting

Ana M. Arjona &  Stathis N. Kalyvas, Rebelling Against Rebellion: Comparing Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Recruitment (2008).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “A Blind Spot,” Pragati, Nov. 2, 2012.

John Knefel, “Everything You’ve Been Told About Radicalization is Wrong,” Rolling Stone, May 6, 2013.

Clark McCauley & Sophia Moskalenko, Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Oxford University Press, 2011).

Peter R. Neumann, “The Trouble with Radicalization,” International Affairs 89:4 (2013): 873-93.

Robert Pape & James K. Feldman, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism & How to Stop It (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Patrick Van Inwegen, Understanding Revolution (2011), chapters 1, 4-7.


IV. Nationalist Groups

Brian Michael Jenkins, International Terrorism: A New Kind of Warfare (Santa Monica, CA: The RAND Corporation, 1974).

Daniel Byman, “The Logic of Ethnic Terrorism,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 21:2 (1998).

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 3-5.

C.J.M. Drake, “The Provisional IRA: A Case Study,” Terrorism and Political Violence 3:2 (1991).

Martyn Frampton, “Dissident Irish Republican Violence: A Resurgent Threat?” The Political Quarterly 83:2 (Apr.–June 2012).

Judith Matloff, “Basque-ing in Peace,” World Policy Journal 29:3 (2012): 81–88.

Ignacio Sànchez-Cuenca, “The Dynamics of Nationalist Terrorism: ETA and the IRA,” Terrorism and Political Violence 19:3 (2007).

James A. Piazza, “Is Islamist Terrorism More Dangerous?: An Empirical Study of Group Ideology, Organization, and Goal Structure,” Terrorism and Political Violence, 21:1 (2009): 62-88.

V. Insurgent Groups

Mark T. Berger & Douglas A. Borer, “The Long War: Insurgency, Counterinsurgency and Collapsing States,” Third World Quarterly 28:2 (2007).

David Fitzgerald, “Vietnam, Iraq and the Rebirth of Counter-Insurgency,” Irish Studies in International Affairs (2009).

Richard Weitz, “Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Latin America, 1960-1980,” Political Science Quarterly 101:3 (1986).

Thomas H. Henriksen, Afghanistan, Counterinsurgency, and the Indirect Approach (Joint Special Operations University, 2010).

Gian Gentile, “A Strategy of Tactics: Population-centric COIN and the Army,” Parameters, August 2009.

Jason Fritz, “Counterinsurgency is Not the Problem,” War on the Rocks, August 14, 2013.

VI. Al-Qaeda through 2011

Brian Michael Jenkins, “The New Age of Terrorism” (RAND, 2006).

Juan Carlos Antúnez & Ioannis Tellidis, “The Power of Words: The Deficient Terminology Surrounding Islam-Related Terrorism,” Critical Studies in Terrorism (2013).

Ryan Evans, Peter Neumann & Raffaello Pantucci, “Locating al-Qaeda’s Center of Gravity: The Role of Middle Managers,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 34:9 (2011).

Leah Farrall, “How al-Qaeda Works,” Foreign Affairs 90:2, Mar./Apr. 2011.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy (Wiley, 2011).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Lone Wolf Islamic Terrorism: Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad (Carlos Bledsoe) Case Study,” Terrorism and Political Violence 26:1 (2014).

Brian A. Jackson & Bryce Loidolt, “Considering al-Qa’ida’s Innovation Doctrine: From Strategic Texts to ‘Innovation in Practice,’” Terrorism and Political Violence 25:2 (2013): 284-310.

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 10.

K. Payne, “Building the Base: Al-Qaeda’s Focoist Strategy,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 34:2 (2011).

VII. The Arab Uprisings and Al-Qaeda

Marc Lynch, The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the New Middle East (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013).

Scott Shane, “As Regimes Fall in Arab World, Al-Qaeda Sees History Fly By,” New York Times, February 27, 2011.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, pp. 184-88.

Daniel Byman, “Terrorism After the Revolutions: How Secular Uprisings Could Help (or Hurt) Jihadists,” Foreign Affairs 90:3 (2011).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s Long Game: Dawa, Hisba, and Jihad (ICCT—The Hague, 2013).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Tara Vassefi, “Perceptions of the Arab Spring Within the Salafi-Jihadi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 35 (2012).

Fawaz Gerges, “The Rise and Fall of al-Qaeda: Debunking the Terrorism Narrative,” Huffington Post, Jan. 3, 2012.

Bruce Hoffman, “Al Qaeda’s Uncertain Future,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 36:8 (2013): 635-53.

William McCants, “Al-Qaeda’s Challenge: The Jihadists’ War with Islamist Democrats,” Foreign Affairs, Sept./Oct. 2011.

VIII. Hamas and Hizballah

Eitan Azani, “Hezbollah’s Strategy of ‘Walking on the Edge’: Between Political Game and Political Violence,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 35:11 (2012): 741-59.

Nadia Baranovich & Ravichandran Moorthy, “Terror Strategies in the Israel-Palestine Conflict: An Analysis of Hezbollah and Hamas,” IEPDR 5:2 (2011): 229-36.

Hillel Frisch, “Strategic Change in Terrorist Movements: Lessons from Hamas,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32:12 (2009): 1049-1065.

Mona Harb & Reinoud Leenders, “Know Thy Enemy: Hizbullah, ‘Terrorism’ and the Politics of Perception,” Third World Quarterly 26:1 (2005).

Baudouin Long, “The Hamas Agenda: How Has it Changed?” Middle East Policy 17:4 (2010): 131-43.

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 7-8.

IX. The Defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 17.

Ahmed Hashim, When Counterinsurgency Wins: Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers (2013).

Neil DeVotta, “The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Lost Quest for Separatism in Sri Lanka,” Asian Survey, December 2009.

Lionel Beehner, “What Sri Lanka Can Teach Us About COIN,” Small Wars Journal, August 27, 2010.

Niel A. Smith, “Understanding Sri Lanka’s Defeat of the Tamil Tigers,” Joint Force Quarterly 59 (2010).

John Thompson, “Hosting Terrorism: The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in Canada,” in Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Linda Frum eds., Terror in the Peaceable Kingdom (2012).

X. Drug and Criminal Cartels

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 2.

Robert J. Bunker & John P. Sullivan, “Cartel Evolution Revisited: Third Phase Cartel Potentials and Alternative Futures in Mexico,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21:1 (2010): 30-54.

Ami C. Carpenter, “Beyond Drug Wars: Transforming Factional Conflict in Mexico,” Conflict Resolution Quarterly 27:4 (2010).

Sylvia M. Longmire & John P. Longmire. “Redefining Terrorism: Why Mexican Drug Trafficking is More Than Just Organized Crime,” Journal of Strategic Security 1:1 (2008): 35-52.

Carlo Morselli, Cynthia Giguère & Katia Petit, “The Efficiency/Security Trade-Off in Criminal Networks,” Social Networks 29 (2007): 143–53.

John T. Picarelli, “Osama bin Corleone? Vito the Jackal? Framing Threat Convergence Through an Examination of Transnational Organized Crime and International Terrorism,” Terrorism and Political Violence 24:2 (2012): 180-98.

Bilal Y. Saab & Alexandra W. Taylor, “Criminality and Armed Groups: A Comparative Study of FARC and Paramilitary Groups in Colombia,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 32:6 (2009): 455-75.

Graham H. Turbiville Jr, “Firefights, Raids, and Assassinations: Tactical Forms of Cartel Violence and Their Underpinnings,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 21:1 (2010): 123-144.

Jeremy McDermott, The FARC, the Peace Process and the Potential Criminalisation of the Guerrillas (2013).

XI. Non-State Actors in the Cyber Realm.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Anatomy of an Evolving Threat: Publication of Classified Information,” War on the Rocks, November 20, 2013.

Wendy Wong & Peter Brown, “E-Bandits in Global Activism: Wikileaks, Anonymous, and the Politics of No One,” Perspectives on Politics 11:4 (2013).

Noah Hampson, “Hacktivism: A New Breed Of Protests in a Networked World,” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review 35:2 (2012): 511-542.

Jeffery T. Richelson, “Intelligence Secrets and Unauthorized Disclosures: Confronting Some Fundamental Issues,” International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence 25:4 (2012).

François Heisbourg, “Leaks and Lessons,” Survival 53:1 (2011).

Brandon Valeriano and Ryan Maness, “The Dynamics of Cyber Conflict between Rival Antagonists, 2001-11,” Journal of Peace Research 51:3 (2014).

Simon Mabon, “Aiding Revolution? Wikileaks, Communication, and the ‘Arab Spring’ in Egypt,” Third World Quarterly (2013).

Alinta Krauth, “Anonymous in Portmanteaupia,” Social Alternatives 31:2 (2012): 27-32.

Charlotte Philby, “The Tor System: Welcome to the Dark Internet Where You Can Search in Secret,” Independent, June 10, 2013.

Peter W. Singer, “The Cyber Terror Bogeyman,” Brookings Institute, Nov. 2012.

Simon Springer et al., “Leaky Geopolitics: The Ruptures and Transgressions of WikiLeaks,” Geopolitics 17 (2012): 681-711.

XII. Warlords, Lineage-Based VNSAs, and Traditional Power Brokers

Anthony Vinci, “‘Like Worms in the Entrails of a Natural Man’: A Conceptual Analysis of Warlords,” Review of African Political Economy 34:112 (2007).

Jutta Bakonyi & Kirsti Stuvøy. “Violence and Social Order Beyond the State: Somalia and Angola,” Review of African Political Economy 32:104-105 (2005): 359-82.

Kimberly Marten, “Warlordism in Comparative Perspective,” International Security 31:3 (Winter 2006/07): 41-73.

XIII. Private Military Corporations

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 18.

David Perry, “Blackwater vs. bin Laden: The Private Sector’s Role in American Counterterrorism,” Comparative Strategy 31:1 (2012).

Deane-Peter Baker & James Pattison, “The Principled Case for Employing Private Military and Security Companies in Interventions for Human Rights Purposes,” Journal of Applied Philosophy 29:1 (2012).

Christopher Kinsey, “Problematising the Role of Private Security Companies in Small Wars,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 18:4 (2007): 584–614.

Seden Akcinaroglu & Elizabeth Radziszewski, “Private Military Companies, Opportunities, and Termination of Civil Wars in Africa,” Journal on Conflict Resolution (2012).

Ulrich Petersohn, “The Other Side of the COIN: Private Security Companies and Counterinsurgency Operations,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 34:10 (2011): 782–801.

XIV. Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapters 9, 11, 16.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, chapters 7-8.

Vanessa M. Gezari, “How to Read Afghanistan,” New York Times, Aug. 10, 2013.

Thomas Johnson, “Taliban Adaptations and Innovations,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 24:1 (2013): 3–27.

Thomas H. Johnson & Matthew C. DuPee, “Analysing the New Taliban Code of Conduct (Layeha): An Assessment of Changing Perspectives and Strategies of the Afghan Taliban,” Central Asian Survey (2012).

Antonio Giustozzi, “Hearts, Minds, and the Barrel of a Gun: the Taliban’s Shadow Government,” Prism (2012).

Oscar Gakuo Mwangi, “State Collapse, Al-Shabaab, Islamism, and Legitimacy in Somalia,” Politics, Religion & Ideology 13:4 (2013): 513–27.

XV. Counter-Opposition VNSAs

Sabine C. Carey, Michael Colaresi & Neil J. Mitchell, “Disorder, Delegation, and Deniability: Incentives for Pro-Government Militias,” conference paper from Paramilitaries, Militias, and Civil Defense Forces in Civil Wars (2012).

Mark Wilbanks & Efraim Karsh, “How the ‘Sons of Iraq’ Stabilized Iraq,” Middle East Quarterly 17:4 (Fall 2010).

Myriam Benraad, “Iraq’s Tribal ‘Sahwa’: Its Rise and Fall,” Middle East Policy 18:1 (2011).

Enzo Nussio, “Learning from Shortcomings: The Demobilization of Paramilitaries in Colombia,” Journal of Peacebuilding and Development 6:2 (2011).


XVI. The State’s Tactical and Strategic Toolkit

Audrey Kurth Cronin & James M. Ludes eds., Attacking Terrorism: Elements of a Grand Strategy (Georgetown University Press, 2004).

Audrey Kurth Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton University Press, 2011).

Thomas & Casebeer, “Violent Non-State Actors: Countering Dynamic Systems,” Strategic Insights, March 2004.

Bryan Groves, “America’s Trajectory in the Long War: Redirecting Our Efforts Toward Strategic Effects Versus Simply Tactical Gains,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 36:1 (2013): 26–48.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “The Future of Preventive Detention Under International Law,” in Sam Muller ed., The Law of the Future and the Future of Law (Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law, 2012).

Benjamin Wittes, Detention and Denial: The Case for Candor After Guantanamo (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011), chapters 1, 2, 5.

Stephanie Carvin, “The Trouble with Targeted Killing,” Security Studies 21:3 (2012).

Jenna Jordan, “Attacking the Leader, Missing the Mark: Why Terrorist Groups Survive Decapitation Strikes,” International Security 38:4 (2014).

Patrick B. Johnston, “Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns,” International Security 36:4 (2012).

Bryan C. Price, “Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Decapitation Contributes to Counterterrorism,” International Security 36:4 (2012).

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross & Kelsey D. Atherton, “How We Killed Privacy—in 4 Easy Steps,” Foreign Policy, August 23, 2013.

Neil M. Richards, “The Dangers of Surveillance,” Harvard Law Review 126:7 (May 2013).

Tore Bjørgo and John Horgan eds., Leaving Terrorism Behind: Individual and Collective Disengagement (London and New York: Routledge, 2009).

XVII. The Future of VNSAs

Mulaj, Violent Non-State Actors in World Politics, chapter 19.

Gartenstein-Ross, Bin Laden’s Legacy, chapter 12.

Adam Elkus, “The State of the State,” War on the Rocks, June 16, 2014.

Peter Turchin, “A Theory for Formation of Large Empires” (2009).

Abstract and updates on MUJAO and Mokhtar Belmokhtar

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.

Of Mergers, MUJAO, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as 'the one-eyed',  who broke away from Aqim to form al-Mulathamin










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.


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