Primer on Jihadi Players in Algeria & Mali

Below is a primer I put together on the four main jihadist groups currently operating in Algeria and Mali for Jihadica, who have been kind enough to solicit and post my work from the past week. Fellow al-Wasat editor Aaron Zelin was kind enough to compile the 4-part series, and links to the original posts appear at the bottom of the post. 

The brazen assault and hostage taking in southern Algeria has brought about a sudden surge of interest in the region’s jihadist groups, especially given the complex history of the man reportedly behind the assault, Mokhtar Belmokhtar. This, in turn, has led to a good deal of questioning about Belmokhtar’s past, his “new” jihadist group, and the other militant groups currently occupying northern Mali. Here’s a quick explainer:

al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb

The best-known of the groups operating in northern Mali is almost certainly al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM, led by Abdelmalek Droukel (Abu Musab Abdelwadud). Renamed in 2007 after officially merging with al-Qaeda, AQIM was previously known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC in French), itself created in 1998 as a rejection of the brutal behavior and takfirist stance of the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA in French). The GIA was the first Algerian jihadist group to send fighters (including Mokhtar Belmokhtar) to the Sahel, though it was the GSPC that first truly implanted itself in the region and in northern Mali in particular. There it recruited fighters, set up training camps, sowed deep ties with some local communities, got deeply involved in local and regional smuggling networks, and kidnapped foreigners for ransoms (the first such operation took place in southern Algeria in 2003). The GSPC also engaged in military activities, notably the 2005 attack on a Mauritanian military base in Leimgheity. Among the many young Mauritanians who joined the organization after police crackdowns in 2004 and 2005 was Younis al-Mauritani, who helped facilitate the GSPC’s merger with al-Qaeda in 2006 and was a key operational leader in al-Qaeda Core in Pakistan until his arrest in Quetta in 2011.

After a rush of deadly AQIM activity in northern Algeria in 2007 and 2008, Algerian authorities gained the upper hand and were progressively able to restrict AQIM to isolated and mountainous areas east of Algiers. AQIM’s kata’ib(battalions) in the Sahel, however, expanded, as Belmokhtar and Abdelhamid Abou Zeid (a senior AQIM commander) began a run of audacious kidnappings that led to an estimated tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments (more, according to some sources)–money reportedly bolstered by income from cigarette smuggling and taxes from the region’s growing drug trade. AQIM’s southern groups, believed before 2012 to number several hundred fighters, also continued operations across the region, killing tourists, conducting attacks (including suicide bombings) against regional and foreign militaries and government facilities. AQIM fighters are believed to have been heavily involved in fighting in northern Mali after the outbreak of the Tuareg rebellion in January 2012, and have largely controlled the city of Timbuktu since April.

AQIM has for years enjoyed good relationships with some local populations, having strengthened its roots in northern Mali through marriage and business ties. Recently the group announced the creation of a new battalion to be led by a Tuareg, as part of a larger rearrangement of personnel and leadership. The battalion is said to be leading the fighting under the command of Abou Zeid around the town of Diabaly against Malian and French troops. AQIM holds 7 foreign hostages.

Belmokhtar and Those Who Sign with Blood

The man allegedly behind the gas facility attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had, until recently, run AQIM’s Katibat al-Moulathimin (“The Veiled Brigade”), a reference to the practice of male veiling common in parts of the Sahel.  In October 2012 AQIM stated that Belmokhtar had been “suspended” from the command of the group, owing to Belmokhtar’s supposed deviations from the goals of the group’s leadership. Belmokhtar was purportedly at loggerheads with three AQIM leaders: AQIM’s amir Droukdel, the recently-appointed Saharan emir Yahya Abou el-Hammam, and Katibat Tariq Ibn Ziad commander Abou Zeid.

Belmokhtar’s spokesman denied the removal but in December Belmokhtar appeared on video for the first time to announce his departure* from AQIM and his creation of a new group, al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”), a reference to the name of the GIA detachment responsible for the 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight. In his video, Belmokhtar said his group aimed to consolidate shari’ah in northern Mali. He also threatened to attack Algeria and France and called on Mauritanian imams to come to the aid of the “Azawad,” a term used largely (but not exclusively) by Tuareg nationalists to refer to northern Mali.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Belmokhtar’s close associate Oumar Ould Hamaha relayed that Belmokhtar remained under the orders of al-Qaeda central. Moreover, the “split” with AQIM does not appear to have inhibited Belmokhtar’s actions; by all available indications he took his fighters with him to his “new” group, and they have reportedly been working alongside jihadist MUJAO group in Gao and in In Khalil (more on them tomorrow). In telephone calls with journalists during the current hostage crisis, jihadis involved in the attack said they were from “al-Qaeda” before specifying their membership in al-Moulathimin and al-Mouakoune Bi-Dima. They further conveyed that the operation had been in the works for two months, suggesting that the supposed internal turmoil in AQIM did not adversely affect the complicated preparations for a major assault staged hundreds of miles away from northern Mali.

Algerian security officials said they took at least one member of the attack team alive, meaning that we may find out more about the group’s structure in the coming days and weeks. We do know that the attack team involved at least two longtime Belmokhtar aides, Abu al-Bara and Aberrahman al-Nigeri, and reports indicate that the hostage takers included Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, as well as possibly a Frenchman and a Canadian.

*CORRECTION: In the video, Belmokhtar does not actually announce a departure from AQIM, only the creation of al-Mouakoune Bi-Dima. Instead, the talk of a “split” came from press accounts, including an Associated Press interview with close Belmokhtar associate Omar Ould Hamaha (h/t @GCTAT on Twitter).

Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa

The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO, in French) is an AQIM splinter group that publicly appeared in December 2011, when they claimed the kidnapping of three European aid workers in Tindouf, Algeria. Led by the Mauritanian Hamada Ould Kheiru*, an explosives expert, preacher, and longtime GSPC/AQIM member close to Belmokhtar, the group’s stated reason for leaving AQIM was the latter’s purported lack of devotion to jihad and failure to promote non-Algerians to leadership positions.

Ostensibly dedicated to propagating jihad in West Africa, the group’s leadership was originally believed to be largely composed of Mauritanians and Arabs from the Gao region, though recent announcements indicate that the leadership has diversified to include a Saudi, an Egyptian, and a Tunisian, as well as other “foreign fighters”. The group has also reportedly recruited from local populations and some sub-Saharan Africans.

MUJAO, which controls the Malian city of Gao, benefits from a close relationship with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose forces fought with and may have led MUJAO’s successful military attacks against the Tuareg nationalist group the MNLA in Gao in June, and in Ménaka in November. MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Mulathimeen (Battalion of the Veiled Men) seized the infamous smuggling town of In Khalil (sometimes written as al-Khalil) in late December, and are reportedly involved in the current Islamist offensive in central Mali.

One of the MUJAO’s key military leaders, spokesmen, and favorite quote machine for Western journalists, Omar Ould Hamaha, was a commander under Belmokhtar and was identified for a time as the military commander of Ansar al-Din. Hamaha is also, according to some reports, Belmokhtar’s father-in-law.

While rumors abound that MUJAO receives support from local businessmen and known traffickers, in addition to foreign governments, MUJAO has also made an extensive effort to portray itself as a “true” jihadist organization by instituting hudud punishments in and around Gao, conducting attacks against foreign targets, and adopting a media strategy that includes a web forum, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and battalion names recalling past Muslim leaders, famous jihadist figures, and also a local Muslim organization.

Despite its stated focus on West Africa, MUJAO has conducted 4 operations (including two suicide bombings) in Algeria or against Algerian targets, in addition to the kidnapping of 7 Algerian diplomats from the Algerian consulate in the northern Malian city of Gao. MUJAO currently holds 3 of the 7–after releasing three and killing one–and one French-Portuguese hostage kidnapped in November.

* While some sources indicate that Kheiru founded MUJAO in cooperation with other “dissident” AQIM members, this explanation is not universal. For instance, Mauritanian journalist Mohamed Mahmoud Abu al-Ma’ali, who published a lengthy analysis in May of the various jihadist groups occupying northern Mali, says that the group was founded by the businessman, smuggler, and AQIM member Sultan Ould Bady, with Kheiru subsequently joining the group. Regardless, both were represented as key leaders of the group until recently, when Ould Bady purportedly left MUJAO to join Ansar al-Din. In December the United States Department of State referred to Kheiru (written as Khairy) as a “founding leader” of MUJAO alongside Ahmed el-Tilemsi, when the State Department designated MUJAO a terrorist organization and applied sanctions to Kheiru and Tilemsi (but no other MUJAO leaders).

Ansar al-Din

Ansar al-Din was created in November 2011 by Iyad Ag Ghali, a legendary Tuareg powerbroker in northern Mali who led two rebellions against the Malian government in the 1990′s and in 2006. According to journalistic accounts as well as scholarly writing, Ag Ghali grew increasingly religious and joined the Tablighi Jamaat, the Pakistani Islamic missionary organization known for its piety as well as quietist political views. However, Ag Ghali at some point moved away from the group, and in 2010 Saudi authorities expelled him from his diplomatic post in Jeddah due to suspected contacts with unknown radicals.

Various sources claim that Ag Ghali only founded Ansar al-Din after failing in his efforts to become the leader of the MNLA and of the Ifoghas Tuareg tribe, though as far as I can tell these claims all come from sources close to or within the MNLA.  Initially composed of veteran rebels from the same tribe (and in many cases the same clan), Ag Ghali’s ranks were swollen in early 2012 by the addition of at least 40 AQIM fighters brought by his cousin, an AQIM commander named Hamada Ag Hama (commonly known as Abdelkrim el-Targui).

Ansar al-Din played a key role in fighting the Malian army in Aguelhoc (where nearly 100 Malian soldiers were reportedly executed), Tessalit, and Kidal. After the March 2012 coup and the departure of the Malian army from the north, Ansar al-Din took responsibility for the cities of Kidal and Timbuktu. At least one “Ansar al-Din” leader in Timbuktu, Sanda Ould Boumama (Sanda Abou Mohamed), was a suspected GSPC and AQIM member, and AQIM is largely believed to have exerted real control over the city.

Various Tuareg Ansar al-Din leaders and spokesmen engaged in negotiations in Burkina Faso and Algeria, and Ag Ghali himself endorsed mediation efforts to achieve a political solution to the Malian crisis. Nevertheless, the group’s leadership appears to be divided and has made contradictory remarks about the group’s goals, in particular where they sought to apply shari’ah (in Kidal? In northern Mali? In all of Mali? Across West Africa?). Ag Ghali himself put an end to the ambiguity when he announced the end of a ceasefire in January 2013, and then led an advance of Islamist forces into central Mali on January 10. This in turn prompted the French intervention in Mali the following day.

Original Posts:

Part 1-

Part 2-

Part 3- 

Part 4-

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.