North Africa: Belmokhtar, Mujao Launch New Jihadist Group
Nouakchott — The al-Qaeda splinter group led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) joined forces this week.
The El Moulethemoune katibat (“Brigade of the Veiled Ones”) and fellow al-Qaeda breakaway group MUJAO “decided to unite in a single movement called the ‘Mourabitounes’ to achieve the unity of Muslims, from the Nile to the Atlantic”, the jihadist organisations said in a statement to Mauritanian daily ANI on Wednesday (August 21st).
MUJAO and the brigade led by Belmokhtar (aka “Laaouar”) said they had agreed to cede command to a new leader. According to ANI, the unnamed jihadist fought in Afghanistan before arriving in Mali.
“We reaffirm our devotion and our loyalty to Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri and reiterate our commitment to the jihadist doctrine conceived by the martyr Osama Bin Laden,” the statement read, adding that the group drew “its inspiration from al-Qaeda and Taliban”.
The new entity also threatened in its joint statement to target French interests worldwide.
In a statement reported by ANI, MUJAO explained that the merger was based on the principle that “unity is strength”.
But according to local experts, the alliance is a sign of the terror groups’ growing weakness and internal splits rather than strength.
“Following the French intervention in Mali, nothing will ever be the same again. The splits within AQIM and the other groups operating in the Sahel-Sahara region were already obvious,” analyst Abdou Ould Mohamed told Magharebia. “The dismissal of Belmokhtar by Abou Moussab Abdelwadoud [Abdelmalek Droukdel] brought these disagreements to light. Within these groups, it’s often the law of the jungle that prevails.”
AQIM is “now split along two fault lines”, according to former French Ambassador to Senegal Jean-Christophe Rufin. “The first is between its leadership, which has remained in the north in the Algerian scrubland around the emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, and the Sahel brigades in the south, which are not only far away from their leadership but also far away from each other,” he told Le Figaro.
“These phalanxes have become bigger thanks to their hostage-taking and the vast desert area, which has enabled them to come into contact with all kinds of terrorist and mafia groups. As a result, the leadership of AQIM is having difficulty controlling its troops from the mountains,” Rubin added.
According to Tahalil editor and terrorist expert Isselmou Ould Moustapha, the merger could have multiple implications for the future of terror groups in the Sahel.
The ‘Mourabitounes’ may try to “supplant AQIM in the Sahel-Saharan region, where it suffered a loss in Mali in terms of capabilities as well as its main leaders such as Abou Zeid”, he explained. “The survivors have returned to Algeria, the south of Tunisia and Libya.”
“The merger is partial because it was not signed by the other groups (or what remains of them) including ‘Signed in Blood’, a battalion of Belmokhtar virtually decimated in In Amenas (January 2013) and other phalanges of MUJAO, such as the Salahedine Brigade and Ousmane Dane Fodio Brigade,” the analyst noted.
“The two groups thrown out of Mali and greatly weakened by air strikes and near-suicidal operations seek to restore their capability of supporting an operational tempo that has much abated in recent months in terms of attacks and operations. They do not even have the potential for taking hostages, their main source of income. Yet money is the sinew of war!” Ould Moustapha concluded.
Belmokhtar (aka Khaled Abou El Abass) orchestrated the siege at an Algerian natural gas plant near In Amenas, killing dozens of civilians. Belmokhtar’s splinter group also claimed credit for a twin bombing that left at least twenty Nigeriens dead last May.