By Rida Lyammouri
December 7th, 2015
Northern Mali saw the creation of al-Murabitun in August 2013. The group was a result of an allegiance between the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) and the al-Mulathamun brigade, both of which were Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter groups. Joining forces was initially perceived as an optimistic move to counter the aggressive intervention against jihadist groups in the area by foreign troops, led by France. Moreover, it was a result of an ongoing rift between Belmokhtar and AQIM leadership. Simultaneously, Belmokhtar’s ties with MUJWA had been expanding since the occupation of Gao City in northern Mali. In June 2012 Belmokhtar was living in Gao where he participated in a battle that expelled the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) out of the city.
In 2015 interesting and confusing dynamics between al-Murabitun’s founders, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, began to surface. Abu Walid al-Sahrawi reportedly pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in May 2015, while Belmokhtar confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaeda only two months later in July 2015. Belmokhtar and AQIM also reconciled their relationship and he was appointed as the new emir of al-Murabitun, as the group was expected to be the face of al-Qaeda in Mali and in West Africa.
Lack of information about Belmokhtar’s death, lack of information about jihadist groups in Mali, and the three-way claims of having orchestrated the Radisson Blu attack make any attempt to understand the dynamics among jihadist groups operating in Mali very challenging, if not impossible. This research is a result of social media monitoring, and open-source research.
At the creation of al-Murabitun, Belmokhtar and MUJWA leader, Ahmed Ould Amer [aka Ahmed Tilemsi], agreed none of them would claim the role of emir of the group. As a result, Abu Bakr [al-Muhajir] al-Masri was named emir of al-Murabitun. A little known fact about Abu Bakr al-Masri is that he supposedly had experience fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet and American forces, which was enough to earn him the appointment as first emir of al-Murabitun. However, the selection of Abu Bakr al-Masri was not as seamless as it seemed. Hamada Ould Mohamed Khairou [aka Abu Kaakaa], another important figure from MUJWA, and Abu Walid al-Sahrawi initially refused to pledge allegiance to al-Masri. Abu Walid al-Sahrawi changed his position eventually and pledged allegiance, while Khairou continued to resist. Abu Walid was named member of the Shurah Council of al-Murabitun, and Khairou decided to leave the group. On April 2014 the French forces killed Abu Bakr al-Masri and the Shurah Council selected Ahmed Tilemsi to be al-Murabitun’s new emir after Belmokhtar allegedly refused the position because of his agreement with Abu Walid al-Sahrawi.
Soon, al-Murabitun found itself without an emir again when French forces killed Ahmed Tilemsi in December 2014. While Belmokhtar was supposedly outside northern Mali, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi was named the new emir. This led to tensions and divisions between MUJWA and al-Mulathamun brigade members that initially formed al-Murabitun. Belmokhtar and his men refused to pledge allegiance to Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. In addition to claiming his selection was illegitimate, members of the al-Mulathamun brigade considered Abu Walid young, inexperienced, and claimed he lacked the required intellectual and ideological knowledge to be fit for the position.
Tensions further intensified between Abu Walid and Belmokhtar when the latter supposedly began reconciliation talks with AQIM to integrate al-Murabitun. On top of being in conflict with Belmokhtar, Abu Walid al-Sahrawi has a history of being in conflict with AQIM and al-Qaeda in general that led to the split and creation of MUJWA in October 2011. These tensions explain in part the surprising announcement on 13 May 2015 by Abu Walid al-Sahrawi pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on behalf of the entirety of al-Murabitun. The announcement should be taken with caution, however, as it is unclear and unknown if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi did confirm the allegiance. Additionally, this pledge does not appear to have generated wide praise on social media similar to allegiances pledged by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Jund al-Khilafa in Algeria, for instance.
The allegiance by Abu Walid created confusion as many quickly started reporting that Belmokhtar joined the Islamic State as Long War Journal explained. However Belmokhtar responded quickly releasing a short statement on 14 May 2015 denying the reports that he had swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi and reaffirming his and al-Murabitun’s allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and al-Qaeda. Allegedly, Belmokhtar refused to join forces with IS after meetings held in Darna, Libya with different high-ranked jihadists in March 2015. While reports are difficult to confirm, IS issued a notice on 22 August 2015 stating they wanted Belmokhtar dead indicating that he is currently fighting in Darna, Libya. On 18 May 2015 Abu Walid said his group was holding a Romanian hostage kidnapped 04 April 2015 in Burkina Faso in an attempt to defy Belmokhtar and reaffirm his total control over al-Murabitun.
After weeks of silence al-Murabitun then released a new statement on 21 July 2015. In the release, the Shurah Council of the group appointed Belmokhtar as the new emir of al-Murabitun, and distanced itself from Abu Walid al-Sahrawi. While the group clearly confirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda and following the path of its founder Usama Bin Laden, it referred to Belmokhtar as emir of al-Murabitun and not as emir of al-Qaeda in West Africa as was widely reported. On 15 August 2015 the group released a short correction to deny the name change. The statement indicated that adding “West Africa” was an error made by the designer, and was not a rebranding to “Al-Qaeda in West Africa.” The statement was circulated on Twitter on 16 August by user @almourabitoune. The Arabic statement roughly translated to: “Clarification of the error by our brother the designer in Al- Murabitun’s statement by adding “In West Africa.” We apologize for this.”
Belmokhtar and AQIM needed each other to respond to the rise of IS in north Africa and its possible attempt to push south to Sahel countries. The brutality of IS already attracted the deadliest group in Africa, Boko Haram. Although it is unclear if Boko Haram is benefiting from operational support from IS, the group is getting more attention and coverage than in the past. Also it would be immature to neglect the possibility of weapons and missionaries being smuggled south from Libya through Niger to Nigeria. AQIM could not afford loosing Belmokhtar who is known for orchestrating spectacular attacks. Additionally, French forcers discovered and destroyed a large number of AQIM’s arms, explosives, and logistical caches in northern Mali. Belmokhtar could provide an alternative source with his established networks in the region. Belmokhtar has also a unique and unmatched access to local communities throughout the Sahel, especially northern Mali.
Based on the information available it is quite difficult to say if IS a real threat to Mali and the Sahel in general. However it would not be shocking to see in coming months more AQ allied groups in the area defecting to pledge allegiance to IS. Weakened and destabilized brigades might use this as an incentive for recruitment and publicity. Also splitting and defecting is not uncommon among jihadist groups in the Sahel. Young jihadists in North Africa, especially in Tunisia and Libya, became increasingly fascinated by IS and if not dealt with, it’s just a matter of time before it reaches Mali and other parts of the Sahel.