Tag Archives: Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Kidal Region, Mali: AQIM and Ansar al-Din Related Attacks and Brief Analysis

By Rida Lyammouri

Note: Chronology of the attacks covered 01 December 2014 to 31 December 2015 period. For incidents that took place in Kidal city, please see previous post.

Violent extremist organizations (VEOs) operating in Kidal region include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Din. In addition to VEOs related attackes listed below, here are key analysis to keep in mind about the area and both groups:

  • AQIM brigades known to operate in Kidal region include: katibat al-Ansar, katibat Tarik Ibn Ziyad, and katibat Yussuf Ibn Tachefin.
  • Kidal region is strategic to AQIM and Ansar al-Din in terms of logistics and local support. AQIM and Ansar al-Din rely on fuel, foodstuff, and possibly weapons smuggled from Libya or elsewhere through southeast Algeria and northwest Niger.
  • Villages on both sides of the borders provide ideal fall back to AQIM and Ansar al-Din due to ties with local communities.
  • Key villages with Iyad Ag Ghali influence include Boughessa, Tinzawaten, Abeibera, and Tassissat in Mali, and Timiaouine and Inerkache on the Algerian side. No presence of French, Malian, or MINUSMA forces in these villages on the Malian side provides ideal recruitment environment for Ansar al-Din and AQIM.
  • Communities in remote villages in Kidal region feel abandoned and neglected by Malian authorities.
  • On 16 October 2015, Iyad Ag Ghaly denounced the peace process and threatened to intensify attacks against French forces and their allies in Mali. He also made references to sleeping cells in Kidal, Mopti, Sikasso and Timbuktu regions.
  • On 01 July 2015, Ansar al-Din distributed flyers announcing future attacks on MINUSMA and French forces, and warned locals against collaboration with foreign and Malian forces.

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    A Local Well Between Kidal and Anéfis. Source: Maghreb and Sahel Contributor

Key incidents: (will be happy to include any incidents I missed)

18 December 2014: MINUSMA vehicle struck an IED near its camp in Aguelhoc, Kidal region. 3 peacekeepers injured.

29 December 2014: At least 15 rockets were fired at a base shared by MINUSMA, French, and Malian forces in Tessalit, Kidal region.

31 December 2014: At least three rockets landed near the airstrip in Tessalit, Kidal region.

15 January 2015: Civilian vehicle struck and IED in Taghlit, Kidal region. 1 killed and 2 injured.

30-31 January 2015: French forces conducted an armed assault on group of militants near Abeibera, Kidal region. 12 jihadists reported killed, and weapons seized.

02 March 2015: An MNLA vehicle struck an IED 20km outside the city of Kidal, Mali. 3 MNLA fighters killed and 3 injured.

02 March 2015: French forces clashed with militants during an operation in Tigherghar Mountains, Kidal region. 4 militants reportedly killed and others escaped.

02 March 2015: French forces discovered and destroyed important quantity of ammunition and rockets in Tigherghar Mountains, Kidal region.

06 April 2015: French SOF launched an assault on a militant camp, killing 2 and arresting 2, then freeing Dutch hostage kidnapped and held by AQIM since 16 November 2011.

06 April 2015: MINUSMA vehicle struck an IED between Kidal and Anéfis while escorting contractors’ convoy. 2 peacekeepers injured.

16 June 2015: Unidentified militants launched five rockets on MINUSMA camp in Aguelhoc, Kidal region.

24 July 2015: Unidentified militants fired eight mortar shells on MINUSMA camp in Aguelhoc, Kidal region. Landed outside the camp and no casualties recorded.

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Mali: January 2016 Violence Related to AQIM, Ansar al-Din, MUJWA, and Other Security Incidents

By Rida Lyammouri

07 January 2016: Gunmen abducted a Swiss woman identified as Beatrice Stockly in Timbuktu. Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility in a video the group released on January 26th, 2016.

09 January 2016: AQIM released a video of the Swedish and South African hostages. Both hostages were kidnapped in Timbuktu, Mali November 26th, 2011. AQIM demanded not to involved France in the negotiations.

09 January 2016: Yahya Abu al-Hammam, head of katibat Grand Sahara of AQIM in Mali, conducted first interview since the French intervention in Mali in January 2013.

Key points:

  • Abu al-Hammam confirmed collaboration between AQIM and Macina Liberation Front (MLF), jihadist group that rose to prominence since January 2015 in Central Mali.
  • Abu al-Hammam said AQIM was in contact with Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, and hoping will return to the right direction. Claiming al-Sahraoui had gone astray in giving allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.

09 January 2016: Malian investigators reported a proof to confirm al-Murabitun to be behind November 20th, 2015 Radison Blu hotel attack in Bamako, Mali. Mali’s chief prosecutor said that a scrap of paper with an Arabic inscription was found on the bodies of the two men that conducted the attack. The note sought the release of two prisoners who are members of al-Murabitun. Katibat Grand Sahara of AQIM, in collaboration with al-Murabitun, already claimed responsibility.

12 January 2016: Unknown gunmen attacked Malian forces checkpoint near Gao. Reportedly, gunmen seized weapons after Malian officers abandoned the post.

13 January 2016: Two men have been indicted on charges of complicity in terrorism for the attack on Radison Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali. The two suspects were arrested November 26th, 2015.

15 January 2016: Gunmen attacked a market in Dioura, Mopti region, killing a guard from the Water and Forests Agency. Members of the MLF suspected to be behind the attack.

15 January 2016: Suspected AQIM gunmen attacked Malian security forces while escorting humanitarian convoy near Goundam, Timbuktu. Two soldiers and two attackers reportedly killed. Three Malian soldiers wounded and three attackers arrested.

15 January 2016 (see statement image below): Ansar al-Din claimed to have targeted and destroyed a French military vehicle north of Kidal killing unknown number of French soldiers. France did not confirm the incident.

19 January 2016: Unconfirmed reporting stated that a MINUSMA vehicle struck an improvised explosive device (IED) near Kidal injuring unknown number of peacekeepers. MINUSMA did not confirm the incident.

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19 January 2016: Gunmen killed three Malian gendarmes in ambush in Mopti region. Ansar al-Din Macina branch claimed responsibility.

21 January 2016 (see statement image below): Ansar al-Din Macina branch claimed to have attacked Malian forces checkpoint in Konna and seized weapons.

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21 January 2016: Unidentified gunmen targeted weekly market at Bonna commune in Macina Circle. One civilian killed and one gendarme injured.

21 January 2016: Two rockets reportedly fired at MINUSMA camp in Aguelhoc. No casualties reported.

21 January 2016: MINUSMA vehicle struck an IED on Ménaka – Ansongo transit route. No casualties reported.

23 January 2016: Unknown gunmen attacked the residence of the Public Prosecutor in Gao. A guard reportedly returned fire, killing one attacker.

28 January 2016: Malian military vehicle escorting humanitarian convoy struck an IED between Gao and Gossi. Three Malian soldiers killed.

28 January 2016: Malian Army vehicle came under attack by unknown gunmen at a checkpoint east of Timbuktu. One Malian soldier killed.

Additional Security Reporting and Analysis Related to Mali: 

  • The three AQIM/al-Murabitun members that carried the attack on Splendid hotel and Cappuccino restaurant in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso are believed to be Malian citizens.
  • On 15 January 2016, same day as Ouagadougou attack, Australian couple was kidnapped in Baraboulé, northern Burkina Faso on the borders with Mali. AQIM claimed responsibility.
  • On 25 January 2016 Malian forces claimed to have arrested four individuals in Kayes while traveling through Mali then through Niger to allegedly join Boko Haram. The suspects were a Gambian, a Guinean, and two from Guinea Bissau.
  • On 27 January 2016, reportedly the MLF distributed leaflets at local mosques in village Kewa, Mopti region. The message was to encourage local parents to send their children to Medrassas. In Mali Medrassa is often used to refer to traditional schools run by local chiefs or religious leaders, and there is no confirmation these schools are encouraging or being a source of radicalization.
  • AQIM and Ansar al-Din have stepped up their media presence by releasing high quality videos. Videos included images and recordings of held hostages and attacks against opposed armed groups in the region, like the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA), and alleged images of destroyed French military vehicles. While many believes this is in competition with the rise of Islamic State, AQIM and allies are doing this mainly for recruitment purposes.
  • AQIM and allies while likely to continue to carry small scale attacks on foreign, peacekeeping, and Malian troops, suicide missions similar to Radison Blu and Splendid hotels attacks should be expected. The group demonstrated its willingness to wait as long as it takes to conduct spectacular attacks.

Key Events That Led to Tensions Between Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi Before Splitting

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.

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Comment by a Twitter User Familiar with Jihadist Groups in Northern Mali.

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.