Tag Archives: Sahel

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

By Rida Lyammouri

March 1st, 2016

Violent extremist organizations (VEOs) operating in Mali include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Murabitun, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), the Macina Liberation Front (MLF), and Ansar al-Din. Below you will find a chronology of the attacks that occurred in February 2016, and here are few notes related to this month’s violence:

  • In February 2016, 21 out of 25 total violent incidents were directly related to VEOs listed.
  • The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) forces, and Malian Army and Malian authorities were the primary targets.
  • While in recent months VEOs relied on improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, the two most damaging in February were suicide attacks using vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED).
  • Under unclear circumstances there is a concerning increased violence near Ménaka, especially at the village Inékar.
  • Since July 2015, 28 violent incidents occurred between Ansongo and Ménaka, rockets were discovered and destroyed before being launched, and three suspected militants were arrested.
  • 01 – 05 February 2016: French forces discovered and destroyed rockets southeast of Tessalit, Kidal Region.
  • Ansar al-Din, group led by Iyad Ag Ghali with close ties to AQIM, announced launching its own media branch on 28 February 2016.
  • The killing of Abu al-Nour is a blow to AQIM’s Saharan Emirate. In a video released by the group early January 2016 Abu al-Nour appeared to be in charge of the military training.
  • In February: French forces conducted missions in north of Timbuktu and Gao region, both areas considered to be strongholds for AQIM and al-Murabitun respectively.


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Images of VEO members claiming to be in Azawad [Northern Mali]. Members of VEOs operating in Mali conducted several attacks in the country using motorcycles.

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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.


    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.

Summary of 2015 AQIM and VEOs Related Attacks on MINUSMA in Kidal, Northern Mali

By Rida Lyammouri

In 2015, The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) was targeted at least 8 times by violent extremist groups (VEOs) in Kidal, Mali alone. Groups operating in the area include al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Din. Below is a chronology of 2015 attacks:

  • 2 improvised explosive devices (IED) related attacks
  • 2 vehicle-born improvised explosive device (VBIED) related attacks
  • 4 Rockets related attacks

09 January 2015: MINUSMA vehicle struck an IED. 7 Senegalese peacekeepers injured.

17 January 2015: A VBIED targeted MINUSMA checkpoint. 1 peacekeeper killed and 1 injured, both Chadians.

17 January 2015: At least 8 rockets fired by unknown militants at MINUSMA camp.

17 January 2015: A VBIED targeted MINUSMA camp.

Note: 17 January attacks were coordinated and took place simultaneously.

09 February 2015: Mortars fired at MINUSMA camp.

08 March 2015: Six shells fired at MINUSMA camp. 1 peacekeeper killed and 8 injured. 3 civilians killed and 2 injured.

08 August 2015: A vehicle of the MINUSMA Force conducting a mine clearance operation at Kidal airstrip struck an IED without causing any casualties.

28 November 2015: Six rockets hit the MINUSMA camp killing 2 peacekeepers and 1 civilian contractor, wounding 18 peacekeepers and 2 civilian contractors. Ansar al-Din claimed responsibility.


The High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) Forces in Kidal Region, Mali. Source: Maghreb and Sahel Blog Contributor.

AQIM Never Really Abandoned Timbuktu, Mali

By Rida Lyammouri

February 6th, 2016

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is making noise again in northern Mali, thanks to its Grand Sahara branch, based in Timbuktu region. AQIM been in the news for the past couple months more than it has been for the past two years. AQIM conducted and claimed responsibility for spectacular and small scale attacks that garnered the international attention the group was striving for. The group also stepped up its media campaign and been releasing regular high-quality videos the past two months. Popular recent acts by AQIM include two kidnappings, a swiss national in Timbuktu, Mali, and an Australian couple in Burkina Faso near Malian borders. Although later was conducted far from Timbuktu, it was still claimed by AQIM katibat Grand Sahara. The same AQIM branch, in collaboration with al-Murabitun, was behind both attacks that targeted hotels in Bamako, Mali and Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Because of the number of foreign nationals killed, both attacks surely got the world attention, exactly what AQIM wanted. While many observers insist this rise is in competition with the so-called Islamic State, this is more important for AQIM in terms of recruitment of locals, especially after the group was weakened by the French intervention. But this also the group never disappeared or left Timbuktu region.

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Timbuktu Local Market. Source: Maghreb and Sahel Blog Contributor. 16 January 2016

AQIM occupied Timbuktu from April 2012 until it was chased by French forces in January 2013. True the group was no longer governing the city but most of its fighters fled to neighboring villages where there is little to no presence of Malian forces. Bamako and Ouagadougou attacks got the international attention but the international community rarely mentions acts of violence conducted by AQIM around Timbuktu against locals suspected to have collaborated with foreign and Malian troops (see more on my previous post on AQIM in Timbuktu). The group might have went into hiding modes but never left the area. French, Malian, and MINUSMA troops never had their presence felt in the small villages where AQIM have been working and building strong ties with local communities for years. Sporadic and irregular patrols by these troops never seriously threatened AQIM cells and collaborators in the area. Attacks conducted by AQIM in Timbuktu region demonstrated that the group was well informed, indicating AQIM maintained and maybe improved existing local ties. In November 2015 for instance, fighters of AQIM led by Talha al-Liby showed up at a local community meeting north of Timbuktu, in the village of Boudjbeha to be precise. With smiles on their faces al-Liby and his deputies interacted comfortably with local notables participating at the meeting. In addition to the friendly exchanges, al-Liby and his fighters publicly warned against collaborating with the French forces. After three years since supposedly AQIM was “defeated,” al-Liby and his men, while greeting the crowd at Boudjbeha, never appeared to be concerned or worried about being targeted by French or Malian forces.

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Timbuktu City. Source: Maghreb and Sahel Blog Contributor. 16 January 2016

More recently, I mean today [06 February 2016], AQIM released a statement to claim responsibility of the attack in Timbuktu that took place a day before. The attack targeted Palmerie hotel used by MINUSMA police as a camp. According to the statement, the camp was first targeted by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) driven by an individual identified as al-Qandahari, an Arab decent from Oulad Idriss clan. Oulad Idriss of Bérabiche are Arab communities based in Mauritania and northern Mali, especially in Timbuktu region. Oulad Idriss community in Timbuktu region believed to have strong ties with AQIM through mariages and business activities. Although this doesn’t tell us much but it’s highly likely AQIM in Timbuktu region, led by Yahya Abu al-Hammam and Talha al-Liby, maintains an influence that should not be underestimated. Recent attacks and kidnappings indicate that despite the French intervention in 2013, Grand Sahara of AQIM in Timbuktu region continued to recruit and train local youth to carry suicide missions in the area and beyond.


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.


Ties in Northern Mali are Complex, Murky, and Dirty!

By Rida Lyammouri

16 October 2015

The Malian government and northern Malian armed groups reached a peace agreement in June 20th, 2015. However violence between opposed and loyal movements continued. Tensions reached an all-time high when pro-Malian militia, the Self Defense Group Tuareg Imghad and Allies (GATIA in French), came as close as a few miles from the Tuareg Ifoghas stronghold of Kidal. In fear of escalation, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) went so far as establishing a security zone around the city indicating the severity of the situation. While many media outlets perceived tensions as tribal, it is more complicated than that. Control over drugs trafficking routes appeared to be one major factor as small planes carrying cocaine reportedly landed in northern Mali in March 2015. In addition, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA in French) was witnessing major political dynamics between its own groups.

The situation in northern Mali is complicated and shifting alliances are common during transition from conflict to post conflict stage. The meetings held in Anéfif, Mali in recent weeks that aimed at ending violence included influential leaders from the Malian government and military, members of armed groups supportive and opposed to the central government, former members of jihadist groups, and well-known drug traffickers. On 09 October 2015 the Ifoghas Tuareg reached an agreement with both, the Imghad Tuareg and Lamhar Arabs. The Idnan Tuareg and Lamhar Arabs on the other hand did not reach an agreement until five days later, on 15 October 2015. Negotiations about the strategic transit hub for licit and illicit goods, In-Khalil, was a key sticking point and the main hurdle towards reaching an agreement sooner between the two clans. Other Tuareg and Arab clans also agreed on ending hostilities and allowing free movement of goods and people.

Despite the participation of members representing armed groups such as CMA and GATIA, the meetings were focused on reaching agreements between different communities. This could justify the participation of local notables and tribal leaders from the region. Furthermore, leaders that signed the final agreements were representing their respective tribe, clan, or community [see image 1]. It is unclear how optimistic Malians and the international community should be about this agreement. These agreements appear to be designed to serve each community individually and not the population of northern Mali as a whole leaving local communities divided and vulnerable to further tensions. Northern Malian communities continue to be represented by leaders and individuals with the history of being involved in activities, such as corruption, terrorism, and trafficking. In addition, the Malian government plays a dangerous game again by relying on divisions among northern communities to control uprisings. The timing and the circumstances of these accords show how complex, murky, and dirty the ties are in northern Mali. Continue reading

One Year Later When AQIM Lost its First Brigade to the so-Called Islamic State

By Rida Lyammouri

In northern Mali, Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) achieved an unprecedented success in 2012. For the first time the group and its allies controlled and governed major cities. This success was short lived when their attempt to advance southwards in Mali rushed a long-anticipated foreign military intervention led by the French. Since the French intervention in January 2013 hundreds of AQIM militants, and more importantly dozens of its leaders, have been killed. In addition, a large number of important logistical and arms caches have been discovered and destroyed. Furthermore, AQIM saw arguably its most popular leader in the Sahel, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, split from the organization and form his own group, al-Murabitun, with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) in August 2013. Al-Murabitun remained faithful to Al-Qa’ida organization and its ideology. However, tensions at the leadership level and the rise of the Islamic State led to divisions within the group. In May 2015, a division of al-Murabitun led by Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the recognized leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

In Algeria, AQIM lost five of its brigades to the Islamic State within a year. In September 2014 Jund al-Khilafa, an AQIM faction, defected from AQIM and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, and a year later al-Ansar brigade in Central Algeria and the “Protectors of the Salafist Call” (Humat al-Da’wa al-Salafiya) based in West Algeria followed the same path. In July 2015, the al-Ghurabae brigade operating in Canstantine released audio also pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In June 2015, a brigade calling itself Ansar al-Khilafa, operating in Skikda is reported to have defected from AQIM and joined the Islamic State. These series of defections instigated debate on how much of AQIM remained to maintain its presence in the region. Simultaneously watchers began to wonder if AQIM would be able to sustain the rise in competition imposed by the Islamic State.

AQIM and its leader Abdelmalek Droukdel (Abu Musab Abdul Wadud) are becoming increasingly isolated and the Islamic State are slowly beginning to have footprints in Algeria and Northern Mali, however; AQIM and its allies remain the main jihadist groups in both countries. Little is known about the size of brigades that defected from AQIM and pledged allegiances to the Islamic State, thus it is difficult to know the impact of these defections on AQIM writ large and to determine if there is any serious pressure on Droukdel to also pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. For instance, according to an AQIM statement released on 05 September 2015, most of al-Ansar brigade remains faithful and loyal to Abdelmalek Droukdel. The statement also indicated the number of al-Ansar brigade members that pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does not exceed 10. Jund al-Khilafa on the other hand has been crushed by Algerian forces and appears non-existent since the kidnapping and killing of a French tourist in September 2014. Algerian forces have killed several of its members involved in the killing, including its leader Abdelmalek Gouri on 22 December 2014. More recently, 26 Jund al-Khilafa militants were reportedly killed in April and May 2015. Brigades that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Algeria and Northern Mali have yet to match the rise and the attacks carried by their allies in Tunisia and Libya.

It is undeniable that AQIM is facing major challenges in Algeria and Northern Mali, two of its strongholds in North Africa and the Sahel. AQIM lost five brigades in Algeria in one year to the Islamic State. In northern Mali, AQIM is facing ongoing French military operations, the presence of United Nations (UN) troops, and the return of Malian authorities.

Suspected AQIM Vehicles in Northern Mali Desert. Image Posted on Facebook by AQIM Sympathizer.

Suspected AQIM Vehicles in Northern Mali Desert. Image Posted on Facebook by AQIM Sympathizer.

Suspected AQIM Vehicle in Northern Mali. Image Posted by AQIM Sympathizer on Facebook.

Suspected AQIM Vehicle in Northern Mali. Image Posted by AQIM Sympathizer on Facebook.

AQIM might have been weakened and destabilized but should not be written off just yet, as the group remains present and operational. For instance, AQIM succeeded in carrying out attacks in Algeria and Northern Mali either on local authorities or UN troops present in Mali, something the new Islamic State brigades have yet to accomplish. In Algeria and Northern Mali AQIM maintains strong ties with local communities that will continue to provide an edge to the North African jihadist group. AQIM will continue to have unique access to vulnerable youth for recruitment and access to information about local authorities through for instance, unlike the Islamic State. Close ties to the local jihadist group Ansar al-Din in Northern Mali provide AQIM a distinctive access in the area. Furthermore, Al-Qa’ida in general, and AQIM in particular, received a significant boost when Mokhtar Belmokhtar confirmed his allegiance to al-Qa’ida and denounced the Islamic State in 21 July 2015. Belmokhtar was also appointed head of al-Murabitun by the Shurah Council, and the group distanced itself from Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in May 2015.