An al-Qaeda-linked militia that was founded by Islamist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced on Thursday that it would be joining forces with another armed group in order to take revenge against France for its military offensive in Mali. While this move is no surprise to analysts, as the two groups have previously collaborated in carrying out regional attacks, it does cement the fact that the Sahel region will remain the new focal point for global counter-insurgency efforts.
Reports surfaced on Thursday that Belmokhtar’s Mauritanian-based al-Mulathameen Brigade (the Brigade of the Masked Ones) along with Malian-based terrorist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is believed to be led by Ahmed Ould Amer, have joined forces under one banner in a bid to unite Muslims and to target French interests in the West African region. In a statement that was published by Mauritanian news agency Nouakchott News Agency (ANI), the two groups indicated that “your brothers in MUJAO and al-Mulathameen announced their union and fusion in one movement called al-Murabitoun, to unify the ranks of Muslims around the same goal, from the Nile to the Atlantic.” Belmokhtar and Ould Amer are said to have ceded control of al-Murabitoun to another leader. Although he has not been named, reliable sources indicate that the new commander has fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the 2000’s. Reports also indicate that unlike the leaders of most of the armed organizations in the region, this new leader may not be Algerian.
The merger between the two groups was first reported by ANI, which has long been a reliable source of information pertaining to jihadist activities in West Africa. In an excerpt of the group’s statement, Belmokhtar indicates that he decided not to assume the leadership of al-Murabitoun in order to “empower a new generation of leaders.” Further excerpts of al-Murabitoun’s first statement also threaten France and its allies in the region and call upon Muslims to target French interests everywhere. The document states that “we say to France and its allies in the region, receive the glad tidings of what will harm you, for the mujahideen have gathered against you and they pledged to deter your armies and destroy your plans and projects. By the grace of Allah, they are more firm and strong in your face, and your new war only increased their certitude, resolve and determination.”
Previously believed to have been killed, Belmokhtar is a one-eyed Algerian former commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2003, he was designated a foreign terrorist by the United States, with the State Department offering a US $5 million reward for information that would lead to his capture. He broke away from AQIM in 2012 in a bid to form a new group that would expand its beliefs of forming an Islamist state. In March of this year, it had been reported that he was killed in action in northern Mali. Although the reports of his death were announced by the Chadian military, they were never confirmed by France or the United States. Currently Belmokhtar remains at large. He is believed to be the mastermind behind January’s siege of an Algerian gas plant in which thirty-eight hostages were killed. MUJAO is though to be led by Mauritanian ethnic Tuareg Ahmed Ould Amer, who goes by the nom de guerre “Ahmed Telmissi.” The group also broke away from AQIM in mid-2011 with the apparent goal of spreading jihad into areas outside of AQIM’s scope. It was one of a number of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali last year and was responsible for imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law.
Despite previously separating themselves from AQIM, citing leadership issues and desires of expanding their control, both groups continued to cooperate and fight alongside AQIM fighters in Mali and in other regions of West Africa. In late May of this year, the two groups targeted a military barracks in Agadez, Niger and a uranium mine in Arlit which supplies French nuclear reactors. The attack in Agadez was reportedly executed by a five-man suicide assault team which resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people. The attack in Arlit was reportedly carried out as a means of attempting to cripple France. Shortly after the attacks, Belmokhtar indicated that the incidents had been carried out as a form of avenge for the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander who was killed by French forces in northern Mali earlier this year. Consequently this merger comes with minimal surprise as MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s forces have already forged a working relationship. Thursday’s announcement just makes this relationship official. However many questions still linger as to whether such a merger will have any impact within a region that continues to be rocked by instability.
On the one hand, in examining Mali, the country no longer seems to be the central hub it was a year ago. The recently held peaceful presidential elections, which resulted in the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, coupled with 12,600 UN troops that are stationed on the ground, are a move to fill the security vacuum and to stabilize the country by uniting the north and south. However when looking at the greater Sahel region, many vulnerabilities continue to exist in a region of Africa that is sparsely populated and prone to poverty, food insecurity and estrangement from regional governments. The Sahel region continues to see high threats of kidnap and terrorist attacks. These threats, which were further heightened following the French military intervention in Mali, are highly likely to occur again. Furthermore, there are currently at least thirteen hostages being held in the Sahel and surrounding regions, which includes Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria. Over the years, many have been killed and threats of kidnappings, especially of French and Western nationals, will likely continue. The surrounding areas also contain threats that may lead to a further destabilization of the region. Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria are waging their own wars at home. While reports that Boko Haram militants may have been trained by al-Qaeda-linked operatives in Mali further fuels the notions the movement of terrorists in the Sahel and surrounding regions continues to be unaffected. The militant groups now joining forces have gained reputations for evading capture and continuing to launch attacks despite security forces’ concentrated efforts to stop them.
On the other hand, given the long history of al-Qaeda-linked forces making and breaking alliances, the real question remains whether this official union will change anything. Many doubt that al-Murabitoun can bring anything new to the table and that instead this could signify another reorganization in an attempt to strengthen the group, remain relevant and give it a new and better direction. The timing of this announcement is also critical as it comes just two weeks after elections were held in Mali and a new President was selected. This alliance may be an attempt to remind regional actors and international officials that while Mali has won a victory by carrying out successful elections, the war is far from over.