In the wake of the 20 November deadly attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, competing claims released by terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Macina Liberation Front and al-Murabitoun, highlight the number of militant Islamist groups that operate in Mali, a country that has a weak central government and vast ungoverned spaces.
While most of the groups that operate in the West African country trace their origins to al-Qaeda’s North African branch, memberships amongst these groups over the years has become very fluid between them. What is important to note, however, is that for the most part, they have not allied themselves with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which is al-Qaeda’s main rival for dominance of the world’s jihadist movements. While other terrorist groups, which operate on the African continent, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, have declared allegiance to IS, others, such as Somali-based al-Shabaab, have seen themselves splinter, with some leaders choosing to remain with al-Qaeda while others opting to pledge allegiance to IS.
In 2012, Mali became a focal point for jihadis groups, when for nine months, Ansar Dine, which is composed mainly of ultraconservative Tuareg tribesmen, and other Islamic extremists took over northern Mali. They were later pushed out by a French-led military intervention in 2013. In the wake of France launching Operation Barkhane in 2014, radical groups operating in northern Mali have suffered heavy losses, as French troops have targeted the groups in their havens in northern Mali, as well as in Niger and along the Libyan border. Throughout this year, radical groups have expanded their operations, moving from the desert regions of northern Mali, and into more urban towns and cities in the central and southern areas of the country.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is al-Qaeda’s North African Branch. It expanded south into Mali under pressure from Algerian security forces in the early 2000s. The group went on to make a fortune in smuggling and ransoming hostages. Under militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the group recruited disaffected Malians and Mauritanians and expanded its presence within the Sahara desert region.
The group, which is led by Tuareg Iyad Ag Ghali, emerged in 2012 as a religious alternative to the largely secular Tuareg separatists operating in northern Mali. Ansar Dine allied itself with al-Qaeda and took over much of the north before being driven back into the desert by the French army.
The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which was founded in 2011, has been described as a splinter group from AQIM. The group has carried out attacks across West Africa, including the kidnapping of aid workers and Algerian diplomats. During the Tuareg uprising in northern Mali, the group briefly controlled the northern Malian city of Gao.
Founded by Mokhtar Belmokhtar in 2013, it effectively combined MUJAO with Belmokhtar’s own Masked Brigade and completed his shift to a more Saharan-focused entity. The group claimed an attack on a Bamako restaurant, which killed five in March of this year. While earlier this year, there were reports that Belmokhtar was killed by a US airstrike, these claims have been denied both by his terrorist group and al-Qaeda. There have also been unconfirmed reports that others now lead the group and that it has pledged allegiance to the IS.
Macina Liberation Front
While this group is relatively new, appearing in January 2015, it has proven to be deadly. Militants have targeted Malian security forces in the central regions of Mopti and Segou. Many of its members are believed to have formerly been with MUJAO and are members of the Peul ethnic group.
While Boko Haram has not carried out any attacks in Mali, the Nigerian-based terrorist group poses a threat to the region, as it has carried out deadly attacks in the Lake Chad area, which includes Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. Boko Haram has expanded its aims from wanting to impose strict Sharia law in Nigeria’s northeastern region to recreating an ancient Islamic caliphate across the borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. The group has pledged allegiance to IS.
Ansaru broke away from Boko Haram and has since been blamed for the kidnappings of foreigners in northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon.
Al-Shabaab insurgents have warned that they will “cut the throat” of members who shift allegiance from al-Qaeda to the so-called Islamic State (IS). The news emerges amidst reports that some factions have already been punished for doing so.
On Monday, in a radio broadcast, top al-Shabaab official Abu Abdalla stated that, “if anyone says he belongs to another Islamic movement, kill him on the spot,” adding, “we will cut the throat of any one…if they undermine unity.” Al-Shabaab, which has been a long-time branch of al-Qaeda in East Africa, is fighting to overthrow the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu. While the insurgents have lost much ground in recent years, they continue to be a threat in both Somalia and neighboring Kenya, where they have carried out a series of deadly attacks.
Reports of divisions within al-Shabaab come at a time when IS in Iraq and Syria has become what many see as being the jihadist franchise of choice. It has attracted fighters from abroad as well as the allegiance of other militant groups, such as Boko Haram, which operates in northeastern Nigeria. However recently, al-Qaeda expanded its territory in Yemen, which is located just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia, and has proven that the group continues to have the capabilities to carry out deadly attacks despite, to a certain degree, being overshadowed by IS. Sources have reported that while a handful of al-Shabaab factions have switched allegiance from al-Qaeda to IS, the shift has failed to gain momentum. Furthermore, pro-IS groups have been attacked and their leaders assassinated as al-Shabaab emir and al-Qaeda loyalist Ahmed Diriye seeks to shore up his control. Last month, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud disclosed that “the now-public dispute” within al-Shabaab demonstrated that the group had “lost its way.” On Monday however, top al-Shabaab official Abdalla maintained that the insurgent group remained united, stating, “the world wanted us to be divided…This is a collective decision and anybody who wants to join another Islamic group must leave the country to meet them where they are,” adding, “I swear by the name of God we will not tolerate the acts of saboteurs.”
The White House on Saturday reported that the second-in-command of the Islamic State jihadist group has been killed in a US airstrike in northern Iraq.
The National Security Council has identified the slain militant as Fadhil Ahmad al-Hayali, also known as Haji Mutaz, adding that he was IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s senior deputy. According to US forces, Hayali was killed, along with an IS “media operative” known as Abu Abdullah, on 18 August in a strict that targeted a vehicle near the city of Mosul. The White House has described Hayali as a member of IS’ ruling council, adding that he was “a primary coordinator for moving large amounts of weapons, explosives, vehicles and people between Iraq and Syria.” The White House further disclosed that Hayali “…supported ISIL operations in both countries and was in charge of ISIL operations in Iraq, where he was instrumental in planning operations over the past two years, including the ISIL offensive in Mosul in June 2014.” Like many senior Iraqi jihadists, prior to joining IS, Hayali had been a member of al-Qaeda’s Iraqi faction, with sources indicated that he was reportedly a former Iraqi officer from the era of Saddam Hussein.
This however is not the first time that US officials have announced Hayali’s death. In December, while speaking to reporters, US defense officials disclosed that Hayali was one of several senior figures who was killed in coalition strikes. At the time, officials provided another of his pseudonyms, Abu Muslim al-Turkmani.
Pentagon officials have indicated that they believe they hit their target – an al-Qaeda-linked commander who led a deadly attack on Algerian gas facility in 2013. However uncertainty surrounds the US airstrike on eastern Libya, and whether Mokhtar Belmokhtar was actually amongst the militants said to have been killed in the bombing, as al-Qaeda and other militants deny that Mokhtar Belmoktar was killed in the US airstrike.
Libyan officials have reported that Sunday’s airstrikes hit a gathering of militants on a farm outside Ajdabiya, a coastal city located about 850 kilometres (530 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli. A US official has indicated that in the airstrikes, two F-15 fighter jets launched multiple 500-pound bombs, with authorities confirming that there were no US personnel on the ground for the assault. However since these reports emerged, there have been conflicting reports on how many were killed, and whether Belmokhtar was amongst them.
An initial assessment indicates that the bombing that targeted Belmokhtar was successful, with Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, disclosing that “post-strike assessments” were still underway on Monday in order to determine whether the Algerian militant was in fact killed. Maj. Mohammed Hegazi, a military spokesman for Libya’s internationally recognized government based in the eastern region of the country, also disclosed Monday that further tests were needed in order to identify the dead, which numbered at least seventeen. He added that amongst those killed were three foreigners – a Tunisian and two unidentified militants. While Hegazi criticized his own government for rushing to confirm late Sunday that Belmokhtar was amongst the dead, he disclosed that the raid was based on solid intelligence, which indicated that militants forced out of the eastern city of Benghazi by fighting there had taken refuge in Ajdabiya. While both the Libyan and US government are leaning towards Belmokhtar having been killed in the strike, conflicting reports from al-Qaeda and Islamists operating in the region have emerged in recent days.
A Libyan Islamist with ties to militants indicated Monday that the airstrikes missed Belmokhtar but that they had killed four members of a Libyan extremist group that is linked to al-Qaeda, Ansar Shariah, in Ajdabiya. The group has been tied to the 11 September 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Another militant has also reported that Belmokhtar was not at the site of the airstrike. However a news website, which has previously carried statements from Belmokhtar, indicated that he was in Ajdabiya, meeting with affiliates. The Mauritanian website quoted informed sources in Libya stating that six people were killed in the raid and that a Tunisian and Yemeni were wounded.
On Tuesday, Ansar al-Shariah denied that Belmokhtar was killed in the US airstrike. In a statement, the group named seven people it said were killed in the US strike in eastern Libya, however Belmokhtar was not among them, with the statement indicating “no other person was killed.” A second statement released by an umbrella group for militias called the Shura Council of Ajdabiya and its Surroundings also did not list Belmokhtar among the dead.
If officials do confirm Belmokhtar’s death, this would be a major success for US counterterrorism efforts as he is one of the most-wanted militants in the region, with a US $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. However this is not the first time that authorities have claimed to have killed him. He was previously though to have been killed in Mali, however security sources disclosed last year that he had moved to Libya.
Belmokhtar, who is believed to be 43 years old, fought in Afghanistan, where reports emerged that he lost his eye in combat. He was one of a number of fighters who have been battling Algeria’s government since the 1990’s. He later joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), before forming his own group, which led the January 2013 attack on Algeria’s Ain Amenas gas complex that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans. Reports later emerged that he was in Libya, with US officials believing he was based in the western and southern parts of the country. The US has filed terrorism charges against Belmokhtar in connection to the attack in Algeria, including conspiring to support al-Qaeda, use of a weapon of mass destruction and conspiring to take hostages. Officials maintain that he remains a threat to US and Western interests.
AQAP Confirms Death of Leader
Meanwhile in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has confirmed that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of the offshoot militant group, has been killed in a US drone strike in Yemen, in what is the heaviest blow to the jihadist network since the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
His death was announced by AQAP in an online video, with prominent al-Qaeda militant Khaled Omar Batarfi, a senior member of the group, stating Wuhayshi “was killed in a US drone attack that targeted him along with two other mujahedeen,’ who were also killed. The video statement was dated 15 June. The militant group, which has been behind several plots against Western targets including the deadly attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year, indicated that it has named its military chief Qassem al-Rimi as its new leader.
Confirmation of Wuhayshi’s death comes after US officials had earlier reported that they are reviewing intelligence to confirm that he was killed in a CIA drone strike that was carried out on 9 June. Yemeni officials have reported that Wuhayshi was believed to have been killed last week in a raid in the al-Qaeda-held Mukalla, in the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadramawt. A Yemeni official further disclosed that last week, a drone had fired four missiles at three al-Qaeda militants, including an unnamed “leading figure,” near Mukalla port, adding that all three were killed on the spot. Witnesses also reported an explosion that killed three men on the seafront last Friday, adding that al-Qaeda gunmen had quickly cordoned off the area and gathered the remains, leading them to believe that a leader was amongst those killed.
Wuhayshi, a Yemeni believed to have been in his 30’s, travelled to Afghanistan in the late 1990’s where he attended al-Qaeda’s Al-Farouk training camp, and fought alongside Bin Laden. He would later become Bin Laden’s close confidante. As US forces closed in the battle of Tora Bora in late 2011, he escaped to Iran, where he was later arrested and extradited to Yemen, where he was jailed until escaping in February 2006. He became head of AQAP in 2007. US officials have indicated that he built one of the most active al-Qaeda branches, with Washington considering AQAP to be al-Qaeda’s deadliest branch. As well as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which killed 12 people, AQAP was also behind an attempt to blow up as US commercial airline on Christmas Day 2009.
The US State Department had previously offered a US $10 million (£6.4 million) reward for anyone who could help bring Wuhayshi to justice, adding that he was “responsible for approving targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources to training and attack planning, and tasking others to carry out attacks.”
Since late January 2015, AQAP has lost a number of high profile figures in US strikes, including religious official Harith al-Nadhari, ideologue and spokesman Ibrahim al-Rubaish and religious and military official Nasser al-Ansi, along with several other lower ranking figures.
Mali’s Tuareg-led rebels have called for a meeting with mediators just one day after they rejected the United Nations-brokered preliminary peace agreement.
On Monday, the Tuareg-led rebels called for a meeting with Algerian mediators in a bid to “improve” a proposed peace agreement signed with the government in the capital city Bamako. After meeting for days in order to discuss the agreement, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which represents five rebel groups, had initially rejected the accord, stating that it was “fundamentally flawed.” They later released a “final statement,” which has called for further talks, stating that the document was a good basis for further discussions, however noting that it did not reflect the aspirations of their people and that it must now be improved in the interests of peace. The statement indicated that “according to the views expressed by the various communities of Azawad, it appears that the draft agreement did not take into account essential elements of the legitimate aspirations of the people of Azawad,” adding that the CMA” reiterates its firm commitment to pursue the aegis of international mediation.” The statement went on to say that “the CMA believes that the document produced by the mediation constitutes a good basis for work that needs to be improved in the best interests of peace… Therefore, it requests a meeting with the mediation and international partners in order discuss the progress of the process.”
The Algiers Agreement, which is the product of over eight months of negotiations, aims to bring a lasting peace to the northern desert region, which the rebels refer to as “Azawad.” The agreement was signed by the Malian government and several smaller groups however the Tuareg-led rebels had requested additional time in order to consider the offer.
Mali’s desert northern region has struggled for stability since the West African nation gained independence in 1960. Since 1962, the Tuareg movement has launched four uprisings in a bid to fight Mali’s army over the territory, which they claim is their homeland. Ministers and various rebel groups, composed of Arab organizations and the Tuaregs, are now seeking to resolve the decades-old conflict. A coup in Bamako in March 2012 enabled the Tuaregs to seize Mali’s vast northern region however the separatist uprising was later taken over by al-Qaeda-linked militants who took over the region. In early 2013, French troops forced the militants out of their strongholds and into the desert and mountains however recent attacks on bases and the targeting of convoys has raised fears that the militants are once again gaining strength.
While the UN has urged the rebels to sign the proposed deal protests have broken out in Kidal, which is the rebel stronghold in northern Mali, against the agreement.