The 13 March 2016 shooting rampage on a beach resort in Ivory Coast is the latest in a series of high-profile assaults that have occurred in northern and Western Africa. The attack is also the latest sign in what appears to be al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) shift in focus to soft targets that are associated with foreigners in an effort to destabilize economies and to gain the group credibility amongst jihadis in its ongoing rivalry with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group.
On Sunday, three gunmen targeted the Grand Bassam beach resort, killing 18 people. AQIM has since claimed responsibility of the attack, as the terror group increasingly moving out of its desert stronghold and into urban city centres. IN recent months, AQIM has carried out devastating attacks that have seen militants target luxury hotels frequented by foreigners.
While AQIM was once known for striking military posts in Algeria and neighbouring countries, such attacks made little impact internationally. Since November 2015, AQIM has carried out three major attacks. The first occurred when gunmen targeted a hotel in Mali, and then in January, a similar attack was carried out in Burkina Faso. On Sunday, the moved even farther south, to an Ivorian resort popular with tourists and locals alike. AQIM is effectively moving its strategy from operating in northern Mali and neighbouring states, to city centres, where attacks not only leave high numbers of causalities and cause fear but also strike at the heart of the economy of the affected nation and business confidence of the surrounding region.
The recent attacks in the region are generally viewed as targeting France and its allies, after Paris intervened militarily in Mali in 2013 to drive out al-Qaeda-linked militants who had seized the desert north a year earlier.
Sunday’s attack also raises fears of where they might strike next, and poses serious security questions for former regional colonial power France, which has thousands of citizens and troops in the region. While some 18,000 French citizens live in Ivory Coast, over 20,000 reside in Senegal. France also has 3,500 troops in the region, from Senegal in the far west to Chad. A French military base in Abidjan, which is manned by around 800 soldiers, serves as a logistical hub for regional operations against Islamist militancy in the Sahel.
Here is an overview of the worst such attacks that have occurred over the past year, all of which have been claimed by jihadist groups:
- 13 March – At least 15 civilians and three special forces troops are killed when gunmen storm the Ivory Coast beach resort of Grand-Bassam. According to the government, one French and one German national are amongst the dead. Al-Qaeda’s North African branch, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), claim responsibility for the attack, which is the first to occur in Ivory Coast.
- 15 January – Thirty people, including many foreigners, are killed in at attack on a top Burkina Faso hotel and a nearby restaurant in the capital Ouagadougou. AQIM claims the assault, stating that the gunmen were from the al-Murabitoun group of Algerian extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
- 20 November – Gunmen take guests and staff hostage at the luxury Radisson Blu hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako. The siege leaves at least twenty people, including fourteen foreigners, dead. The attack is later claimed by AQIM, which says it was a joint operation with the al-Murabitoun group. Another jihadist group from central Mali, the Macina Liberation Front, also claims responsibility for the attack.
- 31 October – A Russian passenger jet is downed on its way from Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort to Saint Petersburg, Russia, killing all 224 people on board. The Egyptian branch of the Islamic State (IS) group claims responsibility. Russia confirms that the crash was caused by a bomb.
- 26 June – Thirty Britons are amongst 38 foreign holidaymakers killed in a gun and grenade attack on a beach resort near the Tunisian city of Sousse. The attack is claimed by IS.
- 18 March – Gunmen kill 21 tourists and a policeman at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. The attack is claimed by IS.
- 7 March – A grenade and gun attack on La Terrasse nightclub in the Malian capital Bamako kills five people – three Malians, a Belgian and a Frenchman. The attack is claimed by al-Murabitoun.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whose jihadists have claimed an assault on a luxury hotel in Mali in late November, shot to global notoriety when his militants carried out an assault on an Algerian gas field two years ago. Long known as “The Uncatchable,” international militaries have tried to catch him on numerous occasions. Despite several reports of his death, it is evident that Belmokhtar remains alive and continues to have the capabilities of carrying out deadly attacks across the Sahelian region.
In mid-November 2015, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian revealed that United States bombers as recently as June were sent out to target the elusive 43-year-old Algerian born and bred in the country’s desert hinterland. Washington has pledged a reward of US $5 million on his head. Of all the jihadist leaders in the Sahel region that straddles the southern Sahara, it is Belmokhtar’s photo that features on the wall of the French army commander’s office in Gao, which is located in northern Mali. Colonel Luc Laine has stated that “it reminds me that he exist and wants to do me harm.”
A source within the Malian intelligence services has disclosed that “Mokhtar Belmokhtar is the backbone of all jihadists.” He was behind the 2013 attack on the In Amenas natural gas complex in the remote south region of Algeria, in which 39 hostages and 29 Islamists were killed. In May of this year, he reaffirmed that his group, al-Murabitoun, remained loyal to al-Qaeda, effectively denying allegiance, which was paid to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group by another of the movement’s leaders.
Born in 1972, in the ancient desert city of Ghardai, which is located 600 kilometres (370 miles) south of the Algerian capital, Belmokhtar stated in a rare 2007 interview that he was drawn away from home by his fascination with the exploits of the mujahedeen who were combating the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan. He had joined the in 1991, when he was barely 19 years old. He claims that it was in Afghanistan that he lost his eye when it was hit by shrapnel. He also states that it was there that he made his first contacts with al-Qaeda. He later joined al-Qaeda’s ranks and would eventually rise to a senior position.
Now nicknamed Lawar (The One-Eyed), Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in 1993, just a year after the government sparked a civil war by cancelling an election, which the Islamic Salvation Front was poised to win. At this point, he joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which conducted a violent camping of civilian massacres in its battle against the government. During the violence, the group would sometimes wipe out entire villages. His knowledge of the nearly lawless “Grey Zone” of southern Algeria, northern Mali and neighbouring Niger effectively enabled him to thrive in the region.
In 1998, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) broke away from the GIA. Belmokhtar, who had now gained the nickname “The Uncatchable” by a former chief of French intelligence, opted to go with them. Nine years later, the GSPC formally adopted to the jihadist ideology of Osama bin Laden and renamed itself al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – effectively becoming al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch. Since then, AQIM has managed to create a tight network across the sub-Sahara Sahel zone. They are comfortable operating in the harsh desert terrain and have been able to finance their operations through the making of millions of dollars from the ransoms of European hostages.
In 2012, when a Tuareg rebellion opened the way for a jihadist takeover of northern Mali, officials reported that Belmoktar purchases weapons in Libya, adding that he was twice seen at the side of Iyad Ghaly, the Tuareg head of Ansar Dine jihadists, in Gao and Timbuktu. There have been conflicting reports about his departure from al-Qaeda, with some reports stating that he was pushed out as one of AQIM’s top two leaders in northern Mali for what one regional security official said were his “continued divisive activities despite several warnings.” Other reports have suggested that he separated from AQIM in a bid to form another terror group that would further its spread in Africa. In January 2013, a group calling itself the “Signatories in Blood,” and led by Belmokhtar, claimed responsibility for the Algiers gas field assault. The attack occurred just a few days after France launched a military operation aimed at helping Malian troops in the north stem a jihadist invasion.
In May 2013, just two months after he was reportedly killed by Chadian troops in Mali, he claimed responsibility for deadly attacks against Nigeria’s army in Agadez and against French firm Areva, which mines uranium in Niger. Al-Murabitoun was formed months later, in August, when his “Signatories in Blood” group joined forces with another regional jihadist group, MUJAO. In March, the group claimed its first deadly attack against westerners in Bamako. Five people were killed in that attack.
Just days after the 20 November attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility, stating “this blessed operation comes as a response to the assaults of the Crusaders on our people, our sanctities, and our mujahideen brothers in Mali.”
On Tuesday (11 August), last week’s deadly hostage drama, which killed 13 people including five UN workers, was claimed by fighters linked to Algerian jihadi leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The militant group also claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that occurred Monday.
A radical, who is associated with militant Malian Islamic leader Amadou Koufa, stated that he gave his “blessing” for the attack on the Byblos Hotel in the central Malian town of Sevare. Koufa has ties to Belmokhtar, a former head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who leads Al-Murabitoun. According to Souleymane Mohamed Kennen, the group also claimed responsibility for the killing of three Malian soldiers on Monday, when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device close to Diabozo, which is located near Sevare. While the US had reported that it has targeted Belmokhtar in an airstrike in the Libyan desert in June, AQIM has denied reports that its former leader had been killed.
The claim of responsibility comes just a day after investigators disclosed that they have found phone numbers and addresses on the bodies of the “terrorists” killed in the Sevare hotel, which suggested that they were affiliated with the Macina Liberation Front (FLM), which is a new Islamic extremist group drawn from the Fulani people of central Mali. According to one investigator, “at this stage, there is no formal proof that it was the Macina Liberation Front, but strong suspicions point to this group that has been seeking notoriety at all costs.” Officials are reporting that this new extremist group is drawn from the Fulani people of central Mali and that it has links to Ansar Dine.
Meanwhile on Thursday (13 August), a policeman and a civilian were wounded when gunmen opened fire on a police outpost in the capital city in an attack that a Malian government minister has insisted is an “isolated act.” According to Interior minister Sada Samake, the attackers arrived at a busy bus station in a taxi before opening fore in the police post, injuring two people. The minister confirmed that officials “…have opened an investigation” into what he called an “isolated act.”
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Sahel-based terrorist group Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade (aka: Masked Brigade, aka: Signatories in Blood), has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri. Belmokhtar was believed to have been killed in fighting in Mali in 2013. However in late April, intelligence sources revealed that he had moved from Mali to a base in southern Libya.
Belmokhtar’s statement, released on Islamist websites, said, “We declare our faith in the policies of our emir, Cheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri… because we are convinced of the fairness of his approach,” Mokhtar Belmokhtar said in a statement posted Wednesday on Islamist websites.
Belmokhtar was key member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until political infighting lead to a fallout with AQIM leader Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar split from the group and formed his own organization. In 2013, Belmokhtar was known to be working with Islamist group MUJAO to drive the Taureg separatist group, out of Gao in Mali and to expand his land base and increase the numbers in his brigade.
In the statement, Belmokhtar specifically mentions al-Zawahiri’s latest comments on in-fighting between rebels in Syria that has killed hundreds since January.
In related news, Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, has also issued a statement saying it will comply with Ayman al Zawahiri’s orders with respect to the jihadist infighting in Syria. Al Nusrah has been in combat with Islamic State of Iraq and the Sham (ISIS, also known as ISIL), which has been disowned by al Qaeda’s general command.
In recently released audio messages, Zawahiri addressed Abu Muhammad al Julani, the emir of Al Nusrah, and demanded that Julani and Al Nusrah “immediately stop any fighting” as it is an act of aggression against “their jihadist brothers.” Zawahiri reiterated his call for the establishment of an independent sharia (Islamic law) court capable of settle the ongoing dispute. He also said the jihadists should stop criticizing each other in the media.
In reply to the message, Al Nusrah announced its “commitment” to comply with Zawahiri’s orders to stop attacking Isis, but added that they are prepared to respond defensively to any act of aggression. The group also says it is willing to submit to a sharia court, and will stop insulting its rivals on social media.
Al Nusrah blames ISIS for the death of Abu Khalid al Suri, Zawahiri’s chief representative in Syria until he was killed in February. Al Suri was a founding member and senior leader in Ahrar al Sham, which is allied with Al Nusrah and is a prominent part of the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel groups. Al Nusrah also blames ISIS for the death of Abu Muhammad al Fateh, a leader in the group who was killed along with other members of his family in Syria’s Idlib province.
The pledged to Zawahiri show a renewed unity among various branches of Al Qaeda, and a willingness to work more closely AQ main office. This may signal strengthening ties, and unity of messages and actions coming from AQ affiliates throughout the Middle East.
New information has revealed that Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the militant leader responsible for the bloody siege on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant in January 2013, is alive and plotting new attacks from Libya. The report contradicts earlier intelligence suggesting Belmokhtar had been killed in fighting in Mali.
Belmokhtar, a native Algerian, was a key member of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) until political infighting lead to a fallout with Abou Zeid. Belmokhtar split from the group and formed Khaled Abu al-Abbas Brigade (aka: Masked Brigade, aka: Signatories in Blood). Over the past year Belmokhtar was known to be working with Islamist group MUJAO to drive the Taureg separatist group, MNLA, out of Gao in Mali. His aim was to expand his land base and increase the numbers in his brigade. However a French-led intervention in Mali successfully put down the rebellion, and Chadian troops claimed to have killed both Belmokhtar and Abou Zeid in March of last year. The US however, still offered a five million dollar reward for information leading to his detention.
A security source in Niger and another close to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali (MINUSMA) have confirmed that Belmokhtar has left Mali and taken refuge among armed militias in Libya. Belmokhtar is has evaded detection in Mali where French troops and US drones were searching for him. One source has stated, “From the Libyan territory, he intends to control the entire Sahel,” and many sources beleive that Belmokhtar is planning attacks on Westerners and their interests. Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita believes that if Belmokhtar is in Libya, he posts an “obvious threat” to the entire region.
Malian Analyst El Hadj Konate warns, “Even if he has retreated to Libya, he is still masterminding deadly operations in northern Mali […] he has all the time he needs to regroup his forces because [Libya] is a lawless area.”
Officials in Niger are particularly concerned. On 23 May, 2013, a double attack was carried out on a military base and a French-operated uranium mine in northern Niger, killing several dozen people. Niger shares a long border with the relatively lawless Libya. Southern Libya, according to Niger’s interior minister, “has become an incubator for terrorist groups.”
The Nigerian government is increasing security and development in the north of the country, and focusing on issues including the addressing marginalisation of Tauregs in the area. However, officials fear that the youth of the nation could be influenced by terrorist recruiters.
Niger’s interior minister recently called on France and the United States to help “eradicate the terrorist threat” in Libya. However, the Chief of Staff for the French military has suggested that an international operation in the region could avert the creation “of a new centre of gravity of terrorism”.