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”.
Military sources connected close to an on-going French military operation in northern Mali have confirmed that the counter-terrorism offensive concluded on Friday, with eleven Islamist militants killed and one French soldier wounded.
An official from France’s Operation Serval has indicated “the French military operation in the Timbuktu region is completed. Eleven terrorists were killed. A French soldier was wounded but his life is not in danger.” A Malian military source has also confirmed the information, stating, “the French have done a good job, because the jihadists, notably from Libya, are reorganising to occupy the region and dig in permanently.” The source further indicated that military equipment and phones belonging to the militants were seized by French troops during the operation, which took place a few hundred kilometres north of Timbuktu.
According to military sources stationed in the capital Bamako, over the past few weeks, the French army has conducted two counter-terrorism operations around Timbuktu and in the far-northern Ifoghas mountains. It is believed that troops are targeting militants belonging to the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), the Signatories in Blood, which is an armed unit founded by former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar, as well as fighters loyal to slain warlord Abdelhamid Abou Zeid. Abou Zeid and Belmoktar, both Algerians, were once leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which, along with MUJAO and a number of other militant groups, took control of northern Mali in 2012. In late February of last year, Abou Zeid was killed in fighting led by the French army in the Ifoghas mountain range. He is credited with having significantly expanded AQIM’s field of operations into Tunisia and Niger and for carrying out kidnapping activities across the region. Belmokhtar, who split from AQIM last year and launched the Signatories in Blood, which later masterminded the raid on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant last year, remains at large. The launch of Operation Serval in January of last year resulted in many militants moving further north, particularly into the Ifoghas mountains, seeking shelter from the ground and air military campaign.
Despite France beginning to withdraw its troops, on Thursday, French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian indicated that “not everything is finished, the terrorist risk in this part of Africa remains high,” adding that France “…will keep 1,000 soldiers who are carrying out counter-terrorism missions.” The fact that the terrorist risk in Mali remains high has been demonstrated through attacks that have targeted French and African forces and which have been claimed by Islamist insurgents. While residual groups of fighters are no longer able to carry out coordinated assaults, they continue to have the necessary abilities in order to regularly carry out small-scale attacks.
On Friday, flags were flown at half-mast in army barracks across Mali in commemoration of the two-year anniversary of a mass killing by Tuareg separatists, which came to be known as the massacre of Aguelhoc. When the northern town of Aguelhoc was taken on 24 January 2012, more than ninety soldiers and civilians had their throats slit or were shot in summary executions by separatist Tuaregs belonging to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad. A statement released by the Ministry of Defence indicated that special prayers for the dead were planned in the town of Kati, which is located 15 kilometres northeast of Bamako, as well as religious services, which will be held on Sunday.
On the ground sources have indicated that gunfire broke out at a paramilitary barracks in Niamey, the capital of Niger, with sporadic shots lasting for about one hour. According to statements from local residents, “the shooting began around 21:30 local time (2030 GMT).” Sporadic gunfire could be heard for an hour and then the sounds of shooting stopped. At the beginning of this year, the camp hosted troops from Chad who were at the time on transit to Mali where they have since fought jihadist militants alongside French and West African forces.
Military and government officials could not be reached in order to provide further details, and it was not immediately possible to indicate whether the gunfire was linked to a number of recent attacks in the country which have been carried by Islamist militants. Since the incident, the area around the gendarmerie camp in the northern regions of the capital has been almost deserted. A jeep carrying paramilitary members was seen travelling in the direction of the city centre. A road block has also been set up at the road which heads to the northern part of the city.
With a number of violent attacks occurring in northern Niger of the past month, citizens of the country have begun to express fears of a “war on terror” in their homeland. Tensions were raised by two suicide bombings on May 23 in the north of Niger. The attacks targeted an army base in Agadez and a uranium mine at Arlit which is run by French nuclear giant Areva. More than twenty people were killed in those attacks. Earlier this month, government officials confirmed that twenty convicts escaped during a jailbreak from a prison in Niamey.
Responsibility for both suicide attacks, the first to have occurred in the west African country, have been claimed by two armed Islamist groups: the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Signatories in Blood. Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reported to have organized the two bombings, has threatened to attack Niger again, together with any other country that has troops stationed in Mali, where a French-led military intervention launched in January has seized back control of the northern towns from groups linked to al-Qaeda.