Mokhtar Belmokhtar: A Loose Cannon?

Sergei Boeke 3 Dec 2013

On 22 August 2013, a short statement posted by the Mauritanian News Agency ANI, a frequent news outlet for terror groups in the Sahel, announced the birth of a new jihadist organisation: the Al-Mourabitoun. The name is an homage to an 11th-century Almoravid tribe that defeated a Christian uprising in the Sahara and created an empire that covered most of current Mali and Algeria. According to the communiqué, two groups joined forces: Mohktar Belmokhtar’s “Those who Sign in Blood” batallion and the Mouvement pour l’Unicité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO). Both groups have previously (separately) split from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), in both cases over leadership issues. The objective of the fusion is to create a new organisation “from the Nile to the Altantic”, to fight against “the Zionist campaign aimed at Islam and Muslims around the word”. The target of the new group’s actions is explicitly mentioned: French interests around the world. This is in line with AQIM’s mission, which also specifically targets France and French interests in Africa. The communiqué also states that the two commanders decided to relinquish the leadership of the new group to a third, unknown person, with two important characteristics. He is apparently a veteran of the Afghan-Soviet conflict and he is not Algerian. But the new leader of Al-Mourabitoun and the leader of AQIM will be confronted with a significant challenge: Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s 25 year career in terrorism and crime has not been marked by loyalty to his superiors or peers.

As the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) deploys to Mali, some important questions concerning this new terrorist group need to be answered. How much of a threat will Al Mourabitoun pose in Mali and the broader region? What role will Mokhtar Belmokhtar play and what can we deduce from his past actions? And finally, what does the creation of this new group mean for AQIM?

Mokhtar Belmokhtar or Khalid Abu-Al Abbas, by his nom-de-guerre, has a fearful reputation in the Sahel and a number of aliases to match. He is also known as “Mr Marlboro” as a result of his cigarette smuggling activities, “Laaouar” (one-eye) after losing an eye during Al Qaeda training in Afghanistan, and MBM, due to the Pentagon’s penchant for acronyms. Although he gained international notoriety by organising the attack on the Algerian gas-installation at In Amenas on 16 January 2013 which killed 37 workers, he has been an important player in the region since his return from Afghanistan in 1991 (his visit took place after the Soviets had pulled out). Initially he fought with the Groupe islamique armé (GIA) against the Algerian government during the bloody civil war of the nineties. He subsequently helped Hassan Hattab set up a splinter faction under the name of Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC), judging the GIA’s modus operandi too bloody. According to some of the interviews he gave, he again played an important role in the recalibration of the GSPC to AQIM and the decision to affiliate with Al Qaeda’s global goals in 2006. He led operations against the Mauritanian army, used his network in Libya to acquire arms and ammunition and was involved in several hostage takings. Although he commanded one of AQIM’s two main katibas (fighting groups, a few hundred strong) in Southern Algeria and Northern Mali, his personal animosity towards another important AQIM commander, Abu Zeid, was well known and led to frequent operational friction. Unhappy that he was passed over for the leadership of AQIM by a younger Abdelmalek Droukel, who is still the “emir”of the organisation, Mokhtar Belmokhtar chose to manage his region of responsibility in an autonomous and independent way.

Although the study of AQIM is, like the study of terrorism in general, beset by a shortage of primary sources, several letters found in Timbuktu do offer an insight into the challenges that AQIM’s strategic leadership faces. One extensive letter specifically focusses on the position of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who “remained for a decade independent in opinion and autonomous in decision making, linked to the leadership only by slogan”. In a reply to an earlier letter sent by Mokthar Belmohktar himself, the fourteen man AQIM leadership council formulated a very critical response, summarising serious shortcomings in Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s attitude and achievements. In 30 points, different contentious issues were raised, from independently managing the kidnappings (and asking a far too low ransom for the Canadian hostage Rober Fowler) to failing to organise any spectacular attacks. The essence of the reproach is summarised in the letter’s introduction and is a very personal attack: “Abu Abbas is not willing to follow anyone, and that he is satisfied only when followed and obeyed”. This letter, written in October 2012, probably directly led to him splitting off from AQIM and taking his katiba with him. He announced his breakaway on ANI on December 6th and changed the name from the Al-Mulathameen (“Masked”) Battalion to the al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those who Sign in Blood Battalion). A few weeks later he organised the attack on In Amenas, in retribution to the Algerian governement granting overflight permission to French fighter jets attacking jihadists in Mali. In the video where he claims responsibility for the deadly attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar specifically mentions acting on behalf of Al Qaeda. Considering he announced his breakaway from Al Qaeda – albeit in the Islamic Maghreb – barely a month earlier, it is probable that many in the “official” Al Qaeda organisation were not amused.

It is unclear how much local support Al Mourabitoun has. MUJAO does have its roots in the Gao region of Mali, and did recruit many fighters (including children) when it controlled the region. But Operation Serval, the French led military campaign to reconquer Northern Mali, not only meant a conventional military defeat for all terrorist groups, but also exposed their popular defeat. French forces liberating cities and villages were greeted by euphoric locals, many happy to turn their backs on sharia punishments and ready to welcome a drink or cigarette. The importance of harnessing popular support was emphasised by Droukdel to his local commanders, in another letter found in the Timbuktu cache. In a ten page strategic outline, he chastises his commanders for being too harsh with the local population and moving too fast in the application and enforcement of sharia law. Droukdel insists that a more “hearts and minds” approach is necessary and compares the role of AQIM in Mali to that of a parent nursing a child. Events have since confirmed that these instructions fell on deaf ears. As for Al Mourabitoun, both Mokhtar Belmokhtar and MUJAO can draw on an extensive local smuggling network, ensuring a minimum of local support to be able to survive in the large, remote and inhospitable terrain of northern Mali. But to be able to start a significant insurgency more local support is needed, and this does not yet seem to be the case.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s record as a terrorist commander. These also have implications for the perspectives for the new Al-Mourabitoun group. On a tactical level, the organisation has the will and the capacity to carry out large, complex and spectacular attacks. Partner MUJAO has been responsible for introducing the phenomenon of suicide attacks to Mali, with the first attack on 8 February in Gao. The attack was followed by nearly a dozen others in barely two weeks. A double, simultaneous suicide attack was jointly organised by Mokhtar Belmokhtar and MUJAO on 23 May in neighbouring Niger. Here an uranium mine in Arlit was attacked, which is one of the most important strategic French interests in the whole region. Simultaneously, Nigerien army barracks in Agadez were targeted with more than 20 dead as a result. The two terrorist organisations have proven able to operate and cooperate in the wider Sahel region and a next attack is to be expected soon. There has been ample time to organise new actions and an added incentive could be to gain publicity as a new terrorist organisation.

On a strategic level the implications are more difficult to gauge. It is hard to imagine Mokhtar Belmokhtar taking orders from anyone, let alone from an outsider who does not have the local knowledge, network or reputation that he has. It is currently unclear if Al Qaeda central supports the creation of the Al-Mourabitoun as a new group, but the announcement that a third, external person will be in charge could have the purpose of bestowing some Al Qaeda legitimacy to it, whether actual or not. Al-Mourabitoun does however have the potential to attract new fighters and the continued slow-motion collapse of the Libyan state is offering ample opportunities in terms of sanctuary, weapons and recruits. But the growth and expansion of Al-Mourabitoun will probably be at the cost of AQIM, putting its survival and the position of AQIM leader Droukdel at stake. It will hardly be a consolation to Droukdel that the US Justice Department has a $5 million bounty on Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s head, while he, as emir of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, does not even merit a mention on the list.