Who Is AQIM’s New Emir, Yusuf al-‘Annabi?

On November 21, the journalist Wassim Nasr shared advance clips from a video by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghrib’s (AQIM’s) media outlet Al-Andalus Foundation. The full video is now available for registered users at Jihadology. It is narrated by an AQIM cleric, Qutabya Abu al-Nu’man al-Shinqiti.

Roughly the first half of the video commemorates AQIM’s past emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel/Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud (1970-2020), who died in a French raid in northern Mali on June 3 of this year; this segment also briefly mentions three other fighters who died alongside Droukdel (more on the raid here). Interestingly, one of those mentioned is a Malian national identified by AQIM as ethnically Dogon.

Roughly the second half of the video (see around 12:25) includes several items. The first and most important of these is AQIM’s announcement (news broken, I should emphasize, by Nasr) that Droukdel’s successor as emir is Abu ‘Ubayda Yusuf al-‘Annabi.* This portion of the video also discusses and celebrates the recent prisoner exchange in Mali (October 2020) and issues various threats, boasts, and supplications. The final minutes of the video (see around 17:30) revisit the main themes – commemorating Droukdel and celebrating the prisoner release. There is a strongly anti-France theme throughout the video as well.

What is known of al-‘Annabi? On the one hand, analysts of jihadist media have been quite familiar with al-‘Annabi for some time. For example, the BBC’s Mina al-Lami, identified al-‘Annabi as the obvious choice as soon as Droukdel’s death was reported:

On the other hand, piecing his biography together is a bit challenging, at least for me. According to his entry on the United Nations Security Council’s al-Qaida sanctions list, he was born in 1969 and is from ‘Annaba, a city in northeastern Algeria (map). This would make sense, given that “al-‘Annabi” means “from ‘Annaba.” Regarding his early life, only one small biographical detail is given in the video itself: according to the video, al-‘Annabi became a jihadist in 1413 hijri (1992/1993 miladi) after obtaining a license degree in economics. This suggests a path at least vaguely similar to Droukdel’s; Droukdel studied mathematics at university before joining the Algerian jihadist ranks at almost exactly the same time. Here we might recall Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog’s Engineers of Jihad and the striking propensity for jihadist leaders to come out of the hard sciences (insert joke about the value of the humanities here).

By 2010, al-‘Annabi was identified in jihadist media as the head of AQIM’s “Council of Notables,” and he reportedly took over temporarily for Droukdel during a period where the latter was absent from public view. For at least a decade, then, he has been a key face of AQIM propaganda, especially when addressing political developments in post-Arab Spring North Africa. See, for example, the first document here, from summer 2011.

Al-‘Annabi appears to have really come to the attention of Western policymakers with a 2013 statement in the immediate aftermath of the French-led intervention in Mali. He was blacklisted by the United States government and the United Nations in 2015 and 2016, respectively, and the U.S. listing mentions that 2013 statement.

The Council of Notables is a structure dating back to the days of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC), an earlier name for AQIM prior to its full incorporation into al-Qaida in 2006-2007. Notably, the last three emirs of the GSPC/AQIM have, at the time all their promotions, been the heads of the Council of Notables: Mustafa Abu Ibrahim/Nabil al-Sahrawi in 2003, when Hasan Hattab was ousted; Droukdel in 2004, when Abu Ibrahim/al-Sahrawi was killed; and al-‘Annabi in 2020.

The GSPC’s/AQIM’s bureaucratic structures, in my view, helped give the GSPC/AQIM a degree of internal cohesion and durability in the early 2000s as it grappled with three challenges: (a) how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA), an Algeria jihadist movement that descended into rampant internal and external bloodshed in the mid-1990s, driven partly by capriciousness and a lack of accountability at the top; and (b) how to survive in an increasingly unfavorable environment in Algeria; and (c) how to manage rapid turnover at the top in 2003-2004. The Council of Notables is the most visible and perhaps the most important of these bureaucratic structures.

I think now, though, that the choice of al-‘Annabi is a sign of AQIM’s weakness. As I noted when Droukdel was killed, talk of him as “the last of the Algerian terrorist leaders” was premature. Yet al-‘Annabi is better-known (to me, at least) as a propagandist and pseudo-cleric than as an operational figure – so even though the bureaucratic structures held intact, tapping someone without the same operational background as Droukdel and Abu Ibrahim/al-Sahrawi would seem to me to be a sign of a weak bench. I also think that if clear lines of bureaucratic succession can be an asset in times of uncertainty, those same bureaucracies can equally become a kind of prison, stifling change. I noted too that after Droukdel was reported killed, much of the media reporting argued, in my view accurately, that Droukdel’s death compounded and symbolized the shift of northwest African jihadism’s center of gravity from North Africa to the Sahara-Sahel and particularly to Mali. I’m not too big into fetishisizing the iconography of jihadist videos and seeing big meaning in every image, but it did strike me that the video took care to prominently feature Malian national Iyad ag Ghali, leader of AQIM’s subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for the Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM), which in my view is more powerful than its parent organization.

To restate things a bit more bluntly, in AQIM’s shoes, I would not have gone with a visibly aging northern Algerian cleric as emir, even if he was next in line to Droukdel. Two of those three characteristics in combination – age, geographical origin, and profile – might not have been problematic together. But in al-‘Annabi they suggest an organization fighting for relevance and lacking in charismatic authority. Droukdel and al-‘Annabi are of the same generation, but it’s a different optic having a ~34-year-old former bomb maker and battalion leader becoming emir in 2004 than having a ~51-year-old spokesman and pseudo-shaykh becoming emir in 2020.

*This is a pseudonym. A lot of media outlets are reporting his given name as Yazid Mubarak, but what I heard in the video I would transcribe as Yazid Mibrak.

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