Quick Notes on Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi’s Interview with al-Naba’

In the latest issue (#260) of the Islamic State’s weekly Arabic-language newsletter al-Naba’, there is an interview with Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). As MENASTREAM points out, the appearance of the interview temporarily settles the question of whether his deputy Abd al-Hakim al-Sahrawi is now in charge.

The interview is two pages (pp. 10-11) and as I commented on Twitter yesterday, over three-quarters of it concerns the deep background to current events. Prompted by the interviewer, al-Sahrawi gives his version/narration of the history of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism from just after the formation of the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC) in the late 1990s until the formation of the al-Qaida subsidiary Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (the Group for Supporting Islam and Muslims, JNIM) in 2017. Only in the last quarter of the interview or so does al-Sahrawi turn to discussing the recent fighting between JNIM and ISGS, which has received recurring coverage in al-Naba’ (see here for my annotated translation of a June 2020 al-Naba’ article on that topic).

Al-Sahrawi’s narration of Saharan-Sahelian jihadism emphasizes the infighting among the Saharan battalion commanders of the GSPC (which was renamed al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM in 2007). Al-Sahrawi points to the failure of various efforts to reconcile these battalion commanders (notably Mokhtar Belmokhtar, whom al-Sahrawi names several times, and ‘Abd al-Hamid Abu Zayd, whom al-Sahrawi indirectly names by referring to Abu Zayd’s Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion). Al-Sahrawi also emphasizes that the Saharan battalion commanders were very difficult for AQIM’s Algeria-based leadership to control. “The organization, in reality, was an image with no reality to it. What existed on the ground was a number of battalions with different orientations and multiple loyalties, all of them linked with the leadership of al-Qaida in Algeria.” Notably, while Belmokhtar is often portrayed as the recalcitrant one in other accounts of these internal GSPC/AQIM spats, in al-Sahrawi’s telling, it was Tariq bin Ziyad Battalion (i.e., Abu Zayd) that was resistant to at least one major unity initiative, the effort by central leadership to impose Nabil Abu Alqama as the central leadership’s unquestioned deputy in the Sahara.

Al-Sahrawi goes on to review developments between 2011 and 2013 in detail, starting with the Libyan revolution and its impact (in his view) on the northern Malian rebellion of 2012; then discussing the relationships among AQIM, the AQIM offshoot the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), AQIM’s ally Ansar al-Din (Defenders of the Faith), and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (French acronym MNLA); then discussing the impact of the French-led military intervention in Mali in 2013. The thought of going over all those events here on the blog for the millionth time kind of fatigues me, to be honest, so I would suggest reading a summary of those developments if you’re not familiar.

One point of interest here concerns the relationship between AQIM and the Malian-led Ansar al-Din. Those who consider Ansar al-Din a front group for AQIM will find support for their argument in part of what al-Sahrawi says, to wit: “The al-Qaida organization [here meaning AQIM], in its different groupings, entered into that framework [of Ansar al-Din’s vision of an Islamic state in Mali], even though its leadership [the pronoun “its” goes to AQIM, if my reading is correct] remained independent of it [the pronoun “it” goes to Ansar al-Din’s framework, if my reading is correct].” Later he talks about AQIM “working under cover of [Ansar al-Din].” Yet those, like me, who find the “front group” description simplistic will find support in al-Sahrawi’s descriptions of Ansar al-Din circa 2012 as a collection of opponents to the MNLA’s separatist vision, opponents motivated “either by ethnic, racial reasons or by creedal, religious reasons.” Al-Sahrawi later briefly mentions the 2013 split among Ansar al-Din’s leadership that remains, I think, fundamental to understanding the hybridity of the movement itself during 2012. Anyways, it’s a long discussion; YMMV.

Moving on, when discussing his unit’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015, al-Sahrawi is conspicuously silent on Belmokhtar. He has no shortage of criticisms for the AQIM leadership in general, accusing them of a criminal level of self-interest and self-preservation in the face of what he sees as a groundswell of interest in the Islamic State project from the among AQIM’s own rank-and-file. He repeatedly slams AQIM leaders for their approach to the 2012 rebellion, to the MNLA, etc. Yet al-Sahrawi does not name any names here, nor does he criticize Belmokhtar – who, when he and al-Sahrawi were both part of the then-estranged AQIM unit al-Murabitun in 2015, publicly rejected al-Sahrawi’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State, a pledge al-Sahrawi made in the name of al-Murabitun. It makes me wonder whether there is a vestigial admiration for Belmokhtar among Islamic State audiences (despite the Islamic State in Libya and elsewhere having publicly called for Belmokhtar’s death at points). Belmokhtar did, after all, cut a larger-than-life figure in the Sahara and even in Libya for a time, and perhaps al-Sahrawi is shying away here from directly taking on that legacy. Belmokhtar, as a reminder, has been either dead or at least publicly absent from the Saharan scene since 2016. In any event, al-Sahrawi presents JNIM’s formation in 2017 as a response to the formation and growth of ISGS.

Al-Sahrawi then turns to the ISGS-JNIM conflict, saying that for a time, ISGS focused on fighting “crusaders and apostates” while making outreach to JNIM’s cadres. According to al-Sahrawi, this outreach attracted a lot of fighters from Ansar al-Islam (Defenders of Islam), a northern Burkina Faso-based jihadist outfit that was/is in JNIM’s orbit, as well as from JNIM units in what he refers to as “Konna,” “Macina,” and “Nampala” (localities in the Mopti and Ségou Regions of central Mali). Al-Sahrawi then quickly runs through a complicated series of events that, in his telling, involved JNIM fighters from Nampala (but not physically in Nampala at the time) pledging allegiance to ISGS/Islamic State, then JNIM leaders giving orders for that pro-ISGS unit to be blocked from returning to Nampala, then fighters in Macina refusing to carry out the orders and instead pledging allegiance to ISGS/IS themselves, then the leader of the ISGS-aligned group from Nampala, Miqdad al-Ansari, being killed in a “crusader air raid…under obscure circumstances!” I have not yet had time to triangulate between this and other accounts. As in other al-Naba’ articles, al-Sahrawi argues that JNIM leadership coordinates with non-jihadists. He then presents JNIM’s negotiations with successive Malian authorities as the culmination of a process where the group has de facto lost its jihadist credentials – and, of course, he refers to them as “apostates” throughout the article.

Big takeaways? I’m not sure. The desire to shape perceptions of history stands out – it’s not just scholars and analysts who are still chewing over the events of 2011-2013 in Mali. And the sense of the JNIM-ISGS conflict as a competition for the loyalties of discrete units of fighters in Mali is also notable. The account of how a dispute over Nampala escalated into a wider conflict will be worth revisiting. Another point is that, at least on this first reading, I saw no references to Nigeria, Boko Haram, ISWAP (in the sense of a specific organization based around Lake Chad), etc. Finally, I can’t help but sigh at the Islamic State’s ascription of the title “Al-Shaykh” to al-Sahrawi – not everybody has to be a shaykh, guys. Pretty clear that al-Sahrawi’s not, even by jihadi standards.

Quick Notes: The Late AQIM Amir Abdelmalek Droukdel’s Autobiographical Sketch Revisited (and a Mistake in My Book!)

For a project I’m working on I recently revisited an autobiographical sketch of Abdelmalek Droukdel (1970-2020), the emir of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) who was killed in Mali this past June 3. Droukdel provided the sketch to the site Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad in 1426 hijri, which mostly overlaps with 2005. Droukdel was at the time the emir of AQIM under its old name the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat, best known by its French acronym GSPC.

Droukdel gives the following dates:

  • 1970: Born in a village called Zayan in Meftah, Algeria.
  • 1989: Obtained a baccalaureate in mathematics.
  • 1990-1993: Attend the University of Blida, Algeria.
  • 1992: Came into contact with Said Makhloufi, who at the time was leading a group called the Movement for an Islamic State (French acronym MEI).
  • 1993 (December): Joined the “mujahidin,” perhaps the MEI (parts of which were brought into the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA) in a 1994 merger, though Droukdel does not explicitly say which group he joined in 1993 nor does he mention the merger). He was immediately put to work as an explosives maker because of his science and technological background.
  • 1996: Put in charge of “all the workshops for military production for the ‘shock troops’ affiliated with Zone 2.” I am assuming that by “shock troops” he means the literal phrase, but that could be (Jund al-Ahwal) the proper name of a unit.
  • Unspecified date between 1996 and 2001: Took charge of the “Jerusalem Battalion,” later renamed the “Abu Bakr al-Siddiq Battalion.” For reference, Abu Bakr was the first Caliph after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
  • 2001: “Called upon to join the leadership of the [GSPC] and appointed a member of the Council of Notables, for [representing] Zone 2.” Droukdel does not say in this account when he left the GIA for the GSPC; he was a protege of the GSPC emir Nabil Sahraoui/Mustafa Abu Ibrahim/Abu Ibrahim Mustafa (in power 2003-2004), who helped form the GSPC in 1998, so he may have come to the GSPC then.
  • 2003: Appointed head of the Council of Notables, replacing Sahraoui in that role when Sahraoui became emir after the departure/expulsion of the previous emir, Hassan Hattab.
  • 2004: Appointed emir of the GSPC after Sahraoui’s death.

The sketch ends in 2004/2005, obviously, but it captures most of the important stages in Droukdel’s career, given that he remained in that last position, as GSPC/AQIM emir, until his death.

Looking back at the sketch, I also caught a mistake I made in my new book (p. 72). The mistake was to put the date of Droukdel joining the Council of Notables as 2003 instead of 2001. I also referred to him as the Zone 2 commander when that might not be quite right – I will have to check into that further. Looking again at what he said, he wrote that he was appointed “a member for Zone 2” rather than “the member for Zone 2.”

On Another note, establishing who led the GIA’s and then the GSPC’s zones (beyond Mokhtar Belmokhtar in Zone 9), or even precisely where each zone was, is a pretty tricky endeavor in my experience. Someone should write something definitive on that!

Confirmed: AQIM Holds French, Spanish Kidnap Victims

Over a week after the kidnapping of three Spanish aid workers in Mauritania and roughly two weeks after the kidnapping of a Frenchman in Mali, Al Jazeera reports they have received a tape from AQIM claiming responsibility for both incidents:

“Two units of the valiant mujahedeen managed to kidnap four Europeans in two distinct operations: the first in Mali where Frenchman Pierre Camatte was seized on November 25, and the second in Mauritania where three Spaniards were held on November 29,” the spokesman, who identified himself as Saleh Abu Mohammad, said on the tape.

He added that “France and Spain will be informed later of the legitimate demands of the mujahedeen”, but did not go into detail about the demands.

Reuters adds that Spain’s Foreign Ministry believes AQIM‘s claim is “credible.”

CNN updates us on the search for the Europeans: “The Spanish government has enlisted the aid of the governments in Mauritania and Mali to help free the hostages, and Spain sent aircraft for that effort.” Earlier rumors that the victims had been released are obviously false, but rumors that they have been taken to Mali may well be true.

A number of recent pieces provide background on AQIM’s activities in the Sahara. As commenters Tommy, Brad, and Tidinit emphasized in a discussion last week, the financial angle is important to consider. AFP follows this line of inquiry, writing about how kidnappings are a primary source of funding for AQIM:

In the last year, kidnappings “have multiplied, and the situation has continuously deteriorated in the last five years,” Alain Antil, a researcher for the French Institute on International Relations (IFRI) said.

“Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb needs money (…) Other groups can snatch Westerners for them and hand them over. You get the impression it’s becoming a business in the (Sahel) region,” Antil explained.

AQIM “has grave financial problems and these kidnappings show a push to resolve this,” French Al-Qaeda specialist Jean-Pierre Filiu of the Paris Institute for Political Studies said.

“In times of difficulty (Al-Qaeda’s north African branch) becomes dangerous,” added the author of several books on Islamist extremism.

According to the coordinator of counterterrorism at the US State Department, Daniel Benjamin, AQIM “is financially strapped, particularly in Algeria, and unable to reach its recruiting goals.” Benjamin said that it was reliant on kidnapping Westerners.

West African drug trafficking is another critical funding source for Sahelian terrorists.

In addition to the linked articles, I recommend Jean-Pierre Filiu’s report on AQIM, which was written for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Filiu says the terrorist threat in the Sahel is “on the rise, but not yet out of control” (p. 1). He argues that al-Qaeda’s waning fortunes in Iraq, the inability of AQIM to unify other hardline North African groups, and the Algerian military’s response to AQIM have hurt the group and may already be producing a decline in terrorism in Algeria (see p. 6). However, he notes the rise in kidnappings in Mauritania and Mali, and says that “containment and deterrence are more attainable than a clear-cut military solution to this jihadi challenge” (p. 8).

Finally, the Senate testimony of Dr. David Gutelius provides another perspective on AQIM, especially with regard to US foreign policy in the Sahara (.pdf):

From a local perspective, neither GSPC [AQIM’s predecessor] nor AQIM have ever been considered major threats, nor has Salafism’s more violent strain, per se. U.S. policy, on the contrary, has made these a priority and in doing so, has sometimes made worse local political and social dynamics in [the] Sahel and worked to bolster, rather than suffocate, AQIM and the GSPC before it. To be sure, AQIM poses a certain kind of threat and the U.S. and its Malian and Nigerien allies have had important tactical successes over the last six years. But these successes have come at some cost, and it is unclear if U.S. officials appreciate that those continuing costs affect the overall success of such programs as the [Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership].

Both Filiu and Gutelius stress the delicate nature of the situation. Outside assistance can help Sahelian governments fight AQIM, but as Filiu says that assistance can create propaganda opportunities for AQIM – one of the costs Gutelius refers to. Moreover, if we agree with Filiu that AQIM is failing to achieve many of its political goals in Algeria, it is possible that desperate terrorists are increasingly willing to kill Western civilians to demonstrate their commitment to global jihad.

In this context, the issue of ransoms for kidnapping victims is critical. If AQIM has its back against the wall financially, there is an argument for refusing to pay ransoms – but that leaves civilians at the mercy of terrorists, a step that I am not ready to endorse. A lot is at stake, in other words, with these kidnapping victims. I hope they will be found safe, and in the meantime my thoughts go out to them and their families.