On the (Most Recent) Reported Death of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a French airstrike in southern Libya likely killed the jihadist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar. The reports have been met with some skepticism, given that Belmokhtar has been reported dead numerous times. For example, American authorities believed they had killed Belmokhtar in a June 2015 airstrike in Ajdabiya, northeasterrn Libya (map).

Belmokhtar was born in Ghardaïa, Algeria in 1972. He traveled to Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and then participated in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s as a member of the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA) and the Salafi Group for Preaching and Combat (French acronym GSPC). The GSPC affiliated with al-Qaida in 2006-2007, and Belmokhtar was one of the most senior commanders in the rebranded al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). To a certain extent, he broke away from AQIM from roughly 2012-2015, although his forces were effectively reintegrated into AQIM by late 2015.

It is not easy to determine exactly where the most recent strike occurred. There was a reported airstrike on November 14 on the outskirts of the southern Libyan city of Sabha (map). That strike may have claimed the lives of AQIM’s Abu Talha al-Hassnawi and six others. One wonders whether Belmokhtar was among them – he and al-Hassnawi were reportedly close, and had allegedly been seen together after returning to Sabha from the coastal city of Sirte. Another source (French), however, says that the airstrike occurred in the Bani Walid region (map) south of Tripoli, or in other words in northwestern rather than southern Libya. I favor the first account, but the second is worth considering.

It is possible that Belmokhtar has been using Libya as his main base of operations since the fall of the jihadist territory that AQIM and allied factions controlled in northern Mali in 2012-2013. Although Belmokhtar’s forces have claimed responsibility for major attacks beyond Libya, he has been (accurately or otherwise) sighted there many times since 2013. AQIM is a player in intra-jihadist politics in northeastern Libya and has a presence, although its size is difficult to determine, in southwestern Libya. Regarding the northeast, it is worth noting that when Belmokhtar was targeted in the June 2015 strike on Ajdabiya, he was possibly there to help aid some anti-ISIS jihadis planning to expel ISIS from another northeastern coastal city, Derna. Regarding the southwest, it is worth noting that there are murky connections between AQIM and smugglers in towns such as Sabha and Ubari.

Alongside reports of Belmokhtar’s death, there are reports that one of his wives was arrested in Derna when she went there to give birth. The woman, a Tunisian national, reportedly gave birth in mid-October after Belmokhtar sent her from southern Libya to Derna. She believed at that time that Belmokhtar was alive, although she parted company with him well before the latest reported strike. AQIM (French), for its part, has denied that Belmokhtar has a Tunisian wife at all. But even the rumor of a senior jihadist’s wife being arrested makes me think that wives are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, marrying into local communities can help jihadists forge important ties. But on the other hand, wives can be a security and intelligence risk. I doubt that she provided intelligence that led directly to Belmokhtar’s targeting, but it’s quite possible that she did provide actionable intelligence about other jihadi camps, leaders, etc.

If Belmokhtar is indeed dead, then all the familiar debates about decapitation can be rehearsed. The argument for assassination is that it removes key decision-makers, disrupts organizational cohesion and operational planning, and weakens networks. The argument against assassination is that leaders are often quickly replaced, that organizational fragmentation can be dangerous, and that successors are sometimes more reckless, competent, or brutal than their predecessors. I tend to think the benefits of decapitation are exaggerated; your mileage may vary.

 

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Links Roundup on the Battle Against the Islamic State in Sirte, Libya

In May of this year, the Islamic State’s Libya affiliate controlled a strip of coastal Libya that extended from Abu Ghrein in the west to Bin Jawwad in the east. Early 2016 had seen advances by the Islamic State that made Libyan and international authorities quite nervous. In the west, the Islamic State was harassing the outskirts of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, and in in the east it was attacking major oil infrastructure, including the country’s two largest oil terminals, Ra’s Lanuf and Al-Sidr. These and other factors contributed to the launch of a multi-pronged offensive against Sirte, the epicenter of the Islamic State’s Libyan territory. The main assault is being conducted by mostly Misratan forces aligned with Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), a United Nations-backed, would-be unity government. Those forces, coming from the west, reached Sirte in June. But since then, the GNA’s fighters have been engaged since then in a difficult battle against die-hard Islamic State fighters holed up in central Sirte, at sites such as the Ouagadougou Conference Hall (one of the Islamic State’s original bastions in the city). The battle for Sirte has importance not just for the campaign against the Islamic State, but also because the campaign itself is shaping Libyan politics and will help determine the fate and nature of the GNA.

For day-to-day coverage, I recommend following Daniele Ranieri, Mary Fitzgerald, Mattia Toaldo, Frederic Wehrey, Mohamed Eljarh, Francesca Mannochi and, for those who read Arabic, the official account of Operation Al-Bunyan al-Marsus (Operation Solid Structure), the GNA’s campaign.

Here are a few links that will take you deeper into both the campaign and the politics surrounding it.

On the Islamic State’s rise in Libya and in Sirte specifically:

On the campaign (in roughly chronological order):

  • Patrick Markey, “Libyan Forces Battle Islamic State Street-to-Street in Sirte”
  • Frederic Wehrey: “Libyans Are Winning the Battle Against the Islamic State”
  • Patrick Markey, “Sirte Battle Risks Widening Libya Political Splits”
  • Amanda Kadlec, “All Eyes on Sirte: Beating the Islamic State, But Losing Libya”
  • Libya’s Channel, “In Depth: Oil Guards Seize IS-Held Territory, Join Unity Government Coalition”
  • AFP, “ISIS Tries to Break Siege in Libya’s Sirte”
  • Missy Ryan, “In a Pivotal Battle, Libyan Forces Laying Siege to Islamic State in Sirte”
  • Aidan Lewis, “Libyan Forces Report Gains Against IS in Battle for Sirte”

On what might come next:

And finally, some sage notes of anti-alarmism from Geoff Porter, written before the current campaign began, about the barriers to expansion that the Islamic State faces in Libya.

Libya: Mahdi al-Barghathi Is the Man to Watch

The international media has, at most, the attention span for two stories about Libya: (a) the battle against the Islamic State there, and (b) the existence of different would-be governments and rival militias. Typically, the central characters in storyline B are:

  • Fayez al-Sarraj, Prime Minister of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA)
  • Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), the official fighting force of the House of Representatives (HOR), the internationally-recognized parliament that has yet to fully endorse the GNA
  • Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and President Aguila Saleh of the HOR government
  • Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell and President Nouri Abusahmain of the General National Congress (GNC)/National Salvation Government, the Tripoli-based, Islamist-dominated and non-internationally-recognized government.

These six names are the main ones you might see in day-to-day coverage of Libya. Then there are other layers and names you would encounter – deputy prime ministers of the GNA, for example, such as Ahmed Maiteeg.

If you’re a relative newcomer to studying Libyan politics, as I am, it might be a while before you run across the name Mahdi al-Barghathi. But increasingly I think he is the man to watch in Libya today.

Al-Barghathi is the Minister of Defense in the GNA, and he is important for what he represents: the possibility of a GNA that would achieve truly national reach without submitting to Khalifa Haftar’s will. Briefly, the GNA’s central political problem is bringing enough people under its umbrella to become a functional, national government. One big obstacle to that goal is Haftar, who hopes to be the equivalent of Egypt’s Abdul Fattah al-Sisi: a military strongman who treats all Islamists, even the Muslim Brotherhood, as terrorists. So Haftar either won’t come under the GNA’s umbrella unless he gets to hold the umbrella, or he would kick out a lot of people already under the umbrella (i.e., anyone who likes the Muslim Brotherhood), or he wouldn’t ever be willing to come under the umbrella at all. Haftar’s support comes from eastern Libya, al-Barghathi is from eastern Libya, and so if the GNA can rally enough easterners around al-Barghathi, it might be able to marginalize Haftar. For his own part, Haftar was displeased by al-Barghathi’s selection.

To some extent, this is about the personalities, but on another level this is about resolving deep-rooted, structural tensions in Libyan politics. If we look at those tensions in terms of political geography, we might say the following: Libya’s main cities in terms of population are Tripoli (the capital, in the west), Benghazi (in the east), and Misrata (a commercial hub in the west). To speak crudely, Benghazi and the east do not want to be dominated by a Tripoli-based government or by Misrata’s powerful politicians and militias: hence (and drawing on a long history, including the east’s marginalization under Muammar al-Qadhafi), we see repeated expressions of resistance to centralized rule by eastern politicians. The GNA’s career so far might even reinforce eastern fears of western domination: the battle to retake Sirte from the Islamic State, for example, could be described simplistically as a Misratan military effort overseen by politicians in Tripoli. But some people in the east are willing to participate in national projects such as the GNA, especially if they can be convinced that those projects will be truly inclusive. This brings us back to what al-Barghathi represents: an easterner, not Haftar, who has been given a major portfolio in the GNA; a symbol of a Libyan security sector where the east has a big say, and is not just under Misrata’s thumb.

A bit more on al-Barghathi himself – and why he was a brilliant pick for the position:

  • He is from Benghazi
  • He commanded the Benghazi-based 204 Tank Brigade, which ultimately became part of Haftar’s Operation Dignity (an anti-Islamist offensive launched in 2014). As the example of al-Barghathi himself illustrates, Operation Dignity is not an army of soldiers, all of them personally loyal to Haftar, so much as it is a coalition of units whose commanders have allied with Haftar for different reasons. Rather than engaging in a head-to-head conflict with Haftar, the GNA can attempt to peel away segments of that coalition and cut Haftar’s support out from under him. As the UK’s ambassador to Libya recently said, “[Al-Barghathi’s] relationship with General Haftar is not good, and General Haftar does not accept him as Minister of Defence, but he has good relations with many of the officers in the Libyan National Army. He is quietly trying to work with them to bring the very many groups into one structure” (.pdf, p. 3).
  • Despite being part of Dignity, he reportedly has good relations with a wide variety of important actors, including some who are opposed to Haftar. These actors include Ibrahim al-Jadran, who commands an important militia in the east, the GNA-aligned Petroleum Facilities Guard-Center. One Algerian source (Arabic) makes the highly interesting claim that al-Barghathi has respect among Islamists and even jihadists: “During the [2011] revolution he fought side by side with the revolutionaries of Benghazi and with the fighters of Ansar al-Shari’a [a jihadist outfit]…And when Haftar launched Operation Dignity, al-Barghathi did not join either of the two sides in the conflict, and chose neutrality…The appearance of the Islamic State in Benghazi and its attack on the camp of the 204 Tank Brigade was the reason that al-Barghathi joined Operation Dignity.” According to the source, al-Barghathi maintains goodwill with Libyan Islamists (minus, of course, the Islamic State). Hence al-Bargathi is a consensus figure of sorts in the security sector, except of course with Haftar.
  • As noted above, he has strong credentials as a revolutionary, which can help assuage Islamists’ and revolutionaries’ fears that the HOR and Operation Dignity have become de facto strongholds for members of the Qadhafi regime.
  • He has strong backing from one of the east’s most powerful tribes, the Awaqir (of which I believe his own tribe, the Baraghatha, is a sub-unit, though I’m still seeking confirmation). The tribes, including the Awaqir, have been major public supporters of Haftar and the HOR – but as one source (Arabic) puts it, “any clash between al-Barghathi and Haftar will make the Awaqir tribe stand with al-Barghathi.” Another source (Arabic) notes that the Awaqir have given “6,000 of its sons to Operation Dignity,” and that the Awaqir have maintained public support both for the HOR’s right to endorse or reject the GNA and for al-Barghathi’s appointment as Minister of Defense. All of this puts Haftar in a deeply awkward position: if he comes to be seen as not just anti-GNA but as specifically anti-al-Barghathi, he could find himself losing the tribal support that he cannot do without. Haftar himself is from the Firjan, a significant tribe but by no means the largest tribe in the east.

Put all of this together and it’s no surprise that al-Barghathi was reportedly the target of a car bombing in Benghazi on July 13. It is dangerous work attempting to be a unifying figure in post-Qadhafi Libya – as we learn from the example of Abdul Fattah Younes, another prominent easterner, who defected from Qadhafi’s government to the revolutionaries’ side in February 2011 only to be assassinated (most likely by hardline Islamists) in July 2011. Younes’ assassination left lasting bitterness and contributed to post-revolutionary fragmentation.

Again, the personalities involved are important, but even more important is what each one represents. At the risk of being hyperbolic, I would say that al-Barghathi now represents the relationship between the GNA and the east, as well as the prospects for unification of the security sector. With the HOR’s leadership recently sounding even more reluctant to endorse the GNA, and with hints circulating about the possibility of a formally fragmented security sector, al-Barghathi’s position is becoming even more tense. Live or die, succeed or fail, I think he is the man to watch in Libya right now.

Boko Haram and ISIS: Be Careful with Evidence

In March of this year, the violent Nigerian sect Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. The pledge has elicited questions about what kind of material support the Islamic State may provide to Boko Haram, especially in terms of fighters, training, and money. These questions tap into an older inquiry about what connections Boko Haram has/had to other jihadist organizations – for years before the pledge, there were allegations of operational ties to al-Qa’ida’s affiliate al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). And these questions also take on added significance now, as Boko Haram is being forced to chart a new course in the wake of its recent territorial losses to Nigerian and regional armies.

When assessing the strength of Boko Haram’s outside connections, it’s important to weigh the evidence carefully. News organizations and analysts all have the temptation to seize on small details or perceived trends as evidence of growing operational ties. But the details may not be as significant as analysts presume, and the trends may not be new.

Example 1: An article headlined “With Help from ISIS, A More Deadly Boko Haram Makes a Comeback.”

The Nigerian terror group Boko Haram, after some much heralded reversals on the battlefield, has made a dangerous comeback, unleashing female suicide bombers, carrying out a series of deadly attacks, and seizing a highly strategic town [Marte, Borno State].

[…]

All this comes amid reports that Boko Haram may be receiving training from the self-proclaimed Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, which operates in Iraq and Syria. A group called the Mosul Youth Resistance Movement, apparently formed to fight ISIS in and around the major Iraqi city it conquered almost a year ago, killed five Boko Haram members there, according to the Iraqi Kurdish website BasNews. Saed Mamuzini, spokesperson for the Kurdish Democratic Party, is quoted saying, “The Nigerian Boko Haram militants were in Mosul to take part in a military training course conducted by Islamic State.”

What caught my eye here was first, the phrase “unleashing female suicide bombers” – which suggests that this is new. Not really. I basically stopped reading after that, since the article’s credibility evaporated when it began to present the old as evidence of the new. But to go further, it is certainly possible that Boko Haram members are training in Iraq. Yet are Kurdish websites really the most reliable sources? And is this really evidence of an Islamic State-supported Boko Haram comeback?

Example 2: An article headlined “Captured video appears to show foreign fighters in Nigeria’s Boko Haram.” When we read the article, we find that the video shows “a man speaking in Sudanese Arabic” and wearing “a white turban.” Another man wears “a black turban.” Are these men fighters? Are they Sudanese? Are they Nigerians who spent time in Sudan? Do they have anything to do with the Islamic State? The answers to some of these questions may well be yes, but I would argue that we can’t know yet – and so we shouldn’t over-interpret the limited evidence that is available. It’s better to withhold judgment.

As a final note, I would say that there has long been an assumption in many quarters that Boko Haram simply could not be homegrown, or that Nigerians could not possibly be the masterminds of Boko Haram’s violence. Well, why not? Nigeria is home to over 170 million people (that’s more than Iraq, Syria, and Algeria put together, with at least 70 million residents to spare). Is it inconceivable that some Nigerians would know how to make bombs, plan sophisticated attacks, conquer territory, and produce propaganda? I think the alliance with ISIS is real and that it will have some effect, especially in the sphere of media and rhetoric, where there is observable and consistent evidence of influence. But I am suspicious of the analysts who seem to need to find an Arab hand behind any and all terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Al-Murabitun and the Islamic State

Yesterday, Mauritania’s Al Akhbar reported (French, and a slightly different version in Arabic)* that al-Murabitun, a Sahelian jihadist group that takes its name from an eleventh-century Northwest African dynasty, had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. The audio statement (Arabic) was a short and straightforward pledge of allegiance read by someone who gave his name at the end as ‘Adnan Abu al-Walid al-Sahrawi. Al-Sahrawi was a leader in the Movement for Unity/Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), one of two groups that came together to form al-Murabitun in 2013. The other group was Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulaththamun, or “the Masked Men.” Both groups are splinters from al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Al-Sahrawi is (may be?) the emir of al-Murabitun. If genuine, the message from al-Sahrawi would represent a further diminution of al-Qa’ida’s influence in North Africa, the Sahara, and the Sahel.

I don’t go much for the kind of over-analyzing of jihadist media statements that can lead to making mountains out of molehills, but it is striking that al-Sahrawi’s (purported) statement was not nearly as formal or extensive as other, formulaic pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State. Compare the pledge (Arabic) by Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau, which included a number of formal elements (such as Khutbat al-Haja, “The Sermon of Necessity,” an oft-used Salafi doxology) not present in al-Sahrawi’s audio pledge.

One of al-Murabitun’s recent attacks was an April 15 suicide attack on United Nations peacekeepers in Ansongo, Mali. That attack was claimed by Belmokhtar.

*h/t Rukmini Callimachi and Andrew Lebovich, whose commentary on this is worth reading.

Writings Elsewhere, April 2015

I’ve written a few things that have appeared elsewhere in the past few weeks:

  • A new collection came out last month called Shaping Global Islamic Discourses: The Role of al-Azhar, al-Medina and al-Mustafa, edited by Masooda Bano and Keiko Sakurai and published by Edinburgh University Press. I have a chapter in the volume that deals with non-violent Salafi networks in contemporary northern Nigeria – i.e., not Boko Haram, but a rather more influential group of graduates of the Islamic University of Medina, many of whom have staunchly and publicly opposed Boko Haram.
  • I discussed what Nigerian President-elect Muhammadu Buhari’s cabinet might look like at World Politics Review.
  • I analyzed Boko Haram’s brand of religious exclusivism for Oxford University Press’ blog.
  • I wrote for Global Observatory about hunger in Niger, especially as the hunger crisis relates to displaced persons and Boko Haram.
  • I couldn’t hold back from writing something about ISIS, even though it’s a bit out of my lane. I talked about ISIS’ intellectual genealogy for the Social Science Research Council’s The Immanent Frame blog.