Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Afghanistan Reminiscences

Mokhtar Belmokhtar (b. 1972) is an Algerian jihadist sub-commander within al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. He may or may not be dead. As part of a research project, I recently re-read an Arabic-language interview with him from 2006; the original link, which was hosted at the jihadist website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, is defunct, but the interview has been reproduced here. One passage stood out to me from the interview. In it, the interviewer asks Belmokhtar to reminisce about his time in Afghanistan. Belmokhtar was there for a year and half from 1991-1992, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces but during the final push to topple the government of Muhammad Najibullah.

Here is the exchange:

Interviewer: Are there are any beautiful memories, images, or events that have stuck in your mind from lofty Afghanistan?

Belmokhtar: […] The first story is the story of an old man who was our neighbor at one of the fronts. He loved the Arab mujahidin. God decreed that I was struck in my eye with a fragment of a shell. After my return from the hospital, when I had been away from him for a period of time, he saw on my eye the mark of the blow and he embraced me. He wept so intensely that we were concerned about him, and he was saying in his Afghan language, ‘What was the sin of this boy, who came from distant Arab lands to help us, and this has been done to him.’ He called me to accept [it]. That was how the Ansar [Muslims in Medina] were toward the Muhajirin [Muslim emigrants to Medina from Mecca] in the time of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace.

The second story: I remember one day we were close to one of the valleys at the battle lines of Gardez. The battles were on the verge of starting. A car stopped close to us and an old man got out, walking slowly, wearing a white garment, and carrying an English rifle. He came near to us for the sake of doing his prayer. After the prayer we invited him to our post. We sat and talked with him in his Pashtun language. We asked him about his age. He said, ‘My age is about one hundred and one.’  When one of the brothers asked him why he had come to the front, even though he was an old man, he said, ‘I’m a warrior, and I can’t stay in my home hearing about fighting at the front, and not want to do some fighting myself.’

The two stories give us a view of Belmokhtar at an impressionable age, a view that contrasts with later versions of him as a hardened desert fighter-slash-criminal. They provide insight into the emotional aspects of fighting in Afghanistan, and the sense of camaraderie that some jihadists find in their lifestyle. This is a camaraderie that many of the “Afghan Arabs” have been chasing ever since, I suspect – often, I also suspect, without finding it in the same degree as they found it in Afghanistan.

The experience of fighting in Afghanistan left such a deep mark on many “Arab Afghans” that I do not believe contemporary jihadism can be properly understood without some analysis of those experiences. When I contributed some research for a report on “Milestones to Militancy” about a year ago, I was struck by the recurring presence of Afghanistan as a key moment in many jihadists’ life trajectories. Someone (not me) should write a book or a dissertation about what people such as Belmokhtar experienced there, and how it shaped their subsequent actions.

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Mali: More Details on the January 18 Gao Suicide Bombing

On January 18, suicide bombers attacked the Operational Coordination Mechanism in Gao, northern Mali – the camp for forces preparing to undertake mixed patrols (rebels, pro-government militias, government forces) in the city. The casualty count, initially reported at around forty, has steadily risen, with RFI (French) putting it now at 77.

The attack was soon claimed (French) by al-Murabitun, a group affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who may or may not be dead. Al-Murabitun said,

We warn all those who have been seduced by France…that we will not accept barracks, bases, patrols, or convoys of the French colonizer who fights the mujahidin.

International media coverage of the statement understandably focused on its anti-French language and the fact that French President Francois Hollande visited Gao just a few days before the attack. But I read the statement more as an anti-peace proclamation, and the attack not as primarily anti-French but as anti-peace. The mixed patrols in Gao represent a small step toward peace in northern Mali (a peace supported by France, no doubt, but also brokered by Algeria and supported to different degrees by the Malian government and other non-jihadist actors in the north), and the achievement of that peace would further marginalize al-Murabitun.

Another noteworthy detail is that al-Murabitun identified the bomber as Abd al-Hadi al-Fulani. Although this is likely a pseudonym, it seems al-Murabitun wished to stress that the bomber was from the Fulani/Peul ethnic group, which is prominent in central and northern Mali and throughout the western Sahel and into northern Nigeria (on central Mali, International Crisis Group’s report from last year is worth reading). The Fulani have come under heavy, and to my mind completely unfair, suspicion as a group over the past few years. Al-Murabitun may be both trying to trumpet whatever Fulani support it has and hoping that identifying the bomber as Fulani will exacerbate collective punishment and suspicion of the Fulani – a scenario that could benefit al-Murabitun, of course.

For its part, the Malian government has swung into action, with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visiting Gao (French) and declaring three days of national mourning. But RFI (French) has questions about how easily the bomber (or bombers? there may have been up to five) penetrated the camp in Gao. Malian voices have joined in the critical questioning, with one commentator (French) denouncing the “irresponsibility of the Malian state its partners.” The critics, I think, have a point. If the mixed patrols in Gao are to bring greater security to the north, they must themselves enjoy a basic level of security.

 

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.

 

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.

Africa News Roundup: Kenyatta and the ICC, Niger Bombings, Northern Kenya, Libya, Algeria, and More

AP:

With the help of French special forces, Niger’s military on Friday killed the last two jihadists holed up inside a dormitory on the grounds of a military garrison in the desert town of Agadez, and freed at least two soldiers who had been held hostage by the extremists, according to French and Nigerien officials.

See also Reuters on a claim of responsibility for the attack by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reported killed in March. Opinions may vary as to whether Belmokhtar is still alive or not.

VOA:

South Sudan President Salva Kiir said Thursday that he would “never accept” the International Criminal Court. He spoke during a visit from new Kenyan president and ICC indictee Uhuru Kenyatta, who pledged the creation of roads, rail and pipelines to deepen economic ties between Kenya and the new nation.

[…]

“We have talked about these problems of the ICC, that the ICC, whatever has been written in Rome, has never been used against any one of their presidents or heads of states. It seems that this thing has been meant for African leaders, that they have to be humiliated,” said Kiir.

Reuters:

African nations have backed a request by Kenya for charges of crimes against humanity by its president to be referred back to the east African country, African Union documents show.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, are both facing trial in the International Criminal Court (ICC), accused of masterminding ethnic bloodshed in post-election violence five years ago that killed more than 1,200 people. Both deny the charges.

One minister, who asked to remain anonymous, told Reuters that the African Union specifically avoided calling on the war crimes tribunal to drop its prosecution, but he acknowledged that the request for a local process amounted to the same thing.

AP: “Violence in Somalia Scares Investors, Aid Workers.”

Two headlines on Libya give a mixed picture of the country’s trajectory:

  • AFP: “Libya Economy Surges Following Revolution: IMF” (The IMF’s Libya country page is here).
  • Al Jazeera (video report): “Libyan Armed Groups Refuse to Cede Power”

World Politics Review: “With [President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika Still Sidelined, Algeria’s Challenges Mount.”

IRIN: “Restive Northern Kenya Sees Shifting Power, Risks.”