Caitlin Dearing Scott
March 27, 2017
Earlier this month, three of the Sahel’s leading jihadist groups – Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun, and Katiba Macina — announced a merger with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) under the leadership of Ansar Dine chief Iyad Ag Ghaly and the banner “Nusrat ul-Islam” (group for the victory of Islam and Muslims). In a video announcing the merger, Ghaly appeared with Yahya Abou Hamam, emir of AQIM’s Sahara emirate; Amadou Kouffa, head of the Katiba Macina; Al-Hasan Al-Ansari, vice-emir of al-Mourabitoun; and Abu Abdul Rahman Senhadji, AQIM judge.
There has been no reaction from AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel or the infamous leader of al-Mourabitoun Mokhtar Belmokhtar, but the newly-merged group has pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. So it appears that the merger was sanctioned by the powers that be.
The announcement is just the latest move in the tangled, ever-changing web of jihadist alliances in the Sahel. The last few years alone witnessed Belmokhtar leaving AQIM only to return and Abou Walid Al-Sahraoui, formerly of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and al-Mourabitoun, forming a splinter group and pledging allegiance to the Islamic State under the banner of “the Islamic State in the Grand Sahara,” in direct contravention of Belmokhtar’s firm opposition to the Islamic State. (For a thorough overview, see Marc Memier’s recent report, AQMI et Al-Mourabitoun from the French Institute for International Relations.
For now, the merger doesn’t appear to signify a fundamental shift in the terrorist threat to the region, but rather a formalization of ties. These groups have worked together in the past, notably collaborating on the attack against the Raddison Blu hotel in Bamako in November 2015, the Ouagadougou attack in Burkina Faso in January 2016, and the Grand Bassam attack in Côte d’Ivoire in March 2016 — three of the deadliest and most high-profile attacks of the last two years. Though those attacks did signify to some degree the “Africanization” of AQIM — with its expansion beyond the Maghreb and the “core” group of Algerian combatants to now include fighters from virtually every country in West Africa — they didn’t result in a grand unification, on strategy or otherwise. By all accounts, the jihadi landscape is still fragmented; but it does operate across a larger swath of territory. It seems likely that individual brigades will continue to operate both autonomously and opportunistically – seeking external alliances when it appears beneficial and resorting to fragmentation and competition when it’s not. The same goes for individual jihadis.
So perhaps the bigger question is why now? What is it that led these groups to merge at this time? The most obvious answer is competition from the Islamic State (IS), which is not only seeking to expand its presence in the region after defeats in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, but also taking potential recruits from jihadi groups with their historic base in the Sahara/Sahel. Over the past few years, a number of groups operating in the region have pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State – in some cases breaking off from AQIM in the process (Jund al-Khilafah in Algeria, for one) – leading AQIM to try to reverse the trend by encouraging IS fighters to defect.
This answer, however, flies in the face of other reports about collusion between Belmokhtar and the Islamic State in Libya. In early March, Libyan Minister of Defense Mahdi Barghathi (of the UN-backed government) claimed that the Islamic State was regrouping in southern Libya with the support of al-Qaeda, particularly Mokhtar Belmokhtar. As The Telegraph notes, “The unholy alliance of the world’s two most dangerous terrorist groups in Libya is at odds with the public animosity between al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) leadership.” In Mr. Barghathi’s view, the situation on the ground belies the hostile rhetoric between the two groups, and they are in reality “actively co-operating,” with al-Qaeda “providing logistics and support to help Isil re-group and launch attacks.”
Whether that is true – and whether it means something more than just the latest round of opportunism by Belmokhtar (and thus with few implications beyond southern Libya) – remains to be seen. What is certain is that Belmokhtar has always maintained larger ambitions than the Sahara/Sahel – seeking to unite “Muslims from the Nile to the Atlantic.” This merger may be a part of that – with Belmokhtar playing his preferred role behind the scenes – or it may mean very little. The announcement was nevertheless successful in putting al-Qaeda back in the spotlight, if only for a moment.