Update: The Long War Journal argued May 14th that Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui’s pledge to Abuk Bakr al-Baghdadi and Islamic State does not necessarily speak for Mokhtar Belmokhtar and the entire Al-Murabitoun group. Sahraoui’s position is probably representative of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, which merged with Belmokhtar’s group to form Al-Murabitoun, but may not represent the entire organization. That being said, the following strategic implications still apply.
According to an audio recording aired by the Mauritanian agency al-Akhbar, notorious one-eyed Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s jihadist group al-Murabitoun pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader and declared caliph of Islamic State (ISIS), “thereby banishing divisions and dissent within the [Muslim] nation,” in the words of Adnan Abou Walid Sahraoui, a senior al-Murabitoun figure.
Al-Murabitoun formed in August 2013 after Belmokhtar merged his jihadist group al-Mulathameen (Masked Men Brigade), which he started after leaving al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) as its military commander, with the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, another group that split from al-Qaeda. Belmokhtar, however, continued to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Al-Murabitoun’s pledge is a boost for ISIS given Belmokhtar’s notoriety in Islamic terror circles. At the age of nineteen, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight with the mujahedeen against the pro-Soviet government after the USSR withdrew its troops. He became very close to Osama bin Laden and even named a son after the deceased al-Qaeda leader.
He was also a founding member of AQIM and has associated with several prominent Islamists. He has carried out many sophisticated terrorist attacks and supports the imposition of sharia law in Northern Africa. Belmokhtar recently praised the Charlie Hebdo attack and called the shooters “our best knights.”
The pledge by Belmokhtar’s group is also significant because of its geostrategic location between ISIS in Libya and Boko Haram in Nigeria to help form a land bridge from the Middle East into Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa.
If one looks at a map, ISIS’s reach extends well beyond Iraq and Syria, linking to the African continent with Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai Peninsula and a presence in Libya. If ISIS now exists in parts of Algeria and Mali, it creates a greater connection through Africa to Nigeria. It is unclear how much coordination takes place between different ISIS branches, but Belmokhtar’s support may allow for more supply lines and safe havens to help plot attacks and expand the caliphate.
With this background, al-Murabitoun’s shift may seem to be part of the much discussed al-Qaeda-ISIS rivalry within the global jihadist movement, which is commonly portrayed as the latter overtaking the former. While there is certainly a struggle for supremacy between both groups, such a characterization is somewhat incorrect because al-Qaeda has grown in recent years and is known to purposefully disassociate from certain terror groups publicly but still retain control.
Al-Murabitoun and Belmokhtar’s apparent pledge to ISIS is worrisome, but western analysts should not myopically misinterpret it as just a growing divide between ISIS and al-Qaeda with the former usurping the latter. Although both groups differ on tactics and some strategy, their ultimate goals of recreating the caliphate, imposing sharia law, and destroying western civilization are the same. In fact, al-Qaeda and ISIS have worked together when it is convenient for them. They have disagreements over the process but see eye-to-eye on the destination except for what individuals will ultimately be in charge.
Both al-Qaeda and ISIS are part of the same global jihad movement, drawing from the same ideology. Despite having differences in tactics and even strategy, both groups seek the same legal, religious, and political ends. The question is whether the United States national security apparatus will recognize this fact or treat each terror group as separate, conflicting problems. The strategy to defeat the threat depends on the answer.
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