December 3, 2012

Belmokhtar Splinters From AQIM, Eyes Sahara

One of the latest development's in the fast-paced Sahel holds the potential to alter both sides of Mali's crisis.

Several days ago Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a former commander for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), emerged to warn the international community of "the impossibility of controlling the limits and results of a war in the region." His statements were clipped from a recent interview in Gao, where the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) now commands its operations in northern Mali, and dovetail with AQIM and Ansar Dine's overarching narrative in the country (to be addressed in a future post). Essentially, the Islamic alliance that swept across northern Mali is feigning ignorance by entertaining the possibility of a negotiated settlement, and thus positioning itself as the defender rather than the aggressor. They know that an Islamic state leaves no room for compromise with Western capitals and their African allies, and they're playing with house money in Mali.

“We will help and support them - be it at war or during times of peace," Belmokhtar concluded.

Of course the veteran jihadist, a former leader in AQIM, has his own causes to support. Dubbed "Al-A'war" ("the one-eyed") and "the Uncatchable," Belmokhtar is obviously angling himself back into the picture by offering his "unconditional" help - surely with strings attached. He was reported dead during the fog of Gao's battle between MUJAO, Ansar Dine and the oppositional National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), only to emerge in another dispute with AQIM's leadership. After allegedly refusing to step down as commander of the offshoot Al-Mulathameen ("Masked Men Brigade"), Belmokhtar is now pledging to "respect any decision" made by MUJAO, Ansar Dine and the local Tuareg tribes they hope to woo in Mali. He said that his group, “will reveal more details and show his group’s clear position on the war and the methods that they will adopt to repel aggression.”

To this end, Belmokhtar's deputy has confirmed the regional agenda of his network.

“It’s true,” Oumar Ould Hamaha told reporters from northern Mali. “It’s so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the ‘Maghreb’ appellation. We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso.”

Hamaha is the ideal mediator between AQIM and northern Mali's environment. A native of the Timbuktu region, Hamaha has been involved with Belmokhtar since AQIM's formation in the early 2000s, and now serves as a spokesman for Ansar Dine and MUJAO. He claims that Belmokhtar and himself have technically left AQIM while remaining under the group's regional strategy. Their semi-independence mimics the activity of other AQIM offshoots, such as Mohammed Ghadir's ("Abdelhamid Abou Zeid") Tareq ibn Ziyad batallion, and further diversifies a nebulous collection of militant groups assembling in and around Mali. MUJAO has purportedly split from AQIM for the same reason offered by Hamaha: more independence in expanding regional operations. 

Many groups are mobilizing under AQIM's loose control, using the umbrella's affiliation to boost their own profile as they pursue various objectives across West Africa. How these splinters cooperate in Mali will determine the effectiveness of their political cohesion and military defense against an international task force.

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