Center for Strategic Communication

The al Qaeda-linked Movement for Tawhid [Unity] and Jihad in West Africa recently announced the formation of a new “brigade” with four “battalions” in order to conduct operations in northern Mali. The terror group named three of the four new battalions after top leaders in al Qaeda. The announcement takes place as Islamist groups consolidate their grip on northern Mali.

The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO as it is commonly called, announced the formation of the brigade and four new battalions in a statement that was released on jihadist forums on Jan. 4. The statement, which was obtained and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, was signed by the “Emir of the Mujahideen Shura Council in the Islamic Emirate of Gao Abu al Walid al Sahrawi.”

Al Sahrawi said the new brigade is called Ansar al Sunnah and that it has four battalions: the “Abdullah Azzam” (named after the Osama bin Laden mentor and al Qaeda co-founder who was killed in a bombing in 1989); the “Al Zarqawi” (named after al Qaeda in Iraq emir Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was killed in an airstrike in 2006); the “Abu al Laith al Libi” (named after the al Qaeda ideologue and senior leader who was killed in a drone strike in 2008); and the “Martyrdom-Seekers.”

Al Sahrawi said that the Ansar al Sunnah Brigade “is comprised primarily from the sons of the region, especially the Songhai tribes.”

Al Sahrawi also vowed to target neighboring countries who attempt to intervene in northern Mali to break the Islamists’ grip on the region.

“Tawhid and Jihad Group in West Africa promises to wage attacks across a wide geographical range, targeting the countries of the apostate regimes that participate in preparing for the invasion of northern Mali …,” he said.

The MUJAO emir also addressed the issue of the reported defection of the “Salahuddin Brigade,” which is led by Abu Ali al Ansari. Al Sahrawi claimed that the brigade did not defect from MUJAO and join Ansar Dine, another al Qaeda-linked Islamist group. Instead, Al Sahrawi claimed that al Ansari’s defection was personal, and that he was not successful in bringing fighters over to Ansar Dine.

Four battalions named after al Qaeda leaders

MUJAO now has four battalions named after top al Qaeda leaders. During last year’s battle for Gao, MUJAO deployed its “Osama bin Laden Battalion” to defeat the MNLA forces. MUJAO’s Osama bin Laden Battalion teamed up with more than 300 fighters from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s El Moulethemine Battalion.

Al Sahrawi said that MUJAO formed the brigade and four new battalions “as a result of the expanding influence of the group and its control over several areas and cities of northern Mali, and the increasing number of fighters in our ranks.”

Background on MUJAO

MUJAO formed in late 2011 as an offshoot from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, in order to wage jihad in western Africa. Although MUJAO leaders are purported to have leadership differences with the Algerian-dominated AQIM, MUJAO conducts joint operations with AQIM in northern Mali and other areas. At the time of its formation, MUJAO expressed affinity to al Qaeda and its founder, Osama bin Laden, and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

MUJAO is one of three major al Qaeda-linked groups that participated in last spring’s invasion of northern Mali. Along with AQIM and Ansar Dine, MUJAO took control of northern Mali after the Malian military overthrew the government in the south. MUJAO, AQIM, and Ansar Dine fought alongside the secular Tuaregs from the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to take control of northern Mali, but then quickly cast aside the MNLA and imposed sharia, or Islamic law, in areas under their control.

Mali has become a new and dangerous front and safe haven for al Qaeda and its allies. Foreign jihadists from West African countries such as Togo, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast, as well as Egyptians, Algerians, and Pakistanis, are filling out the ranks of MUJAO, AQIM, and Ansar Dine. Additionally, at least two training camps have been established in Gao, the largest city in northern Mali [see Threat Matrix reports, West African jihadists flock to northern Mali, and Foreign jihadists continue to pour into Mali].

MUJAO currently controls the northern town of Gao and surrounding areas. At the end of November, MUJAO defeated an MNLA assault to regain control of Gao.

Once in control of the region, MUJAO and allied jihadists have enforced a strict, Taliban-like interpretation of sharia. The groups have leveled Islamic shrines and have executed, mutilated, or beaten those accused of violating sharia.

The US recognized the threat of MUJAO in the beginning of December 2012, when it added the group to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. At the same time, two top MUJAO leaders and founders, Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi were added to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Both men have links to AQIM; Tilemsi serves as the terror group’s military emir.