The man allegedly behind the gas facility attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, had, until recently, run AQIM’s Katibat al-Moulathimin (“The Veiled Brigade”), a reference to the practice of male veiling common in parts of the Sahel. In October 2012 AQIM stated that Belmokhtar had been “suspended” from the command of the group, owing to Belmokhtar’s supposed deviations from the goals of the group’s leadership. Belmokhtar was purportedly at loggerheads with three AQIM leaders: AQIM’s amir Droukdel, the recently-appointed Saharan emir Yahya Abou el-Hammam, and Katibat Tariq Ibn Ziad commander Abou Zeid.
Belmokhtar’s spokesman denied the removal but in December Belmokhtar appeared on video for the first time to announce his departure* from AQIM and his creation of a new group, al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”), a reference to the name of the GIA detachment responsible for the 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight. In his video, Belmokhtar said his group aimed to consolidate shari’ah in northern Mali. He also threatened to attack Algeria and France and called on Mauritanian imams to come to the aid of the “Azawad,” a term used largely (but not exclusively) by Tuareg nationalists to refer to northern Mali.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Belmokhtar’s close associate Oumar Ould Hamaha relayed that Belmokhtar remained under the orders of al-Qaeda central. Moreover, the “split” with AQIM does not appear to have inhibited Belmokhtar’s actions; by all available indications he took his fighters with him to his “new” group, and they have reportedly been working alongside jihadist MUJAO group in Gao and in In Khalil (more on them tomorrow). In telephone calls with journalists during the current hostage crisis, jihadis involved in the attack said they were from “al-Qaeda” before specifying their membership in al-Moulathimin and al-Mouakoune Bi-Dima. They further conveyed that the operation had been in the works for two months, suggesting that the supposed internal turmoil in AQIM did not adversely affect the complicated preparations for a major assault staged hundreds of miles away from northern Mali.
Algerian security officials said they took at least one member of the attack team alive, meaning that we may find out more about the group’s structure in the coming days and weeks. We do know that the attack team involved at least two longtime Belmokhtar aides, Abu al-Bara and Aberrahman al-Nigeri, and reports indicate that the hostage takers included Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, as well as possibly a Frenchman and a Canadian.
*CORRECTION: In the video, Belmokhtar does not actually announce a departure from AQIM, only the creation of al-Mouakoune Bi-Dima. Instead, the talk of a “split” came from press accounts, including an Associated Press interview with close Belmokhtar associate Omar Ould Hamaha (h/t @GCTAT on Twitter).