Center for Strategic Communication

Earlier this week, the AP’s Rukmini Callimachi revealed one of the memos she discovered in the sixth trashbag full of AQIM documents she collected in the aftermath of the French attack on jihadis in Timbuktu in January. The memo, dated October 2012, is from the shura council of AQIM to the shura council of the Masked Brigade, a subsidiary of AQIM at the time. Until October 2012, the Masked Brigade had been run by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the most infamous jihadi in Africa. We previously knew that AQIM leadership had removed Belmokhtar from his position in that month, afterwhich he established his own group, the Blood Signers left to run the Masked Brigade as a separate organization. But we did not specifically know why AQIM had taken its decision until now.

The memo is AQIM’s response to a letter sent by the Masked Brigade that criticized AQIM leadership and recommened a course correction. For AQIM’s leadership, the letter was a final act of insubordination in a long history of such behavior by Belmokhtar, which they recount in scathing detail.

Several things stood out:

  • Belmokhtar wanted to sever his group from AQIM and pledge allegience directly to AQ Central. In addition to being a play for more autonomy, the move calls to mind the recent attempt of Nusra to get out from under AQ Iraq’s control and pledge allegience directly to Zawahiri. Combined with Shabab infighting over leadership and appeals to Zawahiri to intervene, the three episodes suggest that AQ Central does not have a firm hand on the reins.
  • Zawahiri is hard to reach. In rebuffing Belmokhtar’s desire to pledge allegience directly to Zawahiri, AQIM’s leadership explains that it would do nothing to elicit more attention from AQ Central because the organization rarely communicates with AQIM as it is. AQIM states that they have received just a few letters from Bin Laden and Zawahiri and a handful from Atiyya and Abu Yahya al-Libi, “despite our multiple letters to them for them to deal with us effectively in managing jihad here.”
  • Al-Qaeda is run like a business or government agency. As long-time AQ watchers know, Bin Laden established orderly administrative procedures for conducting the business of terror. AQIM’s memo is one more window into how the adminisrative machinery functions. The leadership gripes at Belmokhtar for not filing expense reports, not playing well with the other vice presidents (ie emirs) in the region, and not returning headquarter’s phone calls.
  • Even if jihadis recognize Internet communication is compromised, they still do it. The memo from the Masked Brigade to AQIM reminds AQIM’s leaders that they should not try to communicate with their subordinates over the Internet, referencing a message from Zawahiri saying the same (anyone know if this letter was public?). AQIM’s leadership retorts by observing that Belmokhtar is the one who is carelessly communicating with Internet forum administrators (they mention Ansar al-Mujahideen forum in particular) and airing AQIM’s dirty laudry to the media.
  • Spectacular attacks can be motivated by petty infighting. It is natural to look to a group’s ideology and strategy first when explaining a sudden change in attack patterns. This year’s attack on the gas fields in Algeria elicited just such commentary. While such explainations paint part of the picture, the AQIM memo suggests infighting can also be a big motivation for action and target selection. According to the memo, Belmokhtar criticized AQIM’s leadership for not carrying out any “spectacular military action” over the last decade despite having the resources and permission to do so. AQIM turns this charge back on Belmokhtar, saying that he was the one who was charged with carrying out such attacks. Belmokhtar answered by carrying out the spectacular attack on the Algerian gas field three months later.
  • Something is brewing in Libya. AQIM and Belmokhtar trade barbs over who was the first to try and consolidate jihadi groups fighting in Libya. I’ll leave it to folks like Clint Watts and Andrew Lebovich to surmise how successful AQIM and Belmokhtar have been in that endeavor. I’d only note that in the midst of their success in Mali last year, AQIM was already looking over the horizon at Libya as the next theater. If the jihadis in Mali continue to be squeezed by the French and others, they may head northeast.