Today US State Department added three West African terror groups that are associated with al Qaeda leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar to its lists of terrorist organizations.
Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathameen Brigade was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity. In addition, the al Mua’qi’oon Biddam [the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade], and the al-Murabitoon Brigade, a merger between Belmokhtar’s forces and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa [MUJAO, another al Qaeda subgroup], were described “as aliases” of the al-Mulathameen Brigade, State said in a press release announcing the designation.
The al-Mulathameen Brigade and the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade were formed in December 2012 by Belmokhtar, a longtime al Qaeda commander who has fought n Afghanistan, after a dispute arose between him and the top leadership of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, al Qaeda’s branch in North Africa. Belmokhtar bristled at taking orders from AQIM, and often communicated directly with al Qaeda’s central leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan region.
Despite openly breaking with AQIM, Belmokhtar continues to take orders from al Qaeda’s central leadership and conducts joint operations with AQIM units in Mali and elsewhere in North and West Africa. [See LWJ report, Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations].
In January, only a month after its founding, the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade attacked the In Amenas gas facility in southern Algeria. More than 40 fighters from Belmokhtar’s unit carried out the attack on the complex. During the four-day siege, 38 people, including three Americans, were killed and dozens of Westerners, foreigners, and Algerians were taken hostage. The terror group called for the release Omar Abdel Rahman (the “Blind Sheikh”) and Aafia Siddiqui (“Lady Al Qaeda”) from US prisons, two common al Qaeda demands, as well as an end to the French intervention in Mali, in exchange for the release of American hostages.
The attack ended after Algerian troops assaulted the complex. The US Department of Justice charged Belmokhtar with the murder of three American citizens in the attack at In Amenas.
In August, Belmokhtar merged al-Mulathameen with MUJAO to form the al-Murabitoon Brigade. Both Belmokhtar and Ahmed el Tilemsi, the emir of MUJAO, are said to have ceded control of the al-Murabitoon to an unnamed commander who has waged jihad against both the Soviets and the US in Afghanistan. The newly formed group group has expressed affinity to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and Taliban emir Mullah Omar. [See Threat Matrix report, Al Qaeda group led by Belmokhtar, MUJAO unite to form al-Murabitoon.]
The creation of al-Murabitoon was telegraphed months prior to the official merger, however. In May 2013, the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade and MUJAO launched a joint suicide operation in Niger. The attacks targeted a military barracks in Agadez and a uranium mine in Arlit that supplies French reactors. The Agadez attack was executed by a five-man suicide assault team; 18 Nigerien soldiers and a civilian were killed. Belmokhtar said the attacks were carried out to avenge the death of Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander killed by French forces in northern Mali. Belmokhtar also claimed the operation in the name of al Qaeda.
In today’s designation, the State Department described al-Murabitoon as “the greatest near-term threat to US and Western interests in the Sahel.”