On 30 October, a group called al-Murabitun (The Sentinels,) which is a faction of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM,) pledged support to ISIS, according to PJ Media and ISISliveuamap.com. A statement by the group, lead by Abul-Walid al-Sahrawi, simply read: “The Murabitun Brigade under leadership of Abul-Walid al-Sahrawi in northern Mali pledges allegiance to Shaykh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and joins the Islamic State.”
Al-Sahrawi, an Algerian, had pledged his individual support to ISIS in 2015, but reportedly few, if any, AQIM fighters followed. This caused some confusion in intelligence circles regarding the march of ISIS in North Africa. Now, however, the issue is clear.
The better-known senior leader of the Murabitun Brigade, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, appears to be remaining with AQIM at the moment.
Belmokhtar previously lead an organization going by several names, including the Masked Brigade and Those Who Sign in Blood. They are most famous for the spectacular January 2013 attack against the BP gas plant in In Amenas, Algeria. Belmokhtar’s group eventually merged with as-Sahrawi’s, which was called the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. This then gave birth to the Murabitun Brigade in 2013.
In recent years, the Murabitun Brigade has staged scores of attacks in North and West Africa, including against hotels. In fact, the Murabitun Brigade has specialized in hotel attacks, several of which Muir Analytics has covered. They include the following:
- Radisson Blu, Bamako, Mali, 20 November 2015, 20 killed, approximately 30 wounded
- Splendid Hotel, Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, 15 January 2016, 29 killed, 56 wounded
- Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast, 13 March 2016, 18 killed, 33 wounded
There are four main takeaways here. First, it is not uncommon for Islamist jihadist terror groups, while bonded by strategic end goals, to splinter because of leadership and intricate philosophical-religious issues. Belmokhtar himself has both embraced and shunned al-Qaeda while fighting for its regional and global end goals: total submission to a version of Islam rooted in the extremist ideologies of Sayyid Qutb and Ayman Zawahiri. It should be noted that the ideological motivation of al-Sahrawi and his group also follow this ideology.
Second, the operational capabilities of both al-Sahrawi’s and Belmokhtar’s groups should not be considered diminished because of this split. They should be considered just as dangerous as before. This is because these men still control groups of highly motivated light infantry fighters that have a proven track record of attacking soft targets with aggressive military force – violence of action, to be specific. More to the point, they have a pronounced will to kill civilians, and they have an arsenal of weaponry, including AK-47s, RPK and PK machine guns, grenades, arson kits, and the like. This is all it takes to continue their established pattern of attacking hotels and other soft targets.
Third, one or both of these groups, because of this split, are now more likely to launch attacks to prove themselves. Belmokhtar did this exact thing to differentiate himself from AQIM through the In Amenas gas plant attack. He wanted to remain relevant, and he wanted to demonstrate his vicious reputation, so he planned and executed one of the most ambitious and audacious terror attacks in the post 9-11 period. There is no indication that Belmokhtar’s attitude has changed. Similarly, al-Sahrawi is probably under pressure from ISIS to perform and deliver a debut operation. From a broader view, the global rivalry between al-Qaeda and ISIS will exacerbate the potential for violence from these two organizations.
Finally, all these issues combined indicate more terrorist violence could occur in the near and/or intermediate term in North and West Africa. Local governments and their Western allies might reduce this threat if they strike these groups now during the temporary lull in their operational tempo created by this split. Otherwise, civilian targets, including hotels, should be considered high on each organization’s target list. Together, Belmokhtar and al-Sharawi have killed at least 53 and wounded 119 through their 2015-2016 hotel attacks. And they’ve done millions of dollars in damages as well. At this juncture, dramatically increased hotel security throughout the region is necessary to deter such attacks and save lies.
Sources and further reading:
“Terrorists Behind String of Hotel Attacks Pledge Allegiance to ISIS,” PJMedia.com, 31 October 2016.
“The Islamic state confirms the Murabitin Brigade lead by Abul-Walid as-Sahrawi in northern Mali has pledged allegiance to ISIS,” ISISliveumap.com, 30 October 2016.
“Ivory Coast: 16 dead in Grand Bassam beach resort attack,” BBC, 14 March 2016.
“Profile: Mokhtar Belmokhtar,” BBC, 15 June 2015.
“Tag Archives: Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,” The Long War Journal.
“Al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQRM,)” Counterterrorism Guide, National Counterterrorism Center, US Government.
Copyright © Muir Analytics 2016