By Thomas Joscelyn
March 13, 2017
On Mar. 2, a merger of al Qaeda groups in
the Sahel was announced. The “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”
(Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin) brings together four existing al Qaeda
organizations under one banner. Ansar Dine, Al Murabitoon and Al Qaeda in the
Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) Sahara branch are all part of the new entity. The
Macina Liberation Front, an arm of Ansar Dine, is as well.
Iyad Ag Ghaly, the longtime leader of Ansar
Dine, heads the new joint venture. Ghaly, a Malian Tuareg jihadist, explained
why the merger was necessary in a video that is more than seven minutes long.
And he emphasized that his group is part of al Qaeda’s international network.
“On this blessed occasion, we renew our
pledge of allegiance [bayat] to our honourable emirs and sheikhs: Abu Musab
Abdel Wadoud, our beloved and wise sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri and…the emir of the
Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan Mullah Haibatullah, may Allah protect them and
support them,” Ghaly said.
Ghaly’s stated allegiance is entirely
consistent with how al Qaeda’s global network is structured.
Al Qaeda’s Bayat
Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud (also known as
Abdelmalek Droukdel) is the emir of AQIM. As such, he is responsible for
overseeing the jihadists’ efforts throughout North and West Africa on behalf of
al Qaeda’s senior leadership. Like other regional emirs, he has sworn an oath
of fealty (bayat) to Zawahiri, al Qaeda’s global chief. Zawahiri, in turn, has
pledged his own loyalty to the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada.
The Taliban named Mullah Haibatullah as its
emir in May 2016 after his predecessor, Mullah Mansour, was killed in a US
drone strike in Pakistan. Mansour had succeeded Taliban founder Mullah Omar in
the post. Omar died in 2013, but the Taliban didn’t admit his death until two
years later, in mid-2015.
Al Qaeda’s senior leaders, Osama bin Laden
and Ayman al Zawahiri, repeatedly pledged Bayat to the Taliban’s emir, dating
back to even before the 9/11 hijackings. Although they have been loyal to the
Taliban’s chieftain, however, there is little to no evidence that the Taliban
directs al Qaeda’s operations outside of Afghanistan. Still, al Qaeda
technically receives authorization from the Taliban’s head man to carry out its
jihad elsewhere around the world. And al Qaeda refers to Mullah Haibatullah,
like Mansour and Omar before him, as “Emir ul-Mu’minin,” or the “Emir of the Faithful,”
a title usually reserved for a Muslim caliph.
Ghaly portrays bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s
efforts as a key part of Islamic history. He said that a “group from the people
of knowledge and jihad” have “resurrected” the “sunna of the Prophet” within the
Islamic Ummah (worldwide community of Muslims). Members of this group have
“persevered” through harm and never faltered, he said. At the “head” of this
group are the “two Mujahid sheikhs,” bin Laden and Zawahiri. Ghaly asked Allah
to “protect” Zawahiri so he can “raise the banner of jihad against the
Crusaders and unite al Qaeda” underneath it.
Although some commentators have written off
Zawahiri’s influence, Ghaly’s words underscore the fact that the elderly
Egyptian ideologue continues to command the loyalty of jihadists around the
In fact, Zawahiri’s reach has long extended
into Africa. He first recognized AQIM as an official branch of al Qaeda in
Sept. 2006. A letter recovered during the May 2011 Abbottabad raid, and
apparently authored by Osama bin Laden, made it clear that Zawahiri had a large
say in managing AQIM. The author (presumably bin Laden) told Droukdel that
there were “some obstacles in the correspondence of letters between the
brothers and me” at the time. “[S]o when any message is sent to me, please send
a copy to Abu Muhammad Sheikh Ayman al Zawahiri; he is in constant contact with
the brothers and is in charge of following up the affairs in the Islamic
Maghreb,” bin Laden wrote.
In his short video, Ghaly explained his new
venture in the context of al Qaeda’s policies. He claimed that al Qaeda has
sought unification according to Sharia law, drawing lessons from the life of
Mohammed, such as “distinguishing between” times of “vulnerability and
empowerment.” Ghaly likely meant that al Qaeda has concluded that the full
implementation of Sharia law is not possible in areas where the jihadists do
not have a firm grip on power. It was along these lines that al Qaeda leaders
advised AQIM to abstain from strictly enforcing Sharia in Mali during its
short-lived reign there in 2012. (The jihadists did not fully comply with these
Ghaly also praised al Qaeda for its
restraint with respect to the issue of takfir, or declaring other Muslims to be
infidels. The Islamic State, al Qaeda’s rival, is prolific in this regard.
Constituent groups all part of al Qaeda’s
In his Mar. 2 announcement, Ghaly (seen on
the right) said that Ansar Dine, Al Murabitoon, and AQIM’s branch in the Sahara
had united “into one group” operating under “one emir,” so they could “stand
united against the occupier Crusader enemy.”
He did not specifically mention the Macina
Liberation Front (MLF), also known as Katibat Macina, but this is probably
because the MLF is a part of Ansar Dine itself.
Ghaly’s organization was the local face of
AQIM in Mali and part of its plan for implementing Sharia law in the areas
under its control in 2012. A French-led offensive in early 2013 interrupted
AQIM’s state-building project. But the experience before the West’s
intervention tells us much about al Qaeda’s approach to establishing an Islamic
emirate — not just in Mali, but also elsewhere.
The State Department designated Ansar Dine
in Mar. 2013, noting that the group “cooperates closely” with AQIM and “has
received support from AQIM since its inception in late 2011.” Ansar Dine
“continues to maintain close ties” to AQIM and “has received backing from AQIM
in its fight against Malian and French forces,” Foggy Bottom reported.
But State’s description did not elaborate
on why AQIM stood up Ansar Dine in the first place.
The United Nations has detailed the
strategy behind AQIM’s establishment of Ansar Dine. In Oct. 2011, AQIM emir
Droukdel “wanted cover to expand the agenda of his terrorist organization into
the Sahel and increase its territorial control over northern Mali.” AQIM
“wanted to create an ostensibly independent movement that would hide its true
roots by abandoning the name” Al Qaeda. Therefore, AQIM “suggested that the new
group be led by” Ghaly.
The UN went on to summarize some of the
“continual support” Ansar Dine has received from AQIM, including military,
financial and logistical assistance. AQIM backed Ansar Dine throughout 2012, as
the jihadists battled Malian Armed Forces and captured territory.
By Nov. 2012, Ansar Dine, AQIM and another
al Qaeda group, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), had
formed a “common strategy” and the three coordinated operations against French
and Malian forces. (MUJAO merged with yet another al Qaeda sub-group led by
Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form Al Murabitoon in 2013, but a part of MUJAO
subsequently defected to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s Islamic State.)
Captured AQIM documents further illuminate
al Qaeda’s strategy and the role played by Ansar Dine.
In one such letter, first uncovered by
Rukmini Callimachi, who was then reporting for the Associated Press, Droukdel
addressed Ansar Dine’s shura council members. Droukdel explained that the West
could easily topple a new Islamic emirate in Mali, and he didn’t want the
people to blame the jihadists if this happened. So Droukdel wanted to use
AQIM’s advances in the region to build broader popular support for the
jihadists’ agenda and “extend bridges to the various sectors and parts” of
society, including Arabs, the Tuareg people, and other Africans. He surmised
that would make it easier for al Qaeda to re-establish a Islamist government in
the future. To the extent possible, Droukdel also did not want the jihadists’
governance efforts to appear foreign to the local populace.
That is why Ansar Dine was a key part of
Droukdel concluded in his letter that AQIM
had “two missions” and combining them created a “true dilemma.” AQIM wanted to
both preserve the effort to build an Islamist state, and also continue its
“global jihadi project.” The latter is a reference to AQIM’s commitment to
carrying out terrorist operations throughout the region, particularly against
Western forces, and possibly elsewhere.
According to the letter, Droukdel and his
advisers came up with two proposals. In the first scenario, AQIM would
subordinate itself to the local ruler. AQIM would “be under the emirate of
Ansar Dine” such that AQIM’s “emir would follow their emir” and AQIM’s “opinion
would follow their opinion.” This would be the case for all “internal
activity,” meaning “all activity connected to participating in bearing the
responsibilities of the liberated areas.” But all “external activity” connected
to the “global jihad…would be independent of them (Ansar Dine)” and AQIM “would
ensure that none of that activity or its repercussions are attributed to them
[Ansar Dine], as care must be taken over negative impacts on the project of the
In Droukdel’s “second proposal,” some of al
Qaeda’s Mujahideen “would be set aside and put under the complete control of
the emir of Ansar Dine to participate in bearing the burden of running the
affairs of the liberated cities.” The remaining al Qaeda members would be
“completely independent of Ansar Dine and its activity would be limited to
Jihadi action outside the region.”
AQIM never got the opportunity to fully
pursue either of these proposals. Just as Droukdel warned, the West quickly
overran the jihadists’ proto-emirate. Still, it is telling that Droukdel was
willing to subordinate AQIM and its brand to Ansar Dine in the service of
building a new Islamic emirate. And he was also keen to keep AQIM’s “external”
plotting separate from the mission of the nascent state – a telling indication
that al Qaeda’s plots against Western forces can complicate its strategy for
Al Murabitoon’s deputy leader, Hassan Al
Ansari (seen on the right), appeared alongside Ghaly in the Mar. 2 video. Ansari’s
appearance only adds to the mystery surrounding Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s status.
Belmokhtar is Al Murabitoon’s leader, but he has been reported dead several
times in the past. US officials are not certain whether he is dead or alive.
The jihadists are acting as if Belmokhtar
is still in this world and have released a number of written statements in his
name. For example, Belmokhtar supposedly authored a eulogy for a prominent
Tuareg leader, Sheikh Ag Aoussa, in October of last year.
Al Murabitoon reunited with AQIM in late
2015. And Ibrahim al Qosi, a senior Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
official who was once held at Guantanamo, praised Belmokhtar for the merger. In
a message released in Dec. 2015, Qosi credited Belmokhtar with putting the interests
of the Ummah ahead of his own private concerns, so that the “Crusader-Shiite”
campaign could be confronted with “one sword.”
However, Belmokhtar has not released a
proof of life audio or video in quite some time. And his absence from Ghaly’s
video will only fuel speculation about the one-eyed jihadist’s fate.
AQIM in the Sahara
Sitting to Ghaly’s right in the video was
Yahya Abu Hammam, a long-time AQIM commander who was designated as a terrorist
by the US Treasury Department in Feb. 2013. (He can be seen in the screen shot
on the right.) Hammam, also known as Jamel Akacha, has been AQIM’s chief
commander in the Sahel for several years. In that capacity, and beforehand, he
has been involved in AQIM’s kidnapping operations. The US has offered a $5 million
reward for information on Hammam’s whereabouts.
A second AQIM official, Abu Abdul Rahman al
Sanhaji, also appeared alongside Ghaly and the others. Sanhaji is a prominent
AQIM sharia official and has appeared in hostage videos and other productions
as a supposed religious authority.
The Macina Liberation Front (MLF)
The final jihadist attending Ghaly’s
announcement was Amadou Kouffa (seen on the right), the leader of the MLF.
Kouffa has been one of Ghaly’s staunchest allies in the region. According to a
report prepared by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), Kouffa
was a “local Peul [Fula or Fulani] imam.” CSIS referred to Kouffa’s group as
“Ansar Dine Macina,” thereby highlighting the fact that the MLF was really just
an extension of Ansar Dine. Kouffa’s “forces,” backed by Ghaly, helped lead
“the Islamist advance in late 2012 towards Mopti, triggering the French
intervention” and they have “conducted attacks across central Mali” since then.
Kouffa’s ranks have increased with the
recruitment of “Peul fighters, many of whom fought under the leadership of
Belmokhtar and Ould Kheirou [a MUJAO leader] in the Gao region in 2012,” CSIS
noted. The MLF has worked to implement sharia law, portraying the jihadists’
belief system as the best way to check abuses by local authorities.
Ghaly praised formation of Hay’at Tahrir al
Sham for the sake of “unity”
Although he didn’t specifically name the
group, Ghaly praised the creation of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in January.
Addressing “our Mujahideen brothers in Syria,” Ghaly said: “You represent a
good example of unity, merging, and relinquishing personal interests for the
sake of the Ummah’s interests.” Ghaly said that the “Ummah…rejoices at your
efforts toward merging” and the Syrian Mujahedeen’s “unity” has gained “the
Ummah’s supplications on your behalf.”
Al Qaeda stressed the theme of “unity” when
HTS was announced and thereafter. HTS brought together Jabhat Fath al Sham
(formerly known as Al Nusrah) and four other groups. Multiple factions have
reportedly joined HTS in the weeks since.
For al Qaeda, “unity” serves multiple
purposes, including: strengthening the jihadists’ cause, masking the extent of
al Qaeda’s influence, making it more difficult for the West to isolate al Qaeda
for counterterrorism purposes and thwarting the Islamic State’s attempts to
earn the loyalty of more potential defectors. Therefore, it is especially
interesting that Ghaly invited a comparison between his own organization and
However, there are some key differences
between HTS and the newly formed “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims.”
For starters, the latter is openly loyal to Zawahiri, while HTS has attempted
to mask any organizational affiliations. The constituent groups in Ghaly’s
enterprise all had known, direct ties to al Qaeda’s network prior to their
merger earlier this month. But HTS’ signatories included organizations that
were not explicitly al Qaeda formations.
In some ways, HTS is following the model
set forth in the letter written by Droukdel that is discussed above. HTS is
focused on the jihad against Bashar al Assad’s regime and its ultimate goal is
to build an Islamic emirate in Syria. HTS has tried to distance itself, at
least rhetorically, from al Qaeda’s anti-Western brand. It is likely that other
al Qaeda actors in Syria still have an eye on the West — that is, “external”
operations. From al Qaeda’s perspective, it is crucial that these “two
missions,” as Droukdel described it, be seen as distinct. Otherwise, the
jihadists’ state building project will attract even more unwanted attention.
During his speech, Ghaly referred to a
Koranic text which tells Muslims to “hold fast, all together, by the rope which
Allah stretches out for you, and be not divided among yourselves.” Al Qaeda
uses this passage to stress its idea of “unity” in general, and also in the
face of the challenge posed by Baghdadi’s men.
Careful observers will note that Ghaly’s
“Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims” uses a flag that is very similar
to the Islamic State’s. The flag stood behind Ghaly as he spoke. It is also
used as part of the logo for Al Zaleqa Media, the propaganda arm that produced
But the flag is not the Islamic State’s
sole possession. Al Qaeda branches, such as AQAP, have regularly used a similar
And as Ghaly made clear, he and his men
remain in Ayman al Zawahiri’s camp.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of
Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.