Following the dramatic hostage raid at the In Amenas gas field in Algeria that left at least 66 dead, there has been a notable groundswell of interest in Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who claimed responsibility as the mastermind of the raid. Following the Algerian prime minister’s revelation that at least one Canadian took part in the hostage taking team in a co-ordination role, interest in Canada is sure to grow. To better understand Mr. Belmokhtar, one much misunderstood aspect of his recent past is worth paying closer attention to: his split from al-Qaeda’s North African affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), last year.
The fact that Mr. Belmokhtar was once part of AQIM, and subsequently left, has been used by a number of commentators to advance two major arguments: First, that Mr. Belmokhtar was in fact only a common criminal, and not a dedicated jihadist; and second, that Mr. Belmokhtar was no longer “al Qaeda-linked.”
Both of these points have massively oversold or misinterpreted the available evidence; and most critically, they ignore Mr. Belmokhtar’s own explanation, provided in December, of the purpose of his new unit, al-Muwaqqi’un bil-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”).
The notion that Mr. Belmokhtar was only a common criminal has long been popular – and indeed, nobody questions his deep involvement in a highly profitable regional smuggling network. Nonetheless, there has always been reason to question the idea that he is motivated only by criminality. More than a year ago, Andrew Lebovich, a Dakar-based analyst who has provided some of the most perceptive insights into recent events in Mali and Algeria, wrote a long entry examining an Arabic-language interview that Mr. Belmokhtar had given.
Mr. Lebovich concluded that Mr. Belmokhtar’s interview provided evidence that undercut the notion that he was nothing more than a criminal. It demonstrated that Mr. Belmokhtar made “at least a rhetorical commitment to al-Qaeda and the tenets of global jihad.” Though there are questions about how much credence we should give to militants’ explanations of their own motives, Mr. Lebovich details Mr. Belmokhtar’s history of prolonged involvement in jihadist militancy, harkening back to his time in Afghanistan in the early 1990s and continuing thereafter. Thus, Mr. Lebovich writes that “we cannot dismiss the possibility that Belmokhtar really does mean what he says.”
Yet Mr. Belmokhtar split from AQIM the following year, and many observers have inferred from the split a repudiation of whatever jihadist sentiments he may have once held. But just as his November, 2011, interview was noteworthy, so too would it be a mistake to ignore what Mr. Belmokhtar had to say when he left AQIM for al-Muwaqqi’un bil-Dima.
He announced this new unit (which he described as a “guerilla battalion”) in a December video entitled “Our Sharia: Loyalty and Steadfastness Until Victory.” The video is indelibly jihadist in tone, beginning with religious proclamations and touching upon such themes as the battle between Islam and disbelief, the need for the implementation of Islamic law, and Azawad (the breakaway area in northern Mali) being an “Islamic project.”
Indeed, Mr. Belmokhtar praises Azawad as achieving “that which could not be attained for decades” in mere months. Specifically, he praises its implementation of sharia law, including how it has led to “feeding the poor, creating justice between Muslims, and granting everyone their rights without discrimination.” The Washington Post, among others, has reported about the brutal imposition of religious law in these areas.
But Mr. Belmokhtar warned that Azawad faced a threat from “the Crusader Western nations, especially France.” He warned against any military moves against Azawad in words that should be seen as a dark foreshadowing of the Algerian hostage raid. “It is our promise to you that we will fight you in your own homes, you will experience the heat of wounds in your own countries, and we will threaten your interests,” he said. The best current information suggests that the Algerian hostage raid had been planned in advance, and Mr. Belmokhtar almost certainly had it in mind when he spoke those words.
There is also, in the video, some foreshadowing of the tactics Mr. Belmokhtar’s men would adopt at In Amenas, where they “deliberately separated the Algerian workers from the expatriates, reportedly telling Algerian workers that they were not targeted in the assault.” Specifically, Mr. Belmokhtar distinguishes the Algerian people from the regime, recognizing that the Algerians themselves did not want “to be governed by those with foreign approaches and laws that were imposed upon us from abroad.”
After explaining the situation in this way, Mr. Belmokhtar announced the formation of al-Muwaqqi’un bil-Dima. This framing shows that the “battalion” was created precisely for the purposes we saw at In Amenas: to “be our shield in repelling you and responding to your aggression.”
He closed the video by offering “a greeting of love and loyalty” to the ummah’s steadfast heroes, including the Taliban’s Mullah Muhammad Omar and al-Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. Notably, Mr. Belmokhtar refers to the latter as “our role model and persevering emir.” This language – the designation of Zawahiri as his emir – possesses definitive significance for those who have been part of al-Qaeda.
Indeed, those close to Mr. Belmokhtar have explained that his split with AQIM did not interrupt his loyalty to al-Qaeda’s senior leadership. Oumar Ould Hamaha, a Belmokhtar associate, told the Associated Press that even Mr. Belmokhtar “remained under the orders of al Qaeda central.” Security-affairs specialist Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Aboulmaali said in an interview with Al Jazeera that when Mr. Belmokhtar split with AQIM, he also “confirmed his allegiance to the main al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan under the leadership of Ayman al Zawahiri.”
All of which goes to show that reading a good chunk of the press reporting on Mr. Belmokhtar’s split from AQIM would leave one with not only a misleading impression of what Mr. Belmokhtar’s split signified, but in many cases an impression that is the exact opposite of his own explanation.
It is, of course, possible that Mr. Belmokhtar simply has not meant any of the explanations he has given for his actions stretching back for several years. But analysts should at least acknowledge what Mr. Belmokhtar has said – and not glibly assume that his split from AQIM means something very different from what his own words suggest.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a Ph.D. candidate in world politics at the Catholic University of America. He is the author or volume editor of eleven books and monographs, most recentlyBin Laden’s Legacy(Wiley, 2011).