In Mali, Algeria and now Burkina Faso, Mokhtar Belmokhtar has made a habit of wreaking havoc upon the lives of Canadians and other Westerners. This has been a constant in the fugitive's life, despite his off-again, on-again relationship with al-Qaeda. And, as ever, he is abetted by a backdrop of weak or failing states, unpatrollable borders, as well as a dynamic where fanatics one-up each other with attacks that shock the conscience.
It was in 2009 when Mr. Belmokhtar's then-al-Qaeda-linked fighting faction first gained notoriety in the North America, by ransoming off two Canadian diplomats who had been abducted in Niger, close to the border with Mali. In 2013, as head of a newly independent splinter group, he lured two Canadian jihadis from Ontario into his fold and used them as part of a team of 30 suicide commandos who killed 39 foreign hostages at an Algerian gas plant.
Last week, three years less a day after the Algerian hostage crisis started, Mr. Belmokhtar's latest fighting faction killed at least 28 people in Burkina Faso – including six Quebeckers. This time, the carnage was again perpetrated in the name of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
This is, at least, according to a claim of responsibility by the AQIM subgroup Al-Mourabitoun, which roughly translates as "the sentinels" and which is part of a shifting constellation of jihadi alliances in West Africa. It formed a few years ago in a merger between Mr. Belmokhtar's splinter group and another faction that had also broken away from AQIM. But in December the parent organization announced it had reabsorbed both.
What's in a name? In the world of jihadi terrorism, branding counts. Bloody attacks that are atrocious to outsiders may only serve to galvanize extremists and draw recruits, funds and followers.
And because there is no shortage of such bloodletting these days, jihadis have to figure out which one of two feuding global groups they want to join. On one side, is the now-borderless al-Qaeda brand that Osama bin Laden started in Afghanistan during the 1980s Soviet occupation. On the other, stands Islamic State that self-described caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi claims to have carved out of Syria and Iraq.
In Syria, factions aligned with al-Qaeda and Islamic State are now shooting at each other about as often as they shoot at government forces, as the battle for turf becomes a free-for-all. But there are growing echos of this fight elsewhere, including across Africa.
For example, Somalia's al-Shabab group has lately seen infighting and purges related to the question of whether its members should stick with their long-standing al-Qaeda affiliation or join IS. In Nigeria, the powerful Boko Haram group recently announced it wants to be known as "Islamic State's West African province."
Observers say this puts a pressure on al-Qaeda – whose core leaders are deep in hiding – and its more operational regional franchises.
By readmitting violent groups such as Al-Mourabitoun, AQIM may be serving notice to jihadis and Westerners alike it is out to regain lost ground. Back in 2012, AQIM had started to lay claim to swaths of northern Mali, imposing the kinds of harsh religious law that builds legitimacy in the eyes of extremists. Yet that only invited a French military response that routed the jihadis.
In recent months, however, AQIM and its affiliates have been making noise about striking back at lingering French troops, United Nations aid workers and whatever Westerners they can hit, wherever they can hit them.
In November, as an independent entity , Al-Mourabitoun made its name for itself last fall by killing 27 people at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Mali's capital, Bamako. Now back in the AQIM fold, it has made a claim of responsibility for perpetrating a nearly identical assault against a similar soft target in a directly neighbouring country – Burkina Faso's Splendid Hotel.
It remains unclear whether Mr. Belmokhtar planned or participated in this latest attack. He was rumoured killed a few months ago, just as he has often been rumoured killed in the past. It may not matter much – jihadi turf wars have a habit of outliving even their most notorious proponents.
What's in a name?
- Al-Qaeda: Literally, it means “the base.” This terror group was formed in Afghanistan in the 1980s and was routed from the region after its Sept. 11, 2001, attacks provoked a U.S. military response. A rump of “core” al-Qaeda figures remain in the region, but its operational capability resides in its far-flung franchises, including in Yemen (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula); in West Africa (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb); and in the Horn of Africa (al-Shabab). The Syrian fighting force is known as the Nusra Front.
- Al-Mourabitoun: Formed during the 2013 French military response to a jihadi takeover of northern Mali, this group brought together two AQIM splinter groups – Mr. Belmokhtar’s “Those Who Sign in Blood Battalion” and also “the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa.” The merged group has recently claimed responsibility for recent hotel attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso, and, in December, AQIM claimed it had reabsorbed these splinters.
- AQIM: Spun out of the jihadi insurgents who fought during the 1990s Algerian civil war, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has existed as an al-Qaeda franchise based in desert borderlands since 2007.
- Mokhtar Belmokhtar: A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, the elusive one-eyed Algerian terrorist made a name for himself as a leader of desert bandits out to kidnap and kill Westerners, and as a man who routinely cheats death. A few years ago, he broke with AQIM after its leaders criticized him for not being violent enough. Groups he has founded since then have gone on to kills scores of people, mostly foreigners, in Algeria, Mali and, now, Burkina Faso.
- Boko Haram/ ISWAP: This northern Nigerian militant group first made a name for itself by opposing Western education and for abducting hundreds of schoolgirls in a notorious 2014 raid. Lately it has been behind increasingly bloody attacks in Nigeria and neighbouring countries, such as Cameroon. In the spring of 2015, some Boko Haram leaders announced they are now calling themselves the Islamic State’s West African Province (ISWAP).
- Islamic State: Based in a self-described caliphate carved out of Syria and Iraq in 2014, IS has bigger aspirations. It is setting up affiliates across Africa and the Middle East in hopes of gaining more ground. The roots of IS trace back a decade ago, when it was the al-Qaeda in Iraq franchise. It splintered off after the U.S. military nearly destroyed it and after al-Qaeda leaders rebuked its leadership for being too wantonly bloody.