Key figures in al Qaeda's North African branch
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Unlike other al Qaeda affiliates, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has few media stars. But al Qaeda's western front is gaining in notoriety, making it imperative to understand who’s who in the terror group.
One of the most overlooked al Qaeda regional affiliates, al Qaeda’s North African branch shot into the international spotlight on January 16, 2013, when the group claimed responsibility for the deadly hostage-taking at Algeria’s remote In Amenas gas facility.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was officially launched in 2006. “Maghreb” is the Arabic term literally meaning “land of the sunset” or the West and refers to the Western-most outpost of the Arab world, a loosely defined region stretching across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and the remote transition belt between the Sahara desert and the African savannah called the Sahel.
A hostile, forbidding terrain that straddles national borders, the Sahel has historically been Africa’s badlands, affording shelter to smugglers, traffickers, insurgents and militants of various stripes.
The chronic political instability in impoverished West African nations such as Niger, Mali and Mauritania make it a militant haven. The region is sometimes described as having “a coup here, a coup there and cocaine and militants everywhere”.
Following the March 22, 2012, military coup in Mali - which precipitated the fall of northern Mali to a motley mix of militant groups - AQIM strengthened its presence in the West African nation. Months later, as Islamists began to push into central Malian towns, France responded to a call for assistance by the Malian government, launching a military operation on January 11, 2013.
Before the French military operation in Mali and the Algerian hostage-taking, AQIM was primarily known in international counter-terror circles as the group responsible for the kidnapping of mainly European nationals in the Sahel and the executions of British tourist Edwin Dyer and French aid worker Michel Germaneau.
AQIM though, was primarily considered a regional threat. But the deadly Algerian hostage-taking changed that.
So who are the men behind these attacks?
AQIM was born out of the remnants of Algerian Islamist groups that waged a bloody insurgency against the Algerian security services in the 1990s. The big move came in 2006 when the Algerian group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (known by its French acronym GSPC) officially declared its merger with al Qaeda to become the terror group’s North African affiliate.
Divided into “katibas” or brigades, AQIM is basically a clustered movement of different militant cells, many of them autonomously funded and run.
Here is a look at some key AQIM figures:
The ‘emir’: Abdelmalek Droukdel
Aliases: Abu Musab Abdul Wadoud
With his flowing dark beard and penetrating eyes beneath a securely tied turban, Droukdel is the best-known face of al Qaeda’s North African branch.
A university mathematics graduate, he shot into international fame following his July 2008 interview with The New York Times, which was accompanied by photographs of the AQIM chief wading through streams in the lush woodlands of eastern Algeria.
Born in 1970 in the northern Algerian town of Meftah, Droukdel is believed to have fought in the Afghan civil war as a young man. An explosives expert, he returned to his native Algeria where he joined the GSPC, a splinter of the Armed Islamic Group or GIA.
He shot into prominence following the March 2004 capture of one of the GSPC's top leaders, the charismatic Amari Saifi, also known as “El Para” since he had trained as an Algerian paratrooper.
According to The New York Times, following El Para’s capture, Droukdel contacted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, then leader of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, to enquire if Zarqawi could capture French citizens to trade for El Para’s release.
He played a critical role in merging the GSPC with al Qaeda to form AQIM.
Based in the AQIM’s so-called northern zone, Droukdel is the 'emir' or supreme leader of the group. But given the vast terrain of AQIM operations and the relative autonomy of various katibas, Droukdel’s operational control of the outfit is probably minimal.
The 'one-eyed one': Mokhtar Belmokhtar
Aliases: Khaled Abu al-Abbas, Laâouar ("one-eyed" in Arabic), Mr. Marlboro
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed Islamist believed to be one of the masterminds behind a brazen attack on an Algerian gas field in January 2013, was branded "the Uncatchable" – until March 3, 2013, when Chad’s President announced he had been killed in the mountainous far north of Mali. A Mauritanian news agency said he was killed in a French air strike.
But France has not confirmed his death and many analysts remain sceptical, noting that Belmokhtar has extensive knowledge of the terrain, which would have enabled him to flee northern Mali before the French offensive. Jihadist sites have also refuted reports that Belmokhtar was killed.
Born in 1972 in Ghardaia, Algeria, Belmokhtar is an alumnus of al Qaeda's Afghan training camps at Khalden and Jalalabad as well as a veteran of Algeria's jihadist violence during the 1990s.
In an interview published on a jihadist website, Belmokhtar said he went to Afghanistan in 1989 to train in the terror camps and get combat experience in the Afghan mujahideen conflict following the 1989 Soviet withdrawal.
He returned to his native Algeria in the mid-1990s, where he joined the GIA. Belmokhtar was one of the founders of the GSPC, when the group splintered from the GIA.
Nicknamed laâouar, or one-eyed, after he lost an eye handling explosives, Belmokhtar has been known to have extensive kidnapping and smuggling links, earning him the nickname “Mr. Marlboro”.
According to former UN envoy Robert Fowler, who was kidnapped and held hostage by Belmokhtar’s group for four months, the one-eyed militant was professional, business-like, not given to proselytizing speeches and respected by his men.
But Belmokhtar faced difficulty rising in official jihadist ranks. In 2003, he was passed over in the GSPC leadership struggle and when the group announced its allegiance with al Qaeda in September 2006, it was Droukdel who was declared the emir.
By some accounts, Belmokhtar ran into a similar tussle in late 2012, when Droukdel appointed Yahya Abou El Hammam [see profile below] as emir of the Katibat el Moulathamoune – or The Turbaned Ones in Arabic.
Following the reshuffle, Belmokhtar went on to form a new combat unit, al-Mouwakoune bi-Dimaa (“Those Who Sign with Blood”). The name of the new battalion is a reference to the GIA detachment responsible for the 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight.
On January 16, 2013, when Belmokhtar released a video claiming the Algerian gas plant attack was a response to the French military operation in Mali, it caused considerable confusion in some media reports over whether Belmokhtar’s combat unit was a part of The Turbaned Ones. Some reports even questioned the group’s al Qaeda links.
In reality, the links between different katibas and units are often loose and based on personal ties forged between militants.
There is little doubt though that the various units view themselves as regional arms of al Qaeda central command. Some of the documents retrieved by US Navy Seals at the Abbottabad house where Osama bin Laden was killed revealed extensive correspondence between AQIM and al Qaeda central command leaders.
The ‘hardliner’: Abdelhamid Abou Zeid
Aliases: Abid Hammadou
Leader of “Tareq Ibn Ziayd” or “El Fatihine” katiba
One of the most dreaded leaders of al Qaeda’s North African branch, Algerian national Abou Zeid was killed in a French military operation in the remote Ifoghas Mountains of northern Mali in February 2013.
His killing marked a milestone in the French military operation in Mali, which was launched in January 2013 after Malian authorities issued a call for intervention following a southward advance by Islamist militants who had seized northern Mali.
Abou Zeid’s death was first reported by an Algerian TV station. But it was not until March 23, 2013, following DNA tests, that French President François Hollande confirmed his death.
Before his death, Abou Zeid headed the “Tareq Ibn Ziayd” or “El Fatihine” katiba, one of the most radical AQIM branches responsible for the execution of British tourist Edwin Dyer in 2009 and French aid worker Michel Germaneau in July 2010.
His group is believed to be behind the 2010 abduction of five French nuclear and construction workers in northern Niger.
In an interview with the French weekly magazine Jeune Afrique, Pierre Camatte, a former hostage, described Abou Zeid as a “tiny, rickety man with a goatee in his ‘50s”.
Camatte was released in February 2010 after three months of detention. But Abou Zeid’s other captives have not been as lucky.
Born in the Algerian town of Touggourt, located about 600 km south of Algiers in the Algerian Sahara, he was a member of FIS, the Algerian Islamic party that was denied an election victory in the early 1990s, triggering the brutal Algerian civil war.
He later joined the GSPC where he served under Mokhtar Belmokthar before rising up the insurgent ranks.
Experts say that Abou Zeid, unlike Droukdel, was not very well-educated and did not speak the erudite Arabic of many respected al Qaeda figures. But what made him more dangerous, according to French counter-terror experts, was his ambition and his need to distinguish himself to al Qaeda central command leaders in Pakistan.
The new commander: Djamal Okacha
Alias: Yahia Abou el Hammam
An Algerian national, Djamal Okacha was born in the northern Algerian town of Reghaia and is a close associate of Droukdel. While his real name is Djamal Okacha, he’s better known in jihadist circles by his nom de guerre, Yahia Abou el Hammam.
Believed to be in his mid-30s, Okacha is part of a younger generation of senior AQIM figures. Unlike Belmokhtar, he was not trained in the Afghan jihadist camps, nor was he a member of the GIA. But that has not stopped his meteoric rise to AQIM’s top ranks.
In March 2013, he was named as the replacement for Abou Zeid, who was killed in a French military operation in northern Mali, according to Algerian media reports citing Algerian security sources.
Before this appointment, Okacha served as Abou Zeid’s deputy, during which time he proved to be an able commander and administrator. He is also believed to have excellent knowledge of the southern stretches of the Sahel around northern Mali – a factor that analysts believe led to his promotion as Abou Zeid’s replacement. According to some analysts, Okacha has good religious training and served as a qadi (judge) in the old GSPC.
During the 1990s civil war, Okacha served 18 months in an Algerian prison. Following his release, he joined the GSPC and by the time the group merged with al Qaeda, Hammam had climbed up the ranks, becoming Abou Zeid’s deputy.
As Abou Zeid’s number two, he is believed to have conducted Germaneau’s execution, a killing that sent shock waves across France.
According to Algerian security sources, Okacha was involved in the 2005 attack against the Lemgheity military barracks in Mauritania, which killed 17 Mauritanian soldiers. The attack – which occurred before AQIM was founded – marked a turning point for the GSPC since it was the first assault outside Algerian territory. He is also suspected of involvement in the 2009 killing of US aid worker Christopher Leggett, who was shot dead near an English and computer school he was heading in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott.
Following the March 2012 military coup in Mali, Mauritanian news organizations reported that Okacha was operating around the northern Malian city of Timbuktu.
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