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Al Murabitoun

FormedAugust 2013
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackNovember 2013: Al Murabitoun used an IED to attack a Malian army vehicle near Asongo and Menaka, Mali (4 killed, unknown wounded). [1]
Last AttackNovember 11, 2015: Al Murabitoun and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters opened fire in the Raddison Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali and took 170 people hostage, most of whom were rescued later in the day (22 killed, 2 wounded). [2]
UpdatedAugust 8, 2016

Narrative Summary

Al Murabitoun, or the Sentinels, was a Salafi-Jihadist militant organization formed through a merger of the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade with the Mouvement pour l’Unification et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO).  Al Murabitoun’s name refers to the Almoravid reign of North African history, whose leadership focused on the search for Muslim unity and the fight against external enemies. [3] The militant group aimed to establish Shariah law in North Africa and to unite jihadist groups from the Nile to the Atlantic in order to secure the freedom of those in northern Mali who had been “oppressed” by the injustices and modern imperialism of the French government in the region. [4]  Many of Al Murabitoun’s fighters were former members of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), MUJAO and the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade, but others were recruited from all across North and West Africa in Algeria, Mauritania, Tunisia, Mali and Niger. [5]  

The merger was announced by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade, but the announcement did not provide the identity of the new group’s leader in the statement; both Belmokhtar and Ahmed el-Tilemsi, the MUJAO leader at the time of the merger, refused the position of Emir.  [6] French authorities later identified the leader as an Egyptian named Abu Bakr al-Nasri, who was somewhat unknown in the Sahel jihadi arena, but allegedly had a special relationship with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda (AQ). [7] Reportedly, this relationship was the reason that Nasri was chosen to lead Al Murabitoun, as Al Murabitoun sought an alliance with AQ. [8] [9] Al Murabitoun maintained an ideology similar to AQIM and pledged allegiance to AQ; however, AQ never recognized the group as a formal affiliate. [10] [11]  The U.S. State Department released a statement in December of 2013 that claimed Al Murabitoun constituted the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests in the Sahel. [12]

Al Murabitoun became notorious for its violent attacks in Mali.  The group first received media attention when it kidnapped five Red Cross workers from a car in Tabancourt, Mali on February 8, 2014.  The attack was part of a larger campaign in Mali against the Malian military and western civilians in February of 2014. [13] [14] Al Murabitoun targeted the Malian and French militaries in attacks that continued through the spring and summer. In April 2014, Nasri was killed by French special forces in northeastern Mali. [15] [16]  

Although Al Murabitoun was forced to deal with the death of several of its prominent leaders, the group continued operations.  Nasri was replaced by Tilemsi, who was killed shortly thereafter by the French military during a special operations raid in Gao, Mali on December 11, 2014. [17] [18] [19]  Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi, who purportedly led the MUJAO forces in Al Murabitoun, became Emir after Tilemsi’s death.  Allegedly, Belmokhtar and his fighters viewed Sahrawi’s leadership as illegitimate because they believed him to be inexperienced and lacking in strategic and ideological knowledge. [20]  Nevertheless, under new leadership, Al Murabitoun made international headlines on March 7, 2015 when it attacked La Terasse Nightclub in Bamako, Mali with grenades and guns to avenge Tilemsi’s death. [21]

Tensions within the group began to rise as Sahrawi grew increasingly close to the ideology of Islamic State (IS), while Belmokhtar was in the process of making peace with AQIM leadership, negotiating to unify the groups. [22] Conflict within Al Murabitoun intensified when, in May 2015, Sahrawi released a message swearing Al Murabitoun’s allegiance to IS.  Shortly after, Belmokhtar released a public statement that explained that Sahrawi spoke on behalf of himself, not Al Murabitoun forces, which remained loyal to Al Qaeda.  There are no reports that IS accepted Sahrawi’s pledge. [23]  [24] [25]

After his pledge to IS, Sahrawi was removed as Emir and in August 2015, Belmokhtar became Emir of Al Murabitoun and worked to strengthen the group’s ties with AQIM.  On November 11, Al Murabitoun coordinated an attack with AQIM on the Raddison Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali. The groups opened fire on civilians and took 170 people hostage, who were rescued later in the day.  The groups attacked the hotel in response to the Malian government’s alleged aggression towards Al Murabitoun militants in northern Mali. [26] [27] The hotel attack cemented the relationship between Al Murabitoun and AQIM, and on December 4, 2015, AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel announced that Al Murabitoun would merge into AQIM.  Al Murabitoun released statements that the unification was meant to maintain unity against the “occupying Crusader enemy.” [28] [29]

Since its merger with Al Murabitoun, AQIM has intensified its efforts in Mali, increased its number of terrorist attacks, moved some of its operations into the Sahel region of the African continent and carried out large-scale attacks against Western-affiliated institutions. [30]

Leadership

  1. Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi (Unknown to August 2015): Sahrawi was a leader of Mouvement pour l’Unification et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO) and rumored to be the Emir of Al Murabitoun for a brief time.  In May 2015, Sahrawi released a message swearing Al Murabitoun’s allegiance to Islamic State, causing a rift between the MUJAO and the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade forces involved in Al Murabitoun.  Belmokhtar explained that Sahrawi spoke on part of himself, not Al Murabitoun or its MUJAO faction as organizations. Though he was replaced as Emir afterwards, Sahrawi’s involvement and role in Al Murabitoun became unclear after the incident. [31]
  2. Ahmed el-Tilemsi (October 2011 to December 2014): Tilemsi, whose legal name is Ahmed Ould Amer, was a founding member of the Mouvement pour l’Unification et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO), which merged with the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade to form Al Murabitoun.  Previously, he was a commander in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and was well known for his operations in kidnapping and ransom collection. He served as Emir for the group from April 2014 to December 2014. Tilemsi was designated by the U.S. State Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and was added to the United Nations Security Council Al Qaeda sanctions list in December 2012 and February 2013, respectively. The Mali national was killed by the French military during a special operations raid in Gao, Mali on December 11, 2014. [32]
  3. Mokhtar Belmokhtar (December 2012 to December 2015): Belmokhtar trained in Afghan Al Qaeda training camps in the 1990s, at which time he lost an eye handling explosives, earning him the nickname “The One Eyed.” Prior to founding the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade, which later merged with the Mouvement pour l’Unification et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO) to form Al Murabitoun, Belmokhtar fought in the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA), and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) which later became Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Belmokhtar, also known as Mr. Marlboro for his activities in the cigarette and diamond smuggling trades, split from AQIM in 2012 due to disagreements with other top leaders and formed the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade. His role within Al Murabitoun was unclear, though he allegedly became Emir and facilitated the group’s merger with AQIM in December 2015. The Libyan government claims that a U.S. airstrike killed Belmokhtar in Libya on June 14, 2015; however, given a lack of forensics proof, it is debated whether or not Belmokhtar is actually dead. [33]
  4. Abu Bakr al-Nasri (August 2013 to April 2014): Nasri was an Egyptian national who served as the first Emir of Al Murabitoun. While some analysts argue that Nasri was essentially an unknown in the Sahel jihadi arena, he was purportedly a weapons expert and had fought in Libya and Afghanistan, where he allegedly formed a special relationship with Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda (AQ). He was killed by French Special Forces in north eastern Mali in April 2014. [34]

Ideology & Goals

Al Murabitoun was a Salfi-Jihadist militant organization that aimed to establish Shariah law in North Africa and unite the jihadist groups operating in the region.  Al Murabitoun’s name refers to the Almoravid reign of North African history, whose leadership focused on the search for Muslim unity and the fight against external enemies. [35] Al Murabitoun wanted to secure the freedom of those in northern Mali who have been “oppressed” by the injustices and modern imperialism of the French government in the region. [36] Additionally, Al Murabitoun aimed to unite Muslims and Islamic movements against secular influences and carried out attacks against western citizens and institutions. Al Murabitoun’s ideology and goals were similar to those of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. [37]

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Resources

Al Murabitoun funded itself through kidnapping ransoms, criminal activities, and participation in regional drug, cigarette, and arms smuggling networks.  It is also likely that the group received funding from other terrorist organizations. [39] [40] [41] Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as “Mr. Marlboro” for his involvement in the cigarette smuggling trade, built lucrative smuggling routes all throughout the Sahel in the early 2000s.  He was allegedly able to do so by capitalizing on his family ties to the local tribes in Mali, formed through his marriages to four women from Malian Arab and Tuareg communities. [42] [43] 

Geographical Locations

Al Murabitoun primarily operated in Mali.  It carried out attacks in Asongo, Menaka, Kidal, Tabancourt, Bamako, and Sevare in Mali, as well as Tambao in Burkina Faso. [44] [45] [46]

Targets & Tactics

Al Murabitoun primarily targeted the Malian military, civilians associated with the West, such as UN Peacekeepers and Red Cross workers, and the citizens and military forces of nations who assisted in the French military intervention in Mali in January 2013.  Al Murabitoun conducted car bombings, arms attacks, and kidnappings. [47] [48] [49] [50] [51] 

Major Attacks

  1. November 2013: Al Murabitoun used an IED to attack a Malian army vehicle near Asongo and Menaka, Mali (4 killed, unknown wounded).[52]
  2. November 2013: Al Murabitoun detonated explosives on a vehicle near French military targets in Almostarat, Mali (2 killed, 7 wounded).[53]
  3. December 14, 2013: Al Murabitoun bombed the Bank of Solidarity in Kidal, Mali, using a car saddled with explosives, killing UN peacekeepers, MINUSMA troops and Malian soldiers (3 killed, 7+ wounded).[54]
  4. February 8, 2014: Al Murabitoun kidnapped five Red Cross workers from a car in Tabancourt, Mali; the hostages were not rescued until April.  This was part of a larger campaign of attacks in February against military and civilian targets (0 killed, 2 wounded).[55]
  5. January 26, 2015: Al Murabitoun attempted to assassinate a Malian military officer, General Mohamed Abderrahmane Ould Meydou in Bamako, Mali (0 killed, 1 wounded).[56]
  6. March 7, 2015: Al Murabitoun attacked La Terasse Nightclub in Bamako, Mali with grenades and guns to avenge Ahmed Telemsi’s death (5 killed, 8+ wounded).[57]
  7. April 4, 2015: Al Murabitoun fighters opened fire on a manganese mine in Tambao, Burkina Faso and took a Romanian security guard hostage.  His whereabouts are still unknown (unknown killed, 2 wounded).[58]
  8. April 15, 2015: A suicide bomber from Al Murabitoun detonated a car full of explosives at a United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) camp in Ansongo, Mali, injuring civilians and 9 Nigerien peacekeepers (4 killed, 16 wounded).[59]
  9. August 7, 2015: Militants from Al Murabitoun occupied the Byblos Hotel in Sevare, Mali, taking hostages, who were later released when Malian security forces counter attacked (13+ killed, 2 wounded).[60]
  10. November 11, 2015: Al Murabitoun and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters opened fire in the Raddison Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali and took 170 people hostage, who were rescued later in the day, and demanded the return of detainees held in France (22 killed, 2 wounded).[61]

Relationships with Other Groups

Al Murabitoun was formed as a merger between the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade and the Mouvement pour l’Unification et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO), both of which were splinter groups of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  Al Murabitoun’s ideological goals were similar to those of AQIM, and the group pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda (AQ), although the extent of its ties to AQ is unclear, as AQ never recognized the group as a formal affiliate. [62] After Al Murabitoun’s last Emir, Mokhtar Belomkhtar, opened negotiations to merge the AQIM with Al Murabitoun groups, the two groups coordinated an attack with AQIM on the Raddison Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali on November 11, 2015. [63] [64] [65] On December 4, 2015 Abdelmalek Droukdel, the leader of AQIM, announced that Al Murabitoun had merged with AQIM.  Al Murabitoun released statements that the unification was meant to maintain unity against the “occupying Crusader enemy.” [66] [67]

In May 2015, Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi released a message swearing Al Murabitoun’s allegiance to Islamic State without consulting the Emir at the time, Belmokhtar.  Shortly after, Belmokhtar released a public statement that explained that Sahrawi spoke on behalf of himself, not Al Murabitoun forces, which remained loyal to Al Qaeda.  There are no reports that IS accepted Sahrawi’s pledge. [68] [69] [70] 

Community Relationships

Al Murabitoun leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, also known as “Mr. Marlboro” for his illegal cigarette business, built lucrative smuggling routes all throughout the Sahel in the early 2000s.  This was made possible by of his family ties to the local tribes in Mali, allegedly formed through his marriages to four women from local Arab and Tuareg communities. [71] [72] 


References

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