7.10 Extremist groups in the Greater Middle East: Al Murabitoun

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Overview
Al Murabitoun was formed in 2013 through the merger of two Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter factions: the Al Mulathamun Battalion (the Masked Ones, also known as the Battalion of Those Who Sign in Blood) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA or MUJAO after its French acronym). These groups have carried out attacks in Algeria and the Sahel region of West Africa. The US State Department has described Al Murabitoun as “the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and international interests in the Sahel,” citing its “stated intent to attack Westerners and proven ability to organize complex attacks.”
Leadership
Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, an Algerian national who was previously a Sahel-based commander for AQIM, founded Al Murabitoun after publicly splitting from AQIM in 2012. Founding leaders of MUJWA, which was created in 2011 by AQIM Sahel-based figures who expressed an intention to focus on West Africa, include Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi.
Objectives
Bel Mokhtar has announced an intention to fight against Western interests, notably France.
Areas of Operation
Algeria
Bel Mokhtar claimed responsibility for a January 2013 attack near the town of In Amenas, in southeastern Algeria, that involved seizing control of a natural gas facility. Over 800 people were taken hostage, and 39 civilians were killed, including three U.S. citizens. The four-day siege ended with an Algerian military assault against the compound. MUJWA’s first known attack was the kidnapping of three humanitarian workers from the Western Sahara refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, in 2011.
Niger
Before the merger of Al Mulathamun and MUJWA, the two groups in May 2013 claimed joint responsibility for twin suicide bombings in northern Niger against a Niger military base and a French uranium mine. At least 20 people, including the attackers, were killed.
Mali
MUJWA asserted territorial control over parts of northern Mali in 2012, in coordination with AQIM and a third Islamist extremist group. MUJWA and Al Murabitoun members have been implicated in attacks against French forces in Mali.
Attacks against U.S. interests
As mentioned above, three U.S. citizens were killed in the In Amenas hostage-seizure attack in southeastern Algeria in January 2013; seven more escaped during the attack.
Size, Financing, and Capabilities
The U.S government has not released a detailed unclassified assessment of the group’s size and capabilities. Mokhtar bel Mokhtar and other leaders in the group have long been associated with kidnap-for-ransom, smuggling, and other criminal
fundraising activities. Al Murabitun may also receive funding and other support from other extremist groups.
Relationship with Al Qaeda and AQ Affiliates
Al Murabitoun is a splinter faction of AQIM, an Al Qaeda “affiliate.” In April 2014, Mokhtar bel Mokhtar swore allegiance to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri in the context of the split between Al Zawahiri and the Islamic State.
Source: US Congressional Research Service
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