The US government has added the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Tawhid [Unity] and Jihad in West Africa and two of its leaders to the list of global terrorists and entities. The Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO as it is commonly called, is an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb offshoot that controls territory in Mali and has been behind several terrorist attacks and kidnappings in West Africa. The group has named one of its units fighting in Mali after Osama bin Laden.
The Department of State said that the designation of MUJAO and two of its top leaders, Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi, who were also designated by the United Nations as terrorists, “demonstrates international resolve in eliminating MUJAO’s violent activities in Mali and the surrounding region.”
MUJAO formed in late 2011 as an offshoot from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, in order to wage jihad in western Africa. Although MUJAO leaders are purported to have leadership differences with the Algerian-dominated AQIM, MUJAO conducts joint operations with AQIM in northern Mali and other areas. At the time of its formation, MUJAO expressed affinity to al Qaeda and its founder, Osama bin Laden, and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
MUJAO “has been behind violent terrorist attacks and kidnappings in the region,” including suicide attacks and the abduction of aid workers in Algeria and Algerian diplomats in Mali, according to State.
State described Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi as “founding leaders” of MUJAO. Khairy, who was born in Mauritania and is a Malian citizen, served as “a member of AQIM, and was involved in planning terrorist operations against Mauritania in 2007.” Tilemsi, a Malian citizen, “acts as MUJAO’s military head” and was “also affiliated with AQIM.”
MUJAO is one of three major al Qaeda-linked groups that participated in last spring’s invasion of northern Mali. Along with AQIM and Ansar Dine, MUJAO took control of northern Mali after the Malian military overthrew the government in the south. MUJAO, AQIM, and Ansar Dine fought alongside the secular Tuaregs from the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to take control of northern Mali, but then quickly cast aside the MNLA and imposed sharia, or Islamic Law, in areas under their control.
Mali has become a new and dangerous front and safe haven for al Qaeda and its allies. Foreign jihadists from West African countries such as Togo, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal, and the Ivory Coast, as well as Egyptians, Algerians, and Pakistanis, are filling out the ranks of MUJAO, AQIM, and Ansar Dine. Additionally, at least two training camps have been established in Gao, the largest city in northern Mali [see Threat Matrix reports, West African jihadists flock to northern Mali, and Foreign jihadists continue to pour into Mali].
MUJAO currently controls the northern town of Gao and surrounding areas. At the end of November, MUJAO defeated an MNLA assault to regain control of Gao.
During the battle for Gao, MUJAO deployed its “Osama bin Laden Battalion” to defeat the MNLA forces. MUJAO’s Osama bin Laden Battalion teamed up with more than 300 fighters from AQIM’s El Moulethemine Battalion.
After MUJAO defeated the MNLA in Gao, a jihadist linked to MUJAO said that the group would not stop fighting after taking over northern Mali, but instead said its jihad was global.
“Expect soon the conquest of the Malian capital, Bamako, then of Rome, as our Messenger, Allah’s peace and prayer be upon him, promised us,” the jihadist said, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
Ahmed Ould Amer, the leader of the Osama bin Laden Battalion, warned that it would fight any international efforts to oust the jihadists from northern Mali.
“We will oppose the international threat against us by engaging in combat and jihad,” Amer said, according to Magharebia.com.