Analysis: Al Qaeda central tightened control over hostage operations
Just last month, a spokesman for Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist suspected of executing the siege of a natural gas field in eastern Algeria, said that Belmokhtar continued to follow orders from al Qaeda central.
The Associated Press interviewed Oumar Ould Hamaha, "an associate" of Belmokhtar's, by phone. Hamaha, who has held leadership positions in each of the three main al Qaeda-linked groups that rule northern Mali, explained Belmokhtar's motivation for breaking away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to form his own splinter group. This same group, operating under the name of "Those who Sign with Blood," has claimed credit for the attack in Algeria.
"It's true," Hamaha explained. "It's so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the 'Maghreb' appellation. We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso."
The AP's report continued: "Hamaha said, however, that while he and Belmokhtar have left the North African branch, they remain under the orders of al Qaeda central."
Hamaha's admission is just the latest of several made by AQIM-affiliated terrorists. (Belmokhtar's and Hamaha's forces reportedly continue to fight alongside AQIM, despite apparent differences that have developed between the factions.)
More than two years ago, al Qaeda central decided to exercise more control over AQIM's hostage-taking operations.
In November 2010, Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, made a surprising claim in a video that was aired on Al Jazeera. Droukdel said that France would have to negotiate with Osama bin Laden himself to secure the release of several French hostages.
Droukdel said that "any form of negotiations on this issue in the future will be done with no one other than our Sheikh Osama bin Laden... and according to his terms," according to Agence France Presse.
If you "want safety for your citizens who are held captive by us," Droukdel continued, "then you have to hasten and take your soldiers out of Afghanistan according to a specific timetable that you announce officially."
Two months later, in January 2011, bin Laden released an audio message addressed to the French people. "President Nicolas Sarkozy's refusal to remove his forces from Afghanistan is nothing but a green light for killing the French hostages," bin Laden said, according to the Telegraph (UK). "But we will not do this at a timing that suits him."
According to a summary prepared by Reuters, France Info radio reported in September 2011 that bin Laden intended "to discredit President Nicolas Sarkozy and his security policy ahead of a presidential election...possibly by killing them."
Bin Laden "had issued written instructions to members of al Qaeda's north African offshoot, known as AQIM, on how to handle a group of hostages, including five French nationals, captured in Niger" in 2010.
French intelligence sources told France Info that authorities learned this from "documents found in bin Laden's residence in Abbottabad, Pakistan," where he was killed in May 2011.
More evidence of al Qaeda central's role in AQIM's kidnapping operations surfaced just last month.
On Dec. 25, Sahara Media reported on a video of Abu Zeid, an AQIM commander who has been heavily involved in the kidnappings, that the press outlet had obtained. In the video, Zeid responded to inquiries from the family members of some of the French hostages still in AQIM's custody.
Zeid said that the hostage file "was at first in the hands of the Al Qaeda mother in Afghanistan." But "when the file [was] returned to the hands of AQIM," the affiliate informed France it would negotiate. Zeid blamed the French government for not cooperating.
Some have argued that bin Laden was an isolated fanatic during his final days. But the fact pattern here, as with other evidence, shows that he was still involved in managing the terror network's operations just months before his death.
The outcome of al Qaeda central's power play is not entirely known. But this episode demonstrates that in the not-too-distant past, al Qaeda central was able to order AQIM to stand down in its hostage negotiations.
Given that Belmokhtar's spokesman admitted that he was operating "under the orders of al Qaeda central" just last month, we are left to wonder what role (if any) bin Laden's successor, Ayman al Zawahiri, has played in recent events.