French troops kill MUJAO founder during raid in Mali

Map of al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and Niger for 2014. Map made by Caleb Weiss for The Long War Journal.

The French military killed Ahmed el Tilemsi, the co-founder of the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Tawhid [Unity] and Jihad in West Africa, or MUJAO, during a special operations raid in Gao in northern Mali today. Tilemsi, who was a senior leader in al-Murabitoon, was one of two leaders of the group who were listed by the US government as Specially Designated Global Terrorists in December 2012.

Gilles Jaron, a French Army spokesman, said that a dozen terrorists, including Tilemsi, were “neutralized,” a euphemism for killed, in a midnight raid.

“Following an intelligence opportunity,” Gilles said, “French forces led an operation in the Gao region in coordination with the Malian authorities.”

The raid that killed Tilemsi comes a day after French hostage Serge Lazarevic was freed from captivity. Lazarevic was kidnapped in Mali in 2011 by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). He was taken along with another French national, Philippe Verdon, who was killed last year by AQIM. Lazerevic and Dutch hostage Sjaak Rijke were featured in an AQIM video released last month. [For more information on the video, see LWJ report Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb video features French, Dutch hostages.]

Al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups have remained active in northern Mali and Niger over the past year despite losing overt control of the region after a French offensive in 2013. At least 28 attacks have occurred this year, with 13 occurring since Oct. 3 [see map above].

Tilemsi founded MUJAO, merged with Belmokhtar’s brigade

MUJAO was founded by Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi 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. While MUJAO was created partly as the result of a leadership dispute with AQIM, the two groups cooperated during the jihadist takeover of northern Mali in March 2012. 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.

Tilemsi, a Malian citizen who had previously served as MUJAO’s military emir, and Khairy, a Mauritanian citizen who was the group’s top sharia or Islamic law official, were listed as Specially Designated Global Terrorists by the US government on Dec. 7, 2012. MUJAO was listed as a terrorist group that same day. The US stated that Tilemsi was responsible for the kidnapping and deaths of aid works in Algeria and a French national in Niger in 2011, and offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture and prosecution.

Tilemsi is said to have led the Osama bin Laden Battalion, one of four units in the Ansar al Sunnah Brigade that was formed by MUJAO in late 2012 or early 2013. [See LWJ report, West African jihadist group forms 4 ‘battalions,’ names 3 after al Qaeda leaders.]

In August 2013, MUJAO merged with the al-Mulathameen Brigade, which was led by veteran jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar, and formed al-Murabitoon. Tilemsi and Belmokhtar ceded leadership to an unnamed jihadist commander who is said to have waged jihad in Afghanistan. Al-Murabitoon then swore allegiance to al Qaeda. [See Threat Matrix report, Al Qaeda group led by Belmokhtar, MUJAO unite to form al-Murabitoon.]

The merger of the two jihadist groups was telegraphed in the spring of 2013. MUJAO conducted a joint suicide operation with the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade (the al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam, a sub-unit of Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathameen Brigade) in Niger in late May 2012. The attacks targeted a military barracks in Agadez and a uranium mine in Arlit that supplies French reactors. The Agadez attack was executed by a five-man suicide assault team; 18 Nigerien soldiers and a civilian were killed. Belmokhtar said the attacks were carried out to avenge the death of Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander killed by French forces in northern Mali.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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