Confusion surrounds West African jihadists’ loyalty to Islamic State

Sahrawi-Baghdadi

Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi.

Yesterday, Al Akhbar published a report saying that the leader of Al Murabitoon had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State and its emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The news agency posted a short audio clip of a jihadist known as Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi calling on all other jihadist groups to join him in the Islamic State’s ranks.

The purported audio clip of Sahrawi caused some initial confusion, as he seemingly spoke on behalf of all of Al Murabitoon. That is probably not the case.

“In obedience to the command of Allah…Jama’at al-Murabiteen declares its pledge of allegiance to the Emir of the Believers and the Caliph of the Muslims, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi,” Sahrawi says, according to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group.

Al Murabitoon was established in August 2013, when Mokhtar Belmokhtar united his group, the al Mulathameen Brigade, with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Belmokhtar, who has been loyal to al Qaeda’s senior leadership, had earlier broken away from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to command his own operation. Belmokhtar had longstanding disagreements with AQIM’s emir, Abdulmalek Droukdel, and other leaders.

Belmokhtar is notorious for attacks such as the January 2013 siege of the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria. Dozens were killed in the assault.

Some press accounts implied that Sahrawi was swearing allegiance to Baghdadi on behalf of Belmokhtar and his men, in addition to MUJAO’s forces. However, assuming the audio speech is genuine, Sahrawi was almost certainly not speaking for the entire group. One well-connected jihadist on Twitter quickly clarified that Sahrawi’s pledge of fealty was on behalf of himself and MUJAO, not Belmokhtar.

Indeed, a defection by Belmokhtar to the Islamic State would be surprising. He has consistently declared his loyalty to Ayman al Zawahiri and al Qaeda. The Islamic State made a big push to win the allegiance of various al Qaeda groups around the globe in 2014. Most of the established jihadist leaders, including Belmokhtar, rejected the gambit. Belmokhtar made it clear that Zawahiri was his “emir” and that he would not be jumping ship. And Belmokhtar also claimed responsibility for the In Amenas attack on behalf of al Qaeda.

Documents recovered in Mali, and first published by the Associated Press, reveal that Belmokhtar sought to establish his own line of communication with al Qaeda’s senior leadership in South Asia. One of the documents references a jihadist named Abu Bakr al Muhajir, who was sent by al Qaeda’s management team to West Africa to help settle the leadership disputes between Belmokhtar and AQIM.

One letter, dated October 3, 2012, is from AQIM’s shura council to Belmokhtar. In it, AQIM’s leadership quotes from and then answers, point by point, a previous communication authored by Belmokhtar.

Belmokhtar described Abu Bakr al Muhajir as being an al Qaeda leader from the “secondary ranks.”

“With all respect and appreciation for our brother Abu Bakr al Muhajir,” AQIM’s shura council responded to Belmokhtar, “we received no confirmation from the central leadership that it was sending the dear brother to us.” The council continued: “Regardless of whether he is second-tier leadership or not, he shouldn’t be thrust into a conflict and dispute that he has no stake in.”

Despite the concerns expressed by AQIM’s shura council, Abu Bakr al Muhajir, also known as Abu Bakr al Masri (“the Egyptian”), did intervene in their quarrel with Belmokhtar.

Both MUJAO and Belmokhtar agreed to allow another unnamed jihadist veteran, who had reportedly fought in Afghanistan against both the Soviets and the Americans, to become Al Murabitoon’s leader after they united in 2013. That jihadist was later identified as the same man identified in the AQIM documents as having been sent by al Qaeda’s senior leaders: Abu Bakr al Muhajir (al Masri). It is safe to assume he made it clear that he was speaking on behalf of al Qaeda’s “central leadership.”

However, French forces killed Abu Bakr in April 2014. It does not appear that Al Murabitoon publicly named his successor.

The report in Al Akhbar identified Sahrawi as the overall leader of Al Murabitoon, but this is likely not the case. He may only command MUJAO, or part of MUJAO’s forces. Indeed, the subsequent commentary by jihadists online suggests this is case.

In any event, the message attributed to Sahrawi could solicit a response from Belmokhtar or Al Murabitoon’s other leaders. Such messages will help reveal the extent of the Islamic State’s sway within the group.

Thus far, the only message from Sahrawi is a short audio speech. The Islamic State has not yet issued a statement celebrating the relationship.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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1 Comment

  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi isn’t an Emir, he’s a self-styled Caliph.

    An Emir is equal to a Prince in Europe, a Sultan is equal to a King, a Sheikh is loosely equal to a Commander, while a Caliph is equal to an Emperor.

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