Report: Head of the Islamic State’s Sahara branch threatens Morocco

Sahrawi-BaghdadiIslamic State emir Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Adnan Abu Walid al Sahrawi.

The self-proclaimed head of the Islamic State’s arm in the Sahara has reportedly threatened to attack Morocco in an audio statement sent to Al Jazeera.

Abu Walid al Sahrawi, who previously led the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi last year, “has called for attacks on the United Nations mission in Western Sahara and on Western tourists in Morocco,” according to Al Jazeera. “The statement also included a call for attacks on Western tourists in Morocco, the headquarters of Moroccan security, and on foreign companies.”

The Long War Journal cannot independently verify the authenticity of the message.

MUJAO was formed in Mali in 2011 and operated as part of al Qaeda’s network. Alongside al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Dine and Tuareg separatists, MUJAO helped take over northern Mali in 2012. A French-led invasion ejected the jihadists from many their strongholds, but Mali is still plagued with violence.

In 2013, MUJAO merged with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al Mulathameen Brigade to form Al Murabitoon. The new combined entity immediately swore allegiance to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri.

After the group’s first emirs (or leaders) were killed in counterterrorism raids, Sahrawi became Al Murabitoon’s head. Last May, Sahrawi released an audio statement in which pledged his fealty to the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. He claimed to do so on behalf of the entire Al Murabitoon group. [See LWJ report, Confusion surrounds West African jihadists’ loyalty to Islamic State]

But that wasn’t the case. Only some of MUJAO’s fighters joined Sahrawi in defecting to the Islamic State. Belmokhtar, an al Qaeda loyalist, quickly released a statement saying that Al Murabitoon remained in al Qaeda’s camp. [See Threat Matrix report, Alleged statement from Mokhtar Belmokhtar denies his group swore allegiance to the Islamic State.]

US officials contacted by The Long War Journal say that they suspect Belmokhtar’s men tried to assassinate Sahrawi. Press outlets in West Africa reported on skirmishes between the two sides, but Sahrawi’s fate remained uncertain. The US officials also say that Sahrawi may have been seriously wounded by his jihadist rivals.

There has been confusion concerning Belmokhtar’s status as well. Belmokhtar was reportedly killed in a US airstrike in Libya in June 2015. But Al Murabitoon and AQIM quickly issued statements denying that the one-eyed veteran jihadist had perished. In the months since, al Qaeda has repeatedly referred to Belmokhtar as if he is alive. (In one message, which was leaked online before it was ready for publication, did al Qaeda refer to Belmokhtar’s putative death.)

However, Belmokhtar has not issued a proof of life audio or video message since last June.

In August 2015, Belmokhtar was named the new overall emir of Al Murabitoon by its shura council. If the group was not reenacting Weekend at Bernie’s, as the Taliban did with Mullah Omar (whose death was covered up for two years), then this would indicate that Belmokhtar is still alive. In December, Belmokhtar’s Al Murabitoon rejoined AQIM.

On Dec. 4, AQIM’s Al Andalus Media released an audio statement from Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of AQIM, announcing the merger of Al Murabitoon into its ranks. Ibrahim al Qosi, an ex-Guantanamo detainee who is now a senior al Qaeda leader in Yemen, congratulated Droukdel and Belmokhtar on the merger in a message released shortly thereafter. Qosi indicated that Belmokhtar was still alive, asking Allah to “preserve him.”

While AQIM, which now includes Al Murabitoon, has been especially active in recent months, Sahrawi has been relatively quiet. If the audio obtained by Al Jazeera is authentic, then it could indicate that he and his men plan on initiating new operations.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal. Caleb Weiss is an intern at Foundation for Defense of Democracy and a contributor to The Long War Journal.

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2 Comments

  • My wife is planning business meeting in Morocco this summer. Typically they begin in Marrakech, and then go into the Atlas Mountains, and return to Marrakech before returning home. She had her purse and passport stolen last year, by a snatch and grab artist on a motorcycle. She was lucky. She spoke French and was able to communicate with the police. I am wondering how serious are the purported threats by daesh, and should she and her business partner rethink their plans.

  • Great Escape says:

    Should we expect now, more than ever an imminent Proof of Life from Mokhtar Belmokhtar, given his history with this man, pledging his groups fighters to IS without his OK? Given the tensions between Morocco and Algeria, and Morocco and Ban Ki Moon, I can’t help but feel the convenience of this current threat coincides with leaked e-mails showing the Algerian DGSE striking deals with MBM to attack Moroccan interests provided he leaves Algeria alone..

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