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.

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

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  • mike merlo says:

    TLWJ has advocated multiple times for the release of material acquired in the bin Laden raid. This post & recent events in Algeria & other parts of Africa serve only to highlight & validate that request. I wonder how much of this material, if any, has been shared with companies doing ‘business’ in high risk ‘zones?’

  • Luca says:

    Well, the fact that the muj holed up in In Amenas are demanding release of Aafia Siddiqui and blind sheikh seems to support LWJ’s views. Hats off.

  • Manny says:

    Thomas, i don’t know any more than you or anyone else. In fact, probably a lot less. But some of these names “those who sign in blood” are right out of the movies produced in the 1940’s. I’ve been watching them on CH 82 for a while and all i can make of all of this is that these guys think they are right out the “arabian nights”. Knowing this does not make them less dangerous but it does give a clue into their mentality. These are a bunch of unstable and unbalance people who yearn for the days of an actual sheikh, or a real mukhtar. The days of yesteryear
    when Douglas Fairbanks was able to jump over the balcony and land on two feet, sword in hand and finish off with a thrust and a slash, 3 men in rapid succession.
    My suggestion is to make such a movie in the desert, a facsimile, using real people, and instead of jumping over balconies and slashing their way to victory, let the director of this movie cause them to fall on their asses or hang themselves on that curtain they use to swing themselves to a better advantage point, and do just as Charles Chaplin did in THE GREAT DICTATOR, which showed Adolph H. to be a clownish dolt and a fool. Distribute this movie throughout the middle east. This will either cure them of their delusions or cause them to gag with anger and a final death. Either way it’s tremendous P.R..

  • blert says:

    Only now do we have the first glimmer as to why the French couldn’t negotiate to get their man released.
    Vectoring ‘negotiations’ up towards OBL et. al. means that no-one ever gets released.
    To be captured by these folks is to be a dead man walking.
    Which further explains why the Algerians reacted so quickly. AQIM was moving the hostages to points of no return.
    This dynamic was the exact same one used on 9-11 — whereby the passengers were lulled into believing that they could be negotiated away to safety. Only at the end, Flight 93, did the passengers realize the truth.


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