US adds MUJAO operative to terrorism list

The US State Department added an operative from the al Qaeda-linked Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) who is involved in kidnapping, weapons smuggling, and armed attacks to its list of global terrorists.

Mohamed Lahbous was designated today by the State Department as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. He is the third member of the terror group to be added since MUJAO was listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group on Dec. 7, 2012.

“As a member of the organization, Lahbous has participated in a number of attacks, including the October 2011 abduction of three aid workers from a refugee camp in western Algeria, and a June 2012 attack in Ouargla, Algeria, which killed one and injured three,” today’s State Department press release said.

The June 2012 attack was executed by a suicide bomber who attacked a gendarme headquarters in Ouargla. MUJAO claimed credit for the suicide bombing.

The October 2011 kidnapping by MUJAO took place at the Raguni refugee camp in Tinduf province. An Italian woman and a Spanish man and woman, all who were providing aid to refugees, were kidnapped by Lahbous’s group.

Additionally, Lahbous “has also been involved in arms trading and drug trafficking in North and West Africa.”

Lahbous is the third MUAJO operative to have been added to the list of SDGT since the group was added to the same list in December 2012. The same day that MUJAO was named an SDGT, Hamad el Khairy and Ahmed el Tilemsi, two founding members of the groups, were also named as SDGTs. Additionally, Oumar Ould Hamaha, MUJAO’s spokesman, was added to State’s Rewards for Justice list in June 2013.

MUJAO was formed 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. Although MUJAO leaders are purported to have leadership differences with the Algerian-dominated AQIM, MUJAO conducts joint operations with AQIM and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al Mua’qi’oon Biddam, or the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade, another al Qaeda unit, in northern Mali, Niger, and other areas. 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.

MUJAO is one of three major al Qaeda-linked groups that participated in last spring’s invasion of northern Mali. Along with AQIM and Ansar Dine, MUJAO took control of northern Mali after the Malian military overthrew the government in the south. MUJAO, AQIM, and Ansar Dine fought alongside the secular Tuaregs from the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to take control of northern Mali, but then quickly cast aside the MNLA and imposed sharia, or Islamic Law, in areas under their control. The three al Qaeda groups lost control of northern Mali only after French troops invaded in January 2013. The three terror groups were marching south on the capital and Malian forces were in disarray before the French troops intervened.

Just before French forces arrived in northern Mali, MUJAO announced the creation of four new fighting “battalions,” and named three of them after top al Qaeda leaders. The three battalions were called the “Abdullah Azzam” (named after the Osama bin Laden mentor and al Qaeda co-founder who was killed in a bombing in 1989); the “Al Zarqawi” (named after al Qaeda in Iraq emir Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who was killed in an airstrike in 2006); and the “Abu al Laith al Libi” (named after the al Qaeda ideologue and senior leader who was killed in a drone strike in 2008) [see LWJ report, West African jihadist group forms 4 ‘battalions,’ names 3 after al Qaeda leaders].

MUJAO conducted a joint suicide operation with the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade in Niger in late May of this year. 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 that 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 FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • M.H says:

    If there is a conflict between MUJAO and the algerian AQIM leaders as certain conclude, how elements from MUJAO can conduct operations inside Algeria wihtout a help from algerian elements( Tinduf kidnapping on 10/22/2011 and Tamanrasset bombing on 03/03/2012 who accrued just a few days after Hillary Clinton visit to Alger).
    Both attacks, plus the Niger 05/23/2013 attacks shows a high coordination.
    If MUJAO did split from AQIM as it appears to be it is not for ideologic reasons. The ethnic differences ( Black Africans), linguistic differences ( Hassaniya and Hausa) and tribal affiliations are some reasons behind separating this group in order to have a more coherent management.

  • Atrium Annie says:

    I am not sure why this happens before a designation of Boko Haram or Ansaru. Those groups are a greater threat than MUJAO and this guy. How does he pose a threat to me?

  • M.H says:

    @Atrium Annie,
    Just from the Tindouf kidnapping of three social workers( two Spaniards and one Italian) MUJOA was capable of collecting more than $30M in ransom.
    Concerning Boko Haram and Ansaru, I think they both were created, financed and supervised by MUJOA. If they are capable of attacking churches, small scale ops, providing trusted element to help in conducting attacks in other countries, they are not capable of managing a trans-border or a complex attack for now.
    I think AQIM did understand the difficulties in running a region with a such multiple ethnicities and languages that it allowe MUJOA to run the Sahel because of ethnicity, languages, geography and historical similarities.
    If part of MUJOA financial resources is based on smuggling Cocain ( to Europe and the middle East) does this group have a connection to the drug cartel?
    And if Mohamed Lahbous received help from inside Tindouf refugee camp to kidnap three social workers does the helpers have any connection with Cuba or the drug cartel? ( Since 1975, a lot of Tinduf refugee camp residents went to Cuba for education or military training).
    I think MUJOA is a dangerous group.


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