Photo of Abu al Nour al Andalusi, who was reportedly killed near Timbuktu by French forces
According to jihadist social media accounts connected to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al Qaeda’s official branch in North Africa, French forces conducted two separate raids on al Qaeda figures in Mali in recent days. The attacks left one commander of AQIM and two fighters from AQIM’s Katibat al Murabitoon dead. Both AQIM and the French Ministry of Defence have yet to release statements confirming or denying these reports. However, Al Jazeera has reported that sources close to the group have confirmed the operations to the Qatari news site.
The jihadists online said that the AQIM commander Abu al Nour al Andalusi, a Spanish national from the Melilla enclave in Morocco, was killed by French forces “180km north of Timbuktu.” Additionally, an Egyptian fighter, identified as Marwan al Masri, was also killed alongside the Spanish commander.
Al Andalusi was prominently featured in a video released last September in which the jihadist group advertised an ambush on UN troops near the city of Timbuktu. Al Andalusi called on “Muslims in Spain and the city of Melilla to join the jihad” in his Spanish-language address in the video. He is also identified as a “field commander” of the Al Quds Brigade, which is another name for AQIM’s Al Furqan Battalion. The Al Furqan Battalion is one of AQIM branches that make up its “Sahara Emirate” in Mali. [See LWJ report, AQIM highlights attack on UN troops in Mali.]
In addition to the raid near Timbuktu, the jihadists also allege French special forces targeted the spokesman of AQIM’s Katibat al Murabitoon near the northern city of Gao. However, Abu Dujana al Qasimi, the Saudi spokesman, is said to have survived the attack and was able to flee the scene. The jihadist accounts say that two fighters accompanying al Qasimi were killed in the firefight.
French special forces conducted a similar raid near Gao, which has traditionally been within Al Murabitoon’s area of operations, last December. The French Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that its forces “neutralized 10 terrorists” in a four hour firefight with the jihadists. The MoD also said that “two pickups and a dozen motorcycles were seized” along with “a significant amount of arms and explosives.” (See LWJ report, French special forces target Al Murabitoon in northern Mali.)
Al Murabitoon was formed in 2013 from the merger between Ahmed al Tilemsi’s Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Al Mulathameen Brigade and swore allegiance to Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. After being led by an Egyptian commander, Al Tilemsi took over as emir of Al Murabitoon until being killed by French forces. In July, the group’s Shura Council confirmed it elected Mokhtar Belmokhtar as its overall emir. However, some members in the MUJAO side of the group defected to the Islamic State, but it is not known how many. (See LWJ report, Confusion surrounds West African jihadists’ loyalty to Islamic State.)
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. That statement came after an audio recording released by Abu Dujana al Qasimi announced the pledging of allegiance to Droukdel, which also reaffirmed Al Murabitoon’s allegiance to al Qaeda.
Despite France killing several AQIM commanders and leaders in northern Mali since beginning its intervention in 2013, the jihadist group and its many affiliated groups in the country continue to maintain the ability to mount attacks in the north. Additionally, al Qaeda has been able to penetrate deep into the south of Mali and hit the capital Bamako several times. Al Qaeda has also increasingly spread the violence to neighboring countries, with several attacks occurring in Burkina Faso and in Niger in the last two years. (See this map of al Qaeda-linked attacks in Mali and neighboring countries since 2014 made by The Long War Journal here.)