On Oct. 9, a statement attributed to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the elusive al Qaeda veteran who has been reportedly killed multiple times, was distributed online. The message is a eulogy for Sheikh Ag Aoussa, a prominent Tuareg leader who was killed in an explosion in northern Mali the day before.
Initial accounts attributed Aoussa’s death to a mine that exploded underneath his car. But the statement allegedly authored by Belmokhtar pinned the blame squarely on France, suggesting that a French airstrike killed Aoussa along with other unidentified “young men.” Indeed, the eulogy for Aoussa is the latest attempt by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to rally local tribes and other parties against the West. Various AQIM figures, as well as affiliated jihadi parties, have consistently decried France’s presence in Libya, Mali and elsewhere.
According to Agence France Presse (AFP), Ag Aoussa’s car blew up shortly after he left a meeting at the UN’s MINUSMA mission. The meeting was apparently one in a series of regularly scheduled sit downs between MINUSMA, the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), and members of France’s Operation Barkhane. CMA sources cited by AFP alleged that Aoussa’s death was actually an assassination, and not an accidental explosion.
AFP also provided some biographical information on Ag Aoussa, describing him as a “Tuareg from the Ifoghas tribe” and “the number two in the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA),” which is “one of a myriad of armed groups in northern Mali.”
Aoussa had served as the “right-hand man” to Iyad Ag Ghaly, who leads Ansar Dine. Documents recovered in Mali demonstrate that AQIM’s leadership planned to use Ansar Dine as the local face for the jihadis’ governance efforts prior to the French-led intervention in 2013.
According to AFP, Aoussa left Ansar Dine’s ranks after France intervened in Mali and joined a “different group that would later become the HCUA.”
Belmokhtar’s eulogy is effusive in its praise for Aoussa, saying he had “sacrificed” the “prime” of his life during the “blessed conquest” of Azawad, meaning northern Mali. Aoussa was one of the “first mujahideen” to “establish the Muslim rule” in northern Mali, and worked to implement sharia law. “We can never forget his hard strife and fight against the Zionists in the 1982 war in Lebanon” and then his role fighting against “the Crusader French invasion” of Mali, the eulogy reads, according to a translation obtained by The Long War Journal. Therefore, Aoussa had an especially interesting career, taking him from West Africa to Lebanon and then back, over the course of more than three decades.
The French attempted “to lure him into a war against his mujahideen brothers, especially those in Ansar Dine,” the eulogy reads, but Aoussa resisted. The statement refers to the members of Ansar Dine as Aoussa’s “family.”
The eulogy continues by alleging that “they” (most likely meaning the French) “plotted to assassinate” Aoussa because he couldn’t be swayed, just as the French allegedly “attempt to strike down” anyone who seeks to establish “an Islamic system” in Mali.
The statement ends with a rallying cry addressed to the “feuding tribes” in northern Mali, pleading with them to set aside their differences and thwart their enemies’ plan to turn them against each other. Belmokhtar calls on everyone who has supported “the French war on the mujahideen” to abandon the Western effort and fight France, because it is supposedly the “mother of all evil.”
The eulogy is further evidence that AQIM is attempting to build tribal support for its efforts in Mali.
AQIM’s emir, Abdulmalek Droukdel, discussed this strategy in a lengthy missive that was first discovered by the Associated Press. Even though AQIM and its allies seized much of Mali in 2012, Droukdel urged caution. “We must not go too far or take risks in our decisions or imagine that this project is a stable Islamic state,” Droukdel wrote. Instead, the jihadis should view it as an “important golden opportunity to extend bridges to the various sectors and parts of Azawad society” in northern Mali, including Arabs, the Tuareg people, and other Africans. According to Droukdel, this would “end the situation of political and social and intellectual separation (or isolation) between the Mujahideen and these sectors, particularly the big tribes, and the main rebel movements with their various ideologies, and the elite of Azawad society, its clerics, its groupings, its individuals and its noble forces.” Simply put, Droukdel was concerned with building broader popular support for the jihadists’ agenda.
Interestingly, the eulogy attributed to Belmokhtar did not mention that Aoussa had participated in meetings with UN and French officials, even as Ansar Dine and AQIM repeatedly target UN forces. While the message honoring Aoussa blames France for his death, it says nothing about his reported attendance at a meeting at the UN’s camp in Kidal shortly before his death.
Belmokhtar has been reportedly killed on multiple occasions, but his demise was never confirmed. The jihadists, including AQIM, are acting as if he is alive and survived an American airstrike in Libya last year. As The Long War Journal has previously noted, AQIM has not released a proof of life audio or video from Belmokhtar. Several written statements attributed to the al Qaeda loyalist have released online over the past year. Belmokhtar’s group, Al Murabitoon, reunited with AQIM last year. The move was praised by multiple al Qaeda figures.