US sanctions leaders of al Qaeda in Mali

Abu Abdul Rahman al Sanhaji, aka Ali Maycho, who was designated by the US State Department today.

Two leaders of the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), al Qaeda’s wing in West Africa and the wider Sahel, have been designated as terrorists today by the US government.

In a coordinated press release, US Treasury designated Malian national Ba Ag Moussa. Treasury notes that Moussa is a close associate of JNIM’s overall leader Iyad Ag Ghaly, who is also designated, and is responsible for several attacks across Mali.

His role as a military commander in central Mali has directly affected the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the region. His past life as a former colonel in the Malian army also fits with al Qaeda’s (and the Islamic State’s) modus operandi of recruiting former military officers into its fold.

Most notably, Treasury notes Moussa’s role in the deadly assault on a Malian military base in central Mali earlier this year. At least 23 Malian soldiers were killed in the attack.

Local reporting insisted that Moussa led the charge on the base, however, JNIM’s statement alleged that Amadou Kouffa, the leader of JNIM’s Katibat Macina in central Mali, led the assault. Treasury also contends that Moussa, not Kouffa, commanded the jihadist forces in the raid.

It is possible that JNIM reported Kouffa directly leading his men on the frontlines to cut back at claims made by the French and Malians about his death.

The US State Department also designated Moroccan national Ali Maycho today. Maycho, also known as Abu Abdul Rahman al Sanhaji, is a senior Sharia official for JNIM and a former judge for al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s Sahara branch.

State’s designation notes that “Maychou has served in a leadership role in JNIM since its inception in 2017; has previously claimed responsibility for an attack on a military camp that housed Malian Armed Forces in Gao, Mali, that killed dozens; and has had a role in operational activities of JNIM.”

Sanhaji was present in JNIM’s founding video sitting next to Iyad Ag Ghaly and Hasan al Ansari. In subsequent releases, he has been identified as the overall Sharia judge for the group. Sanhaji has, however, also directly taken part in battles.

Prior to the formation of JNIM, Sanhaji was featured in several videos decrying French forces and inciting local Muslims to violence. He has also appeared in one video where alleged spies were executed by al Qaeda’s men. Following the January 2017 deadly suicide bombing in Gao, Sanhaji further claimed responsibility in a video released by AQIM.

JNIM continues to pose a serious threat to not only Malian security, but the overall security situation in the Sahel. Despite a French-led counterterrorism mission, troops from the G5 Sahel, and a United Nations peacekeeping force, Al Qaeda still retains the ability to operate openly inside Mali and the wider Sahel.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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