Posted on 7our.posterous.com on November 30, 2011.
An Arab proverb says that ‘knowledge is closer to silence than to speech’. In his interview with the Mauritanian news service ANI (Agence Nouakchott d’Information), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar (MBM) was prolific in different statements (@tweetsintheME provides a highly valuable analysis for that here ), but MBM has also intriguingly avoided to discuss some hot issues.
At first, we should question the conditions of realization of this interview. The interviewer gave no indication on the place, and provides no information on the atmosphere surrounding the meeting, if there were any meeting.
MBM does not seem to remember that an armed group (that he was supposed to be leading) decapitated Mauritanians soldiers at Lemgheity in Mauritania, and has two successive and contradictory answers. Apart from the fact that some doubt is cast on his presence at the scene of the attack, the interview and its set of questions and answers seem to have been made in a discontinuous way. We can assume that it was made through a messenger or an intermediate tool, disrupting the linearity of the speech.
MBM doesn’t mention the Italian and two Spaniards kidnapped from the Polisario’s Rabuni camp near Tindouf in Algeria. More than a month after the operation, there has been no AQIM claim for the abduction of the three humanitarians. All assumptions are open, in the hands of subcontractors, abducted by another group of AQIM, under the (silent) control of MBM. Another explanation is that the interview was already outdated when published, if it were to be secretly transported by a courier back and forth in long delays.
On the issue of the truce, MBM denied rumors of agreement with the Algerian army. The pause in operations of his group in Algeria is just a part of a “strategic shift” in order to prepare for a new phase of action. On the Mauritanian side, the AQIM leader does not rule out a halt in attacks if Nouakchott’s leaders are back on an acceptable religiously viewed track.
But what about relations with Mali? Unfortunately, MBM is not pushed on the subject. But in contrast to previous answers, his posture hinted to a truce, implicit or negotiated. An at the time of the interview, he did not announce the end of this Malian truce either.
So what was the main reason behind the press release? Implicitly, MBM multiplies the signs of allegiance to AQMI leaders. He shows his organization credentials. Is there an inner fear of a loss of influence in the Sahel? If the abduction of the Rabuni camp was set up by another group, this was a bold stroke since it was close to his rear base in Northern Mali. Does he face competition from newcomers? If so, how will he react to that?
A recent article by Mohamed Ben Ahmed of El Khabar newspaper explains that three kidnapping groups operate now in the Sahel/Sahara. Two of them are under the control of Abdelhakim Abu Zeid and AQIM central structure. The third one is operating independently under the command of MBM. The three groups seem to have engaged in sort of emulation at kidnapping. El Khabar’s article gives a description of the MBM group done by the Algerian security services. Here is a rough translation of the paragraph on MBM:
« The third group (of kidnappers in the Sahel) is made up of mercenaries and elements non-organically affiliated with AQIM. MBM is the Emir of the Katiba of Mulathemeen (Battalion of the Masked), he coordinates its activities and makes the liaison with AQIM central structure. His group was involved in the kidnapping of the UN envoy Robert Fowler, that has since been released. It is believed that the group has recently abandoned the truce. MBM band is the most connected group to smuggling networks and to networks of mercenaries led by deserters from the Malian army. The three kidnapping groups activate to fund AQIM. There have been several killings and eliminations of members of the band due to conflicts on the use of ransom and income from smuggling. The murder of the brother in law of MBM, which took place a few months ago, is related to such disputes. »
The one-eyed or “Belaouar” as he is nicknamed is sort of a media figure, his career is one of the longest in the jihadist movement. As media notoriety doesn’t equal presence on the ground, does he still have a great influence on Sahelian events? With his amazing ability to survive in what may appear as a hostile environment, MBM is not devoid of strengths thanks to the networks around him. If the truce between AQIM and Mali is over, as evidenced by recent events, it is hard for MBM to stay watching and not try to reap new benefits of the situation.
With so many remaining questions, it is useful to remember that other Arab proverb « speech is silver and silence is golden ». MBM and AQIM are aware of it. The study of their activities could be enriched through this separator prism.
Baki @7our Mansour