Belmokhtar Condemned to Death in Absentia as Northern African Jihad Regains Momentum

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 10

Mokhtar Belmokhtar, one of the historical key leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the broader Northern African jihadism, has been sentenced to death in absentia by the Criminal Court in Oran, Algeria. Officially, the court found him guilty of forming and leading a terrorist organization and of the owning of, trading in and marketing of weapons and ammunition. The Criminal Court of Oran also sentenced another nine men who are allegedly part of Belmokhtar’s network. Three of them were sentenced to 20 years in prison, also in absentia, while the other militants have been condemned to eight years in jail. The trial started in April 2011, when the group planned the kidnapping of foreign workers involved in the construction of the tramway in Oran (L’Expression, October 16).

Belmokhtar was already tried in Algeria and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2012. Born in June 1972, Belmokhtar has been a long-standing leader of Algerian jihadism since he joined the Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) at the dawn of the Algerian civil war in the 1990s. He later was one of the key leaders who left the organization, creating a new organization, the Groupe salafiste pour la prédication et le combat (GSPC, the Salafist Group for Preachment and Combat). He was also responsible for the gradual geographic shift that has characterized Algerian jihadism since the early 2000s, when the group started establishing itself in northern Mali, where they enjoyed significant freedom of movement. Belmokhtar has been declared dead several times, most recently in 2015, when the United States claimed to have killed him in an airstrike in Libya. This was never verified (see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2015).

This sentencing came in a period of renewed activism of local jihadist forces. During the night of October 24-25, two Malian soldiers were killed in a terrorist attack in the Malian village of Soumpi (Jeune Afrique, October 25). Ja’amat Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM), a new group in which a number of local AQIM-linked units converged in the past few months, claimed responsibility for this attack (ADIAC, October 27; see Militant Leadership Monitor, April 5, 2016). The following day, an attack in North Mali killed three U.N. peacekeepers working for the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) operation, when their vehicle struck an IED (improvised explosive device) on the road connecting Tessalit to Aguelhok (Mali Actu, October 26). In response to this attack, the French army stated that it killed 15 jihadist militants linked to al-Qaeda in Mali in an attack 100 kilometers northeast of Kidal, JNIM denied it (ADIAC, October 27).

Mali and Niger have come increasingly under pressure from jihadist groups over the past months. Since February 2016, the two countries together suffered about 46 attacks (Mali Actu, October 27). In addition, on October 4, around 50 militants ambushed a 12-member team of U.S Special Forces in Niger, near the country’s border with Mali and Burkina Faso. Four U.S Special Forces members died and two others were wounded. Although this attack, according to American sources, was carried out by Islamic State-affiliated fighters or local fighting tribes and not by AQIM-associated groups, this further highlights the presence of a consistent, and broader, jihadist threat in the area (see Jamestown Hot Issues, October 26).

In Algeria, AQIM remains under pressure, as authorities have recently arrested an important local militant who was in charge of controlling the smuggling of weapons between Mali and Algeria (al-Hayat, Oct 7). The sentence against Belmokhtar will change little in strategic terms. Despite speculation about his death, he seems to still be operational and remains indisputably one of the key leaders of the global — and not only regional — jihadist galaxy. AQIM will continue to operate mostly across Mali, Niger and Libya, areas in which the weakness of the respective central authorities creates a strategic environment more conducive to carrying out different illegal business and jihadist activities. Conversely, the operational capacity of the organization in Algeria has been weakened by the Algerian counterterrorism capacities, though it retains a presence and the ability to carry out attacks.