Al-Murabitun: North Africa’s Jihadists Reach into History in Their Battle against European “Crusaders”

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 19

Mokhtar Belmokhtar (Source Site Intel Group)

At the end of August, the Katibat al-Muslimeen (Veiled Brigade) of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, announced a merger with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) to create a new jihadist movement, al-Murabitun (The Almoravids). According to its founding statement, the group aims at pursuing the unity of all the Jihadist groups “from the Nile to the Atlantic” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information [Nouakchott], August 22). The group also stressed its allegiance to al-Qaeda and the Taliban by greeting “the leaders of jihad in this time,” al-Qaeda leader Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri and Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar. 

France, responsible for expelling the jihadists from Mali earlier this year, was singled out in the statement, which called for jihadists to attack French interests “wherever they may be found.”  The group also described the Muslim Brotherhood’s ouster from power in Egypt as proof of the assault of secular forces against Islam (Annahar al-Maghirbia [Rabat], August 23). However, the identity of the group’s new Amir remains unclear, with Belmokhtar announcing his intention of forgoing leadership of the group to allow a new generation of jihadist leaders to come to the fore. According to Mauritania’s Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI), which enjoys close contacts with North Africa’s jihad movements, the movement’s new leader is a non-Algerian veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and the 2002 battles against American forces in the same country (ANI [Nouakchott], August 22). 

Jihadist groups often use specific references to underline some particular operational features, ambitions or tactical and strategic aims. In this case, the name al-Murabitun was likely chosen to stress three major elements: 

  • The call for unity of the Muslim people of North Africa from “the Nile to the Atlantic.” While the Berber Almoravid Empire stretched, at its greatest extent, as far as Algiers in the east, the historical period of the rule of this dynasty (1040 – 1147) was characterized by a certain degree of unity among the people under its control. This must be analyzed in the context of the current strategic situation in North Africa. The Arab Spring revolutions did not open new political opportunities for North Africa’s jihadist groups, which remain particularly weak in terms of political depth and popular support. What has changed is the capacity of central states to control their own territories. Libya presents the most notable example, while Egypt and Tunisia are experiencing similar problems, though to a lesser extent. This weakened statehood capacity provides room, in the eyes of this new group, to boost unity among the radical Islamist groups operating in the region (al-Khabar [Algiers], August 26). The new movement may also intend to appeal the conservative sectors of those societies that are disappointed and/or disenchanted with more traditional expressions of political Islam, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Tunisia’s Ennahda. These sectors of the society may find a political answer to their needs in more radical Salafist groups.   
  • The continuous confrontational stance against external invaders. Historically, the Almoravids were crucial in preserving the Islamic nature of al-Andalus (the Muslim-controlled regions of the southern Iberian Peninsula), most notably by defeating the Christian army of Castile at the Battle of Sagrajas in 1086 and thus delaying the completion of the Reconquista by four centuries. The Almoravid example stresses the existence of a confrontational stance against “infidel” European nations and the never-ending aim of regaining control over those lands, such as al-Andalus, that were once part of Dar al-Islam. Moreover, the focus on an external, European invader was stressed in jihadist rhetoric in the wake of the French military operation in northern Mali earlier this year. That was a partial blow to these groups, as it led them to reorganize their structures and networks, though it inadvertently restored the operational mobility that is one of their major assets.
  • Fighting to protect Islamic lands and to (re)discover the real faith. Al-Murabitun is the plural form of al-Murabit. Among its meanings is “one who is ready to fight at a fortress.” The term is related to the word ribat, referring to fortress/monasteries located at the frontiers of Islamic territories. These structures fulfilled two different aims: the defense of Dar al-Islam against external forces and spiritual elevation through religious exercises and prayers. As such, the group’s name may be considered a call to Muslim people of the region to defend their lands against external invaders. Moreover, the concept of ribat is particularly important in the history of the Almoravids. After his journey to Mecca, Yahya ibn Ibrahim, leader of the Berber Lamtuna tribe, realized that his people did not adhere to authentic Islamic prescriptions. As such, he appointed an ultra-orthodox Sunni religious scholar, Abdallah ibn Yasin, to teach his people the right way to be an Islamic believer. Yasin built a ribat to allow people to study and to know about the real Islam, consequently becoming the spiritual leader of the rising Almoravid dynasty. Treated as a historical metaphor, this may be considered a call upon the people of the region to rediscover a pure Islamic belief by sticking strictly to the prescriptions of the Quran and the Hadith. 

From an operational point of view, al-Murabitun may be considered a regional competitor to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). While the two groups will continue to have the same strategic aim—imposing Shari’a in the region—their short-term aims as well as tactics and strategies are different. Belmokthar’s relations with AQIM leadership remain particularly tense. The appointment of Jamal Oukacha  (a.k.a. Yahya Abu al-Hammam)—a close ally of AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel­—as AQIM’s Saharan Amir was an attempt by AQIM’s central leadership to regain control over Belmokhtar and the movement’s Sahelian battalions (see Terrorism Monitor, October 18, 2012). At the same time, the spectacular actions of Belmokhtar—such as the In Aménas attack in Algeria in January and the May attacks in Niger—are considered more harmful than helpful in the eyes of AQIM. Such attacks may push external actors to increase pressure on the group, which, after the defeat in Mali and the loss of several organizational leaders (most notably Abu Zeid), is more interested in reorganizing its ranks and operational networks. The fact that the leader of this new group is apparently not Algerian and the presence of MUJWA fighters in its ranks suggest that this is the final stage of a process started several years ago: the ethno-national pluralization of northern African jihad activities. 

While AQIM continues to remain an Algerian-led and Algerian-focused organization, jihadists from Mauritania, Mali, the Western Sahara, Niger, southern Libya and Chad now represent an important reality on the ground and the birth of al-Murabitun reflects this change. The focus is becoming more regional, as was made clear by the historical references provided by MUJWA when it split from AQIM (see Terrorism Monitor, April 6, 2012). A second element of differentiation is the focus of Belmokhtar on immediate actions, while AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel has stressed over the last two years the need to act gradually in order to avoid powerful external pressures and friction with local Muslim communities. Despite these differences, it is still likely that members from the two organizations will cooperate at some point, as the organizational boundaries between all the groups operating in Northern Africa are rather thin and the same members—above all, low-ranking militants—may fight and operate under different labels and affiliations according to the circumstances. 

The birth of al-Murabitun adds a new brand to the already dense and fragmented environment of Northern Africa jihadism. The name of the new group recalls a series of specific features of northern Africa’s history under the reign of the Almoravids, especially the search for Muslim unity, Islamic purity and the fight against external enemies. Although Belmokhtar has taken a step back by renouncing the leadership of this brand new group, his choice confirms his importance in the overall balance of North African jihadism, a particularly remarkable result for a person believed dead in March-April 2013. The Murabitun, despite having the same strategic aims as AQIM, will compete with the elder organization to some degree for a variety of reasons, primarily the personal friction between Belmokhtar and Droukdel. However, tactical and short-term convergences are more than likely on specific aims and operations, and the boundaries between these organizations will remain porous and often indistinguishable. 

Dario Cristiani is a PhD Candidate in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King’s College London. Previously, he has been a teaching fellow in Political Science and Comparative Politics at the University of Naples "L’Orientale" and a political analyst with the Power and Interest News Report (PINR).