I’m hearing a steady stream of reports that Mokhtar Belmokthar, ala Laouaar (‘The One Eyed’), one of the supreme leaders of Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has been killed in Gao, during bitter street fighting between the National Movement of the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) and the AQIM offshoots the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). They have not yet been independently confirmed but if they are true then the news is highly significant. The uneasy peace between the NMLA and the various Islamist groups in northern Mali was never going to last long. Since the accords between the NMLA and Ansar Eddine were rejected by the NMLA political leadership at the end of May, it’s been fascinating, if not painful, to watch the contortions of the NMLA leadership as they attempted to accommodate Ansar Eddine, a movement with which they had plenty in common ethnically, but very little ideologically or strategically. When a Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (TCSA) was announced, it seemed clear that the nationalist secular NMLA had agreed to disagree with the Islamist Ansar Eddine. And when the President of the TCSA, Bilal Ag Acherif, included MUJAO in his list of like-minded partners who were pro-Azawad in a recent interview, he was apparently attempting to underline the need for unity at all costs, especially between Touareg and Arab, the two most incompatible and belligerent constituents of the new Azawad.
Well, that unity has now completely broken down. MUJAO is a strange beast. It first appeared last November, when it claimed responsibility for kidnapping 3 European NGO workers in a Polisario run refugee camp near Tindouf in the far south west of Algeria. Next, it blew up a police training academy in the southern Algerian city of Tamanrasset. Then, in April, MUJAO kidnapped 7 Algerian diplomats from the Algerian consulate in Gao and is still holding them captive. After the fall of Gao in early April, it quickly became apparent that MUJAO, which initially seemed to be a largely Mauritanian group lead by a Franco-Moroccan man, had formed an alliance with the Tilemsi Arabs of the Gao region, many of whom are lynchpins of the drugs trafficking game in the far east of Mali: men like Sherif Ould Tahar, Mohammed Rouggy and their father-in-law Mohammed Ould Mataly, all from the Bourem / Almoustrat area, where the biggest of the famous ‘Flight Cocaine’ jets landed and disgorged its immense cargo of drugs a few years ago.
All these men have had close links with AQIM in the past. Maybe they struck a deal with MUJAO to defend Arab interests in the Gao region and to block NMLA and therefore Touareg power there. I’ve also heard that most of the MUJAO fighters are black Africans, and that Boko Haram elements have also been involved in the fighting in Gao these past few days. And since, unlike the NMLA, the avowed aim of the Islamists in this struggle has never been to divide Mali in two, but rather to impose Sharia law on the whole of Mali, perhaps MUJAO have become strange bedfellows with Ganda Koy and Ganda Izo, the two Songhoi militias who have long been fighting any attempt by Touareg further north to secede from Mali and create an independent state of Azawad. The footage of black Songhoi residents of Gao taking to the streets and denouncing the NMLA while chanting the name of Ansar Eddine, could be the result. We have to allow however for the fact that the NMLA have been very lax in the past few months when it comes to maintaining law and order. A few days ago, the NMLA leadership even met with the youth of Gao and reportedly apologised for these mistakes.
Whatever is behind this latest fighting, all pretence that the NMLA and Ansar Eddine / MUJAO / AQIM can live together and build the new Azawad together has gone. And the lie that the Touareg nationalist movement and the Islamic terrorists are in alliance with each other, which has been peddled by Mali for the past five years or more, has also bitten the dust. The NMLA teamed up with Ansar Eddine when it was convenient to do so. Now, as expected, they’re at loggerheads. And the NMLA claim that it has 10,000 well armed soldiers who could easily take on the Islamists has also been proved false. The Islamists are obviously better equipped and better trained than the NMLA, hence the victory of the MUJAO over the NMLA unit who were guarding the Governor’s residence in the centre of Gao. But I would guess that the NMLA fighters have a clearer and better understanding of why they are fighting. They have retreated to the Firhoun base on the outskirts of Gao and are likely to attack again. The outcome of this struggle still very uncertain.
And the death of One-eyed Jack, if it is true, is a victory not only for the NMLA but for all those who wish to see that unholy alliance of Al Qaida and drugs / weapons / people traffickers in the southern Sahara crushed and destroyed. Belmokhtar has been smuggling, kidnapping, killing in the southern Sahara since the early 1990s, when he was the GIA’s ‘man in the south’ and something of a Bin Laden, Scarlet Pimpernel and Al Capone, all rolled into one. He was a desert boy, born and bred in Ghardaia, Algeria, who was “seduced”, in his own words, by jihad in his teenage years and travelled to Afghanistan to receive training in Al Qaida camps near the city of Jalalabad. It was in Afghanistan, so he claimed, that a piece of Russian shrapnel robbed him of an eye. Belmokhtar returned to Algeria in the early 1990s and became the don of the southern Saharan smuggling game, forging strong links with arms, drugs and people smugglers and befriending various Touareg and Berabiche tribal leaders in the process. He even married one, or possibly several Berabiche Arab girls from Timbuktu and once declared that he would like to ‘retire’ to northern Mali when his hustling days are over. He also joined the GIA in the early 1990s and then left with Hattab to become part of the GSPC.
By the turn of the millennium, Belmokhtar had risen up the ranks to become one of the GSPC’s leading emirs in the Sahara. He collaborated with El Para on refocussing GSPC operations further south, but the pair soon fell out, jealous of each others’ power. Whereas El Para ventured into ill-advised waters by seeking to buy arms in Chad and eventually got himself caught and extradited back to Algeria, Belmokhtar, with unfailing shrewdness of judgement, evaded capture for more than two decades. The French security services called him l’inssaisisable, the ‘uncatchable’. Whilst Belmokhtar’s rival at the top of AQIM’s Saharan hierarchy, Abou Zeid, is reviled for his brute cruelty and appetite for chopping the heads off his kidnap victims, Sahara watchers often regarded the one-eyed Monsieur Marlboro with a grudging respect, recognising his relative restraint in the treatment of hostages. Many are also convinced he’s only in it for the money and always has been. “Belmokhtar will kidnap, rob or smuggle anything for anyone,” a silver-haired Saharanist once said to me, “so long as the price is right.”
Well, as they say, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. Let’s hope Belmokhtar is no more!
Andy Morgan, 28th June 2012.