France is our first enemy, says 'emir' of new al-Qaeda affiliate
The leader of an al-Qaeda affiliate in North Africa has singled out France as his "historic enemy" and threatened it and its allies as "agents who occupy our lands, attack our religion, and steal our wealth".
In an interview published in the latest issue of al-Qaeda in Yemen’s weekly al-Massar on 3 April, Iyad Ag Ghali, the public face of Islamic armed groups in the Sahara and the Sahel, spoke about the strategy of the new movement of which he became the leader in February.
"Our enemies are the enemies of the Muslim people, Jews and Christians, but France remains our historic enemy in this part of the Islamic world. France and its supporters, such as the US, Germany, Sweden, and West African countries that have joined them: Chad, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Niger," said Ag Ghali.
His movement, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims in the Islamic Maghreb, is a fusion of the region’s main armed groups, some of which had controlled northern Mali for almost 10 months thanks to a Tuareg rebellion starting in the spring of 2012: his own group, Ansar Dine, which he founded in 2012, Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mourabitoune, and the emirate of the Sahara, a branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) led by Djamel Okacha, aka Yahia Abu al-Hammam.
The group claims it has pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda.
"We are present in the western part of the Islamic world. We want to call for a burst of the Ummah [the Muslim community] to fight the French occupier, its allies and agents who occupy our lands, attack our religion, and steal our wealth," the 57-year-old Tuareg explained, adding that if this union has taken so many years to materialise, it is because of "war" constraints.
The emir referred to the French intervention in Mali, Operation Serval, launched in January 2013 with the official aim "to stop the advance of jihadists."
"But in a first speech just after the French intervention in Mali, we had said that we were ready to join forces with all the Mujahedeen [fighters] brothers in this region," he said.
"Today, the military situation [in Mali] is stable. The French enemy and its allies are massed in the big cities, with only a few land and air movements and sweep operations, as well as some attempts at gathering intelligence and recruiting spies."
When asked about al-Mourabitoune’s split from AQIM and its affiliation with the new organisation to counter the Islamic State (IS) group, he argues: "Our friends and brothers of al-Mourabitoune are one of the bases of jihad in this region. Discord is something natural between men, but religion and Muslims’ interests enable us to overcome all the obstacles."
He also discussed aspects of his military policy: "The most important thing is to be present on the widest geographical area possible, to always work on harassing the enemy wherever they are, to gain popular support, and to adopt guerrilla warfare while using conventional [combat] methods," he explains.
The emir ended his interview with a message "to all the Muslim peoples of the Sahara".
"Your historic enemy has occupied your houses, they want to pervert your religion and steal your wealth. Stand up to fight them and weed them out of your humiliated lands as your ancestors did."