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Maghreb Qaeda leader rejects IS allegiance pledge: Agency

Contrary to Mauritanian report, the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb denies claims he pledged allegiance to Islamic State
An undated grab from a video obtained by ANI Mauritanian news agency shows former Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) Mokhtar Belmokhtar speaking at an undisclosed location (AFP)

By Hademine Ould Sadi

NOUAKCHOT, Mauritania - Algerian militant commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar distanced himself on Friday from a pledge of allegiance made by his armed group to the Islamic State organisation, Mauritanian media reported.

Belmokhtar’s north African al-Murabitoun group was linked to al-Qaeda but a recording broadcast by Mauritanian news agency al-Akhbar on Thursday said it was aligning itself with the IS organisation and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

But Belmokhtar said the declaration “does not comply with the conditions and covenants” of the movement’s “shura” advisory council, according to the agency.

“It clearly violates the foundational statement that determined the method and behaviour of the organisation,” Belmokhtar was reported to have said.

Al-Akhbar, which regularly publishes statements by armed militants, told AFP it had verified the communique, which was published on Twitter on Thursday, according to the US-based intelligence group SITE.

It quoted Belmokhtar as saying al-Murabitoun would continue its backing for the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawihiri, the worldwide leader of al-Qaeda, wanted for attacks in the United States, Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Al-Akhbar said Thursday’s pledge of allegiance was read out on behalf of Adnan Abu Walid Sahraoui, adding that it was clear that he had become the group’s leader, since only the chief has the right to sign such a declaration.

The recording called on “all jihadist movements to pledge allegiance” to Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of IS, in order to “speak with one voice”.

The agency, which says it is in contact with “an authentic source within al-Murabitoun”, told AFP the way Belmokhtar has formulated his statement suggested a rise in Sahraoui’s authority and the possibility of a schism developing within al-Murabitoun.

Boko Haram, the militant group wreaking havoc in northern Nigeria, has already pledged allegiance to IS, which sprang to worldwide prominence in June last year when it overran large parts of Iraq and Syria, declaring a “caliphate”.

Former al-Qaeda chief

Several local armed groups quickly affiliated themselves, and IS has since received pledges of fealty from armed outfits from as far afield as Algeria, Afghanistan and Indonesia.

Although the militant group has since been pushed back militarily by US-led airstrikes and a counter-offensive by Iraqi security forces and militias, IS remains a potent draw for would-be recruits.

Al-Murabitoun was born out of a merger between Belmokhtar’s “Signatories in Blood” and MUJACO - one of the armed groups that seized control of northern Mali in early 2012 to 2013.

Belmokhtar, also a former chief of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), is wanted for having allegedly masterminded a siege in January 2013 of an Algerian gas plant in which 38 mostly Western hostages were killed.

He was thought to have been killed in Mali, but security sources told AFP last year that he had moved into Libya and remained active.

Divided among rival armed factions, plagued by drug trafficking and infiltrated by hardliner groups, Mali’s desert north has remained a source of instability since the West African nation gained independence in 1960.

The country descended into chaos in 2012 when an insurgency by Tuareg rebels led to a coup in the capital Bamako. Groups such as MUJAO then overpowered the Tuareg to seize control of Mali’s northern desert.

A French-led military operation launched in January 2013 drove the fighters into the bush but the Tuareg rebels and militants remain active throughout the northeast.

Al-Murabitoun claimed responsibility for the first attack against Westerners in Bamako on 7 March 2015, targeting a bar that was popular with expatriates. The attack left five dead, including three Malians, a French national and a Belgian.

The group has also carried out a suicide attack on 15 April against the Nigerian contingent of the UN mission in Mali, killing two civilians.