The attacks on Friday in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, bear the signature of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which in a statement attributed the work to Al Mourabitoun, an affiliated terror group led by the jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.
AQIM is one of the most serious threats in the Sahel-Saharan Africa. Born in 2007 from the ashes of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, this movement associated with Al Qaeda aims to establish a caliphate ruled by Sharia in the whole region between the Maghreb and the Sahara. Led by the emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, it finances its activities through human trafficking, weapons, drugs and the kidnapping of hostages. Most recently a Swiss missionary was kidnapped in Timbuktu, northern Mali, earlier this month.
For this latest attack on Ouagadougou, AQIM availed itself to Al Mourabitoun, a lesser movement founded by Belmokhtar. Also known as “The One-Eyed” because of his glass eye, the figure of Belmokhtar is shrouded in an aura of mystery. Several times he was reported dead, only to surface again at the helm of another bloody attack.
The 43-year-old Algerian made his jihadi debut in Afghanistan in the early 1990s before returning to his country of origin to continue terrorist activity there. At the outbreak of the 2012 Mali conflict, he approached AQIM, but disagreements with Droukdel urged him to break away and create his own faction called “Those Who Sign with Blood.”
In the summer of 2013, after a merger with the Movement for the Oneness of Jihad in West Africa, Al Mourabitoun’s men attacked a French-owned gas plant in In Amenas, in eastern Algeria, killing 40 mostly foreign hostages. Only at the end of last year there was a rapprochement with AQIM.
Now united with his former enemies, Belmokhtar led the Nov. 20 attack at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, where they killed 22 people.
The decision to join forces with old rivals followed The One-Eyed’s refusal to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. The move to remain loyal to Al Qaeda earned him an arrest warrant by the Islamic State.
By striking the Burkinabe capital for the first time, AQIM is seeking to expand its area of activity into a neighboring and politically fragile country. They’re trying to send a clear message to Western forces, mainly France, and opponents of ISIS that hold control over the region.