April 7, 2015
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Murabitoun
Figure 1. AQIM
AQIM was formed when the Algerian Salafist Group for
Preaching and Combat (GSPC) “united” with Al Qaeda in
2006 and renamed itself in 2007. AQIM has conducted
bombings against Algerian state targets, attacks on security
forces in Algeria and the Sahel region of West Africa
(Mauritania to Niger), and kidnappings, including of
Westerners, across the region. AQIM has also reportedly
provided support to other Africa-based violent extremist
groups. U.S. officials have assessed AQIM to be focused on
local and Western targets in North and West Africa,
potentially including U.S. interests and personnel.
Al Murabitoun was formed in 2013 through the merger of
two AQIM splinter factions: Al Mulathamun Battalion (the
Masked Ones, also known as the Battalion of Those Who
Sign in Blood) and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in
West Africa (MUJWA or MUJAO after its French
acronym). In 2014, the State Department described Al
Murabitoun as “the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and
international interests in the Sahel,” citing its “stated intent
to attack Westerners and proven ability to organize complex
Both groups have leveraged instability in North and West
Africa to expand their scope of operations. In 2012, AQIM
and MUJAO claimed control over parts of northern Mali.
French military operations in Mali and the wider Sahel,
launched in 2013, have killed or captured several AQIM
commanders and disrupted their logistical networks.
However, both groups appear to have retained the capacity
to move through the region and commit attacks.
AQIM’s emir, Abdelmalik Droukdel, an Algerian national,
is reportedly based in northeastern Algeria. Long-reported
leadership disputes within AQIM have erupted since 2011,
as several of AQIM’s former Sahel-based commanders
have joined or founded new groups.
Mokhtar bel Mokhtar, an Algerian national who was
previously a Sahel-based commander for AQIM, founded
Al Murabitoun after publicly splitting from AQIM in 2012.
Some press reports place Bel Mokhtar in southwestern
Libya, but these have not been confirmed by U.S. officials.
AQIM and Al Murabitoun rhetoric broadly focuses on
achieving an Islamic caliphate in Algeria and throughout
North Africa, and on countering Western influence, notably
that of former colonial power France.
Source: AQIM social media
Areas of Operation
AQIM has claimed responsibility for, or otherwise been
implicated in, killings of civilians and local security force
personnel, along with kidnappings, mostly for ransom, in
Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Mauritania. Al Murabitoun and its
component groups have claimed responsibility for attacks
and kidnappings in Algeria, Niger, and Mali. Both groups
have reportedly pursued ties to Islamist extremist
organizations in Tunisia and Libya, and elements of both
are reported to be active in Libya.
Algeria. AQIM claimed responsibility for a series of
bombings in Algiers in 2007-08 targeting the prime
minister’s office, Constitutional Council, U.N. office in
Algiers, and a police precinct, killing dozens of people.
Sporadic AQIM attacks on Algerian police and military
institutions have continued outside Algiers, occasionally
killing a dozen or more people at a time, although the
frequency of such attacks has decreased since 2013. Al
Murabitoun’s Bel Mokhtar claimed responsibility for a
January 2013 attack near In Amenas, in southeastern
Algeria, that involved seizing control of a natural gas
facility. Over 800 people were taken hostage, and 39
civilians were killed, including three U.S. citizens. The
four-day siege ended with an Algerian military assault
against the compound. MUJWA’s first attack was the
kidnapping of three humanitarian workers from the Western
Sahara refugee camps near Tindouf, Algeria, in 2011.
Niger. AQIM has conducted multiple kidnappings in Niger.
Two French citizens were kidnapped in the capital, Niamey,
in 2011, and were killed during a French rescue attempt. In
May 2013, before the merger of Al Mulathamun and
MUJWA, the two groups claimed joint responsibility for
twin suicide bombings in northern Niger against a Niger
military base and a French-operated uranium mine. At least
20 people, including the attackers, were killed. Al
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Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Al Murabitoun
Murabitoun was implicated in smaller-scale attacks in
western Niger, near the capital, Niamey, in late 2014.
Mali. AQIM has long had a presence in Mali, which has
served as a hub for kidnap-for-ransom operations and other
fundraising. AQIM and MUJWA asserted territorial control
in parts of northern Mali in 2012, in coordination with a
Malian-led extremist group. France’s military intervention
in January 2013 restored nominal Malian state control and
weakened—but did not eliminate—these groups’ hold.
Since then, AQIM and/or Al Murabitoun have been
implicated in, or have claimed responsibility for, attacks
targeting French, Malian, and U.N. military forces, along
with Malian civilians. In early 2015, the U.S. intelligence
community told Congress in unclassified testimony that
AQIM and its affiliates “will probably seek to increase the
frequency and scale of attacks in northern Mali.”
Mauritania. Between 2005 and 2009, AQIM carried out
multiple attacks on Mauritanian security forces and foreign
nationals in Mauritania (see below). In 2008, AQIM used
small arms to attack the Israeli Embassy in the capital,
Nouakchott. No fatalities were reported.
Tunisia. In June 2014, AQIM claimed responsibility for an
attack on the home of the then-Interior Minister of Tunisia,
in the western town of Kasserine. The following month, the
group’s media wing released a statement praising a Tunisiabased militant group, the Okba Ibn Nafaa (alt: Uqbah Bin
Attacks against U.S. interests
AQIM claimed responsibility for the 2009 murder in
Mauritania of American citizen Christopher Leggett, who
was reportedly conducting missionary work. State
Department officials stated that AQIM was linked to the
attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, on September
11, 2012, but did not detail its role. According to the State
Department, AQIM has urged its supporters to attack U.S.
embassies and kill U.S. ambassadors.
As mentioned above, three U.S. citizens were killed in the
In Amenas hostage-seizure attack in southeastern Algeria in
January 2013; seven more escaped during the attack.
Size, Financing, and Capabilities
According to the State Department, as of 2013 AQIM had
under a thousand fighters in Algeria and a “smaller
number” in the Sahel. Sources of funding reportedly
include kidnap-for-ransom, involvement in smuggling
operations, local “taxation” and extortion, and possibly aid
from supporters in Europe. In 2012, U.S. officials described
AQIM as the “best funded” Al Qaeda affiliate.
The U.S government has not released a detailed
unclassified assessment of Al Murabitoun’s size and
capabilities, other than public statements referring to the
group’s “proven ability to organize complex attacks” (as
noted above). Mokhtar bel Mokhtar and other leaders in the
group have long been associated with kidnapping-forransom, smuggling, and other criminal fundraising
activities. Al Murabitoun may also receive funding and
other support from other extremist groups.
Relationship with Al Qaeda and AQ
AQIM’s “union” with Al Qaeda was announced by Al
Qaeda’s then-deputy leader Ayman al Zawahiri in 2006.
The Obama Administration considers AQIM an Al Qaeda
“affiliate.” In July 2014, the group publicly reiterated its
pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri, who is now leader of Al
Qaeda. However, news reports suggest that the group’s
members may be torn over whether to switch allegiance to
the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS.
Al Murabitoun is a splinter faction of AQIM, an Al Qaeda
“affiliate.” In April 2014, Mokhtar bel Mokhtar swore
allegiance to Zawahiri in the context of the split between Al
Zawahiri and the Islamic State.
Alexis Arieff, firstname.lastname@example.org, 7-2459
www.crs.gov | 7-5700