Veteran extremist Mokhtar Belmokhtar in August 2013 merged his al-Mulathamun Battalion with Tawhid Wal Jihad in West Africa (TWJWA) to form al-Murabitun, which seeks to “unite all Muslims from the Nile to the Atlantic in jihad against Westerners” and “liberate Mali from France,” according to the group’s public announcement. The merger formalized an already close relationship between two of the most active terrorist groups in North and West Africa. The two groups—both offshoots of al-Qa‘ida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—conducted numerous attacks against Westerners in North and West Africa prior to their merger, including the January 2013 attack on the I-n-Amenas gas facility in Algeria that killed nearly 40 Westerners, including three Americans. In mid-2015, there were conflicting press reports that Belmokhtar had been killed.
In 2015 the group reaffirmed its allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and restated its intent to continue to attack France and its allies. In May 2015 a portion of al-Murabitun’s Mali-based cadre pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, although Belmokhtar publicly rejected the pledge.
French CT operations have killed multiple senior leaders and dozens of rank-and-file members of al-Murabitun—including titular leaders Abu Bakr al-Masri and Ahmed el-Tilemsi—in Mali since November 2013, possibly preventing the group from carrying out a high-profile attack in the region. In March 2015 al-Murabitun conducted its first attack in Bamako, Mali, with an operation targeting a nightclub that killed two Westerners and three Malian nationals, and in May 2015 the group claimed credit for the kidnapping of a Romanian citizen in Burkina Faso.
Al-Mulathamun Battalion and its subordinate unit al-Muwaqi‘un Bil-Dima (“Those Who Sign With Blood”), led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, splintered from AQIM in fall 2012 due to leadership disputes. Belmokhtar fought with the mujahidin in Afghanistan as a teenager and trained with al-Qa‘ida, where he lost an eye mishandling explosives. He returned to Algeria in the mid-1990s and joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA). By the late 1990s, Belmokhtar seized control over lucrative trans-Saharan smuggling routes, reportedly earning millions by trafficking cigarettes. Belmokhtar helped set up the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) splinter faction in 1998. GSPC evolved into AQIM in 2007.
TWJWA, also known as the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), was founded in late 2011 as an offshoot of AQIM and has coordinated terrorist attacks across North and West Africa. Since the French-led intervention in Mali began in mid-January 2013, TWJWA has conducted a majority of the attacks targeting French and African forces in the vicinity of Gao and Kidal, using suicide bombings, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and landmines.
Al-Murabitun, an Arabic phrase meaning “The Sentinels,” invokes a medieval dynasty of the same name—known in English as the Almoravids—that originated as a religious and military movement and whose nomadic founders emerged from present-day Western Sahara in the mid-11th century. The Almoravids ruled much of northwest Africa and southern Spain for nearly 100 years, professing a rigorous Islamic creed and imposing a strict form of sharia on the peoples they conquered.