The Drone War Goes Awry in Africa

The Drone War Goes Awry in Africa

Three years ago this month, a previously unknown Islamist group, the Mourabitoun, launched an unprecedented attack on a natural gas facility near the eastern Algerian town of In Amenas. But after its dramatic opening salvo, the group went strangely quiet. Some argued the In Amenas attack was as irreproducible as it was unprecedented — and those voices gained strength after Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Mourabitoun’s leader and founder, was reported to have been killed by a U.S. drone strike last summer.

The doubters have now been quieted. After three years of inactivity, the Mourabitoun has abruptly reappeared. The Jan. 15 attack on a restaurant and hotel in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, which left at least 28 people dead, was the second deadly incident involving Belmokhtar’s group in less than two months. The first, some 500 miles away in neighboring Mali on Nov. 20, was a joint operation with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). It involved three assailants, armed with AK-47s and grenades, who rampaged through the Radisson Blu hotel in downtown Bamako, sparking an hours-long siege during which 27 people were killed. It remains unclear whether the assailants were trained and equipped by AQIM or by the Mourabitoun — or even whether the distinction is still valid.

But the Bamako and Ouagadougou attacks, though nearly identical, represent a marked departure from the In Amenas attack. The differences underscore how much the Mourabitoun’s capabilities, tactics, strategy, and even its geographical focus have shifted over the last 36 months. They also offer plenty of reasons to reconsider the strategy, developed by proponents of the U.S. drone war, of neutralizing terrorist groups by “decapitating” their leaders.

The most obvious difference between the earlier and later attacks is simple geography. To the extent that the Mourabitoun had a traditional safe haven, it was on the border of Algeria, in northwestern Mali. That’s more than 700 miles from both Ouagadougou and Bamako, the capitals of Mali and Burkina Faso, where the group now seems to have put down roots. Those two states are significantly weaker and less stable than Algeria, which has the largest military in Africa. That fact helps explain another significant difference: Unlike Algeria, both Mali and Burkina Faso host significant numbers of U.S. and French troops battling jihadi groups across the Sahel and Sahara.

The most recent attacks also reveal that the Mourabitoun has begun selecting different kinds of targets and has adjusted its tactics accordingly. The In Amenas facility was highly secure, with perimeter fencing and a dedicated company of Algerian gendarmes (not to mention the Algerian military patrolling the surrounding desert). Breaching it required a hardened team of 30 terrorists laden with assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and explosives. The hotels in Bamako and Ouagadougou, by contrast, had only minimal security measures and could be successfully attacked with only a handful of lightly armed assailants.

Why did the Mourabitoun undergo this dramatic shift from North Africa to the Sahel, from stable states to fragile ones, from hard targets to soft ones, and from complex to simple attacks? The answer lies in Belmokhtar’s leadership — and now, the lack thereof.

Belmokhtar had been a smuggler and small-time AQIM commander in the deserts of Mali since 2007, but he was not considered a major international threat until after the spectacular In Amenas attack. He founded his own group, the Mourabitoun, in 2012 after clashing with AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel over the group’s tactics and onerous bureaucratic procedures. But while he broke with AQIM, he nonetheless declared his continued allegiance to al Qaeda’s central command in Pakistan.

But Belmokhtar’s leadership was always erratic, and his ideological commitments uncertain. He swung freely between waging ideological warfare in northern Mali and running a baldly criminal organization involved in smuggling cigarettes and other illicit goods. The In Amenas attack he planned was a case in point: It’s not clear whether the attackers were hoping to take hostages for ransom or destroy the gas facility and undermine the country’s hydrocarbon-based economy. Either way, the attack was a tactical failure. Of the 32 attackers, 29 were killed and three were captured (Belmokhtar was not killed or captured, since he was not on-site to see his plan go into action). No ransoms were paid, and the facility — while damaged — was not destroyed. It is still operating today.

The attack seemed designed to achieve only one thing: to catapult Belmokhtar and his new group onto the international stage and signal that he was still allied with al Qaeda, just not with AQIM. What better way to do so than to launch the first large-scale attack on a hydrocarbon installation in North Africa?

But just when the Mourabitoun had announced itself as a new and potent threat, the group went underground. Maybe Belmokhtar was hiding from the stepped-up manhunt and was unable to plan further attacks. Maybe the group’s morale was suffering after it took 29 casualties at In Amenas and Belmokhtar was struggling to recruit new followers. Or maybe the Mourabitoun had used up most of its arsenal and needed time to rearm. Whatever the reason, after its inaugural attack, the Mourabitoun disappeared from the limelight.

Then in June 2015, Belmokhtar was targeted in a U.S. drone strike in northern Libya. He was rumored to have been in the region to broker a rapprochement between competing jihadi groups, some of which were allied with al Qaeda and some of which supported the Islamic State. If true, this would have been yet another example of Belmokhtar’s pushing the jihadi envelope, alone and without the support of his superiors. But the terrorist leader is thought to have died in the strike, and there have been no communiqués from him since, whether in writing, audio, or video. Yet the Mourabitoun has never officially acknowledged Belmokhtar’s death (though an al Qaeda communiqué may have inadvertently referred to it), and rumors persist that he is still alive.

If in fact Belmokhtar died in the strike, his group has lived on without him. But it has also changed in important ways. Five months and some 2,100 miles away from the site of the drone strike that reportedly killed its leader, the group announced a rapprochement of sorts with AQIM. In a statement claiming the Bamako attack, Droukdel claimed that the Mourabitoun had rejoined AQIM. The AQIM leader made no mention of Belmokhtar, which suggests two, not mutually exclusive, possibilities: that the two terrorist leaders have resolved their differences and buried the hatchet or that Belmokhtar is in fact dead. The Ouagadougou attack, which was also claimed by both groups, provides additional evidence for the rapprochement, though a subsequent communiqué no longer mentions the Mourabitoun by name, suggesting that the group may be in the process of reintegrating into AQIM, from whence it came.

Assuming Belmokhtar is dead, what the case of the Mourabitoun demonstrates is that leadership decapitation does not necessarily result in the demise — or even the weakening — of a terrorist group. Rather, it can precipitate the group’s evolution in unexpected ways. Belmokhtar’s elimination may have inadvertently paved the way for the Mourabitoun’s return to the AQIM fold and facilitated the consolidation of al Qaeda-allied jihadi groups in North Africa and the Sahel. Fighting under the more risk-averse al Qaeda leadership, former Mourabitoun terrorists are carrying out less ambitious — but ultimately deadlier — attacks on targets that are more permissive and more easily linked to the jihadi narrative. As a result, AQIM may now be able to sustain a faster tempo of attacks than it could when Droukdel and Belmokhtar were at odds. This does not augur well for safety and security in the Sahel. Nor does it bode well for America’s ongoing drone war.

Image credit: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images