Changing Landscape: Jihad in Mali

Fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Islamist group MUJWA stand guard in Gao, northern Mali, August 7, 2012 (Reuters)

On Tuesday, two Americans were arrested on terrorism charges. An FBI affidavit accuses the pair of planning to “travel from the United States to Mauritania intending to prepare to wage violent jihad.” Mauritania, their travel destination, was not the final destination. Instead, Randy (Rasheed) Wilson and Mohammed Abdul Rahman Abukhdair planned to cross the desert into northern Mali, now largely controlled by militant Islamist groups.

Wilson and Abukhdair met online between February and November 2010. Both were already exploring opportunities to take up jihad abroad. Wilson had been the roommate of Omar Hammami, who left for Somalia in 2006 and is currently a member of al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate there.[1] He had discussed following Hammami to Somalia with another friend, but ultimately, they never acted on it. Abukhdair moved to Cairo, Egypt in February 2007 and then to Alexandria in February 2010. Egyptian authorities arrested him in November 2010 on suspicions of being active in a terrorist group and he was deported to the U.S. in January 2011. By late October 2011, Abukhdair had moved in with Wilson’s family in Mobile, Alabama, and the two men had already begun talking about where to go fight jihad.

Their final destination was a contentious topic: Wilson pushed to join al Shabaab while Abukhdair argued to plan an attack in the U.S. The divergence in opinions probably stems from influential figures in the pair’s lives. Omar Hammami’s rise in al Shabaab, seen in his appearance in the group’s propaganda, most likely inspired Wilson to follow his friend. The affidavit noted that an informant, who also knew Hammami, and Wilson had previously discussed travel plans to Somalia. In conversations with Abukhdair, Wilson expressed his preference of traveling from Sudan to Somalia, where he believed they would receive “special treatment” due to his connection to Hammami. Abukhdair, on the other hand, was concerned about the risk of travel, particularly after his detention in Egypt, and proposed carrying out jihad in the U.S. Wilson and Abukhdair both followed the Yemeni-American cleric Anwar al Awlaki, who called on Muslims in the West to carry out attacks against Western targets. Neither Somalia nor a domestic attack won in the end.

The decision to go to Mauritania, made in early September 2012, may reveal a shift in popular destinations for those looking to participate in jihad. In the aftermath of this year’s military coup that toppled the fragile democracy in Bamako, Mali’s capital, and the subsequent declaration of the independence of Azawad (the region encompassing northern Mali) by the Tuareg-dominated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a variety of Islamist militant groups began fighting for territorial control in northern Mali. In addition to being a smuggling hub for drugs, cigarettes, weapons and humans, the region is increasingly beset by jihadist violence. The international community’s preparations for a military intervention designed to bring northern Mali back under the control of Bamako have elicited reactions from leaders of regional Islamist militant groups, who have begun to call on supporters to come to the battlefield.

Wilson and Abukhdair planned to reach Mali through the Mauritanian desert, and sought to join up with one of the Islamist militant groups there. They reasoned that unlike other destinations for jihad, traveling to Mali through the Mauritanian desert would pose the least risk of being discovered and that a new jihadist front would be opening up in the region. Moreover, Mauritania had the following benefits to them: 1) it was less westernized than other countries; 2) the government is weak; 3) the cost of living is low; 4) it is not a destination for jihad; and 5) jihad in the region was on the rise and they would be well-positioned to join the fight in Mali. Abukhdair even went so far as to suggest that Hammami might seek to travel to Mali from Somalia since the fight in Somalia was in decline.    

The revelations from the FBI’s affidavit run deeper than an overview of a foiled attempt by Americans to take on jihad: they indicate that recruits may be shifting focus from recent destinations for jihad, such as Yemen or Somalia, to new regions. They also underscore the foothold that the al Qaeda network now has in Africa. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), historically an al Qaeda affiliate heavily involved in smuggling and kidnapping, has increased its presence in the region and benefited from the unrest in Libya. AQIM’s network, which runs through the Sahara Desert, has growing ties to more localized Islamist militant groups. The Tuareg rebellion in Mali and destabilizing effect of the coup opened the door for the Islamist militant groups Ansar al Din and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA or MUJAO) to seize territory in northern Mali. The U.S. designated MUJWA, led by former AQIM members, as a foreign terrorist organization for its connections to AQIM on December 7. Nigerian militants, members of Boko Haram, are now training in Mali with these groups and there is a growing body of evidence indicating ties between Boko Haram and AQIM.

The unfolding developments in Mali and across West Africa deserve close attention, particularly given the region’s emergence as the new front in jihad.


[1] FBI agent Tim Green confirmed that the information provided in the affidavit alleging that Wilson and Hammami were roomates was false. It is not clear what the extent of their relationship was. See Melissa Nelson-Gabriel and Jay Reeves, "Alabama Terror Case Could Hinge on Relationships," Associated Press, December 23, 2012. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jgnIHbdQdDQNUfrgBHrPIM05Sg1Q?docId=41865f68cf2849d2998926d0d52c1d23