When longtime Algerian jihadist and recently-removed AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced in December the creation of a new combat unit, al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima (“Those Who Sign with Blood”), much of the media coverage focused on what Belmokhtar said about the new group’s role. As part of Belmokhtar’s Katibat al-Moulathimin, the new group would, in his words, attack “those planning the war in northern Mali.” Belmokhtar also said that an eventual intervention in Mali would be “a proxy war on behalf of the Occident.” He also explicitly threatened not only France, but also Algeria, calling the country’s political, military, and economic elites “sons of France” and saying “we will respond with force, we will have our say, we will fight you in your homes and we will attack your interests.”
At the time, few noted Belmokhtar’s important historical reference point in choosing this name for his new faction: the name al-Mouwakoune Bi-Dima was originally used by a group of Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) fighters who conducted a series of attacks in Algeria and in France against French targets. Most notable was the Mouwakoune group’s December 1994 hijacking of Air France Flight 8969, an incident that ended when elite French gendarmes stormed the plane on the tarmac in Marseille. While few sources discuss this group in detail, a brief discussion of the attackers and their relationship with the GIA leadership appears on pages 194-196 of al-Hayat journalist Camille Tawil’s book on the GIA, an authoritative source on the group which has never been translated from the original Arabic. (My thanks to Jihadica blogmaster Will McCants for translating and summarizing relevant passages for the purposes of this post.)
Citing the first communiqué issued by the GIA about the incident, Tawil notes that the group called the attack a “response to French support [for the government of Algeria] that has no military, economic, or political justification.” The communiqué further called for France to stop internationalizing the conflict in Algeria, and threatened to blow up the plane if its demands to release a number of prisoners — including GIA and Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) leaders as well as notable Saudi preachers Salman al-Awda and Safar al-Hawali and the Egyptian “blind sheikh” Omar abd al-Rahman — were not met. On page 196, Tawil adds that according to then-GIA emir Djamel Zitouni, the same Mouwakoune group executed four Catholic missionaries in Algeria following the French operation to free the plane.
On the surface it might seem odd that Belmokhtar, one of the GIA’s first leaders to split off and form the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in response to the GIA’s brutal tactics and blind attacks on civilians, would so openly reference the GIA Mouwakoune group. But in light of last week’s attack on the In Amenas gas facility in southeastern Algeria, two interesting parallels between the two Mouwakoune groups emerge:
- In both the Air France attack and last week’s assault, hostage taking may have been an ancillary instead of a primary goal. In the Air France hijacking, the attackers quickly killed three hostages to prove their seriousness before demanding the release of the aforementioned prisoners, but it later emerged that their true goal was always to detonate the plane over Paris, possibly in order to destroy the Eiffel Tower. Similarly, though the group that assaulted the In Amenas plant also demanded the end of French attacks in Mali and the release of more than 100 prisoners from Algerian jails as well as jihadi causes-célèbres Aafia Siddiqui and Omar Abd al-Rahman, they reportedly killed a number of hostages outright, forced some hostages to wear explosives and mined the plant. Algerian authorities have said the group’s goal was to destroy the facility, though they may have also hoped to escape with at least some hostages.
- In both attacks, the stated goal (separate from other possible explanations) was to target one country for supporting war in another. The GIA justified the Air France hijacking and subsequent Paris Metro bombings, not to mention the killing of French citizens in Algeria, as a reaction to France’s support for the Algerian government during the latter’s civil war. Likewise, both the In Amenas attackers and Belmokhtar himself characterized the In Amenas attack as a reaction against Algerian cooperation with France’s intervention last week in Mali.*
Notable also are how the two Mouwakoune attacks differed. Tawil indicates (pp. 257-258) that Zitouni and his successor Antar Zouabri encouraged attacks on the Algerian energy industry as well as those working in that industry. Yet the In Amenas attackers deliberately separated the Algerian workers from the expatriates, reportedly telling Algerian workers that they were not targeted in the assault, and that “we know that you are oppressed, we have come to help you, so that you can have your rights.”
This attitude reflects shifts that have taken place in how jihadist groups and advocates view attacks on Muslim civilians, and the need to avoid targeting them. While many trace this shift to the intensely negative reaction in the Muslim world to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s wanton massacres of Iraqi civilians in 2004 and 2005, this shift can again be traced back to the Algerian civil war, and the disgust generated by the GIA’s even more violent attacks against civilians and widespread declarations of takfir that eventually encompassed all Algerians who were not allied with the group. The failure of the Algerian civil war in turn helped push a number of key figures and theorists, particularly Abu Qatada and Abu Musab al-Suri, away from the GIA. While al-Suri would later become famous for his theories underpinning the “global jihad”, the GIA was, along with al-Qaeda, one of the first proponents of this strategy. In his masterful book about al-Suri, Architect of Global Jihad, Brynjar Lia highlights al-Suri’s claim to have advised then-GIA leader Sherif Gousmi in 1993 to attack France in order to (pp. 155-156):
Deter her and punish her for her war against the GIA and for the French support for the dictatorial military regime [Algeria]. I told them that it would be beneficial to draw France into an openly declared support for the Algerian regime, a support which existed, but only in secrecy. This will unify the Islamic Nation around the jihad in Algeria as it unified the Islamic Nation in Afghanistan against the Soviets. To strike against France is our right. We are at war, and we do not play games, and our enemies should know that.
For the moment, only Mokhtar Belmokhtar knows why he decided to make reference to the GIA’s Mouwakoune in adopting the same name for his new group. Perhaps he was making reference to his renewed desire to attack Algeria, after years of operations in other Sahelian countries. Perhaps he could have been trying to subtly include Algeria and Algeria-focused jihadist groups as part of the global jihad, after years in which AQIM was derided for its focus on the removal of the Algerian government. But what is clear is that the influence of the Algerian civil war, one of the least-studied and least-understood periods in the history of modern jihadist groups, continues to resonate to this day.
*The attackers also said they planned the assault two months in advance, in preparation for such an eventual intervention. Algeria had not publicly provided any support for French intervention plans, meaning either that Belmokhtar assumed Algerian cooperation (as described in his December communiqué) or was planning on attacking Algeria regardless.