As news media, the administration and national security analysts grapple with the identity and nature of the Islamist hostage takers in Algeria the question is often posed: Is this al-Qaeda or not? The question is faulty and imagines a sharp demarcation between al-Qaeda and other terrorists, a distinction which no longer exists. This also demonstrates the problem with the administration’s aversion to calling this a war against al-Qaeda rather than what it is, a war against Islamic jihadists.
Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the suspected leader of the hostage takers, typifies the new face of Islamic terrorism, a series of interconnected and affiliated groups that recognize no central command but operate with similar goals and methods.
The Wall Street Journal sketches out his career:
Mr. Belmokhtar, who came to jihad through Afghanistan, has claimed to have lost his left eye in a battle with Soviet troops — though he was there at a time of little fighting. . . The Algerian, now around 40 years old, has said he trained at camps in Pakistan run by Osama bin Laden; it isn’t likely he was there for long, analysts say, given his young age at the time. . . .Edged out of his native Algeria in the 1990s when government troops pushed Islamic hard-liners to neighboring states, Mr. Belmokhtar began appearing in Mali’s north. . . . . Mali’s weak military largely ignored Mr. Belmokhtar, and it is there he helped engineer his group’s diversification into crime and kidnapping.
He earned a reputation for escorting convoys carrying contraband, such as weapons and cigarettes. In 2007, an Algerian court convicted him in absentia for trafficking weapons; The French dubbed him Mr. Marlboro.
In late 2006, the militant band pledged fealty to al Qaeda and renamed itself al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or AQIM.
Mr. Belmokhtar appears to have been the principal intermediary between AQIM and al Qaeda in Pakistan, according to analysts who follow the sect, including Robert Fowler, a Canadian diplomat. In 2008, Mr. Belmokhtar’s followers kidnapped Mr. Fowler in Niger, holding him and another Canadian for more than four months.
So he is, we can say, in the mix of jihadist fighters who operate with and among al-Qaeda forces and other related groups. This is why it is inaccurate and misleading to say our enemy is “al-Qaeda.” If we would actually listen to the words of the terrorists, there would be less confusion about who they are. Thomas Joscelyn writes:
The Belmokhtar-headed group that has claimed responsibility for the attack calls itself the “Those who Sign with Blood” Brigade. In its statement claiming responsibility, which was disseminated to news outlets and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group, Belmokhtar’s group demanded that France retreat from Mali.
The brigade called the attack a “blessed invasion” and said it was in retaliation for the French trying to “to break the Islamic ruling system in” Mali. The brigade also said its attack occurred “while the Muslims are moaning under the butcher Bashar al Asad in wounded Syria, in the sight and ear shot of the whole world.”
“This invasion comes in the global campaign of fighting the Jews and the Crusaders,” Belmokhtar’s men said. [Emphasis added.]
But the administration wants no part of a war in which it must explicitly acknowledge its defining element is Islamist extremism, not an al-Qaeda membership card. It has presently no policy to address the myriad of affiliated groups that are spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Hence, each incident (Libya, Algeria) comes as a “surprise.” Hey we didn’t know about those terrorists, and you know we killed Osama bin Laden! We don’t learn the lesson from one setting, so subsequent events are always a revelation.
Well, this is the problem we face — ill-defined, loosely organized groups with an alphabet soup of acroynms but a common goal of terror directed at Jews, Christians and other Muslims — and this is the time when you need mature, independent national security strategists in top positions. Too bad we won’t have that, nor the will to spend money on our own security.