NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) — The one-eyed terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, who is considered by many to be the most dangerous man in the Sahara, is now officially joining forces with a Mali-based jihadist group and vowing to support Islamists in Egypt, according to a statement posted Thursday.
The announcement of the alliance known as “the Mourabitounes” formalizes an emerging union between Belmoktar’s followers and the group known as MUJAO, or Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Their statement was carried by the Nouakchott Information Agency, a Mauritanian site previously used by Belmoktar to convey messages.
The two groups said they had decided “to confront the Zionist campaign against Islam and Muslims” by uniting jihadists from the Nile to the Atlantic, spanning all of North Africa.
They vowed to “cooperate against the secular forces who reject all that is Islamist and who have forced the eviction of our Muslim brothers in Egypt.”
Egypt’s Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who became the country’s first freely elected president, was unseated in a July 3 coup.
Belmoktar, an Algerian believed to be in his 40s, is best known for masterminding the January attack on a natural gas plant in southeastern Algeria in retaliation for the French-led military intervention in Mali.
In the attack and in the subsequent rescue attempt, some three dozen foreigners were killed inside the complex. Belmoktar claimed responsibility within hours, immediately catapulting him into the ranks of international terrorists.
However, the Nouakchott Information Agency indicated that the new alliance would be headed by a non-Algerian, indicating that Belmoktar will not be at the helm. The unnamed leader is believed to be a veteran jihadist who had fought the Russians and later the Americans in Afghanistan.
Belmoktar broke away from al-Qaida’s North Africa branch to form his own group after falling out with al-Qaida leaders. And MUJAO was created in September 2011 after members broke off from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in order to expand their activities into West Africa.
However, in their statement the militants said they drew their inspiration from al-Qaida and the Taliban, and acknowledged “the leaders of jihad” as al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Belmoktar and MUJAO have long been suspected of working together. The longtime spokesman for the Mali-based jihadist group is the uncle of Belmoktar’s Malian wife.
Most recently Belmoktar and MUJAO claimed joint responsibility in May for attacks in Niger. Suicide bombers in Niger detonated two car bombs simultaneously, one inside a military camp in the city of Agadez and another in the remote town of Arlit at a French-operated uranium mine, killing 26 people and wounding dozens of others.
Belmoktar claims he trained in Afghanistan in the 1990s, including in one of Osama Bin Laden’s camps. It was there that he reportedly lost an eye, earning him the nickname “Laaouar,” Arabic for “one-eyed.” He has been declared dead on multiple occasions, including most recently in March, and each time, he re-emerged to strike again.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.