BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — An Algerian-born jihadist who heads one of the most powerful and feared cells of al-Qaida's North African branch has decided to leave the al-Qaida franchise in order to create a movement spanning the entire Sahara desert, said one of his close associates and a local official who had been briefed on the matter on Monday.
Moktar Belmoktar, formerly the head of a cell of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, is one of the most prolific kidnappers operating in Mali's lawless north. He is linked to the abduction of a group of tourists in 2003 in southern Algeria, as well as the top United Nations diplomat in Niger, Robert Fowler, who was grabbed on the side of a road in 2008.
The deputy mayor of a town in the Timbuktu region of northern Mali, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, confirmed that AQIM "katiba," or cell, leader Belmoktar had left the al-Qaida franchise. The information was confirmed by Oumar Ould Hamaha, an associate of Belmoktar's, who was reached by telephone at an undisclosed location in northern Mali.
"It's true," said Hamaha. "It's so that we can better operate in the field that we have left this group which is tied to the 'Maghreb' appellation. We want to enlarge our zone of operation throughout the entire Sahara, going from Niger through to Chad and Burkina Faso."
Hamaha said, however, that while he and Belmoktar have left the North African branch, they remain under the orders of al-Qaida central.
AQIM evolved from an Algerian jihadist group, which was pushed by security forces south across the border into Mali in 2003. The group appeared to be floundering, losing members and on the run, until it sealed a deal with al-Qaida's central command, becoming the terror franchise's branch in the Maghreb region of Africa, a term that refers to North African countries including Algeria.
For most of its existence though, AQIM's main base of operation has been inside Mali, which is not a Maghrebian country. Until this spring, the cells operated in the country's deserts, in dense forests and in a system of subterranean caves that recall the terrain of Afghanistan. Then in April, following a coup in Mali's capital, a mixture of rebel groups including AQIM seized Mali's northern half, giving them de facto control over the cities and allowing them to operate openly.
The announcement indicates that al-Qaida is setting its sights on a larger zone of operation. So far AQIM has conducted raids into Mauritania and Niger, but has not been able to establish long-term bases there. And the terror franchise has never operated in Chad, according to security experts.
In New York this month, diplomats are meeting to discuss plans for a military intervention in order to take back northern Mali. United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has described the presence of these terror groups in northern Mali as a "powder keg."
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.