On November 21, 2020, in a video produced by Al-Andalus, the media wing of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi), Abdelmalek Ould Sidi, alias Qutaiba Abou Nooman al-Chinqiti, legal and religious head of the organization jihadist, announced the choice by the committee of wise men of Abu Obeida Youssef al-Annabi as supreme leader of AQIM. This announcement, which took five months, is proof of the complexity of the organization’s internal promotion process and of the fracture that exists between its two fringes surviving in the North and operating in the Sahel.
Central subject of the debates, should we remain on the dogma of a chieftaincy made up of historical “Algerians, founders of the organization or favor new faces from the Sahel, which is today the focal point of the fight of AQIM ?
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Unsurprisingly, the choice fell on a long-time companion of its founder Abdelmalek Droukdel, killed during a Franco-American operation in Mali, with whom he had founded the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC ) in 2004 and participated in the transformation of the group into an Al-Qaeda franchise in January 2007 after a service of allegiance formalizing the creation of Aqmi: Abou Obeida al-Annabi, whose real name is Yazid Mebarek.
Mebarek was born in 1970 in Annaba, 500 km east of the Algerian capital. Called la Coquette, this seaside town was one of the most festive towns in the country. She experienced the rise of Islamism during the 1980s, then saw the installation of a terrorist maquis in the early 1990s. At 19, he became an active militant of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party created in 1989. Annaba and all of eastern Algeria are a real stronghold for this party, which is strongly structured after its victory in the communal elections of 1990. The young Mebarek, a student in economics at the University of Constantine at the time, rubs other leaders of the movement, as well as future leaders of the terrorist organizations which will be born after the stopping of the electoral process in January 1992. It is moreover at this time, in 1993, his diploma in his pocket, that Mebarek joined the ranks of the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), armed wing of the dissolved FIS, which had made the Jijel and Annaba region its headquarters. Then those of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), where he met Abdelmalek Droukdel in 1996. Mebarek had left the AIS at the start of this group’s talks with the Algerian authorities, preferring to continue the fight.
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In disagreement with the theses of the GIA, which some executives consider nihilistic, he split, then rose in rank by participating in the creation of the GSPC in 2004, then by becoming its political commissar, a position he kept after the creation of AQIM.
Unlike his brother in arms Droukdel, Abou Obeida was against the regionalization of the fight and its extension to other countries. His vision was that it was necessary to concentrate on Algeria and seize power there to repair the damage done to the FIS during the interruption of the electoral process in 1991. He took a dim view of the GSPC’s adherence to the al-Qaeda nebula because of the risk of attracting the enmity of other States and of finding themselves in the crosshairs of the United States. Annabi represents with a small group of executives of the GSPC a third way between that of Hassan Hattab, creator of the organization, who believed in dialogue and in the exit from the top through National Reconciliation, and Droukdel, who wanted at all costs making the GSPC the arm of Al-Qaeda across the continent. This will result in tensions between him and Droukdel that will last for several years.
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The two men will be reconciled during the campaign of attacks and attacks of 2007 in Algeria which marked the climax of the activity of AQMI in the north of the country. A campaign that will provoke a vigorous response from the Algerian army and services, which will undermine the terrorist organizations active in the country.
In 2009, AQMI was cornered and retreated into the maquis of Kabylie. A branch joins forces with Mokhtar Belmokhtar and extends into the Sahelian no-man’s land to live there on hostage-taking and drug trafficking. In November of the same year, Abou Obeida Youssef al-Annabi almost lost his life in an ambush by the Algerian army in the maquis of Imsouhel, in the wilaya of Tizi Ouzou. He will come out of it seriously injured and will lose the use of a leg.
This injury confined him to a less operational and more ideological and administrative role in the terrorist organization. He subsequently became the head of the committee of wise men, a group of religious and ideological referents, and a member of the Majliss al-Choura, the advisory council of AQIM. It is moreover in this capacity that he was chosen by Droukdel to replace him behind the microphone and sign AQIM press releases. His emergence on the front of the stage at from the end of 2018 comes at a time when Droukdel is struck down by illness and very weak. On April 25, 2013, in reaction to Operation Serval, it was he who called for jihad against France and gave shape to the jihadist insurrection that would follow. On September 10, 2015, he was added to the US blacklist of “international terrorists”.
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Abou Oubeida will seize the opportunity of the outbreak of the popular revolution in Algeria, after February 2019, to launch statements of support and declare that his organization will refrain from attacking the people. In the process, he gave an interview to the France 24 news channel, which presented him as number two in the organization.
This is the time when he approaches ideologically the command of Al-Qaeda, engaged in a fierce war in Syria and Iraq against the local powers and above all against the phenomenon Islamic State, whose push calls into question the existence even the organization founded by Osama Bin Laden. Mebarek will apply to the letter the recommendations of Ayman al-Zawahiri, who advocated a transfer of the struggle to the field of ideology and politics, and a rapprochement with the populations in the midst of the Arab spring.
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It is therefore quite natural that he is propelled head of Aqmi by the Majliss al-Choura on November 21st. Very few executives have his seniority and the induction video almost justified his choice by dwelling on the loss of the group that accompanied Droukdel during his elimination by unrolling their biographies.
By becoming head of AQIM and with the elimination of Aymen al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan on July 31, Abou Obeida Youssef al-Annabi finds himself, de facto, on the short list potential candidates to replace Bin Laden’s companion at the head of Al-Qaeda.
It has several advantages for this. Firstly, the fact that AQIM is today one of the franchises of Al-Qaeda controlling the most territories, one of the most financially autonomous and one of the few able to reproduce the feat of the Taliban, c that is to say, to propose a mode of governance in the Sahel. Nevertheless, the head of Aqmi leaves with some serious handicaps. That of being completely routed in Algeria, its historic stronghold, is the first. His North African origin also makes him a second-class candidate against the powerful Egyptians and other Middle Easterners. Another major handicap: the lack of geographical continuity of AQIM’s area of influence with the rest of the franchises and a very strong rivalry with the subsidiary of Daesh, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS). Finally, Aqmi, which is part of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), a coalition of several terrorist groups and which is led by Iyad Ag Ghali, is not on good terms with the latter and his influence on the coalition would not be as strong as one thinks. As proof, there was no message of congratulations from GISM for the installation of Mebarek at the head of Aqmi.
The fact remains that Annabi was able, based on the experience of his group, to relaunch local recruitment, to attract the most radicalized fringes in Algeria and even to bring in foreign fighters. Serious assets if, in addition, it proves its operational capabilities by organizing attacks against Western interests in the region.