In doing research into the earlier days of AQIM and its predecessor, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), I came across the original versions of the GSPC's Al-Jama'a magazine. This publication, which lasted from 2004 to mid-2006, serves as a good study into the GSPC's adherence to al-Qaeda's ideology.
Its issues are chock-full of quotes from various al-Qaeda leaders and ideologues, discussions on then-current battles against American forces in Iraq, lamentations for the deaths of some leaders such as Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, or just general praising of AQ writ large. Discussions of the GSPC's own methodologies and beliefs in its pages also closely align with that of al-Qaeda's treatises on these same subjects. However, this should not be surprising.
Though it did not receive much attention - and indeed, is still left out of many contemporary publications on AQIM - the GSPC first pledged its allegiance to Usama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in 2003.
Despite not formally being accepted into AQ's fold until three years later in late 2006, it is no shock then to find that the GSPC was already acting like it was al-Qaeda in its magazines. And I believe that an interview with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the infamous Saharan commander, is the perfect example of that.
In a May 2006 issue of Al-Jama'a, the magazine's editors include a segment entitled "A Discussion with Khalid Abu al-Abbas," the moniker referring to Belmokhtar's kunya. This interview, which has been rarely cited (ostensibly the last major publication to utilize a version of it posted to jihadi forums was back in 2009), contains some interesting information related to both al-Qaeda's early days in the Sahel and in regards to Belmokhtar's close ties to AQ overall.
Namely, Belmokhtar, by way of meetings in the Sahel, claims that he first arranged for al-Qaeda to communicate with and support the Algerian Armed Islamic Group (GIA) way back in 1994. This date and claim, effectively serving as AQ's 'year zero' for Sahelian activity, has been confirmed by other jihadi sources and publications, such as a 2016 article written by AQIM's ideologue Hisham Abu Akram. (Abu Akram also wrote an important article on Abu Muhammad al-Yemeni, another AQ envoy sent to the GSPC, which will also eventually be translated into English for public consumption here.)
Researcher Jacob Zenn has also documented 1994 as being the year for al-Qaeda's beginnings in the Sahel in his book "Unmasking Boko Haram."
It is then quite clear that Belmokhtar acted as one of the key components that facilitated the rise al-Qaeda in the Sahel.
I also find Belmokhtar's version of events in Afghanistan to be fascinating, particularly the individuals he name drops as meeting there, such as Emir Khattab and al-Qaeda's (in)famous ideologues Abu Qatada al-Filistini and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi.
Belmokhtar's message to the various AQ and Taliban leaders later in the interview is also revealing, as he calls Bin Laden "our sheikh," Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban "Emir of the Believers," and heaps tons of praise on Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi (and alluding to the extensive ties between GSPC and al-Qaeda in Iraq.) A lot of al-Qaeda talk for an individual and group not yet technically AQ according to some.
A large discussion of the then-recent 2005 attack in Lemgheity, Mauritania, is also included. Belmokhtar makes some interesting claims in this regard, though it is definitely true that this was the harbinger of a series of al-Qaeda raids into Mauritania from 2005 to 2011. Belmokhtar's justification for his war against Mauritania is also consistent with other future al-Qaeda diatribes against the state. (I have previously discussed the GSPC's apparent video from the Lemgheity raid here.)
At any rate, as this interview is not often cited, and has not been fully available in English to my knowledge, I will provide the full English translation below (albeit it is rough in some areas). Perhaps other scholars or observers will also find this useful or helpful, or if only but to cite the true provenance for this interview if one is already familiar with the later version from the jihadi forums.
All emphasis and notes are purely my own to draw attention to certain things or in order to provide more context.
PS: The quality of the PDF is not that great, so I apologize for the graininess of the screenshots.
Discussion with Khalid Abu al-Abbas:
Q1) We would like to begin with you giving us a brief background of yourself, [beginning with] the foundation of your jihadist journey from Afghanistan to Algeria?
A1) My full name is Mokhtar bin Mohammad Belmokhtar and my kunya is Abu al-Abbas Khalid [or Khalid Abu al-Abbas]. I was born in the city of Ghardaia in 1972 where I spent my childhood and when I reached high school, I committed myself to the neighborhood mosque. And with the beginnings of my commitment, I was passionate about the Afghan jihad and I had no other goal but to make hijrah [emigration] and wage jihad with the goal of obtaining martyrdom in the path of God in Afghanistan.
My resolve only increased with the death of the martyred sheikh mujahid Abdullah Azzam, oh how affected the mujahid’s world was by this, I then became resolved alongside a few of my brothers and people of my city - God bless them all with martyrdom in the path of God - and we travelled to the land of jihad at the beginning of the 1990s and I was 19 years of age then.
I stayed in Afghanistan for around a year and a half, where I trained in many of the military sciences and I took training courses at the Khalden and Jihad Wahl training camps and Al-Qaeda training camps in Jalalabad. I had contact with many of the mujahideen brothers from every corner of the Earth, from Morocco, to Indonesia, and to the Philippines, all of which were rightly gathered in Afghanistan for the great jihad. And because it contained the energies and the scholars, it became the convergence point for all the jihadist groups in the world!
[Here] I got to know many of the hero commanders such as [Ibn] Khattab [Note: he later became al-Qaeda’s point man in the Caucasus], Abu Thabat al-Masri [Note: an Egyptian commander who later died fighting in Bosnia], Abu Bnan al-Jaza’iri, Abu Moaz al-Khosti [Note: apparently a Palestinian commander who died in Afghanistan], and many others. I also met many of the sheikhs, such as Abu Qatada and [Abu Muhammad] al-Maqdisi, and Abu Talal [Note: I believe this is in reference to Abu Talal al-Qasimi]. I also moved between many frontlines from Gardez, to Jalalabad, to Kabul.
After the “Bloody June” events in Algeria in 1991, some of the mujahideen brothers mobilized and moved from the field of jihad in Afghanistan to Algeria. [Note: ‘Bloody June’ referring to the June 1991 events wherein Algerian security forces violently broke up Islamic Salvation Front sit-ins, reportedly killing dozens of people.] At the forefront was the brother Abdul Rahman Abu Siham, the leader of the Guemar operation, [Note: One of, if not the first terrorist attack in Algeria, which took place in Guemar in Nov. 1991], who had the effort of persuading the brothers in the necessity of starting jihad work in Algeria. But the brothers had various positions on the timing of beginning jihad and the necessity of the preparations, so he [Abu Siham] said his famous words “We are staying to denote the jihad, and you are coming after us to complete the road!”
I left Afghanistan in late 1992, after the first unit, and entered Algeria through Morocco, after which I moved to the east where I stayed for half a year with the brother Abu Mus’ab Khathyr, the leader of the east.
After that I journeyed to my city [Ghardaia] so as to found, with some of the brothers, the first nucleus of the Martyrs Battalion, in which its activity spread over time to all of the Sahara and the Sahel, and conducted military operations on Algerian and foreign targets. This includes the killing of five Europeans who were working for an American petroleum company in a rapid storming operation.
During this time, I was charged alongside the brother Abd al-Baqi by the leadership of the Group [Note: referring to the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA] to communicate with the brothers in al-Qaeda who were located in Sudan. We then corresponded about support for the mujahideen in late 1994 and early 1995.
After this, I was appointed the emir of the Sahara Region after the death of Abd al-Baqi, while appearances of abuses on a great level by the leadership of the Group began. And after the death of the emir of the Group, Abu Abdul Rahman Ameen [Note: Kunya of Djamel Zitouni], the Group appeared to have deviated from a practical manhaj. We then decided to end our bayah to the Emirate with the slogan of the “Armed Islamic Group,” after we gave them advice.
After the clearance of our obligations, we released our statement of the name “Statement and Exoneration,” and we then made endeavors to group the mujahideen in cooperation with various regions, and what paid off was the birth of the “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.”
Q2) In regards to the Afghan experience, how do you evaluate the difference between your experience there and your long experience here? In another meaning, what are the differences, in which you recorded, between fighting the Russians and fighting these apostates here?
A2) The jihad experience in Afghanistan was a favorable opportunity to do the largest grouping of jihadists, where many emigrated to which gave the jihad there a big boost and which saw the jihadi work there make great qualitative leaps both theoretically and practically. And it gave an opportunity for free jihadi thoughts, its legal rooting from the letters and books in which the jihadi library was rich with, legally and militarily. This is unlike the jihad in Algeria, in which closed egos prevailed and at the time, the Group did not exploit external work despite many opportunities to do so.
As for the military question, the final stage of the Afghan jihad depended on the war tactics on the frontlines as the stage was roughly balanced. As for the Algerian jihad, from its beginnings until now, depends on its strategies on gang wars and the cities - “hit and run” tactics. And here an important characteristic must be mentioned distinguishing the jihad in Algeria, especially in the first stage: It is the broad mobilization and wide support, in which the mujahideen did not find much trouble in persuading the people in the legality of fighting the apostate regime and its helpers despite the lack of foreign intervention such as in Afghanistan or Iraq.
Q3) Are there any beautiful memories or photos or events stuck in your mind from Afghanistan?
A3) I did not feel the pride of the Mujahid believer except on that good land and I have from it beautiful memories that cannot be mentioned in this interview but I remember two [stories] from which you can get to know the honor and loyalty of this proud people despite the prevailing illiteracy among them.
The first story: A story of a sheikh who was our neighbor at one of the fronts and who was an admirer of the Arab mujahideen. It was God’s destiny that I was wounded in my eye by a shell fragment and after my return from the hospital, as I had been away for awhile, he saw the impact of the injury on my eye and he hugged me and sobbed until I took pity on him and he said in his Afghan language: (What is the sin of this boy who came from a far away Arab country to support us and is doing this?) So this is how it was for the helpers of the Muhajireen during the time of the Prophet.
The second story: I remember that we were in one of the valleys on the Gardez front and a battle was about to begin and a car stopped next to us and out came a large sheikh who walked over to us in a white thobe carrying an English rifle. He then came to us and led us in prayers and our duas and after prayers he sat in the center of us and we talked to him in his Pashtun language. So we asked him, “How old are you?” And he replied, “I’m almost 100 years old!” And when one of the brothers asked his reasons for coming to the frontlines he said “I am a warrior and I cannot sit in my house and hear the sounds of the fighting from the front and I will not rest until I conquer myself!” This is in compliance with a hadith from the Prophet: “I wanted to conquer in the path of God, so I fought then I conquered and so I fought.”
Q4) Many Algerian and global newspapers have on many occasions described you with a distorted image, that you are a bandit and your activities are purely for material gain, and that you are smugglers seeking to collect money and spoil the land, etc. Can you clarify the image and give us the goals for your taking up of arms and how you haunt the tyrants of the world?
A4) As for the allegations, this is a method mastered by the media’s clients in distorting every sincere Mujahid in order to twist facts and alienate people from the mujahideen until the Mujahid’s image becomes that inherent to bandits and dealers of drugs and are not new charges brought against me by the Pharaohs of this age, as this has been said about our brothers the Taliban and many other of our mujahideen brothers.
As for the goals of us taking up arms, it is compliance with a divine command: “And fight them until there is no fitnah and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah.” [Al-Anfal 8:39] And on this occasion, we announce our innocence from all of these allegations and from any bargains launched by the Algerian regime. And we call on our mujahideen brothers to be persistent and patient until God shows this command or we perish without it in the path of jihad which is the closest way to forgiveness and reward, as said by Sheikh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyya and happy is he who takes on martyrdom in this time, as said by Sheikh Usama, God protect him.
Q5) Let us now return to the battle “Badr Mauritania,” in which God blessed you, but despite this some parties still suggest that you were not the authors of this operation. Firstly, what were the motivations and reasons behind your choice to target a Mauritanian military barracks?
A5) Before words on the reasons for our choice of this target, I want you to be aware that there is an intense presence of American forces in the Sahel and in the Algerian desert and that this presence increased after the Americans realized that there were communication efforts with the brothers in al-Qaeda after the death of our brother Abu Muhammad al-Yemeni [Note: Al-Yemeni, or al-Yamani - depending on the transliteration - was an al-Qaeda envoy sent to the GSPC in the early 2000s. He was killed by Algerian forces in September 2002.] So there is the presence of American forces in the Gao region of Mali, the Agadez region of Niger, and in Nema, Mauritania, and in Tamanrasset, Algeria. So there is intense movements of the armies of these states in coordination with the Americans and there have been frequent clashes with them and we have set up ambushes to target them, such as our targeting of the counter-terrorism forces of Niger. [Note: I believe this is in reference to a March 2004 clash with Nigerien and Chadian troops]
And after realizing that the Mauritanian regime shows complete employment under the Americans and Israelis, which was represented especially in the repeated attacks against the sons of the Islamic movement, and especially after the visit by Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to Mauritania and the preparations for the joint military exercises with the American forces. The base for these exercises, on this occasion, was in the region of Lemgheity, and we have seen the same point of joint exercises for the last two years.
So our choice to attack this military position was as a proactive strike in order to learn the system in this area in which we will not sit idly by. God helped us in this blessed operation and it was the main reason for the collapse of the Ould Taye regime. [Note: Maaouya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, the former president of Mauritania, was ousted in a military coup in August 2005]
Q6) How did you prepare for the operation?
A6) Many points and targets have been pursued for years and for this it did not take us long to prepare for this operation. We closely monitored the location and studied it for any potential gaps or weaknesses while we also monitored the roads and withdrawal methods. After this, we drew a map of the attack and prepared all the available weapons and equipment and then we moved towards the location in undisclosed methods in order to avoid intensive surveillance patrols. Thanks to God, we managed to surprise the enemy.
Q7) Can you benefit us and provide us with the details of the operation from its launching to the withdrawal from the location of the battle?
A7) We formed three storming groups while my group provided mobile assistance. We then encircled the base and attacked at one time, as required by the base’s location. We chose the timing of 6:30am to surprise the base with dense fire focused on its [the base’s] communication points to prevent any outside support. We then launched a swift maneuver on the heart of the base, which surprised the soldiers of the base and confused them - this prevented them from using their heavy weapons which were under our control from the first moment. The attack lasted around 4 hours, despite what the Mauritanian tyrant said during the defense minister’s announcement. Afterwards, we evacuated with the spoils and the killed and wounded and withdrew after this.
Q8) What is the total outcome of the killed, wounded, and spoils?
A8) As for the outcome of the attack, there were around 15 killed, among them the commander of the barracks who was an officer with the rank of captain, a similar number of wounded, and around 30 soldiers were taken as prisoners, among them a lieutenant.
As for the spoils: SP9 rocket, anti-air systems firing 14.5 and 12.7mm rounds, around 58 rifles and 2 RPG-7s, large quantities of ammunition - around 50,000 bullets - and 7 Toyota vehicles.
And of those killed among the mujahideen, five were killed during the clashes and the last one dying of his wounds after six days. This includes: Abu Ishaaq Ibrahim, commander of the storming group; Aasim Abu Saeed; Abu Dujanah; Abdul Hakeem; Al-Bashir Abu al-Bara; and Abu Muhammad al-Djiguenni/al-Mauritani.
Q9) In regards to the 30 prisoners who were released, the Mauritanian regime has tried to distort you by declaring this false and lies and that you falsely slaughtered them and that this is against international norms. So what do you say in response to this?
A9) As for the prisoners, this issue was studied prior to the execution of the operation and we consulted with our Mauritanian mujahideen brothers in this regard. So we decided to free them if they surrendered themselves. The motive for this procedure was due to many factors; the most important being the societal composition of Mauritania - and the Mauritanian regime missed an opportunity [to negotiate] in order to twist the facts. Our choice, on the other hand, would be an argument for [keeping] the rest of the soldiers, as this was the first mujahideen strike in Mauritania.
We then released them after we explained the Sharia ruling in their fight. And none of them were executed after their surrender, as claimed by the Mauritanian regime and its defense ministry, except for a captain who was cast down after his ammunition was emptied. The release of the prisoners had a good effect in the representation of the mujahideen in the understanding of our Muslim brothers, which are targets sought to reach and achieve behind the military operations. And it is to remove all American client systems under the name of Israel and to eradicate the existence of the Crusaders and Jews from our lands, whether it be military bases, intelligence, or multinational companies.
Q10) Given the employment of and complete loyalty of the Mauritanian regime to America and Israel, what is your advice to the shabab [young men] there? And do you have any words directed to the Muslim Mauritanian people?
A10) It was the land of Chinguetti - Mauritania - that paved the way for the rule of Bilad al-Maghreb and al-Andalus and the Sunni Almoravid state, which was a state of knowledge and jihad led by the Imam al-Mujahid Abdullah bin Yasin and its commander who defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of al-Zallaqa, the famous Yusuf bin Tachfine.
So I leave the descendants of these heroes with a message: I invite them to revive this obligatory duty and assist in the incitement and preparations to be a shield for the Muslim Ummah in the Islamic Maghreb.
And so as to not miss an appeal to the Ulema brothers and students in Mauritania: Join your mujahideen brothers. It is the vulnerabilities that are most despised and is what we need most from you to fill the gaps in jihad. And I invite the Muslim Ummah in Mauritania to support your mujahideen brothers as this is a command from God and we warn them of all the plots that the infidel West weaves to the misfortune of the Ummah’s sons in their religion. We also warn them of the use of their sons as shields for the protection of the Americans and the soldiers that enable the Crusaders in the land of Muslims.
Q11) Do you have a message for your Mujahideen brothers in the world, from Iraq, to Afghanistan, Chechnya, Palestine, the Arabian Peninsula, and to others as one of the vanguards of the coming conquest, God willing?
A11) I want to take this occasion to send a message of love, yearning, and loyalty to all patient Mujahids on ribat in the land of Islam, to my foreign brothers in Bilad al-Haramayn (Note: Land of Two Holy Places, i.e Saudi Arabia), Chechnya, Palestine, and Iraq, and especially to my mujahideen brothers in beloved Afghanistan who are in our hearts, the Ansar and Muhajireen.
To our Sheikh Usama bin Laden and his brother Ayman al-Zawahiri, we inform you that, with God’s help, we continue to fight the enemies of God, from the Crusaders to the apostates. And know, O our Sheikhs, that the Muslim Ummah in this land did not fail to provide its best youth, despite all the conditions of our jihad, from adversity to conspiracies [against us], and they looked [at us] and took their hands and strengthened them until God helped us against his enemies. And they knew that we were your arrows in this land, but they did not disappoint us.
I do not forget to convey peace to the Ansar from our brothers the Taliban, to the Emir of the Believers, Mullah Muhammad Omar. I have given my brother an example of sacrifice and loyalty for your religion, your brothers, and the muhajireen with you. May God reward you with the best reward on behalf of us and the Muslims and we ask God to raise your position in jannah.
And peace and love to my brother, the commander mujahid Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his hero brothers in the land of Iraq. We do not forget your consolation for us, O our beloved brother, and that you stand with us. May God give you strength and faith.
Q12) Any final words to the Islamic Ummah, its Ulema, its young men, and its women?
A12) My words to the Islamic Ummah, its Ulema, its young men, and its women: So after these great events that changed the course of history in the conflict of this ummah against its enemies and which revealed the face of the Crusader West and its agents of the rules of our region by removing the masks that hid these leaders, this split the world into two tents: the tent of faith and the tent of kufr.
So the mujahideen of this time are the vanguards of the tent of faith, truthful to the Ummah and to the support of them, and who take a place for themselves in this tent and who stand up against the enemies of the Ummah in the war against Islam. So said God above: “And those who disbelieved are allies of one another. If you do not do so, there will be fitnah on earth and great corruption.” [Al-Anfal 8:73]
My words to the Islamic Ummah: You are of the great command, that if you do not do God’s command, of which you are entrusted with communicating the truth and standing with God’s people, God above said: “And [mention, O Muhammad], when Allah took a covenant from those who were given the Scripture, [saying], "You must make it clear to the people and not conceal it." [Al-’Imran 3:187]
Take the hands of the returning youth to your lord and beware the tyrants as they switch between you and the returning youth - as what was commanded by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.