Nouakchott — Al-Qaeda commanders hope that the newly picked Sahara emir will help heal the terror group's deepening internal divisions.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's (AQIM) Shura council named Al Vourghan brigade chief Jemal Oukacha, alias Yahya Abou El Hammam, as its new Sahara emir, ANI reported Thursday (October 4th).
Citing an AQIM leader, ANI reported that Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid was appointed Abou El Hammam's deputy. The news came one month after former Sahara emir Nabil Makloufi, alias Nabil Abu Alqama, was killed in a car crash between Gao and Timbuktu.
Abou El Hammam, an Algerian national, is one of the most prominent al-Qaeda leaders in northern Mali, and is close to AQIM chief Abdelmalek Droukdel (alias Abou Moussaab Abdelouadoud). Earlier this year, Abou El Hammam was appointed Timbuktu governor.
Jemal Oukacha hails from Réghaia, east of Algiers. The 34-year-old is close to Droukdel and one of his top lieutenants in the Sahel. Abou El Hammam was detained in Algiers in late 1990s and spent 18 months in prison before he was acquitted and released. Directly after that, he joined Algeria's GSPC, which later changed its name to AQIM.
In 2004, he joined fighters in northern Mali and southern Algeria where he served under the command of Khaled Abou El Abbas, who was then emir of the Sahara. Abou El Hammam was sentenced to death in absentia by a Biskra court in 2006 terror case. France also accuses him of killing Michel Germaneau, a French national who was kidnapped and killed by AQIM.
Abou El Hammam took part in several clashes with the Algerian and Mauritanian armies, including a 2005 attack on Lemgheity barracks in northern Mauritania in which 17 Mauritanian soldiers and six militants were killed. At the end of 2007, he personally commanded El Ghallaouiya operation in which three Mauritanian soldiers were killed near the city of Ouadane, Adrar province. He also took part in the 2008 Tourine attack, which was led by Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, emir of the Tariq Ibn Ziyad brigade.
AQIM leaders are trying to put an end to differences between Sahara emirs. But it also excludes Moulethemine brigade leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar (alias Khaled Abou El Abass or "Laaouar"), who has recently sparked conflicting reports about assassination attempts against him by MUJAO militants.
While a spokesperson for the Moulethemine Brigade categorically denied that Belmokhtar was wounded, his wife's uncle who lives in Timbuktu told Algeria's El Khabar daily that Belmokhtar was injured in an armed clash. He added that he contacted one person close to Belmokhtar who confirmed the news.
Journalist Abi Ould Zidan noted that it was Abou El Hammam's brigade holding French hostages. His brigade is also a mixture of different components, including Algerians, Mauritanians, Malians and Moroccans; something that gives it much force and importance for the organisation.
"In short, we can say that Yahya Abou El Hammam is a consensus choice for those who carry arms in AQIM's different factions, including MUJAO and Ansar al-Din, and that he has the same value with AQIM-allied networks, such as smugglers, beneficiaries and tribal dignitaries," political analyst Ahmed Ould al-Salek told Magharebia.
Ould al-Salek added, "This is quite understandable at a time when the world is preparing to launch a war against these groups."