As the War on Terror draws to a close, the continued antics of America’s enemies begin to resemble a workplace comedy more than the "existential threat" we all faced over 10 years ago.
Just as the truth behind office politics does not trickle down to staff until weeks or even months after the drama, public letters found by the Associated Press at an abandoned terror outpost in Mali reveal the lurid details behind a break between elements of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the African branch of Al-Qaeda that has been responsible for a slew of kidnappings, bombings, and mass killings since 2003.
The central cast in this tragic comedy boils down to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a taciturn, one-eyed brigade commander who has been with the “company” since the tender age of 19, and his arch-rival, AQIM commander Abdelmalek Droukdel, who upper management have been promoting over Mokhtar for decades. Their mutual animosity dates back to the early days of AQIM, before the brand merger with Al-Qaeda, when it was still going by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). As part of the internal restructuring that followed 2003’s management exodus (to Paradise, as many of them were killed), Droukdel, Belmokhtar’s contemporary, was promoted to lead GSPC. To say that Belmokhtar felt slighted is putting it lightly. After all, though Droukdel has a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics over him, Belmokhtar had risked life and limb in jihad, losing his eye either to the infidel’s shrapnel or to his own mishandling of explosives during training, depending upon whom you ask.
In 2006, GSPC underwent a corporate takeover as Al-Qaeda, the unparalleled brand leader in global jihad, offered operational support and brand recognition in return for overall control. During the process, at the end of which GSPC was redubbed "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb," Belmokhtar struck at the chance for a promotion. Both Belmokhtar and Droukdel wrote candidacy letters directly to Osama bin Laden, asking to be the new “emir” of the organization. Bin Laden, like any good executive, decided not to involve himself in the drama, and Belmokhtar was passed over again. In a fit of pride, Belmokhtar moved his operations further south and away from direct AQIM oversight, into the Mali region where he has wreaked havoc ever since.
In the intervening years, Osama bin Laden was killed, and the U.S. drone strategy has continued to decimate Al-Qaeda leadership to the point of irrelevancy. In this decentralized corporate environment, Belmokhtar’s brigade began to flout company policy by engaging in tobacco trafficking and miscellaneous smuggling, which, though earning him the moniker “Mr. Marlboro,” went against Al-Qaeda’s concerted attempt to rebrand itself as “virtuous” after years of Muslim-on-Muslim violence. Like the disgruntled employee that he was, Belmokhtar began to ignore paperwork, skip meetings, and work at his own, at times leisurely, pace. In a private letter from Droukdel cataloging his misdeeds, Belmokhtar stood accused of, among other things, failing to fill out his expense reports, return phone calls, and follow directions on matters as simple as hostage situations. Ultimately, Droukdel pulled out the big guns on his long-standing rival: Belmokhtar just was not very good at his job, with no major terrorist attack to point to in his years of commanding a brigade.
That crossed a line. With his pride mortally wounded by Droukdel’s flowery language and moral invective, Belmokhtar did what many ambitious and resentful executives have done in the corporate world: he left and took his rolodex with him.
Since 2012, Belmokhtar, whose followers call the “Prince,” has led The Masked Brigade, a West African terrorist group that, though affiliated with Al-Qaeda ideologically, has broken free from AQIM’s hierarchy, enjoying spectacular success. However, observers have noted a curious pattern to his recent attacks, such as the region’s biggest hostage operation in the town of Ain Amenas or the attack on a French-owned uranium mine in Arlit, Niger. Ain Amenas is Droukdel’s home town, Arlit the site of his own famous hostage operation in 2010, now outdone by the Masked Brigade’s exploits.
Evidently, Belmokhtar is using his terrorist operations to thumb his nose at his old boss. If it weren’t for their feuds' tragic consequences, the lives lost and regions burned, this all would seem a bit funnier. Regardless, with our good taste intact, we can still point out that today’s global jihadist are not just cruel and ineffective, but also immature and ridiculous.
Is anyone surprised?
Read some choice quotes from the letter below:
On poor relationships with management:"Why do the successive emirs of the region only have difficulties with you? You in particular every time? Or are all of them wrong and brother [Belmokhtar] is right?”
On making sales below market value: "... the kidnapping of the Canadians that the Masked Brigade carried out. The organization paid particular attention to this abduction because of the nature of the Canadian captives; one of them was the personal representative of the U.N. secretary-general. We strove to give the case an international dimension ... but unfortunately, we met the obstacle of [Belmohktar] ... he managed the case however he liked ... Here we must ask, who handled this important abduction poorly? ... Does the inadequacy come from consultation or coordination, which we were insistent on - or does it come from unilateral behavior ... trading the weightiest case (Canadian diplomats!!) for the most meager prices (700,000 euros)!!" [Emphasis Al-Qaeda's]
On poor marketing and brand visibility: "... you have recieved multiple directives and instructions from the Emirate of the organization urging you to carry out [spectacular attacks]. Despite all that, your brigade did not achieve a spectacular operation targeting the crusader alliance. So we don't know who to attribute this fiasco to - the organization or to you?"
On poor communications skills: "Here we ask our good brother, why would the break in contact with the Emirate only be with you? Why do you only turn on your phone with the Emirate when you need it, while your communication with some media is almost never ending!"
On lying: "It is also wrong to cite scholars out of context."
On office rivalries: "It is truly surprising, this idea that the emir wanted your destruction when he ordered you to agree and unite your ranks under the leadership of one man from among you. He repeated it numerous times. Is that what you see as wishing your destruction? By god, it's very strange."