NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) — The one-eyed terror leader Moktar Belmoktar, considered by many to be the most dangerous man in the Sahara, is now officially joining forces with a Mali-based jihadist group and vowing to support Islamists in Egypt, according to a statement posted Thursday.
The announcement of the alliance known as "the Mourabitounes" formalizes an emerging union between Belmoktar's followers and the group known as MUJAO, or Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa. Their comments were carried by the Nouakchott Information Agency, a Mauritanian site previously used by Belmoktar to convey messages.
The two groups said they had decided "to confront the Zionist campaign against Islam and Muslims" by uniting jihadists from the Nile to the Atlantic, spanning all of North Africa. They also spoke of their desire to target French interests in retaliation for the French-led military intervention of Mali.
The militants also urged fellow jihadists to "cooperate against the secular forces who reject all that is Islamist and who have forced the eviction of our Muslim brothers in Egypt."
Egypt's Mohammed Morsi, an Islamist who became the country's first freely elected president, was unseated in a July 3 coup.
The comments could be seen as a "call to arms" but also underscore the group's desire to unite jihadists across the African continent, said Andrew Lebovich, an analyst who focuses on political and security issues in the Sahel and North Africa.
MUJAO has "changed dramatically several times in form and function," and is now entering a new phase after essentially running the northern Malian town of Gao for nearly a year and then engaging in combat with French forces.
"This could be another one of these reorganizations to try to strengthen the group and give it better direction," Lebovich said.
Belmoktar, an Algerian believed to be in his 40s, is best known for masterminding the January attack on a natural gas plant in southeastern Algeria in retaliation for the French-led military intervention in Mali.
In the attack and in the subsequent rescue attempt, some three dozen foreigners were killed inside the complex. Belmoktar claimed responsibility within hours, immediately catapulting him into the ranks of international terrorists.
However, the Nouakchott Information Agency indicated that the new alliance would be headed by a non-Algerian, indicating that Belmoktar will not be at the helm. The unnamed leader is believed to be a veteran jihadist who had fought the Russians and later the Americans in Afghanistan, and also helped lead the response to the French-led intervention in Mali.
"Depending on who this new leader is, it may be more convenient for Belmoktar to be in the background a little bit and to maintain his operations under the formal leadership of someone else," Lebovich said.
Belmoktar broke away from al-Qaida's North Africa branch to form his own group after falling out with al-Qaida leaders. And MUJAO was created in September 2011 after members broke off from al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in order to expand their activities into West Africa.
However, Lebovich notes Belmoktar has maintained his loyalty to al-Qaida's top leaders despite his issues with the local branch. In their statement Thursday, the militants said they drew their inspiration from al-Qaida and the Taliban, and acknowledged "the leaders of jihad" as al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahri and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Belmoktar and MUJAO have long been suspected of working together. The longtime spokesman for the Mali-based jihadist group is the uncle of Belmoktar's Malian wife.
Most recently Belmoktar and MUJAO claimed joint responsibility in May for attacks in Niger. Suicide bombers in Niger detonated two car bombs simultaneously, one inside a military camp in the city of Agadez and another in the remote town of Arlit at a French-operated uranium mine, killing 26 people and wounding dozens of others.
Belmoktar claims he trained in Afghanistan in the 1990s, including in one of Osama Bin Laden's camps. It was there that he reportedly lost an eye, earning him the nickname "Laaouar," Arabic for "one-eyed." He has been declared dead on multiple occasions, including most recently in March, and each time, he re-emerged to strike again.
The name chosen for the alliance — Mourabitounes — derives from the Almoravids, a Berber-led dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries that spanned across Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria and southern Spain. Al-Qaida's North Africa branch has long paid homage to the Almoravids, who were known for their strict interpretation of Islamic law, Lebovich said. Mauritania's national soccer team is also known as the Mourabitounes.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi in Dakar, Senegal also contributed to this report.