Algeria’s Abu Obeida al-Annabi: Third possible candidate to succeed Zawahiri as head of Al-Qaeda

By Akram Kharief

Posted on Thursday, 1 September 2022 16:53
Abu Obeida Youssef al-Annabi © DR

Chosen by al-Qaeda’s Maghreb branch to apply for the leadership of the terrorist organisation, Algeria’s Abu Obeida Youssef al-Annabi, whose real name is Yazid Mebarek, joined the FIS at the end of the 1980s. Since then, he has risen through the ranks of North Africa’s Islamist groups.

On 21 November 2020, in a video produced by Al-Andalus, the media wing of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (Aqmi), Abdelmalek Ould Sidi (aka Qutaiba Abou Nooman al-Chinqiti), the jihadist organisation’s legal and religious leader, announced that the Committee of Wise Men had decided to appoint Abu Obeida Youssef al-Annabi as Aqmi’s supreme leader. This announcement, which took five months, is proof of the complexity of the organisation’s internal promotion process and the existing fracture between its two fringes surviving in the North and operating in the Sahel.

The central subject of the debates is whether to remain with the dogma of a leadership made up of “historic” Algerians, the organisation’s founders, or to favour new faces from the Sahel, which is the focal point of Aqmi’s struggle today.

Unsurprisingly, the choice fell on Abu Obeida al-Annabi, whose real name was Yazid Mebarek. He was a long-time companion of Aqmi’s founder Abdelmalek Droukdel, who was killed during a France-US operation in Mali and with whom he had founded what was known at the time as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) in 2004. The two men had also helped transform the group into an al-Qaeda franchise in January 2007 following a pledge of allegiance formalising Aqmi’s creation.

Active FIS activist

Mebarek was born in 1970 in Annaba, 500km east of the Algerian capital. Called La Coquette, this seaside town was one of the most festive cities in the country. It experienced the rise of Islamism during the 1980s, and then saw the installation of a terrorist maquis in the early 1990s. At the age of 19, he became an active militant of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist party created in 1989. Annaba and the whole of eastern Algeria were a real bastion for this party, which became better structured following its victory in the 1990 communal elections.

The young Mebarek, an economics student at the University of Constantine at the time, rubbed shoulders with other leaders of the movement, as well as with future leaders of the terrorist organisations that were created after the electoral process was halted in January 1992. In 1993, with his degree in hand, Mebarek joined the ranks of the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS), the armed wing of the dissolved FIS, which had made the region of Jijel and Annaba its headquarters. Then he joined the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), where he met Abdelmalek Droukdel in 1996. Mebarek had left the AIS at the beginning of this group’s talks with the Algerian authorities, as he wanted to continue the fight.

Disagreeing with the theses of the GIA, which some of its leaders considered nihilistic, he split, then rose in rank by helping create the GSPC in 2004 and by becoming its political commissioner, a position he would keep even after Aqmi had been created.

Unlike his brother in arms Droukdel, Abou Obeida was against regionalising the fight and extending it to other countries. His vision was to focus on Algeria and take power there so that it could repair the damage that had been done to the FIS when the electoral process was interrupted in 1991. He was not happy about the GSPC joining the Al Qaeda nebula because of the risk of attracting the enmity of other states and being in the crosshairs of the US. Annabi, together with a small group of GSPC leaders, represents a third way between that of Hassan Hattab, the organisation’s founder, who believed in dialogue and a way out through National Reconciliation, and Droukdel, who wanted to make the GSPC al-Qaeda’s arm on the continent at all costs. This led to tensions between him and Droukdel that lasted several years.

The two men were reconciled during the 2007 campaign of attacks and bombings in Algeria, which marked the climax of Aqmi’s activity in the northern part of the country. This campaign provoked a swift response from the Algerian army and services, which destroyed the terrorist organisations active in the country.

Wounded, he lost the use of a leg

In 2009, Aqmi was cornered and withdrew into the maquis of Kabylia. A branch allied itself with Mokhtar Belmokhtar and expanded into the Sahelian no-man’s-land to make a living from hostage-taking and drug trafficking. In November of that same year, Annabi almost lost his life in an Algerian army-led ambush in the maquis of Imsouhel, in the wilaya of Tizi Ouzou. He was seriously wounded and lost the use of one leg.

This injury confined him to a less operational and more ideological and administrative role within the terrorist organisation. He later became the head of the Committee of Wise Men, a group of religious and ideological referents, and a member of the Majliss al-Shura, Aqmi’s advisory council. In this capacity, Droukdel chose him to replace him behind the camera and sign Aqmi’s communiqués. His emergence on the scene from the end of 2018 came at a time when Droukdel was overcome by illness and very weakened. On 25 April 2013, in reaction to the Serval operation, he called for jihad against France and gave shape to the jihadist insurgency that would follow. On 10 September 2015, he was placed on the US blacklist of “international terrorists”.

Abu Oubeida seized the opportunity of the outbreak of the popular revolution in Algeria, after February 2019, to launch communiqués of support and declare that his organisation would refrain from attacking the people. In the wake of this, he gave an interview to the France 24 news channel, which presented him as the organisation’s number two.

Head of Aqmi

At this time, he came ideologically close to the command of al-Qaeda, which was engaged in a fierce war in Syria and Iraq against the local powers and especially against the Islamic State phenomenon, the growth of which called into question the very existence of the organisation founded by Osama Bin Laden. Mebarek applied 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.

It therefore makes a lot of sense that Majliss al-Shoura promoted him to the position of head of Aqmi on 21 November. Very few leaders have his seniority and his induction video almost justified his choice as it dwelled on the loss experienced by the group when Droukdel was eliminated and revealed more about their lives.

By becoming the head of Aqmi and following al-Zawahiri’s death in Afghanistan on 31 July, Annabi finds himself, de facto, on the short list of potential candidates to replace Bin Laden’s companion at the head of Al-Qaeda.

Strengths and weaknesses

There are several reasons for this. First, Aqmi today is one of the Al-Qaeda franchises that controls the most territory, one of the most financially autonomous and one of the few that can reproduce the feat of the Taliban, that is to say, propose a mode of governance in the Sahel. Nevertheless, the leader of Aqmi is starting off with some serious handicaps. The first is the fact that he has been totally defeated in Algeria, his historical stronghold.

His North African origin also makes him a second-rate candidate compared to the powerful Egyptians and other Middle Easterners. Another major setback is the lack of geographical continuity of Aqmi’s zone of influence with the rest of the franchises and a very strong rivalry with the subsidiary of IS, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). Finally, Aqmi, which is part of the Groupe de Soutien à l’Islam et aux Musulmans (GSIM), a coalition of several terrorist groups led by Iyad Ag Ghali, is reportedly not on good terms with the latter and its influence on the coalition is not as strong as is thought. As proof, GSIM did not send a message to congratulate Mebarek when he became head of Aqmi.

The fact remains that Annabi has been able, by relying on his group’s experience, to revive local recruitment, attract the most radicalised fringes in Algeria and even bring in foreign fighters. These are serious assets if, in addition, it proves its operational capacities by organising attacks against Western interests in the region.

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