Paris to withdraw several hundred troops to make way for stronger European presence in conflict-hit region, sources say.
The new leader of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a well-known veteran among the armed groups wreaking havoc in North Africa but experts say it is unclear what path he will chart to assert his authority.
Abu Obaida Yusuf al-Annabi, an Algerian national born in 1969, replaced Abdelmalek Droukdel following his killing by French forces in Mali last June, according to the SITE monitoring group.
Al-Annabi was already head of AQIM’s Council of Dignitaries and “was also one of its media chiefs”, said Laurence Bindner, co-founder of the JOS Project that analyses armed group’s propaganda online.
“He’s the one who pledged allegiance in the group’s name to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the main al-Qaeda chief, in 2011. And he’s authored several of its main statements in recent years,” said Bindner.
The United States placed al-Annabi, who is thought to still be based in Algeria, on its “terrorism” watch list in 2015, a move followed by the United Nations the following year.
His group has claimed responsibility for attacks on troops and civilians across the Sahel region, including a 2016 strike on a hotel and restaurant in Burkina Faso that killed 30 people, mainly Westerners.
But al-Annabi’s legitimacy as the head of AQIM might not be clear-cut, particularly among more recent and younger recruits.
“Annabi is better known, to me at least, as a propagandist and pseudo-cleric than as an operational figure,” said Alex Thurston, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati who focuses on Islam in northwest Africa.
“Tapping someone without the same operational background as Droukdel … would seem to me to be a sign of a weak bench,” he said, describing AQMI as “an organisation fighting for relevance and lacking in charismatic authority”.
Analysts at the Counter Extremism Project say al-Annabi’s relations with his predecessor may have been tense, another potential sign of strategic divisions in the ranks.
That, in turn, could complicate AQIM’s relationships with Iyad Ag Ghaly, the Malian Tuareg who leads the Group to Support Islam and Muslims, a nominal ally of the armed group.
While Ghaly has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda, he has like other affiliates in the world significant autonomy – and whether al-Annabi allows this to continue will determine how the armed group evolves in the coming years.
“There have always been tensions between fighters on the ground in northern Mali, and an extremely isolated AQIM emir in Algeria,” said Elie Tenenbaum, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations.
He said al-Annabi’s first moves would be key in determining how he wants to position his group, at a time when al-Qaeda affiliates are facing off against ISIL (ISIS) fighters also jockeying for influence.
“Is he going to name new chiefs for the katibas [combat units]” south of the Algerian border, Tenenbaum asked.
“Will he be tempted to place his own people there? Will he modify the links with AQIM’s local allies?”
It also remains to be seen how Annabi will approach the negotiations sought by Mali’s government, which are fiercely opposed by France as it tries to help Sahel governments stave off the armed group’s threats.
In a rare interview with France 24 television last year, al-Annabi made clear his wish to see AQIM prisoners freed as part of talks to liberate Sophie Petronin, a French hostage seized in Mali in 2016.
Petronin was freed in October just as Mali’s authorities released some 200 prisoners.
Tenenbaum said for the Malian government, the Group to Support Islam and Muslims “appears today as the group it can talk to” – a position that could strengthen Ghaly’s hand in the fight against ISIL.
That means infighting among the armed groups is unlikely to abate anytime soon.
“The time of reconciliation has passed and no longer seems to be on the agenda,” Tenenbaum said.