The US added the head of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's operations in the Sahel region of North Africa to the list of global terrorists yesterday.
Yahya Abu Hammam, whose real name is Jemal Oukacha, was added by the US to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists for his “key role in the group's ongoing terrorist activities in North Africa and Mali,” the US Treasury Department stated in a press release.
“Today's designation supports ongoing international efforts to isolate AQIM, deny its members the benefits of their violent and criminal acts, and help restore Mali's territorial integrity,” Treasury stated.
Hammam has been waging jihad in North Africa since the 1990s, according to Magharebia.com, which profiled the AQIM emir in October 2012. He was detained by the Algerian government for 18 months, then released. He subsequently joined the Salafist Group for Prayer and Combat, which eventually morphed into AQIM in 2006.
“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,” Magharebia.com reported. Hammam fought in northern Mali and Mauritania, where he was involved in several attacks against the Mauritanian military. In one such attack, in 2005 against the Lemgheity barracks, 17 Mauritanian soldiers were killed.
Prior to being appointed the head of AQIM's operations in the Sahel, he served as the group's emir in the northern Malian town of Timbuktu. Under his rule, numerous Muslim shrines were destroyed and civilians were beaten for the slightest infractions of sharia, or Islamic law.
Hammam was named the emir of the Sahel after his predecessor, Nabil Abu Alqama, was killed in a car crash. Upon taking command, Hammam named Abdel Mejid Abou Zeid as his deputy. Zeid leads the Taregh Ibn Ziyad brigade, which operates throughout Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and southern Algeria. Zeid's brigade is responsible for the beheading of the British hostage Edwin Dyer in May 2009. Algerians, Mauritanians, Malians, and Moroccans are known to fight with both Hammam and Zeid.
The US said that Hammam “as of late 2011 … reportedly had possession of multiple European hostages.” The French accuse Hammam of executing Michel Germaneau, an elderly aid worker, in July 2010. AQIM has brought in tens of millions of dollars by kidnapping European hostages for ransom.
Hammam is known to be close to Abdelmalek Droukdel, the emir of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
AQIM, in alliance with the Movement for the Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Ansar Dine, seized control of northern Mali in March 2012. France ultimately intervened in Mali last month after the al Qaeda-led jihadist alliance launched an offensive to take central and southern Mali. The jihadists likely would have succeeded had France not intervened, as the Malian military was in retreat.
A document written by Droukdel that was found at an AQIM command center in Timbuktu after the town fell to the French exposed the terror group's plan to use northern Mali as a base to conduct attacks in the region and against the West.