The new alliance, known as al-Mourabitoun, or the Sentinels, was first reported in late August by Mauritania's Nouakchott News Agency, known as ANI and considered a reliable source of information on the region's jihadists.
ANI, quoting a statement, said Belmokhtar's Katiba al-Mulathimin, or Battalion of Masked Men, was joining forces with the Movement for Oneness and Holy War in West Africa, MUJAO, led by Ahmed al-Tilemsi of Mali. But Belmokhtar said he had decided not to take command of al-Murabitoun himself so it could "empower a new generation of leaders."
ANI said the new leader, who was not named, is a veteran, like Belmokhtar, of the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan against the invading Soviets and fought against the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 after the suicide attacks on the United States.
The new leader had also commanded jihadist units against French-led forces who drove an Islamist coalition led by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb out of the stronghold it had established in northern Mali in 2012.
Knowledgeable sources in the region believe the mystery commander is not Algerian, unlike the leaders of most armed organizations in the turbulent region such as Belmokhtar.
Algerian jihadists, including veterans of the 1980s Afghanistan War, launched an insurgency against the military-backed Algerian government in December 1991 after the generals scrapped a parliamentary election Islamist parties were set to win, an unprecedented political breakthrough in the Muslim world 20 years before the Arab Spring.
That war, which was formally declared over in 2002, was a murderous, atrocity-ridden conflict that produced a new generation of hard-line jihadists and spawned AQIM, the Algerian group that became the major Islamist fighting force in North Africa.
MUJAO is largely composed of black African Islamist radicals and mostly led by Mauritanians. Both groups involved in the merger broke away from AQIM in 2012 over leadership issues.
Belmokhtar, for example, was bitter about not being promoted to a senior command by AQIM's longtime leader, Abdelmalek Droukdel.
Belmokhtar, who lost an eye fighting in Afghanistan, and MUJAO, suffered heavy losses in the Mali fighting. They were forced to retreat by the French-Led African force assembled to crush the jihadists who had held northern Mali for nine months.
But the jihadists avoided being annihilated. "Rather, they have been relieved of a strategic disadvantage, the fixed occupation of certain territories, and have regained their No. 1 tactical asset -- mobility," observed Andrew McGregor, director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues in the Islamic world.
The survivors of those battles are now regrouping and using their financial resources, largely the proceeds of kidnapping ransoms and narcotics smuggling, and pre-planned alternative bases in the Sahara Desert and the semi-arid Sahel region south of it to mount new operations.
These are aimed largely at the "apostate" Arab governments in the region -- and France's extensive commercial interests there.
After the bloodbath at Algeria's In Amenas gas complex, where 37 foreign workers were killed, suicide bombers from Belmokhtar's group, now based in southern Libya's desert, attacked a French-owned uranium plant in nearby Niger May 23.
Libya, increasingly lawless nearly two years Gadhafi was overthrown, has become the haven for groups like Belmokhtar's who exploit its relentless chaos.
It's from there that the newly created al-Murabitoun Brigade will mount its operations amid Libya's seemingly endless turmoil, analysts say.
"AQIM, which was once largely restricted to activities within northern Algeria, has expanded into a number of related movements with operatives in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Libya, and the potential to ally with other groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar al-Sharia," an al-Qaida offshoot, McGregor noted.
"With their mobility restored, the jihadists of the Sahel/Sahara will continue to take advantage of regional political rivalries, under-equipped militaries and fears of neo-colonialism to rebuild their movement...
"Unless real international security cooperation can be established, the extremist groups may soon emerge with the upper hand in the struggle for the vast territories of northern Africa."
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