Three Islamic extremist factions in Mali announced that they have merged into one group and pledged allegiance to al-Qaida's leader, according to a group that monitors jihadist websites.
Leaders from Ansar Dine, al-Mourabitoun and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb made the official declaration in a video distributed today, according to SITE Intelligence Group.
The merged group is now called "Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen," which in English translates to "Support of Islam and Muslims," the monitoring group said.
Iyad Ag Ghaly, the former leader of Ansar Dine who is a native of the Kidal region, is leading the combined group, SITE Intelligence Group said. Ag Ghaly said in the video that the three factions were inspired by the unification of factions in Syria.
Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaida took over northern Mali in 2012, exploiting a power vacuum after mutinous soldiers overthrew the president. French-backed forces pushed the extremists from strongholds the following year, but attacks have continued and progressed south.
Ansar Dine emerged in 2012 as a religious alternative to the largely secular Tuareg separatists operating in northern Mali. Ansar Dine had allied itself with al-Qaida before the groups took over northern Mali, though no official declaration was made.
Al-Mourabitoun had claimed responsibility along with AQIM, al-Qaida's North Africa branch, for the November attack at the Radisson Blu hotel in Mali's capital, Bamako. At least 20 people were killed along with two gunmen during a more than 7-hour siege.
Former Tuareg separatist rebels signed a 2015 peace deal with the government. Last week, they began joint patrols in northern Mali as part of that accord to fight continued attacks by extremists and other sources of insecurity in the region.