Ibrahim Ag Bahanga: Tuareg Rebel Turns Counterterrorist?

Andrew McGregor

March 31, 2010

Western anxiety over the spread of al-Qaeda-style Islamist militancy in the vast and inhospitable Sahara/Sahel region of Africa has had unforeseen consequences for the survival of hardcore Tuareg rebels operating in the same region. For rebel leaders like Mali’s Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, the new emphasis on security threatens a traditional way of life based on control of Trans-Saharan trade routes. Growing security cooperation between the nations of the region (instigated and supported by the United States, France and others) is driving old-school rebels like Ag Bahanga to adapt to new circumstances. In this case, Ag Bahanga appears to be using the threat posed by al-Qaeda to effect a transition from rebel commander to counter-terrorist leader.

Bahanga 1Ibrahim ag Bahanga

A Smuggler’s Paradise

Ag Bahanga’s hometown is Tin-Zaouatene, an oasis located on an old Tran-Saharan caravan route near the Algerian and Mauritanian borders with northwest Mali. The town is still believed to be the center of a lively cross-border smuggling operation. According to the Algerian press, gangs of Arab drug traffickers have had to pay large fees for “permission” to run their products north through Tuareg territory in the Kidal region. A small battle broke out earlier this year when Arab smugglers refused to pay Tuareg gangs for protection of a major cocaine shipment. The Tuareg reportedly seized the vehicles and drugs, but the Arabs responded by kidnapping a local mayor (El Watan, Algiers, January 27). As well as drugs, the lucrative smuggling trade moves cigarettes, fuel, migrants and arms across the poorly guarded borders.

A Life in Rebellion

The hopes of some Tuareg for an independent nation in a post-colonial Africa were dashed when their territories were split up between the nations of Algeria, Niger, Mali, Libya and Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso). An early post-independence rebellion in 1963 was quickly suppressed by Malian authorities. At times the Tuareg of Niger and Mali have cooperated in launching large-scale rebellions, such as that of 1990-1995. During this period, Ag Bahanga was active as a fighter in the Mouvement Populaire de Libération de l’Azawad (MPLA), a group based largely on fighters from the exile communities in Libya and Algeria.

Though a 1995 peace deal was effective for a time in Niger, groups of Tuareg remained disaffected in northern Mali. Open rebellion resumed in 2006 with the emergence of the Mai 23 Alliance démocratique pour le changement (ADC). After several months of fighting, the Tuareg ADC agreed to a peace deal with the government. It appears Ag Bahanga accepted a commission in the Malian army as a part of reintegration efforts before deserting in 2007. Not all the Tuareg rebels were interested in a deal with the government and some of these elements reemerged under Ag Bahanga’s command with a series of attacks on military bases in August, 2007. Designed to equip rebel forces with weapons, the attacks marked the beginning of the 2007-2009 rebellion in northern Mali and northern Niger, though Ag Bahanga’s faction of the ADC, known as the Alliance Touareg Nord Mali pour le Changement (ATNMC), never enjoyed the same support in this conflict that the mainstream ADC had received. The ATNMC number two and military commander was Lieutenant Colonel Hassan Ag Fagaga, notorious for deserting the Malian army twice, in 1996 and 2007. Ag Bahanga’s father-in-law, Hama Ag Sidahmed, another rebel veteran, acted as spokesman for the movement.

By September, 2007 Ag Bahanga’s forces had surrounded the government garrison at Tin Zaouatene and fired on a U.S. C-130 aircraft dropping supplies to the troops (al-Jazeera, September 14, 2007; Radio France Internationale, September 14, 2007). For a year Ag Bahanga and others carried out devastating raids and ambushes from their bases in the Tigharghar Mountains, but when most of the Tuareg rebels reached an agreement with Bamako in August 2008, Ag Bahanga left for Libya, only to announce his return in December 2008 with a new series of attacks in northern Mali. By April, 2008 Malian helicopters were brought in to strike Tuareg positions outside the town of Kidal to prevent the rebels from besieging it (Rueters, April 2, 2008).

Negotiations between Ag Bahanga and the Mali government in the summer of 2008 went nowhere, with the rebel leader unable to convince Bamako of the need to create an autonomous Tuareg region of Kidal or to reduce the number of Malian troops present in the north (El Khabar [Algiers], July 26, 2008).

A Malian offensive involving ex-Tuareg rebels who had become tired of Ag Bahanga’s irreconcilable attitude and the delay of development efforts in north Mali due to continued insecurity, succeeded in driving Ag Bahanga and his forces from northern Mali. By February, 2009 Ag Bahanga had once again left for Libya with some of his supporters. Ag Bahanga denies receiving Libyan military supplies, claiming his movement’s arms are obtained from the Malian army as a result of military operations. Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi has sought to exploit Tuareg unrest in his own interest for decades, going back to his incorporation of Tuareg fighters in Libya’s “Islamic Legion” during the 1970s.

In 2008, Ag Bahanga claimed to have three thousand fighters under his command, all drawn from the Mali Tuareg, though this figure is likely significantly inflated.  At the time, he insisted that his movement did not seek separatism, but only “the improvement of the Tuareg situation”

Accusations of Association with al-Qaeda

Ag Bahanga has rejected accusations from Bamako and elsewhere that he is associated with al-Qaeda operatives in the north Mali border region:

The terrorist groups are based far from the regions in which we are established; they are based in Timbuktu. We are waging a war against these groups… [but] they have fled to the surrounding regions for fear of being pursued by our elements. We will not tolerate their presence in these regions as our cause is different from their cause; we will not hesitate in tracking them down (El Khabar [Algiers], July 26, 2008).

Mali’s government and media have frequently accused Ag Bahanga of being a drug smuggler cloaking his activities under the guise of a desert rebel fighting for the rights of his people (Le Malien [Bamako], December 22, 2008).  In the Tuareg community of Mali, Ag Bahanga appears to have at least as many opponents as supporters, and there are many who will state the militant does not speak for them.

Bahanga 2Tigharghar Mountains

Ag Bahanga led a raid on a military base at Nampala (close to Ag Bahanga’s hometown of Tin-Zaouatene) on December 20, 2008, killing between nine and twenty soldiers, including at least three Tuareg in government service. The government described the assailants as drug traffickers eager to eliminate the government presence near the border (Radio France Internationale, December 20, 2008; AFP, December 22, 2008). Ag Bahanga in turn demanded the government honor the 2006 peace agreement, which called for development of the Kidal region in exchange for the Tuareg dropping demands for autonomy. It was not long before the government and the Malian press began to tie Ag Bahanga to kidnappings and other activities carried out by the Algerian Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC – later reconfigured as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM) (L’Aurore [Bamako], January 26, 2009). Ag Bahanga has always denied involvement in the GSPC/AQIM kidnappings of foreign nationals in the Sahara/Sahel region, but frequently succeeded in capturing Malian soldiers in groups of 20 to 30 at a time, suggesting these troops were poorly trained, ill-led and possibly uneager to combat the Tuareg on their own forbidding turf. The Mali government negotiated the release of these prisoners by sending representatives to Tripoli for talks with Ag Bahanga’s representatives with the mediation of the Libyan ruler’s son, Sa’if al-Islam Qadhafi (al-Jazeera, March 26, 2008).

The 2008-2009 Campaign

President Amadou Toumani Touré described the Nampala attack as “unacceptable,” as the target had “no strategic interest” (L’Essor [Bamako], December 22, 2008). In a military sense the president may have been correct; for smugglers, however, the base at Nampala was of major strategic interest. The government responded to this incident and the continuing capture of government troops with a major offensive using helicopters, Malian regulars, Tuareg loyalists and Arab militias (L’Indépendant [Bamako], December 29).  The offensive succeeded in overrunning a number of rebel bases in January 2009, including Ag Bahanga’s main base at Tinsalek in the Tigharghar Mountains (AFP, January 25, 2009). With government forces refusing to accept an offered ceasefire, Ag Bahanga’s lieutenant, Hassan Ag Fagaga, deserted his leader, bringing 400 fighters with him to a government base as the first step in disarmament and integration into the Malian army, though this move may only have been designed to preserve the Tuareg fighting force for another day rather than risk its annihilation in a campaign that was suddenly going badly. By early February, Ag Bahanga appeared to have fled in the direction of Algeria, though not without first pledging continued armed conflict (Radio France Internationale, February 6, 2009).

Transition to Counterterrorism

By January, 2010 Ag Bahanga appeared to have given up on his demands for Libyan mediation and was reported to be in Algeria, expressing his commitment to reviving the 2006 peace agreement with the help of Algerian mediators (El Watan [Algiers], January 23). Ag Bahanga’s arrival was reported to have followed preliminary talks in which his aides had offered the movement’s services in driving AQIM out of the Sahara/Sahel region (L’Observateur [Bamako], January 27).

There were reports Hassan Ag Fagaga and Hama Ag Sidahmed were also in Algeria at this time, attempting to persuade Algiers of the ATNMC’s usefulness as counter-terrorists (L’Observateur, January 10). A source described as close to Ag Bahanga, Osman Ag Mohamed, claimed the ATNMC was tracking the AQIM unit holding three Spanish aid workers hostage and would take action if they could be pinned down. Osman Ag Mohamed denied the movement had any association with AQIM: “The order is not to have relations with [al-Qaeda]. In 2006 there were clashes with them and we do not want these to be repeated because that would benefit the Malian army” (ABC.es, January 18).  In a 2008 interview, Ag Bahanga challenged the government’s accusation of cooperation with terrorists, comparing the record of his group with that of the government:

I say that terrorism in this area has always been a fabricated project by Bamako in order to tarnish the image of the Tuareg every time they demand their rights and dignity. We know that they have tried to attribute terrorism to the Tuareg for 18 years. Mali has never confronted terrorism, but we have confronted terrorist groups in this area. Many of us were killed in many battles, and we are against the presence of Salafi groups in the entire region, contrary to the Malian Government, which encourages them and always says that the Tuareg are the main support for terrorism. However, everyone knows that we not only denounce terrorism, but we also fight it in this region despite the fact that we are small in number.


Some Tuareg continue to jealously guard their traditional (and profitable) role as the guardians of the Trans-Saharan trade routes (though Tuareg “protection” could often resemble extortion). The arrival of national borders and government security forces in the vast deserted regions they once controlled is designed to put an end to a traditional way of life. One man’s smuggling is another man’s time-honored trade, and Ag Bahanga is undoubtedly both rebel and smuggler. It remains to be seen if Algeria will sponsor Ag Bahanga’s fighters as counter-terrorists. Ag Bahanga would probably like nothing more than to be reintroduced into the frontier region with fresh arms and an official government sponsor. Algerian forces have already negotiated the “right of pursuit” to allow cross-border incursions in hot pursuit of terrorists.  Though the Algerians are not fond of Ag Bahanga’s repeated sabotage of their attempts to mediate a peace settlement in northern Mali, they are actively considering a wide range of new strategies to secure their southern borders and there is still a chance that Ag Bahanga may become part of these designs. The mainstream ADC has already agreed to act as a counter-terrorist force in northern Mali, but Bamako has clearly stated Ag Bahanga is no longer welcome in Mali (Tout sur l’Algerie, July 20, 2009; L’Aurore, July 20, 2009).

This article first appeared in the March 31 issue of the Militant Leadership Monitor.

Al-Qaeda and Algeria Develop New Strategies in Battle for the Sahel

Andrew McGregor

March 26, 2010

During a March 16 meeting in Algiers consisting of Foreign Ministers from Saharan and Sahel nations (including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Chad, Libya, Mali, Mauritania and Niger), Algeria presented a new strategy for dealing with the threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The strategy is designed to interfere with the operations of smugglers and terrorists alike by restricting their access to vital supplies of fuel and water (El-Khabar [Algiers], March 17). The plan calls for abandoned wells to be blocked up while access to other wells will be closely restricted by security forces.

AlmoravidTomb of Almoravid Ruler Yusuf bin Tachfin, Marrakesh

Sources involved with the conference told the Algerian press that several Western nations were considering direct air strikes against AQIM targets in the desert. To facilitate these operations, the French Army’s engineering corps is looking at building four runways in north and central Mali (El-Khabar [Algiers], March 17). There appears to have been some consensus at the meeting that earlier plans for the Sahara/Sahel nations to gradually build military capacity had been superseded by AQIM’s growing activity on the ground. Lack of surveillance and attack aircraft as well as an absence of long-range artillery has impaired the ability of these nations to respond to the AQIM threat.

Algeria’s plans to restrict access to water and fuel in the region are actually a regional expansion of a local program that began in 2006 and is credited with reducing militant activity in southern Algeria. Fuel smuggling is rampant in the region and provides the means for criminal and terrorist groups to operate across vast unoccupied tracts of desert. Algeria is also considering restricting the circulation of 4X4 vehicles in the area, particularly Toyota FJ55 Land Cruisers, which are often converted to hold up to 1,000 liters of gasoline or diesel fuel. There are fears, however, that an effective campaign against smuggling will only exacerbate the region’s serious unemployment problem and aid the militants’ recruitment efforts.

An AQIM attack on a military outpost in western Niger on March 12 killed five soldiers, reinforcing the perception that local militaries are incapable of tackling AQIM (AFP, March 12; Ennahar [Algiers], March 13). According to an AQIM statement, the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber who drove a truck filled with 600 kilograms of explosives into the barracks at Tilwa. The bombing was followed by a general attack by militants that succeeded in seizing large quantities of vehicles, weapons and ammunition (al-Andalus Establishment for Media Production, March 14). Though al-Qaeda is normally dominated by Arabs, the statement said the attack was carried out by “the descendants of Yusuf bin Tachfin,” a reference to the famed Berber king of the Almoravid Empire (1061-1106). Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa, though many have adopted the Arab language, religion and culture after the Arab invasions.

A video message from AQIM spokesman Abu Ubaydah Yusuf entitled “A Message Addressed to the Peoples and Rulers of the States of the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa” suggested that AQIM has no desire to fight with the militaries of the Sahel-Saharan nations, but has been compelled to do so in “self-defense” (al-Andalus Establishment for Media Production, March 9). Abu Ubaydah warns the rulers of these states that ongoing French “military interference” and the American “colonial project” AFRICOM are part of an effort to convince Sahara-Sahel militaries to act as “Crusader proxies” and will lead to new strikes by AQIM as well as other consequences, such as tribal conflict and the revival of dormant animosities:

If these criminals [i.e. Western nations] were honest about what they are saying, they would have ceased to plunder your goods, steal your wealth, control the decisions of your governments and direct their policies to what serves their interests and goals. They would have aided you to lift your economies. However, as you see, they only seek to build military bases on your lands and then lure your governments into side wars that will increase your suffering and misery.

Though AQIM appears to be taking a simultaneous aggressive and conciliatory approach to most of the Sahara-Sahel nations, it still did not hesitate to label the Algerian regime “apostate.”  Over the period 2005-2009, Algeria was the world’s ninth largest purchaser of weapons, though many of these, such as submarines and anti-aircraft guns, have no practical anti-terrorist applications (Tout sur l’Algerie, March 22, based on figures from SIPRI).

This article first appeared in the March 26, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Militants Revive Niger Delta Insurgency with Bombing “From the Pit of Hell”

Andrew McGregor

March 26, 2010

Nigeria’s Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) made clear its complete rejection of the amnesty program and a peaceful approach to solving the problems of the Niger Delta region on March 15 with a deadly attack on a major post-amnesty dialogue in the Delta State city of Warri.

MEND 1Delta State Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan

The conference was well attended by government officials (including the governors of four states and a former Chief of Defense Staff) and a number of prominent ex-militants who had taken advantage of the government’s amnesty program. The event, entitled “Restoring Hope in the Niger Delta,” was sponsored and organized by Nigeria’s Vanguard Media Limited.

Two bombs went off at Warri’s Delta State Government House Annex, where the meeting was being held. Though three people were killed and many more injured, MEND insisted that it had called off the detonation of a third bomb that might have caused massive casualties as those attending the event were observed fleeing in its direction. A MEND statement claimed the bombs were set off by remote control by its operatives who later retrieved the unused third bomb and returned safely to base (This Day [Lagos], March 17).

A spokesperson for the Joint Revolutionary Council (JRC), an umbrella group composed of Niger Delta militants, described the bombing as “an act of evil devised from the pit of hell and within the corridors of Lucifer” (This Day, March 17; Niger Delta Standard, March 17). The spokesperson went on to call MEND a “dementia infected cabal” which has “cunningly infiltrated the just and noble struggle for the liberation and emancipation of the Ijaw and Niger Delta struggle.” The MEND attack was the first claimed by the movement since MEND announced on January 30 it would no longer observe the ceasefire to which it agreed in October, 2009. A blast occurred on Shell’s Trans-Ramos pipeline only hours after the January 30 statement, but the movement issued a somewhat ambiguous denial of responsibility (Reuters, February 2; Daily Champion [Lagos], February 10).

With MEND intensifying its struggle by directly targeting government leaders rather than oil facilities, Nigeria’s Joint Security Taskforce (JST) has  begun security sweeps through the region, including a manhunt for MEND leader Henry Okah, who accepted a government amnesty in July, 2009 (This Day, March 18; Punch [Lagos], March 23). The Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) is also seeking the movement’s bomb-maker, a native of Anambra State who is alleged to have been contracted by MEND to supply ten bombs (Vanguard [Lagos], March 20).

A MEND statement indicated that the attack was a response to a statement by Delta State governor, Emmanuel Uduaghan, who described MEND and its “virtual” spokesman Jomo Gbomo as “paper tigers.” It was also a reminder of how the “lands of the people of the Niger Delta were stolen by the oil companies and Northern Nigeria with a stroke of the pen” (Daily Trust [Lagos], March 17; March 21). The movement promised to strike at “oil companies across the Niger Delta,” including “companies such as Total which have been spared in the past.  We hope the actions which will follow will persuade Mr. Uduaghan that we exist outside of cyberspace” (Daily Trust, March 17).

Many ex-militants have complained that the government’s amnesty program has stalled as a consequence of the severe illness of President Umaru Yar’Adua, who was the prime mover behind the program. Temporary president Goodluck Jonathan and other ministers have said the post-amnesty program will continue and assured foreign oil companies that the government was “on top of the situation” in the Niger Delta (Port Harcourt Telegraph, March 17). The continuing violence in the Delta is beginning to have a severe effect on oil production and its revenues, on which the Nigerian state is reliant.

This article first appeared in the March 26, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

What Happened to the Somali Government Offensive?

Andrew McGregor

March 18, 2010

Despite expectations since early February of an imminent offensive by Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) against the Islamist militias that control most of Mogadishu and southern Somalia, such an offensive may still be weeks away, at best. TFG Interior Minister Shaykh Abdulkadir Ali Omar announced the offensive was in its “final stage” of preparation on March 6, but there are few indications on the ground that it is about to start any time soon (Shabelle Media Network, March 7).

Ministers of the TFG, including Minister of State for Defense Shaykh Yusuf Si’ad Indha Adde, have expressed concerns that the government has only enough money to sustain a few days of fighting, rather than the months it is expected to take to drive the Islamists from Mogadishu and south Somalia (AllPuntland.com, February 8). Appeals have been made for further financing, but the alleged corruption of the TFG has dissuaded foreign donors from making further commitments.

While newly trained TFG fighters have begun to return to Mogadishu from Djibouti, their deployment has run into problems. When they arrived on the frontlines to replace poorly armed and trained clan militias, the militias refused to withdraw without financial “compensation.” Plans to train the militias to a professional level have thus fallen through and there is no confidence in the TFG military staff that the militias can be counted on to follow orders. Meanwhile the newly trained troops of the TFG have returned to barracks (Jowhar, February 8).

Continuing defections of TFG troops (including those newly trained) to the Islamist militias pose another problem. Though this is a two-way street, with Islamist fighters frequently defecting to the TFG, it is yet another indication of instability and unreliability within the TFG forces (Shabelle Media Networks, February 9; Dayniile February 8). TFG Minister of Information Dahir Mahmud Gelle recently remarked that the TFG lags far behind the Islamist groups opposing it in terms of military skills and intelligence capability (AllPuntland, March 1).

Leadership is also in question, with TFG president Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad rarely emerging from his quarters at the Villa Somalia presidential palace. Most of the TFG parliament remains in Kenya, awaiting a successful outcome to the fighting before returning to Mogadishu.

Possibly sensing that there is little chance for a successful offensive at this time (and every chance of a disastrous outcome that could bring the downfall of the TFG), the government negotiated an agreement on March 15 with the Sufi-dominated Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ) militia to unite militarily with TFG forces, though the agreement will not come into effect for another month (Mareeg, March 15).

The offensive is expected to include the participation of the armor, artillery and troops of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a 5,300-man contingent drawn from Uganda, Burundi and Djibouti. With troops trained by French, Belgian and American instructors, AMISOM is far stronger than the combined forces of the TFG and would play an essential role in the success of any government offensive. Though AMISOM was initially conceived as a peacekeeping force, it has gradually abandoned this mandate to play an active role in the preservation of the beleaguered TFG.

A New York Times report based on anonymous sources claimed the United States was prepared to assist the expected offensive with Special Forces teams and aerial strikes (NYT, March 5). U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson refuted the report in a March 12 statement:

The United States does not plan, does not direct, and does not coordinate the military operations of the TFG, and we have not and will not be providing direct support for any potential military offensives. Further, we are not providing nor paying for military advisors for the TFG. There is no desire to Americanize the conflict in Somalia (U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs, March 13).

Nonetheless, the New York Times report is now being used in the Middle East and Africa as “proof” the offensive is being planned and directed by the United States, much like the disastrous “anti-terrorist” offensive carried out by U.S.-supported Somali warlords in 2006. The United States has acknowledged it is training AMISOM troops and providing logistical support to African nations providing military training to TFG recruits. AFRICOM commander General William Ward recently told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that TFG plans to retake southern Somalia are a “work in progress” (U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs, March 9).

This article first appeared in the March 18, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Brigadier Ali Hassan al-Shatir Describes al-Qaeda Operations in Yemen

Andrew McGregor

March 18, 2010

As head of the Yemeni Army’s Moral Guidance Directorate and editor-in-chief of the Ministry of Defense’s 26 September Weekly Political Review (www.26september.info), Brigadier General Ali Hasan al-Shatir is one of the most influential figures in Yemen’s security structure. In a recent interview with pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, Brigadier al-Shatir described al-Qaeda infiltration methods and activities in Yemen and the response of the security apparatus (Asharq al-Awsat, March 11).

Tariq al-FadhliBrigadier General Ali Hasan al-Shatir

According to the Brigadier, al-Qaeda members regularly cross the border between Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen, where they are assisted by members of the Zaydi Shiite Houthist rebel group. The accusation appears to be an effort to tie the Houthist rebellion to al-Qaeda, a suggestion that has not been supported by evidence in the past. Al-Shatir, however, now claims that this information was obtained in the interrogation of Muhammad al-Awfi, an alleged al-Qaeda operative who surrendered last year (Marebpress.net, February 17, 2009):

He revealed that there is cooperation and coordination between the al-Qaeda organization and the Houthists, because both sides know they are united by one goal and that is to undermine the stability and security of Yemen and [carry] out their destructive sabotage plans.

The Brigadier says the cooperation between al-Qaeda and the Houthists has also been confirmed by Tariq al-Fadhli, whom he describes as “one of the main members of the al-Qaeda organization who now leads part of [Southern] Mobility in the south” (al-Thawra, July 31, 2009; Yemen Post, August 2, 2009). Al-Fadhli, a son of the former Sultan of Abyan, fought in Afghanistan’s anti-communist jihad in the 1980s but has long been a close ally of Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and a member of the ruling General People’s Congress party. Their close relationship was recently severed when al-Fadhli joined the Southern Mobility secessionist movement—an act that landed the former jihadi on the government’s list of al-Qaeda activists and led to an assault on his compound by security forces earlier this month (Alflojaweb.com, April 18, 2009; Yemen Post, March 2).

In early February, al-Fadhli raised the American flag over his compound while blaring the “Star Spangled Banner” from a sound system. A relative told reporters al-Fadhli was indicating his opposition to terrorism and had been approached by the U.S. embassy in his role as a leader of the southern secessionist movement. The latter information remains unconfirmed (Adenpress, February 5). Al-Shatir also accuses al-Fadhli of agitating for the return of British occupation (which ended in 1967) to southern Yemen. “Is it rational for a Yemeni national to ask for the occupation to return to his country?”

The size of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has been greatly exaggerated by the European and American media, according to Brigadier al-Shatir, who believes this is part of a deliberate effort to prepare “international public opinion that Yemen will be the third front after Afghanistan and Iraq in the war against al-Qaeda.” When pressed for an estimate of the actual size of AQAP, al-Shatir responded: “They may be in the dozens; there is no exact figure.”

This article first appeared in the March 18, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Somalia’s Hizb al-Islam Pledges to Retake Territory Lost to al-Shabaab Rivals

Andrew McGregor

March 11, 2010

Senior Hizb al-Islam commander Shaykh Ahmad Madobe has declared that Hizb al-Islam is preparing plans to expel rival Islamist militia al-Shabaab from territories in the Juba region of south Somalia (AllPuntland.com, March 1; Shabelle Media Network, March 1).  The lands were seized by al-Shabaab during an offensive against former ally Hizb al-Islam in the last few months. Led by Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, Hizb al-Islam leaders have been regrouping across the Kenyan border and are no doubt planning to take advantage of the long-delayed government offensive against al-Shabaab.

MadobeShaykh Ahmad Madobe

Shaykh Ahmad Madobe warned that stern measures would be taken against anyone found working with al-Shabaab. Besides the projected counter-attack in the Juba region, the Hizb al-Islam commander also said that his movement would begin hunting down al-Shabaab leaders in Mogadishu (Shabelle Media Network, March 1).

Shaykh Ahmad Madobe is a former senior member of the Islamist Ras Kamboni Brigade, one of four Islamist militias that gathered together under the Hizb al-Islam umbrella in January, 2009. When Ras Kamboni leader Shaykh Hassan Abdullah Hirsi al-Turki crossed over to al-Shabaab in early February, Shaykh Ahmad Madobe remained with Hizb al-Islam (al-Qimmah, February 1; see Terrorism Monitor, February 4).

Though Shaykh Ahmad Madobe had pledged to hunt down Shabaab leaders in Mogadishu, al-Shabaab assassins may have struck first when pistol-wielding gunmen killed a senior Hizb al-Islam military commander in a Mogadishu market on March 9. Barre Ali Barre, also a prominent Ras Kamboni member, was a strong opponent of Hassan al-Turki’s decision to join al-Shabaab (Mareeg, March 9; AFP, March 9).

After nearly being driven out of Mogadishu last year by a combined Hizb al-Islam/al-Shabaab offensive, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is enjoying the rift growing between its Islamist opponents as it plans its long-delayed counter-offensive (AllPuntland.com, February 23). According to TFG Minister of State for Defense Yusuf Muhammad Si’ad “Indha Adde”, “We are aware of the conflict that has emerged between Hizb al-Islam and al-Shabaab and we are very happy to hear about it. They subject the civilian population to a lot of suffering and the government will take advantage of this important opportunity” (All Puntland.com, February 23). Indha Adde was a leading member of Hizb al-Islam before he defected to the TFG in May 2009.

Rumors persist in Mogadishu that the TFG will enter into an alliance with Hizb al-Islam to destroy their mutual enemy, al-Shabaab. The scenario is far from impossible in Somalia’s highly fluid political atmosphere and would reunite the two former Islamic Courts Union (ICU) co-chairmen, President Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad and Hizb al-Islam leader Shaykh Hassan Dahir Aweys, in a common military effort against the ICU’s former militia, al-Shabaab.

Shaykh Hasan Dahir Aweys has lately been trying to distance his group’s Islamist ideology from al-Shabaab’s, while at the same time urging al-Shabaab to stop escalating disputes between Islamist movements in Somalia (Garowe Online, February 28).


Will Xinjiang’s Turkistani Islamic Party Survive the Drone Missile Death of its Leader?

Andrew McGregor

March 11, 2010

Though it appears to have occurred on February 15, the death of the leader of al-Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani (Turkistani Islamic Party – TIP) was reported only in recent days (Geo TV, March 1; Dawn [Karachi], March 1; The News [Islamabad], March 2). Abdul Haq al-Turkistani was one of three militants killed by a missile launched from a CIA-operated unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

Abdul HaqLate TIP Leader Abdul Haq al-Turkistani

The men were reported to have been in a vehicle near the village of Tappi in the North Waziristan district of Miramshah. While the strike took place on February 15, Pakistani security officials did not release the news until March 1. The death of the leader of the radical Uyghur group was confirmed by a Taliban spokesman (Dawn [Karachi], March 1). Eastern Turkistan was occupied by troops of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1949 and the subsequent mass migration of non-Muslim Han Chinese to the renamed province of Xinjiang (New Territory) has rendered the native Turkic Muslim Uyghurs a minority in the region.

Despite the amount of international attention the TIP garnered through threats to the 2009 Beijing Olympics, the group’s relative inactivity and proclivity for claiming responsibility for incidents they clearly had nothing to do with raises questions about the very existence of the TIP as an active jihadi front.

Is the TIP the same as ETIM?

Many commentators seem happy to repeat Beijing’s assertion that the TIP is a new manifestation of the earlier East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), but no evidence has been provided to prove a direct link between the two groups. The ETIM never issued a statement regarding a change of name or organizational restructuring. Indeed, the ETIM seems to have faded out with a whimper rather than a bang after the death of its leader, Hasan Mahsum (a.k.a. Hasan Makhdum; a.k.a. Abu Muhammad al-Turkistani) at the hands of Pakistani security forces in 2003. [1] The uncertain origins of the ETIM’s so-called successor group, the TIP, have led to speculation that the TIP may be a splinter group of the ETIM or even a false-flag operation designed to establish ties between Uyghur separatists and al-Qaeda. TIP literature tries to establish a pedigree for the organization by substituting the TIP moniker for the ETIM name in descriptions of Hassan Mahsum’s earlier organization in Afghanistan (see the TIP eulogy of Hasan Mahsum, Shumukh al-Islam Network Forum, April 1, 2009). The traditional Muslim name of the Uyghur homeland is “East Turkistan,” not simply “Turkistan,” which refers to a much larger physical area of Central Asia. Xinjiang (New Territory) is a Chinese name and is never used by Uyghur opposition groups.

Although the TIP was unknown before it began issuing threats of biological, chemical and conventional attacks on the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Abdul Haq claimed the movement began as part of the military wing of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) under the late Uzbek jihadi commander, Juma Namangani (killed in a U.S. aerial bombardment in November 2001). Uyghurs were present at IMU training camps in Afghanistan prior to 9/11.
Under the name Memtimin Memet (or Memetiming Memeti), Abdul Haq was identified in 2008 by China’s Ministry of Public Security as the successor of Hasan Mahsum and next leader of the ETIM (Xinhua, October 21). The statement, which named eight wanted Uyghur militants in connection with plots against the Olympics, made no mention of the TIP. The Ministry maintained that all of the Uyghur plots had been foiled by Chinese security forces. Though a series of bombings and attacks occurred in Xinjiang in August 2009, none were related to the Olympics (except through timing) and no claim of responsibility was issued by the TIP or ETIM. It is possible that the attacks were inspired by TIP videos, but this link has never been confirmed.

Tying Uyghur Militants to al-Qaeda

ETIM leader Hassan Mahsum always denied any connection between the ETIM and al-Qaeda, though there is no question a small group of Uyghur militants fought alongside their Taliban hosts against the Northern Alliance. According to China’s Foreign Ministry, the ETIM was a “terrorist organization with links to al-Qaeda,” but the scores of terrorists Beijing claimed that Bin Laden was sending to China in 2002 never materialized (China-Embassy.org, December 9, 2002). Likewise, the training and financial assistance that the U.S. State Department maintains al-Qaeda provided to the ETIM seems to have had little impact on ETIM’s inability to mount operations of any significance in China. The TIP’s “strategy” of making loud and alarming threats (attacks on the Olympics, use of biological and chemical weapons, etc.) without any operational follow-up has been enormously effective in promoting China’s efforts to characterize Uyghur separatists as “terrorists” with almost no material loss to China.

A videotaped biography of Hassan Makhdum carried by jihadi websites in 2009 claimed that “the leaders of the Turkistan Islamic Party nominated a new military leader, brother Abdul Haq, by consensus” to replace Hassan Makhdum after his death in 2003 (Shumukh al-Islam Network Forum, April 1, 2009). Despite his alleged role as leader of the al-Qaeda and Taliban-associated ETIM (or TIP) since 2003, Abdul Haq did not find his way onto the U.N. and U.S. Treasury Departments’ lists of terrorists “associated with Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda or the Taliban” until April 2009. [2] Where was Abdul Haq between 2001 and 2008? He is known to have been an instructor at IMU training camps in Afghanistan before 9/11, but disappears from the record until his sudden reemergence as leader of the TIP in 2008.

An ambitious and no doubt expensive media campaign including internet magazines and video productions has little counterpart in actual TIP operations. Through articles in its internet journal, TIP appears to claim the mantle of Hasan Mahsum’s ETIM. Many of these articles appear to be an attempt to create an organizational connection between the TIP and the earlier ETIM, going so far as to retroactively rename the ETIM.  Despite this, there is a chronological gap between the apparent demise of the ETIM, with the death of its leader in 2003, and the sudden emergence of the TIP in 2008. A few very minor militant actions in this period were attributed to the ETIM, though by this time Chinese authorities were using “ETIM” as an all-purpose descriptor for those responsible for any militant activity. There are scores of different Uyghur nationalist groups, which run the gamut from peaceful secularists to militant Islamist jihadis.

Promoting a Lost Cause in Xinjiang?

A video released in August, 2009 by the TIP’s own “Voice of Islam” media center and al-Fajr media center featured Abdul Haq and a number of TIP leaders discussing their jihad against “Chinese colonialism.” The video has an Arabic translation of the original Uyghur language remarks by the TIP leaders. A look at some of the leaders’ rhetoric shows a movement at odds with its time; its anti-communism decades too late to interest the West; its stated affinity to global jihad winning it no friends while doing nothing to actually further the cause of global jihad; their armed nationalism out of touch with young Uyghurs educated in Chinese and ready to seek economic opportunity at the expense of nationalist pride; and threats of terrorism not even winning them the head-pats given to Tibetan nationalists in an age of global economic integration in which China is a major player. Taking on China’s massive military on its own turf is also unlikely to make any priority list for global jihadists engaged in bitter struggles over South Asia and the Middle East. The following video excerpts give some indication of the stated motivation of the TIP:

Shaykh Uthman Umar Haji: “When we ask the Chinese people about the reason that brought them to our country, they say: ‘Turkistan is our land, it is a part of the Republic of China’… The Chinese are cowards and they fear death, but they did not find anyone to confront them and stop their march against Islamic East Turkistan. The Muslims will see how the Chinese Army will flee and leave Turkistan and its people alone…  What good comes to a man who lives under the Chinese colonies like an animal? It is really shameful for us to be enslaved by China and accept humiliation and deprivation as an alternative to carrying out Islamic rulings in all aspects of our lives.”

Shaykh Abdul Haq: “The Chinese people are forcing the Muslims to achieve complete apostasy under the slogan of ‘The law is above all.’  They are forcing Muslim children to learn the Communist doctrine and they are afraid that the mujahideen influence the youth. When the Chinese could not apply an idea, they start to distort the image of the mujahideen and jihad through the media. They wanted the Muslims not to wake up from their long slumber and not to be able to recognize their sons, the mujahideen, or to realize the reality of the Communist campaign.”

Shaykh Abdullah Mansur: “We have to conquer our own country and purify it of all infidels. Then, we should conquer the infidels’ countries and spread Islam. The infidels who are usurping our countries have announced war against Islam and Muslims, forcing Muslims to abandon Islam and change their beliefs.” [3]

Among the TIP’s main complaints are government restrictions on the number of children, the demolition of historical Muslim urban areas and the imposition of equality between men and women “in rights and duties” by the communist regime.

Struggling with the Chinese Behemoth

The apparent hopelessness of a military struggle against China was addressed by Commander Abdullah Mansur, who drew on the communists’ own experience:

The Communist Chinese knew the power and effectiveness of weapons more than us, because they practiced fighting before and reached this level. The Communist Red Army was not formed or assembled overnight, but they were formed one individual after the other until it became a massive army. When they started fighting against Japan and their allies, they fought without tanks or warplanes. However, they managed to deter the Japanese and expel them from their lands in spite of the fact that their enemy was equipped with tanks and warplanes…  We can say that confronting the Chinese enemy does not require possessing thousands of warplanes and tanks or thousands of soldiers, but it requires the first condition, which is faith in Almighty God and working according to His commands concerning preparation and jihad. [4]

Following the July 2009 riots in Urumqi that saw the loss of nearly 200 lives, Abdul Haq “appeared” (his face was digitally blurred) in a video urging Uyghurs and other Muslims to broaden the violence. “[The Chinese] must be targeted both at home and abroad. Their embassies, consulates, centers and gathering places should be targeted. Their men should be killed and captured to seek the release of our brothers who are jailed in Eastern Turkistan.” (Voice of Islam; July 31; Reuters, August 1, 2009; The Standard [Hong Kong], August 3, 2009). Despite Abdul Haq’s claim that “all the Islamic umma, especially the mujahideen in the world, are entirely ready to fight with their Muslim brothers in East Turkistan against the Chinese,” there were no takers in the jihadi community and the TIP again failed to follow words with operations.

Riot in Urumqi

Rioting in Urumqi, 2009

Having sentenced 26 people to death for their role in the Urumqi riots, China has now declared public security funding would be doubled for 2010 (al-Jazeera, January 28). Beijing has also announced plans to recruit 5,000 new special police officers to deal with unrest in Xinjiang. After a month of training, these new officers will serve in mixedunits with police from other parts of China (al-Jazeera, February 5). The security initiatives and additional spending suggest Beijing views 2010 as an opportunity to crush Uyghur separatism.

What was behind the decision to target Abdul Haq?

The United States designated the ETIM a terrorist organization in August 2002 after intense diplomatic pressure from China at a time when Washington was trying to prevent a Chinese veto at the U.N. over action against Iraq. The designation also followed a pledge by China to restrict missile technology transfers to nations like Iran. Though Uyghur militants had never targeted U.S. nationals or interests, the arrest of two Uyghurs in the Kyrgyzstan capital of Bishkek in May 2002 became the justification for Washington’s action. The Uyghurs were alleged to have a map of the capital’s embassy district in their possession. This was quickly transformed into a plot to bomb the U.S. embassy and the men were deported to China, never to be heard from again. This incident is still used as “proof” of a Uyghur threat to America.

Amir Mir, a Pakistani journalist and security analyst who is usually well-informed on defense matters, said discussions with diplomats in Islamabad suggested China was pressing Pakistan for the right to conduct its own military operations against Uyghur militants in FATA and the NWFP, similar to American operations in the region (The News, March 3). The CIA and the U.S. government do not comment on the process used in targeting attacks by UAVs in Pakistan, but there is wide speculation that Islamabad has negotiated a say in identifying targets on its territory in return for allowing U.S. drone operations to continue. Pakistan has no interest in antagonizing China, a major economic and military partner, and may have called for a strike on the TIP leader to relieve intense pressure from Beijing to do something about Uyghur militants in northwest Pakistan.

Following the strike on Abdul Haq, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister travelled to Beijing to convince China of Pakistan’s sincerity in ridding the frontier region of TIP members and other Uyghur militants. On March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed satisfaction with Pakistan’s efforts; “I believe the government of Pakistan has effective control over the situation” (The Hindu, March 8).

Hasan Mahsum’s ETIM appears to have collapsed following his death in 2003. With the security forces of Pakistan, China and the United States aligned against it, it remains to be seen if the more “virtual” TIP will survive the death of Abdul Haq al-Turkistani.


1. See Andrew McGregor, “Chinese Counter-Terrorist Strike in Xinjiang,”  Johns Hopkins University Central Asia – Caucasus Institute Central Asia Caucasus Analyst (March 7, 2007), www.cacianalyst.org/view_article.php
2. U.S. Department of the Treasury Press Release TG-92, April 20, 2009, www.ustreas.gov/press/releases/tg92.htm
3. Excerpts from “The Duty of Faith and Support,” Voice of Islam/al-Fajr Media Center, August 26, 2009.
4. Ibid

This article first appeared in the March 11, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Kenya Turns to Israel for Military Assistance against Global Jihad

Andrew McGregor

March 11, 2010

As it gradually becomes drawn into the war in neighboring Somalia, Kenya has begun looking for new sources of security assistance beyond traditional partners like Great Britain and the United States.

On February 11, Kenya’s Minister of Internal Security, George Saitoti, met with his Israeli counterpart Yitzhaq Aharonovich in Jerusalem to request Israeli military assistance in countering radical Islamists who are threatening Kenya (Shabelle Media Network, February 14). Saitoti told the Israeli Minister, “The jihad is taking over Somalia and threatening to take over Kenya and all of Africa. No one is more experienced than you in fighting internal terror.” Israeli officials brought up the problem of African migrants and refugees attempting to enter Israel through the Sinai, bringing this response from the Kenyan Interior Minister: “Help us fight al-Qaeda and we’ll help you with the infiltrators. We have vast knowledge in the subject” (Y-Net News, February 11; Arutz Sheva, February 11; Somaliland Press, February 12; Israel Today, February 14). The Israeli government was also reported to have said that it is ready to hold consultations on forming a joint force with Kenya to guard the northern Kenyan border with Somalia and prevent the entry of extremists (Shabelle Media Network, February 14).

kenya saitotiKenyan Minister of Internal Security George Saitoti (d. June 10, 2012 in a helicopter crash)

Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement has threatened repeatedly to attack northern Kenya, most recently on February 10, when Shaykh Husayn Abdi Gedi announced plans to strike at troops belonging to Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) who are completing military training from Kenyan instructors in northeast Kenya (Radio Gaalkacyo, February 10, Puntland Post, February 6).

The talks with Kenya appear to be part of a growing Israeli interest in the Horn of Africa. In early February, the spokesman of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Yigal Palmor, told Somali media that Israel was ready to recognize the breakaway territory of Somaliland as an independent nation (Golis News, February 11).  If Israel proceeds, it would be the first nation in the world to recognize Somaliland since its split from the rest of Somalia in 1991.

Somalia Map 2International recognition is almost an obsession in Somaliland, a territory that is unable to receive foreign aid, military equipment or development assistance without it. The elected government in Hargeisa would be sure to show its appreciation to any nation that broke the two-decade old diplomatic freeze-out. The Israeli declaration came on the heels of a statement by the deputy leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula that the movement intends to cooperate with Somali militants to place both sides of the narrow Bab al-Mandab strait at the southern end of the Red Sea “under the protection of Islam” (al-Malahim Establishment for Media Production, February 8; see also Terrorism Monitor, February 19). German-made Israeli Dolphin class submarines believed to be equipped with nuclear-armed cruise missiles carried out naval exercises in the Red Sea in June 2009 after passing through Egypt’s Suez Canal (Haaretz, July 5). A few weeks later, two Israeli warships passed through the Suez Canal into the Red Sea (AFP, July 14). These excursions were widely interpreted as a warning to Iran.

The Somali press has cited unconfirmed reports that Israeli troops may establish a military outpost in the Somaliland port of Berbera to guard the approaches to the Red Sea (Shabelle Media Network, February 14). Berbera’s small naval port is a Cold War legacy, built by the Soviets in 1969. Shifting alliances led to U.S. use of the port by 1980 and a U.S. upgrade of facilities in 1985. Since then, the port has become dilapidated but still continues to provide a major source of foreign currency for the Somaliland government. Berbera also has a long Soviet-built runway capable of handling all types of military and cargo aircraft.

This article first appeared in the March 11, 2010 Issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Gaza Salafists Demand Submission of Hamas “Apostates”

Andrew McGregor

March 4, 2010

In a recent interview, a commander of the Masadat al-Mujahideen, a Gaza-based Salafist militant group, described his movement’s confrontation with Hamas, demanding that the Islamist movement “repent” its apostasy and stop fighting the Salafists “on behalf of the Jews” (Shabakat al-Tahadi al-Islamiya, February 16). Beset by internal dissension over prisoner swap negotiations with Israel, an international embargo, the cutting off of its tunnel smuggling system by Egyptian forces, and the assassination of a leading Hamas commander in Dubai, Hamas now faces an ongoing and often violent struggle with Salafist militants who reject Hamas leadership.

Ibn al-TaymiyaRepresentation of Shaykh Ibn Taymiya

Describing his movement as a “Salafist Jihadi group,” Shaykh Abu Ubaydah al-Ansari outlined the motivation of Masadat al-Mujahideen. “We gathered and agreed to support our religion and liberate our lands and sanctuaries, not out of patriotism, but as a compulsory Islamic duty. Whenever one expanse of the lands of Muslims is occupied, Muslims must liberate it, under Islam.” Typical of Salafi-Jihadi groups, Shaykh Abu Ubaydah goes on to cite the influence of Shaykh Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), whose fatwa declaring nominally Muslim Mongol invaders “apostates” because their use of “man-made laws” rather than Shari’a gave the Mameluke rulers of Egypt and Syria the necessary religious justification to fight invaders who claimed to be fellow Muslims. In this context, Abu Ubaydah quotes Ibn Taymiya, “There is no more necessary duty – after faith – than pushing back the attacking enemy who corrupts the religion and the world, under any condition. Yet, if the enemy wants to attack Muslims, repulsing him is the duty of everybody, whether they volunteered or not.” Though Ibn Taymiya’s works remain controversial in Islamic theological studies, Salafists tend to imbue him with an authority just short of the Qur’an and the Hadiths in legitimacy. Ibn Taymiya’s influence is seen in Abu Ubaydah’s declaration. “He who applies manmade law and human legislation, whether he is a Palestinian or something else, becomes an infidel, and whoever resorts to it for judgment also becomes infidel and fighting him becomes permissible.”

Though Hamas has made significant moves in making Shari’a the law of Gaza, these efforts fall short of Salafist expectations. Abu Ubaydah refers to “imitations of Shari’a,” and asks, “What can we say about one who applies Shari’a as legislated by himself? There is no doubt that this person is an infidel, as agreed by all scholars, no matter how big his turban is, nor how small his garment.”

The Palestinian Salafists are also displeased with Hamas’ failure to prosecute a jihad against Israel and what they perceive as a decline in anti-Israel militancy on the movement’s part since it formed the Gaza government. “Formerly, they were fighting the Jews, but currently they fight those who fight and confront the Jews [i.e. the Salafists]… If they want to repent, stop their unilateral battle against us, and leave us alone, we will welcome their desire in order to devote ourselves to fighting the Jews. However, if they insist on fighting us on behalf of the Jews and to keep their positions, the conflict will not be settled… We believe that it is not permissible to reconcile with them for they have become apostates.”

This article first appeared in the March 4, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor