Niger: New Battleground for North Africa’s Islamist Militants

Andrew McGregor 

May 29, 2013

When a pair of suicide bombings occurred almost simultaneously at important economic and military targets in Niger last week, it raised the specter of broadening Salafi-Jihadist activities paralyzing the political and economic development of a vast stretch of north and west Africa. Niger, possibly the poorest nation in the world, has seen the resource industries that are its hope for the future become the focus of radical Islamist efforts to damage French interests in the region.

Niger MapDespite being over 90% Muslim, Niger’s citizens find themselves threatened by the growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its associates in its northern regions and troublesome incursions by Nigerian Boko Haram militants and bandits posing as Boko Haram in its eastern regions. With a small and poorly equipped military of only 5,200 troops, the intensification of militant activity in Niger may force Niamey to recall its force of roughly 600 soldiers from the Malian intervention and may possibly preclude Niger’s participation in the UN peacekeeping force planned for deployment in northern Mali.

The Attacks at Agadez and Arlit

A dawn double car-bombing against a military base in Agadez on May 23 killed at least 18 soldiers and left 13 wounded (RFI, May 23). After four of the attackers (all wearing suicide belts) were killed by Nigérien troops, one or two others took two officer cadets hostage and locked themselves in an office (AFP, May 23). At the request of President Issoufou, French Special Forces assisted Nigérien troops in isolating and killing the last attackers on May 24 (RFI, May 26). In all, some ten jihadists were reported killed in the action. Nigérien authorities initially denied that any hostages were taken by the surviving attackers, but later admitted both cadets were killed, though it remained unclear if they were killed by the Islamists or in the crossfire during the assault by Nigérien troops and French Special Forces (AFP, May 24; Reuters, May 24). The massive explosions at the military base created panic in Agadez, followed by military sweeps of the city looking for the suicide bombers’ accomplices.

A second attack roughly 30 minutes later targeted the Somaïr uranium mining and processing plant located seven kilometers from the northern Niger town of Arlit. A uniformed suicide bomber pulled his explosives-laden 4X4 in behind a bus delivering workers to the morning shift at the plant and forced his vehicle through the plant’s entrance before the gates could be closed. The tactic was identical to that used by a MUJWA suicide car-bomber at the National Gendarmérie headquarters in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset (the home of the Algerian Army’s 6th Division) in early March, 2012 (La Tribune [Algiers] March 3; Le Temps D’Algérie, March 6).At least 13 employees were injured and one killed in the Arlit attack, which took place just outside the facility’s power plant and badly damaged the mine’s grinding and crushing machinery (RFI, May 23). Somaïr is a Nigérien subsidiary of French uranium giant Areva, which owns 64% of the Arlit uranium mine.

Information gathered at the French Ministry of Defense in Paris indicated that the Arlit attackers had taken advantage of the fact that French Special Forces were not actually located at the camp, but were rather based nearby, thus creating what a French colonel described as “an enormous flaw in the security process” (RFI, May 24). Arlit had been targeted before: in September, 2010, seven Areva employees and a local sub-contractor were kidnapped from the site. Four French hostages from that operation remain in the hands of AQIM, though their current whereabouts is unknown.

Though Niger has been the target of AQIM kidnapping operations in the past, suicide bombings are a tactical innovation for Islamists operating in that nation. Nigérien troops in northern Mali were targeted by a May 10 MUJWA suicide attack on their base in Ménaka, close to the Niger border (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 16).

Who is Behind the Assault on Niger?

It appears the bombings in Niger were directed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), the Algerian jihadist who became North Africa’s most-wanted man after a January attack on the Algerian gas plant at In Aménas left 38 hostages dead. That attack was carried out by Belmokhtar’s al-Muwaqi’un bi’l-Dima (Those Who Sign in Blood) Brigade, which Belmokhtar announced was also responsible for the attacks in Arlit and Agadez. Belmokhtar’s claim of responsibility contained a number of pointed warnings to the Niger government related to Niger’s participation in Operation Serval, the French-led military intervention in northern Mali.  After stating that the suicide attacks in Niger were intended to avenge his late comrade and rival, AQIM commander Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid (a.k.a. Muhammad Ghadir), Belmokhtar said the attacks were also a “first response” to the claim by the Nigérien president that the jihad in northern Mali had been defeated militarily. Describing this “crusade against Shari’a” as “more a media victory than a military victory,” Belmokhtar then warns the Nigérien president that the mujhahideen will “move the war into his own country if he doesn’t withdraw his mercenary army [from Mali]” (Ansar1.info, May 23).

Abdul Walid al-SahrawiAdnan Abdul al-Walid al-Sahrawi

Responsibility for the attacks was initially claimed by spokesman Adnan Abdul al-Walid al-Sahrawi on behalf of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). According to al-Sahrawi, the operations were conducted “against the enemies of Islam in Niger. We attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against Shari’a” (AFP, May 23). Some clarification was later received from the AQIM Mulathamin Brigade’s Mauritanian spokesman Hassan Ould al-Khalil, who described the operation as a joint effort between MUJWA and Belmokhtar’s al-Muwaqi’un bi’l-Dima, adding that the attackers hailed from Sudan, Mali and the Western Sahara (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], May 23).Niger’s foreign affairs minister, Muhammad Bazoum, downplayed the importance of determining which Islamist faction actually carried out the attacks: “In my opinion, we are faced with a well-coordinated ‘international’ group which gets its supplies from the same sources of finance, which has the same expertise and the same logistics. Whether it is MUJWA or another group, there is no difference from our point of view” (RFI, May 24).

It is possible that the attacks may have involved Nigérien MUJWA fighters who have returned to Niger since the beginning of Operation Serval. According to Foreign Affairs Minister Muhammad Bazoum, many Peul/Fulani youth were recruited by MUJWA from Tillabéri, a town on the Niger River, about 120 kilometers northwest of the capital of Niamey (RFI, May 24). According to Niger’s minister of the interior, many of the Peul/Fulani recruits to MUJWA had been involved in a long struggle with Niger’s Tuareg and the conflict in northern Mali offered an opportunity to take armed revenge on the Tuareg while making good money in the employ of the Islamists (Jeune Afrique, April 29). Tillabéri now hosts some 30,000 refugees from the northern Mali conflict in three camps and is currently in the midst of a cholera epidemic (Xinhua, May 21). There are also fears that militants could easily disguise themselves as refugees under current conditions in order to enter Niger or other countries neighboring northern Mali. Mali is not the only source for refugees in Niger; several thousand Niger citizens, many of the Koranic students from Maiduguri, have been forced to flee back into Niger from the fighting between Boko Haram and the Nigerian security services during the ongoing Nigerian government offensive (RFI, May 18; May 22).

Only two days before the attacks on Arlit and Agadez, Niamey had hosted the Nigerian minister of state for foreign affairs, Nurudeen Muhammad, who was there to request military assistance from Niger in the fight against Boko Haram terrorists in the Lake Chad region amidst rumors (denied by Abuja) that Nigeria would draw down its commitment to AFISMA in northern Mali to assist in the offensive against Boko Haram (RFI, May 22; Reuters, May 21). Nigeria and Niger share a poorly regulated 940 mile border. The two nations agreed on a defense pact last October that calls for intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and military support when requested (Reuters, May 21). Boko Haram militants attacked a joint patrol of Nigerian and Nigérien troops on April 15 along the border near Baga in the Lake Chad region (AFP, April 26).

Economic Factors

In condemning the attacks in Niger, Malian foreign minister Tièman Coulibaly noted that “In the fight against terrorists in the Sahel, we don’t only need a military and security solution, but also economic solutions that offer young men in the sub-region opportunities (PANA Online [Dakar], May 24). However, despite the presence of enormous quantities of uranium ore and the recent emergence of a promising oil industry, life in Niger remains both harsh and precarious, offering the potential for embittered local residents to join attacks on foreign dominated industries that do not appear to benefit the impoverished general population.

Nigérien uranium fuels France’s domestic nuclear energy program and its nuclear weapons program. With most of its uranium extraction industry in the hands of French mining giant Areva, Niger now ranks as the world’s fourth largest producer of the mineral. Niamey would like to renegotiate what it regards as an unfavorable deal with Areva and to see uranium operations expanded, but a combination of political unrest in the ore-bearing region and depressed global uranium prices have led Areva to several times put off development of the giant mine at Imouraren, which is now scheduled to open in 2015 (AFP, May 23). In these conditions, the industry actually has only a small impact on Niger’s desperately impoverished economy. Niamey is trying to address the problem by diversifying the industry, granting uranium exploration licenses to Canadian, Indian and Australian firms. 

The initiation of Chinese oil operations in the eastern province of Diffa (near Lake Chad) have only brought unrest to the region due to the perception that oil revenues fail to benefit the Diffa region and hiring practices that effectively exclude locals. Unemployed youth who used to be able to find employment in Libya rioted for in Diffa for three days recently, demanding priority in hiring at the Chinese drilling site (RFI, April 29; April 29; May 3).

The Tuareg Question

The majority of Niger’s population belongs to the Hausa and Djerma-Songhai ethnic groups. As in Mali, the Tuareg (who make up roughly 10% or Niger’s population of 17 million) share the more arid northern regions of Niger with other ethnic groups, including Tubu (who have joined the Tuareg in past rebellions and have connections to the Tubu militias of southern Libya), Arabs, Kanuri and Peul/Fulani. However, fears that the Tuareg rebellion in Mali might cross the border to Niger have not materialized so far, largely in part due to general dissatisfaction with the human and material costs of the most recent rebellion in 2007-2009 and the relative success of integration efforts in the wake of that conflict. Niger mounted a significant security campaign to intercept, disarm and reintegrate Tuareg veterans of the Libyan military who returned to Niger after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, encouraging the most militant returnees to bypass Niger after clashing with Nigérien troops and head for northern Mali instead, where government control of the north was much less effective (Jeune Afrique, May 20). Niger has a small but growing Salafist population, concentrated at the moment in Niamey and Maradi, the latter being just north of the border with Nigeria and close to the Islamist stronghold of Kano. Though Salafism enjoyed a brief popularity amongst certain Tuareg supporters of Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement in Mali, it has made few inroads amongst the mainly Sufi Tuareg of Niger.

Conclusion

Nigérien authorities insist that the suicide bombings that have targeted the Nigérien military and economic infrastructure will not deter Niger from its commitment to counter-terrorist operations carried out in league with France and Niger’s regional allies. French President François Hollande has meanwhile indicated France was willing to help Niger “destroy” Islamic militants operating in that country, but tempered the French commitment by saying: “We will not intervene in Niger as we did in Mali, but we have the same willingness to cooperate in the fight against terrorism” (AFP, May 23). Continued attacks on vital French interests in Niger may change this approach at some point.

The sophistication and effectiveness of the attacks (which contrast with the poorly executed MUJWA suicide attacks in Gao) suggest the participation or supervision of veteran jihadists rather than the enthusiastic but unskilled fighters of MUJWA. Islamist militants appear to have adapted to the increased presence of surveillance drones and aircraft in the region, avoiding the risk posed by long-distance raids in strength by fighting in close, mounting attacks in small numbers that can easily be concealed until the last moment, whether in the urban population of Agadez or in a mass of workers reporting for work at Arlit. Resource industries and military installations continue to present prime targets for their political and economic impact, though it is possible that the militants might turn to more random attacks on the civilian population in Niger if it refuses to back away from counter-terrorist efforts in cooperation with Western partners.

There are also indications that the attacks in Niger are only part of a spread of jihadi activities throughout the Sahel/Sahara region as a consequence of the dispersal of the jihadists who had concentrated in northern Mali before the French-led intervention. After the Niger bombings, Hassan Ould al-Khalil, the spokesman of AQIM’s Mulathamin Brigade, warned his home nation of Mauritania that it could expect similar attacks if it contributed troops to the new UN peacekeeping force being organized for deployment in northern Mali (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], May 23).

Nigérien president Mahamadou Issoufou maintains that: “According to the information we have, the attackers [in the Agadez and Arlit incidents] came from southern Libya… I know the Libyan authorities are trying hard. But Libya continues to be a source of instability” (Reuters, May 25; for southern Libya’s security crisis, see Terrorism Monitor, April 19). During a May 2 visit to Paris, Niger’s foreign minister, Muhammad Bazoum, had warned of the threat posed by Islamists setting up “international terrorism bases” in loosely governed southern Libya: “Southern Libya is not under the control of the state and we have information that suggests that a certain number of jihadists are now in this area… As long as the Libyan state is a state that is unable to control its borders, there is a risk [to its neighbors]” (Reuters, May 2). With violent extremists such as AQIM’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar operating in the region seemingly at will, it is becoming clear that the effort to sweep terrorists and radical Islamists from northern and western Africa cannot be compartmentalized according to the borders of local nation-states, but must rather be part of a comprehensive and coordinated multi-national effort with significant external assistance. However willing they might be, nations such as Niger simply do not have the resources and manpower to unilaterally ensure security in vast and lightly-populated regions that offer operational bases and useful transit routes for extremists building a more widespread jihad against Western interests and “apostate” governments in northern Africa. 

This article first appeared as a Jamestown Foundation “Hot Issue,” May 29, 2013.

Niger Revamps Security Structure to Face Islamist Threat

Andrew McGregor

May 16, 2013

As Niger struggles to expand its uranium industry and exploit potentially rich oil reserves in its northern regions, it has been forced to address the security consequences of being a neighbor to northern Mali, southern Libya and northern Nigeria, all regions experiencing large levels of political and religious violence that have little respect for national borders.

Niger ArmyNigerien Troops

Niger’s army played an important role in Operation Serval, the French-led military intervention in northern Mali. Rather than operating with the rest of the African units that gathered in Bamako but played no important role in the fighting, Nigérien troops entered northern Mali alongside Chadian forces from Mali’s southern border with Niger. Niger now deploys over 650 soldiers in northern Mali at Gao, Ansongo and Menaka (RFI, May12). The Nigérien base at Menaka was the target of a May 10 suicide attack. A car full of explosives managed to burst through the gates of the camp, but was destroyed by Nigérien troops without any casualties other than the suicide attacker (AFP, May 10).

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who has met three times in the last year with French president François Hollande, is urging a strong mandate for the UN peacekeeping force that is expected to replace the current ECOWAS operation:  It should not be a classical-type mission like was the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans or in the Congo. Considering the nature of the enemy, this mission should be offensive” (RFI Online, May 14).

Niger’s foreign minister, Muhammad Bazoum, recently warned it had obtained information confirming that armed Islamists driven out of northern Mali by Operation Serval had shifted operations to Libya’s lightly-governed southwest, presumably by passing through northern Niger. According to Bazoum, “Mali has been settled, but Libya is far from being resolved, and today we think Libya is one of the biggest international terrorism bases… These bases, because they are terrorists,’ they will be a threat for Libya’s immediate neighbors” (Reuters, May 2). Veteran Nigérien Tubu militant Barka Wardougou also appears to have shifted his base of operations across the border into southern Libya, which has a substantial Tubu population.

Though Niger is usually graded as the poorest nation in the world, it has been forced to increase its defense budget in reaction to external threats and the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the northern desert. While the minister of defense boasts of increased salaries, expanded recruitment and purchases of military equipment such as tanks, the minister of the interior points out that “this is money that we take from the education and health budgets” (Jeune Afrique, April 29). There are also plans to expand Niger’s internal intelligence agency, which consists at the moment of only roughly 100 men.

Niger’s army, the roughly 8,000 man Forces Armées Nigeriennes (FAN), is dominated by members of the Djerma-Songhai, historical rivals of the Saharan Tuareg of northern Niger, who, like their cousins in northern Mali, have engaged in several rebellions against the southern-dominated government. Though the Tuareg rebels of northern Mali and northern Niger have cooperated in the past, there have been no overt signs of unrest amongst the Tuareg of Niger since the Tuareg/Islamist rebellion began in Mali last year. The army continues to have close ties to France, the former colonial power, but has received increasing levels of U.S. training and assistance in recent years. A new U.S. training mission for African peacekeepers operating in Mali will begin on June 24 and will involve up to 30 U.S. instructors (Reuters, May 16).  There are already roughly 100 American military personnel in Niger, most of them involved with the operation and protection of U.S. drones based in Niamey.

French and American drones began flying surveillance missions out of Niamey’s Hamani-Diori Airport in February and there is speculation that Washington may consider creating a permanent base for drone operations in Niger.  Despite Niger’s ever-precarious economic situation, the presence of these unmanned aircraft has created a degree of “drone envy” in the Niamey government and military, which is “seriously considering” the purchase of its own drones. According to President Issoufou: “Without them we are blind and deaf people” (Jeune Afrique, April 22).

Nigeria’s Boko Haram and bandits posing as Boko Haram members continue to pose a threat to security in the areas along Niger’s southern border with Nigeria. To counter these activities, Niger contributes troops to the decade-old Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), composed of troops from Nigeria, Chad and Niger. The MJTF runs operations against Boko Haram groups active in the border region, though Niamey recently denied Nigerian claims that Nigérien troops were involved in an April 19 firefight near Lake Chad in which 185 civilians were killed in the crossfire between security forces and Boko Haram suspects. Niger defense minister Mahamadou Karidjo maintained that “No element of Niger’s army took part in these clashes… Boko Haram is not a direct threat for Niger; we are leaving Nigerians to deal with their own problem (AFP, April 26). In recent days more than 1500 Nigérien national who had been living on the Nigerian side of the border have fled the recurrent Boko Haram-related violence around Lake Chad back into an area of Niger that is already experiencing a food crisis (RFI Online, May 14).

Niger also faces the task of dealing with Nigérien jihadists returning home after being dispersed by Operation Serval. Many are reported to be Fulanis who were offered considerable recruitment bonuses but had little ideological commitment to the Islamist cause (Jeune Afrique, April 29). The best known returnee is Hisham Bilal, a former commander in the Islamist Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) who returned to Niger with his men last November after complaining that MUJWA’s Arab leaders used Black African jihadists as “cannon fodder” (AFP, November 9, 2012).

This article first appeared in the May 16, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Arabs and Tuareg Clash in Struggle for Destiny of Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

May 16, 2013

New fighting between northern Mali’s Arab community and Tuareg rebels working with French intervention forces in the region threatens to escalate into a wider ethnic conflict in the run-up to July’s national elections. While efforts are under way to ease tensions between the communities, there is also suspicion that some of these efforts are opportunistic and designed to advance certain personal political agendas.

Azawad Map 2The clashes, centered around the town of Bir, have involved members of the largely Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – a secular separatist movement) and the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), an Arab militia created in February 2012 as the Front de Libération nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA) and formed from members of earlier Arab militias and Arab soldiers of the Malian Army who deserted after the fall of Timbuktu to Islamist groups last year.

The MAA announced it had expelled Tuareg fighters belonging to the MNLA from the town of Bir (30 miles northeast of Timbuktu) on April 22 after 14 to 15 MAA battlewagons entered the town. Movement spokesman Moloud Muhammad Ramadan said the action was taken to protect village residents who were threatened by the MNLA’s presence, though there were later charges that MAA fighters looted Tuareg properties in Bir (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], April 22). French military aircraft overflew the town several times to observe the situation, though they did not send in ground forces (RFI, April 26). As clashes between Arabs and Tuareg intensified, troops from Burkina Faso and the Malian Army entered Bir on May 6 (AP, May 7). The Arab fighters withdrew, but remained close to the town to observe developments and await an opportunity to return.

Malian troops conducted searches and carried out arrests in Bir, but they and the Burkinabe force withdrew by May 10, leaving the town open to new outbreaks of violence as a column of Arab battlewagons re-entered Bir on May 11, looting homes and shops while searching for Tuareg men. MAA spokesmen Moloud Muhammad Ramadan admitted that the Arab fighters were members of the MAA, but insisted they were operating outside the movement’s control in an effort to retrieve items looted from the Arab community in In Khalil by Tuareg members of the MNLA (RFI, May 12). The local Tuareg community claims to have had nothing to do with the MNLA looting of In Khalil. Ramadan denied charges that Tuareg livestock at Bir were slaughtered by MAA fighters and stated that the MAA “has nothing against the Tuareg, but hunts the MNLA wherever it may be” (Mali Actualités, May 5).

The trouble in Bir has its direct origin in the MNLA’s occupation of the border town of In Khalil in February, which Arab residents claim was followed by wide-scale pillaging and rape. The MAA responded by attacking the MNLA positions in In Khalil on February 23 with a column led by MAA military commander Colonel Hussein Ould Ghulam. The Arab militia was driven off after being hit by French airstrikes in support of the MNLA (Le Combat [Bamako], February 23; see Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 8).

To press their demands for the return of Arab property or cash compensation, MAA fighters kidnapped the son of the Tuareg marabout [Islamic religious scholar] of Bir, who remains missing (RFI, May 9). However, Arab elders in the town opposed the kidnapping, suggesting it would result only in more violence between the communities (RFI, April 29).

Clashes between Tuareg and Arab groups have occurred elsewhere in northern Mali as well. Arab residents of Anefis, a town roughly halfway between Gao and Kidal, complain that Tuareg fighters of the MNLA entered that town on April 24, killing four Arab merchants before cleaning out their shop and charging fees to pass through MNLA checkpoints (Procès Verbal [Bamako], May 1). It is not only the rebel Tuareg that have come into conflict with the Arabs of northern Mali; Arab residents of the town of Taguilalt (60 miles outside of Gao) have complained that Tuareg troops of the Malian Army (presumably part of Colonel al-Hajj ag-Gamou’s command) looted the village on April 16, arresting 12 Arab men and “provoking and humiliating “other Arab residents (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], April 17). The Timbuktu Arab community is still calling for information on the whereabouts of eight Arab traders and one Songhai member who they claim were abducted by Malian troops on February 14. Malian authorities in Timbuktu claim only one Arab trader was taken (RFI, May 2).

Besides the Arab “self-defense” militias, Malian Arabs seeking reforms through legal and democratic means formed al-Karama (Dignity) last year in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, where many Malian Arabs have taken refuge for the duration of hostilities in northern Mali. Though they admit they lack political experience, al-Karama leaders say they will not concede the right to govern to “cunning” and more experienced political operators who rule through “the lie, the plot and the threat” (Mali Actualités, April 12). The leader of al-Karama is Muhammad Tahir Ould al-Hajj, a leading member of the Timbuktu Arab community.  The movement’s secretary, Muhammad Ould Mahmud, insists al-Karama opposes all forms of terrorism and drug-trafficking and welcomes the recent establishment of a national Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission (Mali Actualités, May 4).

In a parallel effort to find a political solution to the situation in northern Mali, the High Council of Azawad was formed on May 2 by a number of Kidal community leaders and headed by Muhammad ag Intallah, a son of the chief of the Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal, Intallah ag Attaher. The mainly Tuareg group says it seeks to unite all the “sons of the Azawad” under a single banner to negotiate with Bamako without recourse to armed struggle, partition or alliance with Islamist groups (RFI, May 7). However, despite accusations that the HCA is nothing more than a renamed version of the rebel MNLA, that movement has announced it wants no part of the HCA and is seeking direct negotiations with Bamako (RFI, April 26; May 8). Bamako, in turn, insists on MNLA disarmament before talks can begin. There are, however, reports that fighters of the largely Tuareg Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA) led by Alghabass ag Intallah (another son and designated successor of the Ifoghas chief) are integrating into the MNLA. These reports would seem to confirm earlier charges that the recently formed MIA was nothing more than a way-station for Ansar al-Din defectors seeking to join the secular MNLA before direct talks resume with Bamako (RFI, April 29; for Alghabass ag Intallah and the MIA, see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 30).

The Arab-Tuareg tensions are escalating as the defeated Islamist groups turn to terrorist tactics to prolong their struggle against French “Crusaders,” their military allies and the Malian state:

  • On May 4, two Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) suicide bombers killed two members of the Malian military when they attacked a patrol near Gao (RFI, May 5).
  • On May 10, three suicide bombers attacked a Malian Army checkpoint in Gossi, while a fourth was killed trying to enter the Gossi military camp. In the early hours of the same day,  an assailant tried to drive a car bomb into the camp used by Nigérien troops in Menaka, but was killed when his car exploded under fire from the camp’s guards (Reuters, May 10; AFP, May 10). The Niger deployment has also been struck by the death in Bamako of its senior officer, General Yaya Seyni Garba, apparently from natural causes (Agence de Presse Africaine, May 11).
  • Three suicide bombers struck in Gossi on May 11, wounding two soldiers, while a fourth suicide bomber was killed in Menaka before he could detonate his explosives. MUJWA claims responsibility for both attacks (AP, May 11). The continuing attacks bring into question the security of nation-wide elections planned for July.
  • While Bamako has escaped most of the violence that has consumed the north for the last year, there are disturbing indications that the dispersed Islamists are preparing new attacks within the capital. In late April, Malian military intelligence arrested seven Malian citizens alleged to members of a MUJWA cell preparing a bombing campaign in Bamako (RFI, April 29; Jeune Afrique, May 1).

Meanwhile, there are reports that the 2012 military coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, is seeking asylum in Gabon or Nigeria. Sanogo, who has barely left the Kati military base outside of Bamako since the coup, is alleged to now fear reprisals from other member of the military after a number of internal clashes and disputes within the army (PANA Online [Dakar], May 1).

This article first appeared in the May 16, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Libya’s Sabha Oasis: Former Qaddafist Stronghold Becoming Regional Center of Insecurity

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2013

During the rule of the late Mu’ammar Qaddafi, Libya’s Sabha Oasis was an important regional security center, dominating Libya’s remote Fezzan region and the ancient trans-Saharan trade routes that connect sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean coast. The Libyan airbase and garrison at Sabha gave Qaddafi a military presence in a region that contains most of Libya’s considerable oil wealth as well as a remote center for nuclear weapons development and rocket testing.  The presence of many Qaddafist loyalists in Sabha (including members of Qaddafi’s own Qadhadhfa tribe) made it the last major center to be taken by rebel forces in the campaign to depose Qaddafi. Today, roughly a year-and-a-half after Qaddafi’s death, Sabha’s strategic importance has actually increased due to the insecurity that prevails in southwestern desert.

Sabha FortressSabha Fortress

To cope with the rampant insecurity that allowed the deadly Islamist attack on Algeria’s In Aménas gas plant to be mounted from southwestern Libya, Sabha was one of several southern regions declared a closed military zone in December, 2012, with temporary closures to border crossings with Niger, Algeria, Chad and Sudan (see Terrorism Monitor, January 25).

Sabha – The Disputed Oasis

Located some 500 miles south of Tripoli, the town of Sabha, with a population of roughly  200,000, is dominated by a massive Italian-built fort (Fortezza Margherita, but now known as Fort Elena),  a legacy of Italy’s brutal occupation of the Libyan interior in the early 20th century. Most residents belong to Arab or Arab-Berber tribes, but the Tayuri and al-Hijra neighborhoods belong to members of the Tubu, an indigenous Black African tribe following a semi-nomadic lifestyle in what is now southern Libya, northern Chad and northeastern Niger. Though famed for their traditional fighting skills, the Tubu of Sabha occupy cheap fire-blackened cinder block housing that provides witness to the bitter inter-communal battles that have plagued the oasis town since the Libyan revolution. The Tubu make up only 10 to 15% of Sabha’s population, which also includes a number of Tuareg and migrants from Sudan, Chad and Niger who were encouraged to fill jobs in Libya’s oil economy. 

Stripped of citizenship by Qaddafi and denied basic services such as medical care and education by Libyan administrators ordered to treat all Tubu as undocumented aliens, the Tubu see an opportunity to normalize and legitimize their historic presence in southern Libya through specific inclusion in Libya’s new constitution. Earlier this month, the Tubu attempted to educate other Libyans and foreign delegates about the Tubu by holding the first-ever “Festival for Tubu Heritage and Culture” in Murzuk, southwest of Sabha. While the event was attended by a number of members of the GNC, official foreign representation was limited to the Turkish consul and a UN delegate (Libya Herald, April 8).  For the Turkish consul, his arrival marked something of a symbolic return to the region: Ottoman troops were beginning to establish posts in the Tubu regions of the Sahara in the early 20th century prior to being withdrawn after the Italian invasion of Libya in 1912.

A group of Tubu fighters under the leadership of Niger-based militant chief Barka Wardougou (who became close to Tuareg rebel groups in Niger in the last decade) took Murzuk from its loyalist garrison in August, 2011 (Ennahar [Algiers], August 20, 2011). Wardougou and his militia remained in southwestern Libya after Qaddafi’s overthrow (Jeune Afrique, May 17, 2012).

Who Will Control the Borders?

Despite playing a leading role in the expulsion of Qaddafist forces from Libya’s southwest and the southeastern Kufra Oasis region, Libyan Tubus continue to be treated with the suspicion normally associated with pro-Qaddafists. When Sa’adi al-Qaddafi threatened to return from his Niger exile in February, 2012 to lead a new uprising in cooperation with elements of the Libyan military against the “gangs” who controlled Libya, attacks quickly began on Tubu residents of Kufra who were suspected (without evidence) of supporting Sa’adi’s plans for counter-revolution (Jeune Afrique, May 17, 2012; al-Arabiya, February 11, 2012; al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 15, 2012). For now, the Tubu continue to guard the border regions of the southwest, though partly out of self-interest – infiltration by Islamic extremists and narco-traffickers would challenge traditional Tubu control of local smuggling routes. The Tubu are already engaged in a struggle for control of these routes with their local rivals, the Awlad Sulayman Arabs. The Tubu and Awlad Sulayman fought a vicious battle using automatic weapons, rockets and mortars in Sabha in March 2012. The clashes left at least 50 dead and over 160 wounded (Libya Herald, March 28; Tripoli Post, March 29; for the battle, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, April 6, 2012).

In Sabha, incendiary rumors that the Tubu minority are about to take over the city often find a ready audience amongst the Awlad Sulayman and Awlad Abu Seif Arabs. Many Tubu are similarly convinced that the Awlad Sulayman intend to take control of the entire southwest region. Operating under the nominal direction of the Ministry of Defense, Tubu militias remain in control of several sensitive areas in southwestern Libya, including the southern al-Wigh airbase and parts of the Murzuk oil-fields. Calls from the militias for funding and equipment to control the borders have largely fallen on deaf ears. The Tubu not only know the physical terrain, they also know the location of unmarked minefields along the Libyan-Chadian border, deadly relics of the prolonged struggle between Chad and Qaddafi’s Libya for control of the uranium-rich Aouzou Strip.

Return of the Qaddafists

The continued presence of Sa’adi Qaddafi across the border in Niger also contributes to the destabilization of the region. A group of armed men attacked a Sabha police post on April 12, killing a police guard and two others before seizing vehicles and arms from the station.  The next day, over 20 individuals described as supporters of the Qaddafi regime were arrested. According to the head of Sabha’s military council, Ahmad al-Atteibi, the men had confessed to having been infiltrated from abroad with the purpose of setting up a base in the south (SAPA, April 13; News24, April 14). Another police source claimed the assailants were veterans of the Libyan Army’s 32nd Mechanized Brigade, a well-trained, well-armed and highly loyal unit under the direct command of Khamis al-Qaddafi (a son of the Libyan leader who was killed in a NATO airstrike in late August, 2012 (Libya Herald, April 14). Two vehicles belonging to the attackers were later recovered by the Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia hailing from the Berber-dominated Nafusa Mountains of western Libya. Libyan border police also reported arresting a group of Libyans entering the country from Egypt with a large quantity of pro-Qaddafi literature for distribution in Sabha (Libya Herald, April 13).

Libya has been applying intense pressure on Niger to extradite Sa’adi to Libya to face war crimes charges and it is expected that the former soccer player and Special Forces commander will join other members of the Qaddafi family in Oman rather than wait to be returned to an unhappy fate in Libya (al-Shabiba [Oman], March 26; Times of Oman, March 26).

Securing the South

The apparent inability of local security forces to resist attacks on their posts prompted a joint emergency meeting of Libya’s government and the ruling General National Congress (GNC). The meeting was attended by the highest levels of Libya’s administration and security services in an effort to find a solution to the ongoing challenges to government authority in the south (Libya Herald, April 14).

Security forces and militias from northern Libya dislike serving in the south, partly because there are no additional benefits offered to persuade them to serve there. Deployment orders from the Libyan Army command continue to be treated as requests by most of the Libyan militias.  Most are unable to cope with the isolation and severe climate of the vast desert expanses south of Sabha, leaving the region largely in the hands of local tribal militias, smuggling bands and roving groups of extremists who may have already established bases in the deserts.

The smugglers, who specialize in arms, fuel, vehicles, subsidized food, narcotics and human trafficking, are usually at least as well-armed and organized as the security forces tasked with their elimination. With under-equipped local security forces often going unpaid for months at a time, it has become much easier to simply purchase free movement through Libya’s ungoverned southwest. Efforts to inhibit the smugglers’ operations can invite retaliation; on March 30, a well-armed smuggling group angered by attempts to restrict their activities attacked the Sabha headquarters of the southern military region command at the Sabha airbase, killing two officers and wounding three other soldiers (Libya Herald, March 30; PANA, April 2).

The Arab-Berber Qadhadhfa, who were regarded as Qaddafi loyalists during the rebellion, have also engaged in deadly clashes with the generally anti-Qaddafi Awlad Sulayman tribe, who experienced rough treatment from the former dictator after he suspected them of planning his overthrow. Libyan army Special Forces units under Colonel Wanis Bukhamada were deployed to stop these tribal battles in early 2012. Bukhamada has since survived assassination attempts in both Sabha and his hometown of Benghazi.

Conclusion

The task of securing southern Libya from Islamist militants, narco-traffickers and arms-traders depends greatly upon efforts to reform Libya’s security services, most notably the National Liberation Army. However, with most former rebels preferring to remain under arms with their rebellion-era militias, such efforts have been painfully slow in obtaining results. Northerners dislike military service in the south and enduring suspicion of Tubu motives prevents the GNA from supplying this group with the arms, funds and equipment they need to secure the borders. As clashes with their Arab neighbors continue, Tubu goodwill towards post-revolutionary Libya is rapidly diminishing, as is the potential for this group to assume security tasks in southern Libya that few others are qualified to carry out. The In Aménas attack is a potent reminder of the necessity of securing the strategic Sabha Oasis and the rest of southwestern Libya before well-armed Islamists fleeing the French-led intervention in Mali can set up new operational bases in the region.

This article was first published in the April 19, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Chad Withdraws from Nothern Mali as Planning for UN Force Begins

Andrew McGregor

April 19, 2013

Chad has begun the withdrawal of its expeditionary force of roughly 2,250 troops from northern Mali as the conflict enters a new stage. According to Chadian president Idris Déby, the “man-to-man fighting” against armed Islamists in the Ifoghas Mountains is over and the Chadian army does not have the ability to conduct operations against guerrilla forces: “Our troops will return to Chad. They have accomplished their mission. We have already withdrawn the heavy support battalion. The remaining elements will return to the country gradually” (TV5 Monde, April 13).

Chad Mali 1France is also intent on withdrawing most of its forces in the region. A draft resolution before the UN Security Council calls for the creation of an 11,000 strong UN peacekeeping force (aided by 1,440 police) that could relieve French forces and assume responsibility for security in Mali by July 1 if major combat operations were completed by that date (AFP, April 15). The new mission will be known as the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). President Déby has indicated that Chad will respond positively if it receives a request from the UN for participation (AFP, April 14). UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is said to favor an additional Special Forces formation drawn from a single Western nation (the unspoken preference is France) that would be tasked with counter-terrorism operations in parallel with the operations of the UN peacekeeping mission (Jeune Afrique, April 8).

The UN force would likely absorb the mostly inactive African-led International Support Mission in Mali (AFISMA), a force largely drawn from states belonging to the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). On April 9, a senior Pentagon official warned the existing African intervention force was “completely incapable” and would likely be unable to deter al-Qaeda and its allies from retaking northern Mali once French forces pull out (France24, April 10). Most of the AFISMA units remain in southern Mali due to shortages of transportation, food, equipment and even boots. The troops also lack training in desert warfare, making their deployment highly risky (Jeune Afrique, April 8). EU trainers have begun work in Mali but it is expected to be months before training graduates can take the field. A new UN mission may include a deployment from Burundi, whose troops have been honing their combat skills in battles against Somalia’s al-Shabaab for several years now as part of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Tensions have been reported in northern Mali’s Kidal region between the Chadians and members of the rebel Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), a largely Tuareg group that guides French forces operating in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains and provides security in Kidal in the absence of regular Malian forces, who are prevented from entering Kidal as the price of the MNLA’s necessary cooperation.  The MNLA suspects the Chadians are encouraging the arrival of Malian regulars to help facilitate their own withdrawal. The Tuareg separatists have warned they will fire on any Malian regulars who approach the Kidal and Tessalit regions where the MNLA still holds sway. An armed confrontation between the Chadians and the Tuareg rebels was reported to have been narrowly averted on April 13 when a Chadian officer ordered his men to avoid provocations as they were confronted by MNLA protestors in front of the Chadian camp (Xinhua, April 16). The MNLA members said they were angered by the panic of Chadian troops who opened fire on civilians in Kidal immediately after a suicide bombing in the Kidal market that killed three of their comrades and injured four others (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], April 13; RFI, April 12; April 13). The blast brought the number of Chadian dead in the French-led military intervention to 36.

Chad Mali 2Chadian Forces in Northern Mali

Chadian claims to have killed al-Qaeda terrorist chieftain Mokhtar Belmokhtar during a battle in the Ametetai Valley on March 2 have yet to be verified in the absence of any evidence, but Chadian claims took an odd turn last week when President Déby explained the AQIM leader’s remains had been destroyed in an explosion: “We have proof of [Belmokhtar’s] death. We couldn’t film it because he blew himself up after the death of [AQIM commander] Abu Zeid. He wasn’t the only one. Three or four other jihadists [also] blew themselves up in despair…” (AFP, April 14; for Chad’s original claim, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 8). For the moment, the Chadian claim appears to rest largely on the evidence of prisoners taken in the battle.

Chadian troops remain in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Chadian units tasked with defending the capital of Bangui from Seleka rebels stood down when the rebel force advanced in March, allowing them to seize the capital and engage in a two-day firefight with South African troops the rebels believed were helping to prop up the regime of President François Bozizé.

Bozizé now blames Chad for his downfall and claims his security forces observed 40 Chadian battle-wagons reinforcing the the Seleka rebels who took the CAR capital of Bangui on March 24-25 (RFI, April 4). A Chadian spokesman denied the claims: “No Chadian special forces were in the CAR. It is only in the imagination of Bozizé … He is somebody who was in power for 10 years and did not set up an army that could resist that small rebellion which came to seize power in a few hours” (RFI, April 8). By coincidence or otherwise, Seleka’s battle with the South African military forces in Bangui worked in favor of Chad and France, both of whom felt their traditional influence in the region was threatened by Bozizé’s growing relationship with South African business and government interests.

Asked about perceptions that Chad is using its military strength to become a regional power, Chadian Information and Communication Minister Hassan Silla replied: “We do not have any vision of invading Africa. But today, Chad is solicited by the world as a result of its effectiveness, due to its defense and security forces, which proved their mettle against traffickers and terrorism” (RFI, April 9).

This article was first published in the April 19, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Dead or Alive? The Fate of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2013

Despite claims that “terrorist kingpins” have been eliminated in the secret war being fought in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains of northern Mali, evidence of such results remains in short supply. Most notable among those allegedly killed in the fighting is Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), a veteran al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader who soared to international prominence as the self-proclaimed organizer of January’s devastating terrorist attack on the Algerian oil facility at In Aménas.

Chadian army chief-of-staff General Zakaria Ngobongue reported that Belmokhtar was killed on March 2 by Chadian troops during a battle in the Ametetai Valley. The Chadians also reported killing a number of other terrorists in the battle and the seizure of 60 vehicles, GPS systems and sophisticated communications equipment (RFI, March 3).

Alleged Death Photo of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Alleged Death Photo of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Evidence of Belmokhtar’s death remains slim. Radio France Internationale published a very low quality photo of a mobile phone image (essentially a photo of a photo) of what appears to be the partially revealed and blood-covered face of Belmokhtar, with the rest of the body concealed by a fabric wrapping. The original image was supposedly recorded on the cell phone of a Chadian soldier, though there are now claims that the corpse was actually that of Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid, another senior AQIM commander (RFI, March 4; March 5; Paris Match, March 4; France24, March 5). Chadian authorities, however, have refused to French appeals for proof of the deaths of the two AQIM leaders; according to Chadian president Idriss Déby: “”It’s in accordance with the principles of Islam that the remains of these two terrorists have not been put on display” (AFP, March 4).

Belmokhtar’s Algerian AQIM colleague and rival, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid (a.k.a. Muhammad Ghadir), was reported dead on February 28 (Ennahar [Algiers], February 28). Abu Zeid was the leader of the Tarik Ibn Zayid brigade of AQIM. Algerian security services were reported to have examined the corpse and Abu Zeid’s personal weapon at a military installation in northern Mali, but were unable to conclusively identify the body as his.  The Algerians are now conducting DNA tests using samples taken from Abu Zeid’s relatives in Algeria (El Khabar [Algiers], March 2).

An unofficial posting that appeared on various jihadi websites confirmed that Abu Zeid had been killed, but claimed his death occurred in a French bombardment rather than as the result of actions by the Chadian army. The message also claimed that Belmokhtar was “alive and leading the battles” and would release a statement soon (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], March 2; March 4). Adding to the confusion was a statement from rebel Tuareg of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) announcing that it had turned over remains believed to be those of Belmokhtar to French military forces, though it was unclear how the MNLA came into possession of these remains (El Khabar [Algiers], March 4).

According to the French military’s chief-of-staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, the death of Abu Zeid was “likely, but it is only likely,” while on the death of Belmokhtar the Admiral would only say that he was “extremely cautious” (Europe 1 Radio, March 4). French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also had his reservations over President Déby’s claim that Belmokhtar was dead: “We can’t be sure it is him… If the Chadian president can bring us proof, so much the better. If it is true it would be very good news but it would not resolve everything” (AFP, March 6).

MNLA spokesman Hama ag Sid’Ahmed confirmed Abu Zeid’s death on the basis of reports from local notables and the testimony of the three young survivors of the French air raid that hit Abu Zeid’s hideout. However, Sid’Ahmed claims that various notables who know Belmokhtar have reported he is alive and well but has left the combat regions. According to the same sources, Omar Ould Hamaha, the leader of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) was still active in the region between Gao and Tessalit (Le Temps d’Algérie, March 5).

The continuing hunt for extremists in the mountains of Kidal and the possible elimination of several top al-Qaeda leaders has raised concerns in France over the safety of the French hostages still being held by AQIM and its allies. There are many rumors regarding their fate, but Admiral Guillaud says the army does not believe the hostages are with the terrorists in their mountain hide-outs: “We think the hostages are not there [where air strikes are taking place], otherwise we would not be carrying them out” (AFP, March 4).

In their search for militants, the French military is using French-built Harfang surveillance drones (previously employed in Afghanistan and Libya) and Atlantique-2 surveillance aircraft. Also in use is the Eurocopter Tiger, a multi-role aircraft that can conduct surveillance as well as carry out airstrikes. However, despite a lack of cover in many areas, AQIM’s gunmen have proved remarkably skilled at disguising their movements and camps in northern Mali. The Tigharghar region of the Adrar des Ifoghas is especially suited for concealment and offers numerous opportunities for ambushes, as the Chadians have discovered. According to a French military spokesman, AQIM has established underground bunkers with pre-positioned arms and food depots in the mountains that fighters can move between with ease (AP, February 28).

MNLA fighters cooperating with French forces in Kidal have begun house-to-house searches for Islamists and are focusing on the residences of members of the Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), a newly formed group of Tuareg Islamists who abandoned Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement when French forces began advancing into northern Mali (For the MIA and its leader, Algabass ag Intallah, see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 29). The MNLA continues to reject all efforts by the MIA to form a political alliance, saying that the MIA members “bear the scent of AQIM” (RFI, March 3).

Across the border, Algeria has stepped up efforts to prevent Islamist penetration by mounting extra patrols and reconnaissance flights. A multi-arm operational task force has been set up at the military base at Tamanrasset under the command of former Special Forces commander Major General Ammar Athamnia, commander of the 6th military region (Tamanrasset). According to one American report, the United States has also committed resources from the CIA, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Joint Special Operations Command in the hunt for Belmokhtar and other AQIM warlords (Wall Street Journal, February 11).

So long as France continues to impose a blanket of silence over military operations in the Kidal region it will remain difficult to confirm reports emerging from the bitter conflict being fought there. The idea of Mokhtar Belmokhtar making a last stand, trapped by Chadian and French troops in the rocks of the Ifoghas mountains, seems contrary to everything we know about Belmokhtar, including his dedication to mobility and advance preparation of escape routes and caches of arms and supplies. Belmokhtar also appeared to lack the ideological conviction that was characteristic of Abu Zeid and other AQIM commanders. It is possible that may have changed in recent months, but the answer to that question lies in the true motivations behind Belmokhtar’s attack on In Aménas, motivations that remain poorly understood as of yet. It would seem more likely for Belmokhtar to have made a break from his base at the town of al-Khalil on the Algerian border into Niger and gone on into southern Libya, where Belmokhtar established contacts with local jihadis over the last two years. He may also have sought unofficial help from contacts in Algerian intelligence formed during Algeria’s long “dirty war” against AQIM’s Islamist predecessors. In its need for morale-boosting news after suffering heavy losses in the Ifoghas mountains, Chad’s military leadership may have acted rashly by announcing the deaths of Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid. However, now that the announcements have been made, it has become essential to verify or dismiss these claims in order to formulate the future direction of the counter-terrorist campaign in the Sahara/Sahel region. Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid are too dangerous to be allowed to cast a permanent shadow over efforts to pacify and develop a deeply impoverished region whose problems cannot be solved by sectarian terrorism.

Notes

1. See “Chad and Niger: France’s Military Allies in Northern Mali,” Aberfoyle International Security Special Report, February 15, 2013, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=186.

This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s March 8 issue of Terrorism Monitor

The Hunt for Mali’s Missing Islamists: Have Tuareg Rebels Returned to Darfur?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report – February 13, 2013

A century after West African Tuareg rebels fled from French forces to Darfur, various reports suggest that the Tuareg Ansar al-Din Islamists of northern Mali have again fled a French military offensive to take refuge in Sudan’s western province.

Jabal MarraJabal Marra (Kylie de Castro)

Numerous but unconfirmed reports are filtering out of Sudan’s western province of Darfur regarding the sudden arrival in the mountainous region of Jabal Marra of hundreds of Islamists escaping the French and Chadian offensive in northern Mali. Most of the armed men are said to be from the largely Tuareg, partly Arab Ansar al-Din movement led by veteran Tuareg rebel Iyad ag Ghali (a.k.a. Abu al-Fadl). If an Ansar al-Din convoy managed to escape to Darfur, it would most likely have followed a route taking it along the desert track in northern Niger and through poorly secured southern Libya before dropping down into northern Darfur via the road running south from Kufra Oasis. For the rebels, it would be important to avoid the territory of Chad, France’s main military partner in the intervention.

Sudan Liberation Movement-AW leader Abd al-Wahid al-Nur announced on February 8 that Islamists from northern Mali had arrived “to make our stronghold, Jabal Marra, as their base.” Al-Nur put their numbers in “the hundreds” and said they stood out locally by virtue of their dress, language and skin color (AFP, February 8).

One source provided a detailed deployment of the Islamists, who are alleged to have arrived in North Darfur in approximately 200 Land Cruisers since the start of February. Since then, the Islamists are reported to have set up three camps near Kutum; one  near the IDP camp at Kassab, one at Jabal Mari, seven or eight kilometers north-east of Kutum and one at Sijana, ten kilometers north of Kutum. The Islamists, who are reported to speak French and use Central African francs and U.S. dollars to buy provisions in the Kutum market, have covered their weapons and vehicles with large green tarps to conceal their position (Radio Dabanga, February 11).

The reports were apparently confirmed by Abul Gasim Imam, spokesman for the rebel umbrella group, the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, who reported the presence of Islamist militants at Mulagat, some 15 kilometers north-east of Kutum. SLM-MM leader Minni Minawi claimed that Khartoum was working with the new Libyan government to establish Ansar al-Din in the Sudan-Libya border region in north Darfur (homeland of Minawi’s Zaghawa tribe) (Sudan Tribune, February 6).

Yet another confirmation came from Gibreel Adam, a spokesman for Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the most powerful of Darfur’s rebel groups. According to Adam, the fighters had entered Darfur in armored Land Cruisers through the lawless rural bushlands of the Central African Republic (CAR) (New Vision [Khartoum}, February 9). The route through the CAR would require passing through Niger, the Borno region of Nigeria and northern Cameroon if Chad is to be avoided on the way to the CAR. It seems unlikely that the heightened Nigerian security presence in Borno during the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency would miss hundreds of armored battle-wagons topped up with Tuareg and Arab fighters. There remains the possibility, however, that some kind of deal could be cut in crossing these borders by convoys with enough cash.

Another senior JEM leader, Tahir al-Faki, noted that JEM fighters had spotted the Islamists in the Um Sidr and Kutum areas, but added that JEM operatives who watch desert traffic near Jabal al-Uwaynat on the route from Libya’s Kufra Oasis to Darfur had not seen any unusual movement towards Darfur in recent days, leading al-Faki to describe reports that the Islamists may have used this route to enter Darfur as “not accurate.” Al-Faki speculated that Khartoum might demand a reward for extraditing the Islamists to Western countries, but might also “plan to use them to control areas of Golo and Kutum and force the indigenous population to leave their land in Jabal Marra” (Sudan Tribune, February 12).

Hama ag Sid Ahmed 2Hama ag Sid Ahmad

When asked earlier this week to speculate on the location of the missing Islamists, Hama ag Sid Ahmad, spokesman of the largely Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), did not mention Darfur as a possibility: “Some think they are between the Niger-Mali, Algeria-Mali and, finally, the Mauritania-Mali borders. Others have left heading toward Libya. A goodly portion of the groups is still present in Gao, Timbuktu and Tessalit” (Le Temps d’Algérie, February 12). Despite Bamako’s objections, the separatist MNLA is working together with French and Chadian troops in the hunt for Islamist rebels in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains.

Jabal Marra is not exactly a haven of peace these days. Rebels belonging to the Sudanese Liberation Movement – Abd al-Wahid (SLM-AW, drawn largely from the indigenous Fur tribe and named for movement leader Abd al-Wahid al-Nur) claim to have scored recent successes in a campaign that began in western Jabal Marra in late December. Jabal Marra is the ancestral homeland of the Fur and the center of a Fur dynasty that ruled the region for two and a half centuries until it was overthrown by the British-led Egyptian Army in 1916. After a two-day battle last week, the rebels claimed to have taken the town of Golo and a nearby military base in Derbat, a serious reversal for Khartoum’s military (AFP, February 5; Radio Dabanga, February 7). The SLM-AW claims to have killed eleven Malians fighting alongside Sudanese troops in the battle for Derbat and to have captured one Islamist militant from Mali, a badly wounded individual named Abu Ala al-Issawi (Radio Dabanga, February 8). Fighting also continues in eastern Jabal Marra, where villages have come under aerial bombing from the Sudanese air force combined with attacks by pro-government militias operating out of al-Fashir (Radio Dabanga, February 6).

The Qatari Connection?

One of the most bizarre explanations for the disappearance of northern Mali’s Islamist commanders came in a report carried by an Algerian daily that described two Qatari planes landing in northern Mali to carry the jihadists away to safety. The account did not provide any details regarding the source of this information (Le Temps d’Algérie, February 5).

There is growing speculation in France that Qatar has provided covert support to the Islamists in northern Mali (particularly Ansar al-Din), but so far there is little evidence to support such allegations (France24, January 21; Le Canard Enchaine, June 6, 2012). Support for al-Qaeda and its affiliates would not seem to be in the interests of Qatar, which depends entirely upon the United States and other Western nations for its defense. Qatar nevertheless supports the international spread of Salafism and was the only foreign nation to provide humanitarian assistance to northern Mali during the Islamist occupation. Qatar vigorously opposed the French military intervention, calling for a process of dialogue instead.

Attempts to Secure Darfur’s Borders

Libya and Sudan agreed on February 2 to both move troops up to their mutual border to control movement along the “Libyan Road” that leads south from Kufra, past Jabal al-Uwaynat and into Darfur. The Kufra region was designated a military zone and the border with Sudan closed on December 15, 2012. [1] Libyan warplanes are monitoring the Kufra region from the border with Chad to Jabal al-Uwaynat and Jabal al-Malik near the border with Egypt and have already struck a smugglers’ camp in the region (Libyan News Agency, December 19, 2012). Even given the Libyans’ limited military capacity, it is hard to imagine a large number of armed vehicles passing through this region unobserved and unchallenged, especially by the Tubu militias operating in the area. Avoiding the customary route through the Kufra-Darfur border would require local guides and a challenging drive through trackless wastes.

Chad and Sudan have operated joint border patrols to restore security along the traditionally volatile border with Darfur since agreeing to end a long-standing proxy war in the region in 2010. Prior to that agreement, the Zaghawa political elite in Chad were major backers of the largely-Zaghawa leadership of Darfur’s rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). This relationship appears to have deteriorated greatly since N’Djamena withdrew its support for the rebels after the 2010 rapprochement with Khartoum, with JEM claiming to have repulsed an attack on their fighters in late January by Chadian forces near Um Dukhun in South Darfur (Sudan Tribune, January 31). JEM’s account of a major clash with Chadian troops was refuted by a Sudanese Army spokesman. (The Citizen [Khartoum], February 7).

Reasons to Question Ansar al-Din’s Presence in Darfur

Despite the multiple accounts seeming to confirm the arrival of Ansar al-Din in Darfur, there are still several reasons to remain wary. Most of the accounts originate with rebel groups who would be happy to embarrass the Khartoum government by suggesting some type of collusion between the Islamist/military regime and al-Qaeda associated jihadists. The way to Darfur from northern Mali is extremely long and difficult, roughly 2,000 miles through some of the most forbidding terrain on Earth.  Getting all the way to Jabal Marra would mean passing by more inviting refuges in southern Libya, where government control barely exists.  Many Ansar al-Din are familiar with southern Libya through their military service in Qaddafi’s armies; Darfur, however, is terra incognito, a land where language and appearance would quickly mark the fugitives and prevent them from melting into the local population. Jabal Marra is a highly militarized zone where operations are carried out regularly by the Sudanese Army and a variety of rebel groups pursuing the decade-old insurgency against Khartoum. Confrontations with other armed groups would be inevitable unless a number of deals could be quickly worked out. Khartoum would also appear to have little to gain by granting the Islamists refuge on Sudanese territory, a necessity if the Islamists intended an extended stay in Darfur. Khartoum has invited West African Arabs to migrate to Darfur in the past with the intention of displacing the indigenous non-Arab population, but none of these arrived with the kind of international heat that will follow Ansar al-Din and other Islamists escaping northern Mali. If Ansar al-Din elements have actually succeeded in making it to Darfur, they may find it more difficult to get out than to get in.

Tuareg Rebels in Kutum: Not for the First Time

The movement of Tuareg rebels from West Africa to Darfur, if independently confirmed, would oddly parallel a similar flight of Tuareg rebels from French troops to Darfur a century ago. Having taken the worst of it in several engagements with French colonial troops in what is now Mali, Niger and southern Algeria, a large number of Tuareg warriors moved east to the Fezzan (southern Libya) and the Ennedi region of modern Chad, where they joined with the forces of the Sanusi confederacy, an emerging Islamic proto-state led by the Sanusi Sufis of Cyrenaica (eastern Libya). The Sanusis welcomed the Tuareg fighters, recognizing that their defeats at the hands of the French had come not from lack of fighting ability, but from a reliance on the now antiquated “white arms” – swords, spears, knives, etc. Retrained by the Sanusis in the use of firearms, the Tuareg acquitted themselves well in several battles with the French over Saharan wells and ancient forts, but ultimately were forced to give way before French artillery and the seemingly inexhaustible number of well-trained Malian and Senegalese tirailleurs (colonial riflemen) France could continue to throw at the Tuareg and their Sanusi allies.

By 1909 the surviving Tuareg were exhausted by war and began to move east to Darfur to seek the protection of its Sultan, Ali Dinar. Though Ali Dinar ruled independently, the British had made a claim of sovereignty over Darfur in 1899. This and the Sultan’s substantial army provided the roughly 10,000 Tuareg refugees some reassurance that they would not be pursued there by the relentless French colonial forces. Unfortunately, the Tuareg could not resist returning to the raiding lifestyle they had enjoyed before the intrusion of the French. An infuriated Sultan ordered the Tuareg expelled for “their deeds of wickedness and immorality,” but after protests from the Sanusi, Ali Dinar settled for disarming and despoiling the Tuareg. A number of Tuareg women were taken off to the royal harem and the Tuareg slaves were impressed into the Sultan’s own army. Most of the remaining Tuareg (known in Darfur as Kinin) were disarmed and resettled near the lead mines of Kutum in Jabal Marra, the same region cited in nearly all reports of a Tuareg Ansar al-Din presence of the last few days.  In 1913, the Sultan softened his position and allowed the Tuareg to resettle a half-a-day south of the capital of al-Fashir. While small units of Tuareg joined the Sultan’s army, most of the tribesmen did not, nor was any effort made to impress them, the Sultan being as wary of the Tuareg as they were of him.

When Ali Dinar decided to flee al-Fashir in the face of the approaching British-led Egyptian Army in 1916, he took with him his soldiers, slaves, concubines, relatives, retainers, eunuchs and most of the royal court – in other words, a good part of the town of al-Fashir. By the time the invaders entered the capital, the “Kinin” had already ridden in to begin the looting of the nearly deserted city. They were quickly joined by the Egyptian, Sudanese and British troops of the “Government Army.” In the following days, groups of veiled Kinin featured strongly in the photograph collection of most British officers armed with a camera.  A British intelligence report suggested that the Tuareg of Darfur “would be valuable allies since they are reputed good fighters and fearless.” [2] At home, however, the French defeat of the last great Tuareg revolt, the Kaoçen Rebellion of 1917, meant that a form of peace, if not freedom, now prevailed and the Tuareg began to drift home rather than ally themselves with the Anglo-Egyptian government of Sudan.

Notes

1. See Andrew McGregor, “Tribes and Terrorists: The Emerging Security Threat from Libya’s Lawless South,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?cHash=fef93e8be833fe81ae780167cb8da26c&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40367

2. National Records Office, Khartoum: NRO INTELL 5/3/38, H.A. MacMichael, “Notes on the Tribes of Darfur,” October-December, 1915.

Albghabass ag Intallah: Reasserting Traditional Tuareg Leadership at the Expense of Ansar al-Din

Andrew McGregor

January 29, 2013

Alghabass ag Intallah, a young Tuareg politician and tribal leader, has placed himself in a position where he can play a crucial role in determining the future of the ongoing conflict in northern Mali. Ag Intallah’s January 23 split from the Islamist Ansar al-Din of Iyad ag Ghali is a serious blow to the movement and a challenge to Ag Ghali’s leadership ambitions in the region.

Alghabass 1Alghabass ag Intallah

Prior to his split from Ansar al-Din, Ag Intallah has been, for the last year, the perplexing public face of Ansar al-Din; a man who not long ago embodied Tuareg traditional rule and opposition to religious and political extremism but who now acted as the lead negotiator for Ansar al-Din, a radical Islamist movement allied with al-Qaeda.

Forming the Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad

Ag Intallah’s new group, the Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), is almost exclusively composed of Malian Tuareg who have left the ranks of the radical Ansar al-Din as the latter is hammered by French airstrikes while falling back before a French-led ground offensive. Ag Intallah was immediately joined in the MIA by former Ansar al-Din spokesman Muhammad ag Arib. The movement’s founding statement described the defectors as “the moderate wing of Ansar al-Din” and added that the newly formed MIA “totally differentiates itself from any terrorist group, condemns and rejects any form of extremism and terrorism and commits itself to fighting them.” While appealing to Bamako and Paris to cease hostilities in the areas it claimed to control (Kidal and Menaka), the movement also expressed its interest in “the establishment of an inclusive political dialogue” (Tout sur l’Algerie, January 24). Following the announcement, Alghabass told Reuters by phone that: “We want to wage our war and not that of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM]” (Reuters, January 24).

This approach would be consistent with the view of French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who recently explained that northern Mali’s “terrorist and jihadist groups must be differentiated clearly from the movements that are representing the north of Mali and the people of this area in all of their diversity. Neither these movements nor the people are targeted under any circumstances by the military action which we have started…” (RFI, January 17).  Statements such as these appear to be a clear invitation for the Tuareg to abandon Ansar al-Din’s hardliners and their al-Qaeda associates to avoid being targeted by French military power.

A day before the MIA’s announcement, an Algerian government source told an Algiers daily that if the new formation agrees to fight terrorist groups (specifically AQIM and MUJWA) and respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Mali, “they will be qualified to speak in the name of the Ifoghas [Alghabass’ tribe] and we shall help them” (Tour sur l’Algerie, January 23).

Two days after the creation of the MIA, Ansar al-Din suffered another blow when Colonel Kamo ag Menali announced he was leaving Ansar al-Din to join the secular Tuareg nationalists of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad. At the time of his defection, the Colonel was based at the time in Léré, close to the Mauritanian border (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], January 25).

Background

Alghabaas ag Intallah has been described as tall (about 6’4”) and imposing, with a quiet charisma that reflects his station in the local Tuareg hierarchy. [1] Alghabass was born into the highest levels of the Kidal Tuareg leadership as the middle son of the Amenokal (chief) of the noble Ifoghas tribe, the traditional rulers of the Kidal region. His father, Intallah ag Attaher, has been Amenokal since 1963, but has been ailing for some years and has lately devolved much of his power on his designated successor, Alghabass

Alghabass 2Intallah ag Attaher

Though blessed with many advantages in his pursuit of election to Mali’s National Assembly, Alghabass has been pursued by charges of electoral irregularities, particularly in what was expected to be a close contest with Zeid ag Hamzata in July, 2007. Ag Hamzata’s campaign registration documents mysteriously disappeared only hours before the filing deadline, a situation remarkably similar to one that occurred when Ag Hamzata had challenged Alghabass’ younger brother for the mayoralty of Kidal three years earlier. Rumors in Kidal insisted that the registrar had been paid $20,000 to “lose” Ag Hamzata’s papers. [2] One Bamako daily suggested Alghabass’ election was reliant on “the partiality of the representatives of the administration, fraud, corruption, buying of officials at polling stations and the abusive use of proxies” (Le Républicain [Bamako], August 3, 2007).

Ag Intallah is reported to have useful contacts with the Qatari royal family, for whom he arranges hunting trips in the Sahara (Jeune Afrique, October 3, 2012; Maliweb.net, November 21, 2011).

Opposing Extremism in Azawad

Alghabass’ personality and place in the Tuareg hierarchy expanded his political role from National Assembly deputy to regional mediator and spokesperson for the Tuareg of Kidal. In September, 2007, Alghabass was deeply involved in mediation with the rebel movement of Ibrahim ag Bahanga to obtain the release of a large number of hostages, a role for which his background made him well-suited (Le Républicain [Bamako], September 20, 2007; L’Indépendant, September 19, 2007).

In the early months of 2009, Alghabass came into conflict with Lieutenant Colonel Lamana Ould Bou, a military intelligence officer with Mali’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) and  a former member of the Front Islamique Arabe de l’Azawad (Arab Islamic Front of Azawad – FIAA), an Arab rebel movement active in northern Mali. Colonel Lamana had been active in organizing a number of Arab militias in northern Mali that had been partially credited with driving Tuareg rebel forces under the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga from the region in February, 2009 (see Terrorism Monitor, February 25, 2009). Alghabass, however, told U.S. diplomats in Bamako that Lamana’s men were nothing but Arab smugglers and bandits working out of the relatively lawless In Khalil border post with Algeria (In Khalil has lately become the base of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s new AQIM faction – see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10).

Colonel Lamana was assassinated in June, 2009 in Timbuktu by assassins believed to belong to AQIM. There were later reports that Arab tribesmen from Timbuktu took revenge for the murder by killing four AQIM members in November, 2010 (AFP, November 4, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 25, 2009).

In August 2009, Alghabass and fellow National Assembly deputy Ahmada ag Bibi (later a leading member of Ansar al-Din) told American diplomats in Bamako that the Malian government had failed to implement the 2006 Algiers Accords, particularly in terms of reintegrating Tuareg fighters into the Malian military, incorporating Tuareg youth into the national economy and sponsoring development projects in northern Mali. Both Alghabass and Ag Bibi urged the U.S. government to pressure Bamako to use the Tuareg against al-Qaeda elements active in northern Mali, apparently without success. [3] By late 2009, Alghabass was taking a public hardline towards the Salafist militants; “Our agenda is to form a delegation of resource persons to see where al-Qaeda is and ask it to leave our territory, or we will fight (Le Républicain [Bamako], December 9, 2009).

Alghabass also told U.S. diplomats that the outbreak of hostage-taking by AQIM groups could be blamed on the reluctance or unwillingness of Algerian and Mali to undertake effective counterterrorist operations, suggesting that al-Qaeda elements in the region could be defeated easily by any serious effort on the part of Algiers or Bamako. Alghabass added that he had tried to raise the issue of the failure of Mali’s security services to confront AQIM at the National Assembly, but had been personally dissuaded by then-President Amadou Toumani Touré. [4]

Joining Ansar al-Din

Alghabass’ February, 2012 decision to leave the MNLA for Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement may have been encouraged by an incident that occurred when the rebellion was just starting in January, 2012. Alghabass’ was reported to have been safely removed from Kidal by Iyad ag Ghali just as Tuareg loyalists were searching house-to-house for Alghabass and other suspected rebel leaders (Jeune Afrique, April 20, 2012). The loyalist militia was led by Colonel al-Hajj ag Gamou, a member of the large Imghad Tuareg clan, a “vassal” clan in the Tuareg hierarchy that discovered a combination of democracy and demographics could give the Imghad political power over their customary superiors, the “noble” Ifhoghas.

The relationship between Alghabass and Iyad ag Ghali was complicated by the fact that the latter was clearly leader of the Ansar al-Din, but by any understanding of the local traditional Tuareg hierarchy, Alghabass was quite clearly senior to Iyad ag Ghali, a factor that might have encouraged Iyad in making Alghabass the movement’s senior negotiator in distant Ouagadougou. Deepening Iyad ag Ghali’s resentment was the fact that he was bypassed as the appointed successor of the Ifogha in favor of the Amenokal’s son (Jeune Afrique, November 3, 2012).

As a representative in the National Assembly, Alghabass was known as a strong supporter of President Amadou Toumani Touré. Before announcing his departure from the government to join the MNLA rebels, Alghabass is reported to have called President Touré to express his disappointment that, despite his personal loyalty to the government, Malian policy had failed to develop or benefit the north (Toumast Press, January 27).

Alghabass’ membership in Ansar al-Din conflicted with the views of his father, Intallah ag Attaher, who issued a public statement in mid-April, 2012 stating his support for the MNLA and calling for the international community to recognize the independence of Azawad (northern Mali). The Amenokal went on to ask all groups that did not support independence (including Ansar al-Din and AQIM) to leave the region and condemned “all groups who kidnap foreigners in Azawad and terrorize the local population” (Toumast Press, April 18, 2012). However, Intallah ag Attaher’s repudiation of Ansar al-Din did not prevent anti-Ansar rioters from targeting his home in June, 2012 in the absence of his son (Le Républicain [Bamako], June 6, 2012).

In March, 2012, Alghabass was telling interviewers that he was fighting for the introduction of Shari’a in northern Mali (Jeune Afrique, March 22, 2012). By June, 2012, however, there were reports from the Tuareg community that a faction of Ansar al-Din led by Alghabass was in growing conflict with Iyad ag Ghali’s hard-line Islamists (Toumast Press, June 9, 2012).

Ag Intallah led a delegation of seven Ansar al-Din representatives to the first joint talks with the MNLA on November 16, 2012. Hosted in Ouagadougu and mediated by Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré, the talks were viewed by some as a first step in detaching Ansar al-Din from its Islamist allies. The creation of the MIA will likely bring Alghabass and his followers into an alliance with the MNLA, which has already taken advantage of the French intervention to seize Kidal. MNLA spokesman Moussa ag Assarid was quick to express the movement’s support for the military intervention; “We’re ready to help; we are already involved in the fight against terrorism… We can do the job on the ground. We’ve got men, arms and, above all, the desire to rid Azawad [northern Mali] of terrorism” (AFP, January 14). However, the MNLA must change its separatist agenda to be welcomed into negotiations with France and Algeria.

Conclusion

The loss of Alghabass ag Intallah will have a significant impact on the degree of support Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghali can count on in his home region of Kidal. However, the departure of Ansar al-Din’s more moderate members may encourage greater extremism in the remaining faction. Ansar al-Din spokesman Sanda Ould Bouamama appeared to bringing the movement in line with the global jihad preached by al-Qaeda in his reaction to the French intervention in northern Mali: “Oil companies lead this war. Hence, it has become the duty of the mujahideen all over the world, whether Algerians or other nationalities, to target the interests of the West and its companies that finance the war” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 23).

Alghabass ag Intallah has an opportunity to help save Mali’s Tuareg militants from destruction by offering a refuge for disillusioned followers of Ansar al-Din. By participating in joint “counter-terrorism” operations with the MNLA (and possibly alongside advancing Franco-Malian forces) against AQIM and their Islamist allies in the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Alghabass may embody the reassertion of traditional leadership in the Tuareg communities of the Kidal regon and renew his role as a lead negotiator – this time as the representative of a primarily nationalist movement rather than as the representative of an Islamist movement with little popular support in Kidal. Bamako cannot hope to resolve the crisis in northern Mali without the cooperation of local partners – preferably known commodities with experience at negotiation and a well-grounded constituency. Ag Intallah fits the bill but knows it, and will use the leverage offered to ensure his political future while reshaping the political structure of his homeland.

Notes

1. Cable 09BAMAKO211, U.S. Embassy Bamako, April 6, 2009, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/04/09BAMAKO211.html

2. Cable 07BAMAKO594, U.S. Embassy Bamako, June 1, 2007, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2007/06/07BAMAKO594.html

3. Cable 09BAMAKO567, U.S. Embassy, Bamako, Agust 26, 2009, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/08/09BAMAKO567.html

4. Cable 09BAMAKO211, U.S. Embassy Bamako, April 6, 2009, http://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/04/09BAMAKO211.html

Tribes and Terrorists: The Emerging Security Threat from Libya’s Lawless South

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2013

One of the reported demands of the terrorist group that seized the In Aménas gas field last week was safe passage to the Libyan border, some 30 miles away and the likely launching point for their attack on Algeria.  This should not be surprising, despite a stream of statements from Benghazi regarding increased security in southern Libya, an oil-rich region that has also become a home for criminal gangs, arms traders, smugglers, militias, armed tribal groups and foreign gunmen since the fall of the Qaddafi regime.

Tubu Border GuardsTubu Border Guards (Rebecca Murray/IPS)

The alleged planner of the In Aménas attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is believed to have traveled to southwestern Libya in the fall of 2011, possibly returning there in the spring of 2012. In November 2011, Belmokhtar told a Mauritanian news agency that he had purchased Libyan weapons to arm his group (Nouakchott Info, November 11, 2011; CNN, January 21, 2012).  He was again reported to be in southwestern Libya by Malian security sources in March 2012 (AFP, March 12, 2012). Both occasions would have allowed Belmokhtar to establish important connections with local Islamists or others willing to work for him. Belmokhtar could also have used these trips to reconnoiter routes from northern Mali through Niger into southwestern Libya, possibly by crossing the lifeless Tafassâsset desert.

At least two of the terrorists involved in the attack on Algeria’s In Amenas natural gas facility have been identified as Libyan by the Algiers government (Libya Herald, January 17). Amidst fears that Libya might have provided the staging ground for the terrorist raid on In Aménas, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan promised that “Libya will not allow anyone to threaten the safety and security of its neighbors” (Reuters, January 19). Zidan’s government has rejected the “attacks on Mali,” urging a return to dialogue to resolve the situation there (Tripoli Post, January 21). Prime Minister Zidan has been reluctant to acknowledge terrorist activity within southern Libya, but claims that “There are powers that don’t want stability involved in white slavery, drugs smuggling, arms smuggling, money laundering and others who want North Africa to be a theatre of instability” (Libya Herald, January 19).

Protecting Libya’s Oil Infrastructure

Libya has recently created the Petroleum Faculty Guard (PFG), a force dedicated to protecting energy operations in the vast Libyan interior. In the aftermath of the In Aménas attack, the PFG announced it was taking steps to secure Libyan energy facilities, including “the formation of a special operations room, adding military air support and increasing guards and military personnel, and intensifying security patrols inside and outside the sites around the clock to block any attempt from anyone who wishes to compromise public property” (Libya Herald, January 18).  As seen in Algeria, however, deploying troops as guards is not enough; they must be well-commanded, maintain an appropriate system of patrols and level of vigilance and be supplied with the necessary intelligence to do their job.

Efforts are under way to try and integrate many of the militias active in southern and western Libya into the newly-formed National Guard, which operates directly under the Libyan head-of-state but may soon be transferred to the control of the Interior Ministry. For the moment, many members of the 10,000 man force are working in support of the Libyan Border Guards (Libyan Herald, January 8).

Last December, EU foreign ministers met to consider the problems created by the trafficking through Libya of arms and illegal migrants (many of them bound for Europe). Italy emphasized the need for stronger border controls and urged its counterparts to initiate a border guard training mission by January, a proposal considered “unrealistic” by other EU diplomats, who suggested training could wait to begin in mid-2013 (Reuters, December 10, 2012).

Prime Minister Ali Zidan rejected rumors that the southern al-Wigh airbase was being used as a base for French operations in Mali or as a base for terrorist operations in Algeria (Reuters, January 19; al-Wataniyah TV, January 19; Tripoli Post, January 21). Al-Wigh was an important strategic base for the Qaddafi regime, being located close to the borders with Niger, Chad and Algeria. Since the rebellion, the base has come under the control of Tubu tribal fighters under the nominal command of the Libyan Army and the direct command of Tubu commander Sharafeddine Barka Azaiy, who complains: “During the revolution, controlling this base was of key strategic importance. We liberated it. Now we feel neglected. We do not have sufficient equipment, cars and weapons to protect the border. Even though we are part of national army, we receive no salary” (Libya Herald, December 23, 2012). Since the hostage-taking in neighboring Algeria, Prime Minister Zidan has ordered surveillance operations and patrols to be stepped-up in the region of al-Wigh (al-Wataniya TV, January 19).

Only days before the raid on In Aménas, the premiers of Libya, Algeria and Tunisia met on January 12 at the Libyan oasis border town of Ghadames to discuss border security, with an eye to securing their borders “by fighting against the flow of arms and ammunition and other trafficking” (AFP, January 10). There are continuing tensions in the region around Ghadames near Libya’s border with Tunisia and Algeria, where Arab-Berber tribes have sought revenge on the local Tuareg community, parts of which provided security support to the Qaddafi regime during the battle for Libya.

On December 15, Libya’s ruling General National Congress (GNC) declared that Libya’s borders with Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan would be temporarily closed and designated the regions of Ghadames, Awbari, Sabha, al-Shati, Murzuq and Kufra as military zones to be ruled by a military governor. Only certain roads in the south would remain open, with Prime Minister Zidan warning that caravans, convoys or other groups using anything other than official frontier posts would face action by land forces or military aircraft (Libyan News Agency, December 16, 2012; Libya Herald, December 18, 2012). Two days later, Libyan fighter-jets struck a suspected smugglers’ camp in the Kufra region near the borders with Chad and Sudan. During the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, Sudanese troops coordinating with Qatari forces moved into the strategically important Kufra region and helped rebel forces seize the oasis (Sudan Tribune, August 28, 2011; Telegraph, July 1, 2011). According to air force spokesman Colonel Miftah al-Abdali, Libyan warplanes would monitor the Kufra region from the border with Chad to Jabal al-Uwaynat and Jabal al-Malik near the border with Egypt (Libyan News Agency, December 19). Eventually Libya plans to establish only one authorized border crossing with each of its four southern neighbors, Chad, Niger, Sudan and Algeria (AFP, December 19).

The new military governor for the south has the authority to detain and deport illegal immigrants, initiating a round-up of refugees and migrants in parts of southern Libya. These powers were seen as necessary in expectation of a greater flow of “illegal immigrants” from an expected war in northern Mali. Libya is concerned that if things go poorly for the Islamists in Mali, there will be a reverse flow of fighters and weapons back into southern Libya in the hands of armed groups.

Tunisia – A Conduit for Libyan Weapons?

On January 12, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki suggested that local jihadists had ties with terrorist forces in northern Mali and that Tunisia was “becoming a corridor for Libyan weapons to these regions” (AFP, January 12). The Tunisian border with Libya is rife with the smuggling of everything from milk to explosives since the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. Violent incidents have become common – two uniformed Libyans were arrested on the night of January 17 after using a 4X4 vehicle to attack the Tunisian security post at Jedelouine (Libya Herald, January 18; For the smuggling routes across the Tunisian-Libyan border, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 20, 2011).

While the hostage crisis was still ongoing in Algeria, Tunisian security forces announced the discovery of two large arms depots in the southeastern town of Medenine on the main route to Libya. The materiel seized at the depots included bombs, missiles, grenades, rocket launchers, ammunition, bullet-proof vests, uniforms and communications equipment (Tunis Afrique Press, January 18).

The Egyptian Border and the Route to Gaza

A minor crisis in Libyan-Egyptian relations occurred on January 18 when a Lebanese newspaper, al-Diyar, reported that Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil claimed Egypt had rights over parts of eastern Libya. Though historical claims to parts of the Libyan Desert once existed, they were renounced by Egypt in a 1925 agreement with Italy, the occupying power of the time. After Libyan premier Ali Zidan appealed for clarification, the Egyptian government issued a firm denial: “These alleged statements were not made by Qandil or any Egyptian official” (Egypt State Information Service, January 21).

Libya and Egypt fought a three-day border war in July, 1977 after Qaddafi sent thousands of protesters on a “March to Cairo” to protest Egypt’s progress towards a peace treaty with Israel. When the demonstrators were turned back at the border, Libyan forces raided the coastal town of Sollum, the site of fighting between Sanusi militants and the British-controlled Egyptian Army during the First World War. Retaliation came swiftly in the form of three Egyptian divisions supported by fighter-jets destroying Libyan opposition as they crossed the border into Libya. A complete invasion was averted only by the mediation of Algerian president Houari Boumediène.

More recently, it appears that a shipment route for Libyan arms on their way to Sinai and Gaza has been opened along the northern coast of Egypt, encouraging greater activity by militants in the area. There are fears in Cairo that these militants could eventually turn the Libyan weapons against the Egyptian government (see Terrorism Monitor, May 18, 2012). [1]

Sabha Oasis – A Strategic Base under Threat

GNC President Muhammad Magarief toured southern Libya earlier this month, meeting with Major General Omran Abd al-Rahman al-Tawil and other military officials in the strategic southern oasis of Sabha. While in Sabha, Magarief’s hotel was attacked by gunmen who wounded three of his guards (Libya Herald, January 6; al-Jazeera, January 13).

Six days of clashes between the Qadhadhfa (the Arab-Berber tribe of Mu’ammar Qaddafi) and the Awlad Sulayman tribe left four dead and several others wounded in Sabha on January 2 (AFP, January 2). An attempt by Libyan Special Forces units to enter the town on December 31 and impose a truce ultimately failed when fighting resumed (Libya Herald, January 4). The oasis town, 500 miles south of Tripoli, was the site of an important air-base during the Qaddafi regime and many of the current tribal clashes are rooted in differences between the Qadhadhfa, regarded as Qaddafi supporters, and the Awlad Sulayman, who opposed Qaddafi in the rebellion (see Terrorism Monitor, April 5, 2012).

The inability of security forces in Sabha to keep detainees under lock and key has contributed to the insecurity in the region. On December 4 there was a mass breakout of 197 inmates from the Sabha jail with the apparent assistance of the Judiciary Police responsible for guarding them (Libya Herald, December 6, 2012). Local authorities claimed most of the prisoners were common criminals, while others were alleged to be Qaddafi loyalists (Reuters, December 5). In July 2012, 34 prisoners escaped another detention facility in Sabha by crawling through ventilation shafts. The most recent breakout was followed by 20 southern GNC representatives walk out of the Libyan Congress to protest the “deteriorating security situation in their region,” saying the government’s inability or unwillingness to address these problems was “the last straw” (AFP, December 16, 2012; Libya Herald, December 6, 2012; December 18, 2012).

There are plans to spur development in Sabha by turning its military airport into a regional air cargo hub, but this is unlikely to happen so long as the region remains plagued by violence and instability.

Kufra Oasis – Where Race Politics Meets Border Security

Clashes between the Black African Tubu and the Arab Zawiya tribe continue in the southeastern Kufra Oasis, where inter-tribal fighting earlier this month developed into firefights between the Tubu and members of the Libyan Desert Shield, a pro-government militia that was flown into Kufra last year to bring the region under control. Desert Shield has failed to win the trust of the Tubu, who accuse the militia’s northern Arabs of siding with the Zawiya. According to a Tubu tribal chief in Kufra: “We want the army to secure Kufra, and not a group of civilian revolutionaries who have no military principles” (AFP, January 9; For the struggle over Kufra, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 5, 2011, Terrorism Monitor, February 23, 2012).

Tubu fighters in the Kufra region are led by Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur, head of the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya (TFSL), founded in 2007 to combat the Qaddafi regime on behalf of the disenfranchised Tubu community. Following a failed revolt against Qaddafi and his “Arabization” program, the Tubu had their citizenship stripped, access to services cancelled and their homes bulldozed. Prior to the declaration of a military zone in the south, Mansur maintained that Libya’s southern borders from Sabha to Kufra were controlled and guarded by desert-savvy Tubu tribesmen after the fall of Qaddafi (Libyan Herald, December 23, 2012; January 13, 2013). Local Arab tribes accuse the Tubu of actually seizing control of the region’s smuggling routes for their own profit.

Government authorities maintain there are only some 15,000 Tubu tribesmen in Libya, while Tubu activists claim the real number is closer to 200,000. According to Tubu activist Ahamat Molikini, the Tubu are confronting an Arab desire to create a new demographic reality in the south: “Many from the [Arab] Zuwaya and Awlad Sulayman tribes want the Tubu people out before they create a new Libya, before it becomes a democracy. They provoke the Tubu with these new attacks and killings, they create conflict to evict them.”  These tribes have succeeded in convincing the northern Arab tribes that the native Tubu who predate the Arab presence in southern Libya are actually foreigners (a popular Qaddafi canard) “with an agenda to make southern Libya an independent country” (Minority Voices Newsroom, January 8).

No Better in Benghazi

In the de facto Libyan capital of Benghazi, meanwhile, a campaign of attacks on members of the police and military continues as Western nations begin to pull out their nationals amidst rumors of an impending terrorist attack. Many of the victims of assassination were formerly employed by the Qaddafi regime (Xinhua, January 14; January 16; see Terrorism Monitor Brief, August 10, 2012). The government is considering what it described as a “partial curfew” to help deal with the deterioration of security in Benghazi (Middle East Online, January 17).

Western diplomats also continue to be targeted; on January 12, unidentified gunmen fired on the Italian consul’s bullet-proof car, damaging the vehicle but causing no casualties in a strike that Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi described as “a vile act of terrorism” (AFP, January 13; Xinhua, January 12). On January 16, Italy agreed to provide logistical support to air operations targeting terrorists in northern Mali after shutting down its Benghazi consulate and withdrawing all diplomatic personnel (Telegraph, January 16; UPI, January 16; Reuters, January 16).

On January 19, a car carrying Libya’s defense minister, Muhammad al-Barghati, came under attack at the Tobruk airport, east of Benghazi. Al-Barghati claimed the attack was the work of followers of al-Sadiq al-Ghaithi al-Obeidi, a reputed jihadist who had just been sacked as deputy defense minister after refusing to bring his fighters under the command of the army’s chief-of-staff. Al-Obeidi was formerly responsible for border security and the security of foreign oil installations (AFP, January 19; Reuters, January 21).

Conclusion

The “closed military zones” of the south are little more than a fiction without the resources, personnel and organization necessary to implement strict controls over a vast and largely uninhabited wilderness that is nonetheless the heart of the modern Libyan state due to its vast reserves of oil and gas that provide the bulk of national revenues and its aquifers of groundwater that permit intensive agriculture and supply drinking water for Libya’s cities.

The Libyan GNC and its predecessor, the Transitional National Council (TNC), have failed to secure important military facilities in the south and have allowed border security in large parts of the south to effectively become “privatized” in the hands of tribal groups who are also well-known for their traditional smuggling pursuits. In turn, this has jeopardized the security of Libya’s oil infrastructure and the security of its neighbors. As the sale and transport of Libyan arms becomes a mini-industry in the post-Qaddafi era, Libya’s neighbors will eventually impose their own controls over their borders with Libya so far as their resources allow. Unfortunately, the vast amounts of cash available to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are capable of opening many doors in an impoverished and underdeveloped region. If the French-led offensive in northern Mali succeeds in displacing the Islamist militants, there seems to be little at the moment to prevent such groups from establishing new bases in the poorly-controlled desert wilderness of southern Libya. So long as there is an absence of central control of security structures in Libya, that nation’s interior will continue to present a security threat to the rest of the nations in the region, most of which face their own daunting challenges in terms of securing long and poorly defined borders created in European boardrooms with little notice of geographical realities.

Note

1. See Andrew McGregor, “The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell,” Jamestown Foundation “Hot Issue,” November 20, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/gta/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40137&cHash=bc3b95312dc7c4911c1727f4b929e2fd

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Islamist Groups Reconfigure in Northern Mali as Intervention Looms

Andrew McGregor

January 11, 2013

Just as the days of cooperation between the three Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali last year seemed to be over, the three groups appear to have mounted a joint push southwards towards Malian Army lines near Mopti and Sévaré. The move may be intended to present a united front before peace talks resume in Ouagadougou on January 19, though the exact composition of the force remains uncertain. The advance may also offer an opportunity to test the resolve of the Malian Army and its allied militias, which have been talking tough but showing little sign of mounting an offensive against the Islamists any time soon.

TimbuktuIslamist Fighters in Timbuktu

In the last few weeks, a combination of internal racial and religious tensions between the Islamist groups has been exacerbated by a perceived need to reconfigure alliances in the region to prepare for an inevitable external military intervention. The largely Tuareg Ansar al-Din movement commanded by Iyad ag Ghali (a.k.a. Abu al-Fadl) also appears to be making efforts to consolidate a leading role amongst the militant groups. Important changes are afoot in the command structure of the other Islamist groups in northern Mali which have, until now, been dominated by Mauritanian and Algerian Arab commanders.

In an interview with an Algerian newspaper, Shaykh Awisa, a leading member of Ansar al-Din’s military command, referred to the movement’s shift away from an alliance with the largely Black African Islamists of MUJWA (Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa) in favor of closer ties to its former partner, the Tuareg nationalist MNLA: “Our relations with the MNLA are very good. We have a common enemy [i.e. MUJWA]. There are no problems between our movement, Ansar al Din, and the MNLA” (Le Temps d’Algérie, November 27, 2012). The MNLA fought a fierce battle with MUJWA on November 16, 2012.

MUJWA has identified a replacement for Hisham Bilal, believed to have been the first sub-Saharan individual to command an al-Qaeda-associated jihadist combat unit. Bilal and a number of his men returned to his native Niger and surrendered to authorities there on November 8, 2012, complaining that the Arab commanders of MUJWA viewed Black African jihadists as “cannon fodder” and believed “a black man is inferior to an Arab or a white” (AFP, November 9, 2012). Bilal’s successor is a Beninese national using the nom de guerre “Abdullah.” The new commander is reported to speak Yoruba, a major language in Nigeria as well as Benin, and may have been responsible for contacts between MUJWA and northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement (Radio France Internationale, December 31, 2012).  According to one report, MNLA leader Bilal ag Acherif was in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in mid-December, trying to convince authorities there that his movement could, with Nigerian arms and logistical support, provide a bulwark against the expansion of Boko Haram (Jeune Afrique, December 16, 2012).

MUJWA speaks of itself as an alliance between native Arab, Tuareg and Black African tribes and various muhajirin (“Immigrants,” i.e. foreign jihadists) from North and West Africa. According to MUJWA, their “war” against the MNLA was sparked not only by the Tuareg nationalists’ refusal to adopt Shari’a as the law of the land, but also by their racial attitudes, suggesting that in the MNLA, “the Black has no rights, while the White has rights” (in Malian usage, “white” is applied to Tuareg, Arabs and Mauritanians). [1] To further its official position on race relations, MUJWA cites a familiar hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) recorded by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855 C.E.): “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety” (Musnad Ahmad 22391).

On January 2, MUJWA’s Salah al-Din Brigade announced it had decided to leave MUJWA and join Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement. The decision by Brigade leader Sultan Ould Badi (a.k.a. Abu Ali) to swear allegiance to Ag Ghali apparently came after lengthy efforts by Ansar al-Din leaders to unify the Islamists. Most of the fighters in the Salah al-Din Brigade are reported to hail from Gao and Kidal (Sahara Media, January 2).

A leading member of the MNLA and its provisional Azawad government denied rumors of dissent within his movement while warning at the same time that any member of Ansar al-Din who allies himself with MUJWA will be treated as a MUJWA fighter (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 10, 2012). At the moment there are no hostilities between the MNLA and Ansar al-Din, both primarily Tuareg rebel movements who have been engaged in joint peace talks being held in Ougadougou and Algiers despite their conflicting goals. However, on January 3, Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghali announced that his movement would no longer abide by its offer to end hostilities with the Bamako government due to the latter’s failure to bring anything of substance to negotiations in Ougadougou and its decision to recruit mercenaries from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire to fight in northern Mali (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], January 3; AFP, January 3).

Within al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Mauritanian, Muhammad al-Amin Ould al-Hassan Ould al-Hadrami (a.k.a. Abdallah al-Shinqiti), is reported to have been appointed the new amir of the Furqan Battalion to replace Yahya Abu al-Hammam, who took over as amir of AQIM’s Sahara command (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 18, 2012). Al-Shinqiti finished a degree from Nouackcohott’s Higher Institute for Islamic Studies and Research in 2006 while serving a 14-month prison term before joining AQIM (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], December 31, 2012). AQIM’s penchant for cigarette and drug smuggling has created friction with Ansar al-Din, which has vowed to eliminate the trade in areas under its control (Le Temps d’Algérie, November 29).

In order to broaden its base, Ansar al-Din now appears to be abandoning its strict adherence to the non-native Salafism that brought the movement into conflict with many residents of northern Mali. In negotiations being held in Burkina Faso, Ansar al-Din has backed away from its insistence that Shari’a be applied throughout Mali rather than just northern Mali (Azawad). Movement leaders such as Iyad ag Ghali and Algabass ag Intalla have been meeting with local religious leaders and tribal chiefs to assure them Ansar al-Din does not intend to interfere with the traditional form of Islam practiced in the region (Jeune Afrique, December 21). By doing so, the movement hopes to marginalize the foreign Salafists commanding AQIM. If Ansar al-Din is to have any success in the ongoing negotiations with Bamako it must be able to demonstrate some degree of popular support and thus cannot afford to continue alienating local Muslims. Such moves also help bring Ansar al-Din closer to the MNLA, which rejects the introduction of Islamist extremism into the region.

Meanwhile, Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), who split from AQIM after a dispute with the movement’s leadership in November, is reported to have relocated with a detachment of loyalists and MUJWA fighters equipped with dozens of vehicles armed with heavy machine-guns to al-Khalil, an important transit point for smugglers and legitimate traders alike near the Algerian border (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 26, 2012; for Belmokhtar’s split, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, November 15; November 30). The occupation of al-Khalil gives Belmokhtar an opportunity to control fuel smuggling in the region as well as shipments of food and other goods to northern Mali. [2]

While northern Mali was once neatly divided between the three armed Islamist groups in the region, Ansar al-Din has now moved its forces out of Kidal into Timbuktu and Gao regions, once the preserves of AQIM and MUJWa, respectively. AQIM appears to have responded to this move by creating a new brigade to operate in Kidal, the Katibat Yusuf bin Tachfine, led by a Kidal Tuareg named Abu Abd al-Hamid al-Kidali (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 3, 2012). In the current environment of mistrust in northern Mali, a joint operation may be the only way of preventing an outbreak of clashes between the sometimes cooperative, sometimes antagonistic Islamist movements operating in the region.

Note

1. Statement from the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen, Gao, November 23, 2012

2. For al-Khalil, see Judith Scheele, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, 2012.

This article first appeared in the January 11, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor.