Saharan Mercenary Employed by al-Qaeda Freed in Hostage Exchange

Andrew McGregor

September 9, 2010

While mercenaries have played an important role in the war on terrorism from the beginning, the use of private forces has until recently been associated with counter-terrorism efforts. However, since al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) began establishing a Saharan front, they have been compelled to hire local guides and suppliers, much like every other non-native interloper in the region. Many of the AQIM leaders in the Sahara are Arabs or Arabized Berbers from the coastal mountains of Algeria, nearly 2,000 miles from their current zone of operations in the desert near the Mali border.

Sahara MercenaryOmar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma

Omar al-Sahrawi (the nickname of Omar Sid Ahmed Ould Hamma) is one such employee of al-Qaeda participating in AQIM’s lucrative kidnapping operations without necessarily sharing the same ideology. In late August he was freed from captivity in Mauritania as part of a hostage exchange and ransom deal demanded by AQIM in return for the release of two Spanish captives.

Reports from Spain claim the hostages were released in exchange for between $4.8 million and $12.7 million as well as the release of al-Sahrawi (El Mundo [Madrid], August 23; ABC [Madrid], August 23). The two captives, Roque Pascual and Albert Vilalta, were kidnapped in Mauritania on the road from Nouakchott to the coastal town of Nouadhibou (formerly Port Étienne) in November 2009 (Afrique en Ligne, August 29). The men are employees of the Barcelona-based NGO Accio Solidaria. A third Spanish hostage taken at the same time, Alicia Gamez, was released by AQIM in March. It is believed a ransom was paid in this case as well.

In a telephone interview with a French reporter, al-Sahrawi declared, “I have nothing to do with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Me, I do business, and if you sell something to someone who is from AQIM, it does not mean that you are from AQIM. I am a businessman (AFP, August 24). In his homeland of Mali, security sources identified al-Sahrawi as a cigarette smuggler and transporter of illegal immigrants.

Al-Sahrawi had been sentenced by a Mauritanian court to 12 years of hard labor for his role in the abductions. Following his release and extradition to Mali, where the hostages were being held, al-Sahrawi was reported to have been present at the release of the hostages so AQIM could see if he was alive and in good health. Mauritanian TV footage showed al-Sahrawi joking with the hostages (AFP, August 25). On his return, Al-Sahrawi reportedly celebrated his release by declaring, “I have come back free to Mali” (Nouakchott-Info, August 26).

Referring to the failed Mauritanian-French effort to free a French hostage in July that resulted in the death of seven AQIM operatives and later the execution of the hostage, AQIM said the release of the Spanish hostages was a “lesson for the French secret services to take into consideration in the future” (al-Jazeera, August 24). Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said the release marked a “day of celebration.” He made no mention of the ransom (Ennahar [Algiers], August 23).

Algiers is reported to be displeased with the ransom, some of which will likely be used to buy arms for further attacks within Algeria (Ennahar, August 25). Mauritania has also failed to garner AQIM’s good-will through the release; only two days later a would-be suicide bomber was killed by security forces as he tried to ram an explosives-laden truck into the Nema military barracks, 750 miles east of Nouackchott (al-Jazeera, August 25; AFP, August 25).

This article first appeared in the September 9, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Spanish Prison Manual Offers Tips for Spotting Jihadis

Andrew McGregor

January 15, 2009

Madrid2004 Madrid Train Bombing

Spanish Corrections officials continue to try to deal with the growing radicalization of Muslim prisoners. A new 89-page manual marked “confidential” provides guards and officials with a guide to the radicalization process, giving tips on what to watch for in dress, language, and behavior that might indicate a prisoner’s adoption of radical Islam, political extremism, or jihadist violence (El Mundo [Madrid], December 30, 2008). The manual offers the following advice:

  • Officials must be familiar with the prisoner’s background in terms of family involvement in Islamist activities or the prisoner’s own experience with jihad operations.

    • If a scar is found on the prisoner during a frisking procedure and the guard suspects it was the result of a wound inflicted in Bosnia, Chechnya, or Afghanistan, it must be photographed and passed on to the warden.

    • If a cell is papered with holy texts, it must be photographed and the warden notified.

    • Guards must watch for newspapers or journals published by extremist organizations. Oddly, the manual singles out Gara, a bilingual Basque/Spanish newspaper published in San Sebastián. While the paper might appeal to imprisoned members of the Basque ETA terrorist group, it is unlikely to appeal to would-be jihadis, few, if any, of whom might be expected to read Basque.

    • Careful watch should be kept of prisoners who go from no prayers to praying five times a day. Whispering the sura-s of the Koran while working or reciting the Tasbih (short phrases glorifying God) on the Muslim rosary are also suspicious behavior.

    • Other suspicious activities include refusing to shake hands with female social workers and listening to Islamic audio recordings instead of music.

    • Physical signs to watch for include the prisoner’s eyes no longer being red as a result of smoking hashish, the growing of beards, shaving of the head or the complete body, careful cutting of the nails, or the appearance of a prayer scar or callus (zabiba – raisin) on the forehead as a result of bumping the head on the ground while prostrating during prayer.

The manual also includes a glossary of Islam-related words and phrases as well as a complete listing of radical Islamist publications. Authorities are warned prisoners may use what the intelligence community refers to as “idiot codes,” which rely on a pre-arranged agreement on the secret meaning of certain words or phrases. Despite the name, such codes are virtually unbreakable unless the users persist in using the same words or phrases over an extended period.

Islamic radicalism is a growing problem in Spain’s generally liberal prison system. There are an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim prisoners in Spain, though only a small percentage of these could be classified as Islamist extremists. The great fear is that the prison environment lends itself to recruitment activities by jihadist leaders. After a prayer leader is selected for a cell block, other prisoners may begin to enforce Islamic rules among Muslims in the block. In 2004, 110 extremists turned a lecture hall into a mosque without permission. The loud call to prayer angered non-Muslim prisoners, but authorities only requested the Muslims to keep the noise down (El Mundo, September 9, 2004). In the same year, a prison-based group known as the “Martyrs of Morocco” devised a plot to ram a truck carrying 1,000 pounds of explosives into Madrid’s National Court building, where the judges and trial-records of the March 2004 Madrid train-bombers were located. Bomb-making formulas were found in cells as well as extensive jihadi correspondence between prisoners that escaped scrutiny because of a shortage of Arabic translators in the corrections service (Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007).

Spanish prisons have attempted to accommodate Muslim prisoners by allowing them to pray in congregations and rescheduling meal-times to accommodate Ramadan observances. In 2006, the Islamic Commission of Spain arranged for approved imam-s (prayer-leaders) to try to persuade Muslim prisoners to avoid radicalization (La Vanguardia [Barcelona], July 31, 2006).

This article first appeared in the January 15, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

Spanish Intelligence Tracks Ex-Soldiers Turned Jihadis

Andrew McGregor

December 3, 2008

Spain’s National Intelligence Center (Centro Nacional de Inteligencia – CNI) is monitoring a group of about ten ex-Spanish servicemen who are currently undergoing training at a number of unspecified jihadi training camps (La Razon [Madrid], November 24). The CNI insists that the would-be jihadis did not hold positions of responsibility in the Spanish military and had no access to sensitive information.

Spain 1Spain Has a Long Tradition of Employing Muslim Troops

The CNI investigation also described the role of Spain’s military in integrating Muslims into Spanish society. In the modern all-volunteer Spanish armed forces, accommodation is made for dietary restrictions and Friday prayers. In units with a significant number of Muslims, “supervisors” have emerged who discreetly encourage the observance of Muslim rituals and lifestyles. CNI detected one source of dissatisfaction – the appointment of female Muslim corporals has not been well received by Muslim troops who are not used to taking orders from women. The agency did note that this problem did not exist with women of senior NCO or officer status, but only with those female NCOs who were required to issue direct orders to Muslim servicemen. Overall, the CNI was satisfied that daily interaction with comrades of other faiths or no faith at all was contributing to the successful integration of Spain’s Muslims into the greater Spanish society (La Razon, November 24).

The CNI handles both internal and external intelligence needs and has been headed by Alberto Saiz Cortés since 2004. Its mandate requires the CNI to provide the Spanish government “with information, analyses, studies or proposals that allow for the prevention and avoidance of any danger, threat or aggression against the independence or territorial integrity of Spain, its national interests and the stability of its institutions and the rule of law” ( Most CNI operations are in North Africa and Central and South America. The CNI is not a law enforcement agency – intelligence collected by it is submitted to governmental authorities who then decide what action should be taken, including turning the files over to Spanish law enforcement agencies for action.

780 Spanish troops are currently deployed in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Two Spanish soldiers were killed in a Herat suicide attack on November 9, bringing the total number of Spanish troops killed in Afghanistan to 25. A November 14 Taliban video warned Spain to withdraw its troops from the country.

Spain 2Spanish Legionnaires

Since ending conscription in 2000, Spain has struggled to maintain its military strength at approximately 80,000 troops. To do so, Spain has begun recruiting heavily in Spanish-speaking nations in Latin America and Africa. Beside Afghanistan, Spanish troops are currently deployed in peacekeeping missions in Lebanon, Kosovo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Troops of the Spanish Legion (formerly the Spanish Foreign Legion) are used overseas almost continually, having seen service in recent years in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

Spain’s Guardia Civil Seizes Terrorist Manual Advocating Secrecy in Jihad

Andrew McGregor

November 19, 2008

Spain’s Guardia Civil has released details of a terrorist manual discovered in the Catalonian home of Muhammad Mrabet, a Moroccan national accused of organizing an al-Qaeda cell that sent prospective suicide bombers to Iraq. The most notorious product of Mrabet’s network was Belgacem Bellil, an Algerian who detonated a truck carrying 3,500 pounds of explosives at the Italian camp at al-Nasiriyah in 2003, killing 19 Italian soldiers and nine Iraqis.

BelgacemSuicide Bomber Belgacem Bellil

As detailed by the Spanish daily El Pais, the 30-page Arabic language document was entitled, “Secrecy in Jihad is a Legitimate Duty – Security Manual” (El Pais [Madrid], November 10). As its title suggests, the manual provides a detailed description of the means and methods of covert operations, as sanctioned by selected Islamic scholars. “Secrecy is a key factor in every war. It is a mistake not to use it for jihad, because the infidel leaders recruit thousands of intelligence agents to obtain information about the mujahideen… Many ulama [religious scholars] allowed the use of lies to achieve a religious benefit that may put an end to the punishment inflicted on Muslims by infidels.”

Practical advice is given on methods of disguise, avoiding surveillance, forging passports, encrypting communications, using invisible ink and how to behave during police interrogations. The structure and functioning of a terrorist cell is explained in detail, with the author insisting the cell’s members must agree on “four key issues: obedience, secrecy, patience and the defense of the amirs.”

Intelligence work is also emphasized. The active jihadi should prepare by studying not only the secret services of his host nation, but also other radical Islamist groups operating in the area in order to divert police attention from the cell if necessary. Earlier successful jihadi operations must be examined in detail and meetings with experienced jihadis should be organized. Secrecy is to be upheld at all times:

It is necessary to change the way of dressing, the haircut, the place of residence, car, daily routes, arrival and departure times, places, and meetings…Use nicknames, false names and codes, even within the members of the same group; speak in a low voice, do not say much; to talk far too much may provide some information to the enemy and damage the rest of the mujahideen.

The author of the jihadi security manual remains unknown. In recent years Catalonia has become known as one of Europe’s most important centers for recruiting and training suicide bombers on their way to Iraq (La Vanguardia [Barcelona], June 3, 2007; see also Terrorism Monitor, June 7, 2007).


This article first appeared in the November 19, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus