French Foreign Legion Operation in the Strategic Passe de Salvador

Andrew McGregor

Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, May 2015

The Passe de Salvador runs past the northwest side of north-eastern Niger’s Plateau du Manguéni, near the frontier between Libya, Algeria and the Agadez region of Niger. On the Niger side, the pass connects to the smugglers’ route running across the Ténéré du Tafassâsset desert parallel to the Algerian border in northern Niger, a route used by veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar when he withdrew his forces from northern Mali to southern Libya in early 2013. The Passe de Salvador has traditionally been controlled by Adrar Tuareg centered on the south-western Libyan town of Ubari, unlike the Passe de Toummo on the southern side of the Plateau du Manguéni, which is controlled by the Tuareg’s traditional nomad rivals, the Tubu, who operate on both sides of the Libya-Niger border.

Salvador Pass 2Passe de Salvador, top left; Fort Madama, bottom right.

The 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes (2e REP) was originally raised from Foreign Legion troops in 1948 for use in the French colonies of Indochina. Few members of the regiment survived the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (in which the “paras” played a prominent role) and the subsequent imprisonment of the survivors by the Viet Minh. Since then, the rebuilt airborne unit has served on numerous operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and across a host of Middle Eastern and African countries. Now based in Corsica, 2e REP is likely to be the first unit deployed in foreign operations as the lead unit of France’s Rapid Reaction Corps and is kept at a stage of alertness that allows it deploy within 24 hours of receiving orders.

In a world where helicopter-borne air assault operations have largely replaced airborne operations and there is criticism in some Western nations that paratroopers are expensive and little-used, France continues to be an exponent of airborne operations, though it has not carried out such an operation during hostilities for over 35 years (the last being at Kolwezi, Zaïre, in 1978). Since that time, two French airborne divisions have been reduced to a single brigade, the 11e Brigade Parachutiste, consisting of roughly 8500 men organized into eight regiments, only one of which is composed of Legionnaires. Participation in hard fighting in Afghanistan helped sharpen the combat skills of the 11th Brigade and other French military units. [1]

2e REP arrived in northern Mali from a French base in Côte d’Ivoire in dramatic fashion on January 28, 2013 with a parachute drop of a company-size unit into the region just north of Timbuktu to cut off retreating jihadists being pushed north by French armor, marine infantry and Chadian forces during Operation Serval (in the event, no jihadists were encountered by the 2e REP). [2] An unidentified French Special Forces unit (possibly elements of the Commando parachutiste de l’air n°10 (CPA 10 – No. 10 Air Parachute Commando) carried out another drop on northern Mali’s Tessalit Airport on the evening of February 7, 2013 as part of a complex land-air operation involving Chadian troops and helicopter-borne French troops of the 1er régiment de chasseurs parachutistes (1er RCP) and the 21e Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine (21e RIMa – actually a light armored unit despite its name) as well as elements of other units formed into a combined-arms tactical battle group (L’Express, February 21, 2013). [3] Since then, 2e REP has continued operations in northern Mali as part of France’s military strategy for northern Africa, Operation Barkhane.

Operation Kunama II

In mid-April, perhaps as much in an attempt to engage in high-level training in oppressive conditions as from operational concerns, 2e REP made a daring night jump into the unfamiliar terrain of the Salvador Pass linking Libya to Niger, a desolate but strategically important site frequently used by Saharan smugglers, terrorists and insurgents. [4] There are unconfirmed reports that French Special Forces were inserted into the Pass in the early days of Operation Serval and even mounted cross-border operations against jihadists who had fled to the ungoverned regions of south-western Libya.

Rather than drop the paras into the Pass itself, it was decided to land them on the adjacent Manguéni Plateau five kilometers from the Pass. There they were met by their operational partners, 50 men of the much lower-budget Nigerien Army who were forced to drive rather than fly to the rendezvous. Food and water were supplied to the French troops on pallets dropped by C-130 cargo aircraft.

After consolidating control of the Salvador Pass, the French and Nigerien troops left on a long and challenging drive to the old colonial-era Legion fort at Madama on the Djado Plateau, near which French forces set up a forward operating base and airstrip in October 2014.  The fort still has a garrison of Nigerien troops tasked with controlling the smuggling and trafficking routes that run through the area, some of which are used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the related al-Murabitoun.

Salvador Pass 1French Legionnaires and Nigerien Troops at Fort Madama

The drive to Fort Madama exposed some weaknesses in the six-wheeled Panhard ERC 90 Sagaie armored all-terrain vehicles used by the French in northern Mali, as they began to quickly break down in the harsh conditions and terrain; according to the unit’s colonel, “Our vehicles are designed for Europe. Here, we are left with temperatures rising to 40-45 degrees maybe even 50 degrees. Our tanks are not designed for that and also suffer from the sand. It creeps everywhere and everything deteriorates” (RFI, April 23, 2015).

While no contact was made with jihadist forces or the region’s elusive smugglers during Operation Kunama II, it provided necessary field experience, training opportunities and logistical support practice for French military forces in some of the world’s most hostile terrain. Though jihadist activities were not interrupted by the operation, it nevertheless sent a clear signal to jihadis and smugglers alike that powerful French forces can be deployed in the Niger-Libya border region within hours if the presence of armed groups in the area is detected by French Harfang drones based in the Nigerien capital of Niamey.

Notes

  1. Pp. 38-39, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR700/RR770/RAND_RR770.pdf
  2. Footage of the drop shot from a Harfang drone can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ElySEd8MOw . Footage of an airdrop of heavy equipment the next day at Timbuktu Airport by the 17e Régiment du Génie Parachutiste (17e RGP – 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment) can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8vDElXEMWw
  3. These improvised formations with integrated fire support are known in the French Army as Groupement tactique interarmes (GTIA). French troops typically train and operate in such formations.
  4. Video of 2e REP in the Passe de Salvador can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/user/FORCESFRANCAISES

Chad’s Military Takes the Lead in Campaign against Boko Haram: Can Nigeria’s Embarrassment Equal Multinational Military Success?

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, March 2015

Chad Troops in MaliChadian Troops in the Field in Mali

In a six-week campaign, Chad’s military has mounted an air-supported ground offensive against Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants that has crossed into both Nigeria and Cameroon. In the process, Chad has shattered Boko Haram strength in the Lake Chad border region but now finds further progress stalled as Abuja denies permission to pursue the fleeing gunmen further into Nigeria. With Chadian operations having scored major successes against Boko Haram, there is now a danger the still inefficient Nigerian military will attempt to take over operations on its own territory to bolster the electoral chances of Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, who faces an election on March 28.

Chad’s Military Intervention in Nigeria

A brigade size group (1500 to 2000 men) was sent with some 400 military vehicles to the Lake Chad border region on January 16, 2015. The legal framework for Chadian intervention in the region was already established by the 1998 agreement between Chad, Nigeria and Niger to form a Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF) to combat cross-border crime and militancy. Since their arrival in January, Chad’s military has reported a series of spectacular, if numerically unverifiable victories, including a battle at Gambaru in which the army reported the death of 207 Boko Haram militants to a loss of one Chadian soldier killed and nine wounded (Reuters, February 25, 2015) [1]. Nonetheless, the poorly coordinated offensive is still taking a toll on Boko Haram, reducing its strength and expelling it from towns (and economic support bases) taken in recent months. Boko Haram counter-attacks persist, but most are driven back without great loss.

  • On January 29-30, Chadian forces crossed into Nigeria for the first time, using jet fighters and ground forces to drive Boko Haram fighters from the village of Malam Fatori in Borno State after a two-day battle (ThisDay [Lagos], February 1, 2015; Daily Trust [Lagos], January 30, 2015; al-Jazeera, January 30, 2015).
  • On January 31, 2015, Chadian forces reported killing 120 Boko Haram fighters in a battle in northern Cameroon centered around the town of Fatakol and used two fighter jets (most likely Sukhoi Su-25 recently obtained from Ukraine) to bomb the Nigerian town of Gambaru (Reuters, January 31, 2015; AFP, January 31, 2015).
  • On February 3, Chadian troops backed by armored vehicles took Gambaru after a fight of several hours (Independent, February 4, 2015). One Chadian battalion commander who took part in the attack on Gambaru had little praise for the Boko Haram fighters that had resisted months of Nigerian operations in the area, saying “yesterday’s offensive made us realize that the fighters of the sect, mainly composed of minors, are only cowards” (Alwhihda [N’Djamena], January 30).

The rapid success of Chadian forces against Boko Haram fighters in the border region revealed the sham war that Nigeria’s military has mounted against the Islamists – Malum Fatori, for example, had been held by the militants since October, even though it fell to the Chadians in one day. Chad has succeeded by using aerial bombardments on Boko Haram targets prior to massive assaults with ground troops and armor. These tactics stand in contrast to those of the Nigerian military, which has become notorious for poor ground-air coordination and failing to press attacks, often citing inferior arms or ammunition shortages. Nigerian warplanes were blamed for the death of 36 civilians when two fighter-jets attacked a funeral party in the Niger border town of Abadam on February 17 (Reuters, February 18). [2]

Nigeria – No Longer a Regional Military Power

Nigeria’s foreign minister, Aminu Wali, has tried to explain why Nigeria requires international assistance in combatting Boko Haram:

It is not that the Nigeria army isn’t fighting, it actually is. But in the context of an unconventional war, that is something else. The same thing applies to the war on terror. So the conventional armed forces aren’t adapted to this kind of conflict. We have to retrain them so that they will be capable to fight this particular conflict that they’ve never known before (RFI, January 30, 2015).

In October 2014, Chad, Nigeria, Niger, and Cameroon agreed to coordinate their military efforts against Boko Haram, though follow-up was slow. Nigerian relations with Cameron have been historically strained by rival claims to the Bakassi Peninsula in the resource-rich Gulf of Guinea, which was eventually awarded to Cameroon through international arbitration in 2009. Since then, Cameroonian oil infrastructure in the region has been subject to attacks by a hybrid criminal/separatist movement seeking unification with Nigeria.[3]

Since the joint offensive began, Nigerian military performance has improved, which the government chalks up to newly purchased arms and Special Forces reinforcements being sent to help the ill-equipped, poorly-led and occasionally mutinous Nigerian 7th Division, which took over responsibility for the sector from the Nigerian Joint Task Force (JTF) in August 2013 (at one point troops of the 7th Division’s 101st Battalion fired at former division commander Major-General Ahmadu Mohammed, who only narrowly survived – see ThisDay [Lagos], May 16, 2014). The retaking of Baga by Nigerian troops on February 21 deprived Boko Haram of a major base and gave a boost to the political fortunes of President Goodluck Jonathan, but the town could have been taken weeks earlier if the Nigerian Army had not rebuffed Chad’s offer of a joint offensive, according to Chadian Army spokesman Colonel Azem Bermandoa (Reuters, March 3, 2015). Baga was the scene of a firefight in April 2013 in which the JTF and Boko Haram displayed a callous disregard for the lives of civilians in the town, killing over 185 people. The town was taken by Boko Haram in January 2015 when fleeing Nigerian troops allowed the militants to massacre hundreds of civilians (BBC, February 2, 2015).

Northeast Nigeria MapNortheast Nigeria – Zone of Chadian Operations

Colonel Bermandoa has likewise complained that Chadian forces took the ancient Nigerian town of Dikwa in mid-February but were ordered by the Nigerians to evacuate it so the Nigerians could launch an airstrike on the community. Chadian forces were compelled to retake the town on March 2 at a cost of one dead and 34 wounded (AFP, February 19, 2015; Reuters, March 2, March 3, 2015; Premium Times [Lagos], March 2, 2015; RFI, February 3, 2015).

Cameroon and Niger have played secondary but important roles in the offensive, pouring their forces into their border regions where they have repulsed attacks, cut supply routes and prevented Boko Haram fighters from slipping away across the borders.

Why Chad is Fighting in Nigeria

Landlocked Chad’s main trade routes cross through areas of Nigeria and northern Cameroon that have been blocked by Boko Haram occupation and operations, leading to shortages of goods (including food from Nigeria), interruption in the important export trade in Chadian cattle and rapidly rising prices for most goods (Wall Street Journal, February 26, 2015).

Economic effects have also been felt in northeastern Nigeria, where the important supply of smoked fish from Lake Chad has been disturbed as a consequence of trade routes being cut by the militants and the fear of fishermen on the Nigerian side of the lake that they will be conscripted into Boko Haram, resulting in shortages and soaring prices for fish in Nigeria (AFP, February 25, 2015).

Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau threatened to launch a war against Chad, Cameroon and Niger in a January 2015 video in retaliation for their alleged pro-French sympathies. The Boko Haram leader also took the opportunity to mock the Nigerian military, which has long complained a lack of equipment and arms is preventing them from properly engaging Boko Haram:

All this war equipment that you see being displayed in the screen are gotten from [the captured Nigerian towns of] Baga and Doro. Your army kept deceiving the world that you can’t fight us because you have no arms. Liars! You have all that it takes; you are just coward soldiers (Premium Times [Abuja], January 21, 2015).

In late January, Boko Haram spokesman Abu Musab al-Barnawi used a video to issue new threats to Chad and its MJTF partners:

We say to Niger and Chad that if they stop their assault on us and we will stop our assault on them; otherwise, just as you fight us we will fight you. We will inflame a war of which you have not before tasted its bitterness. Withdraw your soldiers before you regret what will come soon and you have no time to regret. (Premium Times [Lagos], January 28, 2015).

Boko Haram made its first attack on Chadian soil on February 13, using motorized canoes to set a fishing village on fire before being repulsed by Chadian soldiers in what the local Chadian governor described as a “publicity stunt” (Reuters, February 13, 2015).

Most Boko Haram members, including its leaders, belong to the once powerful Kanuri community whose former Bornu Empire straddled the modern borderland between Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. Though most of Boko Haram, including its leadership, are Kanuris, most of the militant group’s victims have also been Kanuri, dispelling any notion that the Islamist movement somehow represents the Kanuri community. Nonetheless, it is clear that Boko Haram members have been able to utilize family ties and other types of kinship to facilitate the cross-border movement of arms, supplies and personnel across local borders. Given this cross-border movement, it seems likely that Chadian security forces will have a close look at the local Kanuri community in southern Chad during their deployment in the region.

Keeping the military busy in the south may also appeal to the Déby regime; the last attempt by factions of the military to mount a coup was less than two years ago, while Déby himself came to power in a 1990 coup. However, continuous deployment to various theatres runs the risk of internal military breakdown and Chad is already committed to maintaining 1,000 men of its small army in Mali as part of UN peacekeeping operations.
Aware of the danger of reciprocal attacks from Boko Haram, Chad’s security forces have stepped up security, mounting roadblocks, securing the entrances to the capital, N’Djamena, guarding assembly points such as schools, markets and places of worship and rounding up suspected Boko Haram sympathizers in N’Djamena. Many of those arrested belong to the Kanuri community, though Interior Minister Abderahim Bireme Hamid insists that “The arrests are not targeted at a particular social group or community, but those suspected of being close to Boko Haram” (Xinhua, January 28, 2015).

Prior Performance in Military Interventions

Chad’s expeditionary force in Mali performed well in 2013 and did much of the fighting to expel the various armed Islamist groups that had seized northern Mali. However, heavy losses from ambushes and suicide bombings compelled President Déby to announce he was withdrawing the Chadian contingent because “The Chadian army does not have the skills to fight a shadowy, guerrilla-style war that is taking place in northern Mali” (Reuters, April 14, 2013).

Some observers have contrasted the Chadian military’s performance in Mali with their more controversial intervention in the Central African Republic from 2013-2014, where they were accused of political manipulation, arming the Séléka [4] rebels and brutality towards the non-Muslim population that culminated in the massacre of 30 unarmed civilians and the wounding of 300 others when they opened fire on a crowded Bangui market without apparent provocation. [5]

While there was much that was questionable and even indefensible in the performance of Chad’s army in the CAR, it must be recognized that the troops were carrying out N’Djamena’s own agenda in the country, which both modern Chad and pre-colonial sultanates in that region have always regarded as a political and economic hinterland (and prime source of slaves for Chad’s pre-colonial Islamic sultanates) whose rulers were determined by their northern neighbors. In this case, Déby pursued an agenda that involved installing a pliant, Muslim-dominated government in the CAR that would secure the oilfields of southern Chad and prevent opposition forces from using the CAR as a staging-post. Ultimately, pursuit of this policy led to large-scale protests against the Chadians in Bangui and the withdrawal of the Chadian mission.

Chad – A Growing Military Favorite of France and the United States

Chad’s more serious approach to military development and reform has attracted the support of the United States, which now finds serious flaws in its former Nigerian security partner. U.S. training programs and arms sales have broken down in recent years as a result of American concerns with human rights abuses, corruption in the officer corps, infiltration of the Nigerian security forces by Boko Haram and the failure of Nigerian forces to act on U.S.-supplied intelligence (New York Times, January 24, 2015). American concerns with infiltration are not unjustified; a number of senior Nigerian officers have been charged with divulging intelligence to Boko Haram.

Chad is currently host to Flintlock 2015, this year’s version of Flintock, a U.S.-led multinational military exercise conducted by Special Operations Command Forward – West Africa in the interests of improving cooperation and capacity in Saharan counter-terrorism operations. The three-week exercise, which began on February 16, involves more than 100 soldiers from the U.S. 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) as well as trainers from a number of Western nations.

Though President Déby was publicly musing about expelling all French troops from Chad only a few years ago, there has since been an about face on this policy, with Chad welcoming a boost in French forces as part of France’s major redeployment of its military forces in Africa, a shift in focus to mobile counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency units and bases known as Operation Barkhane. As part of this redeployment, French forces in Chad were boosted from 950 to 1250 men, with N’Djamena providing the overall command center at Kossei airbase, with two smaller bases in northern Chad at Faya Largeau and Abéché, both close to the Libyan border. Chadian opposition parties and human rights organizations were dismayed by the new agreement, which appears to legitimize and even guarantee the continued rule of President Idris Déby, who has held power since 1990 (RFI, July 19).

France is currently mounting reconnaissance missions in the Lake Chad border area and is supplying intelligence, fuel and munitions to the military coalition as well as providing ten military specialists to help coordinate military operations from Diffa in Niger (Reuters, February 5, 2015).

Despite the presence of roughly 200 ethnic groups in Chad, the military continues to be dominated by members of President Déby’s northern Zaghawa group despite being only somewhere between 2 to 4% of the population. This situation, however, seems to trouble President Déby more than it does his French and American allies.

The MJTF is slated to be replaced by an expanded and African Union-mandated version of 8750 men that will include troops from Benin as well as Chad, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. Logistical and intelligence support will be supplied by France and the United States. Command of the new force will rotate amongst member nations, beginning with Nigeria. The force is proposed to include the following contributions of troops: Nigeria 3500; Chad 3500; Cameroon 750; Niger 750; Benin 250 (BBC, February 25, 2015). A mandate for the mission from the UN Security Council is being sought with French support; this would provide greater funding and access to equipment and training.

Conclusion

If Chad succeeds where Nigeria failed, the result might be a collapse in confidence in Nigeria’s federal government leading to a further break-up of the country as various regions and ethnic groups seek to provide for their own security. The trick will be how to integrate Nigerian forces into the multinational group’s operations despite a well-deserved lack of confidence in the Nigerian military’s ability to mount operations or safeguard intelligence, especially in the midst of a Nigerian presidential campaign pitting a northern Muslim against the southern Christian incumbent. At the moment, there is little cooperation between the various militaries in the Lake Chad region as each continues to operate largely independently – a state of affairs Abuja appears to favor. This appears to be a Nigerian vote in favor of continuing the regional status quo, in which multilateral cooperation is lacking, trade minimal and effective transportation networks so absent that it is impeding the struggle against Boko Haram. As one recent report noted, “it is still easier to fly to Europe from Nigeria than to any of Chad, Niger and Cameroon.” [6]

Given the resilient nature of Boko Haram, its appeal to local religious extremists and its growing connections to the international jihadi community, it is worth asking whether the Chadian deployment will have to be open-ended in order to prevent a Boko Haram revival even in the event current operations destroy existing militant formations. Nigeria’s military will not become reliable or capable overnight regardless of what types of weapons the government obtains during its current buying campaign from international illegal arms markets. An extended stay will be expensive for N’Djamena, which is suffering from a sharp decline in oil prices, but if the costs are covered by the West and compensation is offered in terms of French and American advanced training and arms for the elite corps of the Chadian military, the prospect might take on a greater appeal for Déby and his Zaghawa-dominated regime. However, Chad’s army remains small, and the current tempo of operations cannot be maintained for long. There is a window of opportunity now for the destruction of Boko Haram, but it is slowly being shut by political considerations in the Nigerian capital.

Notes

1. Boko Haram spokesman Abu Musab al-Barnawi recently described the Hausa-language term “Boko Haram” (loosely translated as “Western education is forbidden”) as a media invention designed to denigrate the Islamist movement, which he insisted be described in future using its full and official name: “We say that we did not name ourselves “Boko Haram. “Our call is not limited to prohibiting foreign schools and democracy. We are Jama’at Ahl al-Sunnah Lil Dawa wal Jihad. Therefore, this name [Boko Haram] is an attempt to bury the truth. We carry out the support for the Sunnah and establish governance of Allah in the land” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 21, 2015).

2. An amateur video purporting to show a hot firefight between Chadian troops and Boko Haram fighters can be seen at a pro-Chadian government news-site: http://www.alwihdainfo.com/L-armee-tchadienne-enchaine-d-ecrasantes-victoires-le-Nigeria-predit-la-fin-de-Boko-Haram_a15031.html Though there is the continual sound of gunfire it is difficult to tell whether any of the rounds are actually incoming. There are no apparent Chadian casualties despite the failure of many of the soldiers to seek any kind of cover; at one point a soldier crosses in front of the Chadian firing line without suffering harm. More credible video of Chadian operations in Nigeria can be seen at: http://www.france24.com/en/20150219-video-chadian-army-clashes-with-boko-haram-nigeria/

3. For the Bakassi dispute, see: Andrew McGregor, “Cameroon Rebels Threaten Security in Oil-Rich Gulf of Guinea,” Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor 8(43), November 24, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=37208&no_cache=1#.VPDWei5cvfY

4. Séléka was a coalition led by the now-exiled Michel Djotodia and composed of the following groups: Front démocratique du peuple centrafricain (FDPC – led by General Abdoulaye Miskine [real name Martin Koumtamadji], a career rebel/freebooter in the Chad/CAR border region); Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP); Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement, UFDR; Convention Patriotique pour le Salut du Kodro (CPSK); and the Alliance pour la renaissance et la refondation (A2R).

5. United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, Press briefing notes on Central African Republic and Somalia, Geneva, April 4, 2014, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14471&LangID=E

6. Onyedimmakachukwu, “It’s Time for Lake Chad Countries to Move from War Comrades to Business Partners,” February 24, 2015, http://www.ventures-africa.com/2015/02/its-time-for-lake-chad-countries-to-move-from-war-comrades-to-business-partners/

Operation Barkhane: France’s New Military Approach to Counter-Terrorism in Africa

Andrew McGregor

July 24, 2014

With several military operations underway in the former colonies of French West Africa, Paris has decided to reorganize its deployments with an eye to providing a more mobile and coordinated military response to threats from terrorists, insurgents or other forces intent on disturbing the security of France’s African backyard.

France will redeploy most of its forces in Africa as part of the new Operation Barkhane (the name refers to a sickle-shaped sand dune). Following diplomatic agreements with Chad, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania (the “Sahel G-5”), over 3,000 French troops will be involved in securing the Sahel-Sahara region in cooperative operations involving G-5 troops. Other assets to be deployed in the operation include 20 helicopters, 200 armored vehicles, 200 trucks, six fighter-jets, ten transport aircraft and three drones (Le Figaro [Paris], July 13).

Operation BarkhanePresident Hollande made a tour of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Chad between July 17 to 19 to discuss the new security arrangements with political leaders, but also to promote French trade in the face of growing Chinese competition (Economist, July 19). In Niger, Hollande was met by a group protesting French uranium mining operations in that country (AFP, July 18). In a speech given in Abidjan, French president François Hollande declared that the reorganization of French military assets in Africa would enable “quick and effective responses to crisis… Rather than having heavy and unwieldy crisis bases, we prefer to have facilities that can be used for fast and effective interventions” (Nouvel Observateur [Paris], July 19).

The official launch of Operation Barkhane will come in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena on August 1. The operation will be commanded by the highly-experienced Major General Jean-Pierre Palasset, who commanded the 27e Brigade d’Infanterie de Montagne (27th Mountain Infantry Battalion, 2003-2005) before leading Operation Licorne in Côte d’Ivoire (2010-2011) and serving as commander of the Brigade La Fayette, a joint unit comprising most of the French forces serving in Afghanistan (2011-2012).

The initiation of Operation Barkhane brings an end to four existing French operations in Africa; Licorne (Côte d’Ivoire, 2002-2014), Épervier (Chad, 1986-2014), Sabre (Burkina Faso, 2012-2014) and Serval (Mali, 2013-2014). Licorne is coming to an end (though 450 French troops will remain in Abidjan as part of a logistical base for French operations) while the other operations will be folded into Operation Barkhane. Operation Sangaris (Central African Republic, 2013 – present) is classified as a humanitarian rather than counter-terrorism mission and the deployment of some 2,000 French troops will continue until the arrival of a UN force in September (Bloomberg, July 21). Some 1200 French soldiers will remain in northern Mali (Guardian [Lagos], July 15). Existing French military deployments in Djibouti, Dakar (Senegal) and Libreville (Gabon) are expected to be scaled back significantly, a process already underway in Dakar (Jeune Afrique, July 19).

8 RPIMaSoldiers of the 8th Regiment of Marine Infantry Paratroopers (8e RPIMa), deployed in Gabon and Côte d’Ivoire

The force in Chad has been boosted from 950 to 1250 men. Chad will play an important role in Operation Barkhane – N’Djamena’s Kossei airbase will provide the overall command center, with two smaller bases in northern Chad at Faya Largeau and Abéché, both close to the Libyan border. Zouar, a town in the Tubu-dominate Tibesti Masif of northern Chad, has also been mentioned as a possibility (Jeune Afrique, July 19). Kossei will provide a home for three Rafale fighter-jets, Puma helicopters and a variety of transport and fuelling aircraft. Chadian troops fought side-by-side with French forces in northern Mali in 2013 and are regarded as the most effective combat partners for France in North Africa despite a recent mixed performance in the CAR. Four Chadian troops under UN command died in a June 11 suicide bombing in the northern Mali town of Aguelhok (AFP, June 11). Chadian opposition and human rights groups are dismayed by the new agreement, which appears to legitimize and even guarantee the continued rule of President Idriss Déby, who has held power since 1990 (RFI, July 19).

Intelligence operations will be headquartered in Niamey, the capital of Niger and home to French unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) operations in West Africa. There are currently about 300 French troops stationed in Niger, most of them involved in protecting, maintaining and operating two unarmed General Atomic MQ-9 Reaper drones and an older Israeli-built Harfang drone (Bloomberg, July 21). The French-operated Harfang drones are being gradually phased out in favor of the MQ-9s, though the Harfangs saw extensive service during French operations in northern Mali in 2013. Three Mirage 2000 fighter-jets will be transferred from N’Djamena to Niamey. A French Navy Dassault Atlantique 2 surveillance aircraft has been withdrawn from Niamey with the conclusion of Operation Serval.

Small groups of French Special Forces will continue to be based in Ougadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, and at Atar, a small settlement in northwestern Mauritania. Other small bases are planned for Tessalit in Mali, which controls the road running between the rebellious Kidal region and southern Algeria, and in Madama in Niger, a strategic post near the Malian border that was the site of a French colonial fort. There are reports that French troops have already occupied the nearby Salvador Pass, an important smuggling route between Niger and Libya that appears to have acted as a main transit route for terrorists passing through the region (Libération [Paris], July 16).

French forces in the Sahel-Sahara region will continue to be targeted by Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Murabitun group, which claimed responsibility for the death of one Legionnaire and the wounding of six others in a suicide bomb attack in northern Mali on July 15 (al-Akhbar [Nouackchott], July 16; RFI, July 17). Much of the ground element for Operation Barkhane is likely to be drawn from the French Légion étrangère and the Troupes de marine, the successor to the French Colonial Infantry.

The implementation of Operation Barkhane, an apparently permanent defense agreement with five former French colonies, raises a number of important questions, not least of which is what attitude will be adopted by Algeria, the most powerful nation in the Sahara-Sahel region but one that views all French military activities there with great suspicion based on Algeria’s 132-year experience of French occupation. There is also a question of whether the new defense agreements will permit French forces in hot pursuit of terrorists to cross national borders of G-5 nations without obtaining permission first. The permanent deployments also seem to present a challenge to local democracy and sovereignty while preserving French commercial and political interests in the region. For France, Operation Barkhane will enhance French ability to fend off Chinese commercial and trade challenges and allow France to secure its energy supplies while disrupting terrorist networks and containing the threat from southern Libya.

This article first appeared in the July 24, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

The Mobile Threat: Multiple Battlefields Ensure Instability in the Sahel/Sahara Region

Andrew McGregor 

June 14, 2013

There are signs that the scattered remnants of the Islamist coalition that occupied northern Mali for nine months are beginning to use their financial resources and pre-planned alternative bases to regroup in the Sahel/Sahara region in order to carry out new operations against their targets – the “apostate” governments of the region, local security infrastructure and the considerable French economic interests and personnel found in the region. Though the Islamist took heavy losses in the French-led intervention that drove them from northern Mali, the extremist groups were not trapped and destroyed in the hastily conceived operation. Rather, they have been relieved of a strategic disadvantage, the fixed occupation of certain territories, and regained their number one tactical asset – mobility.

Sahel MapThe Sahel

An examination of the regional and international aspects of the ongoing struggle in the Sahel/Sahara helps shed some light on the direction the battle between the Islamists and African states is taking at the half-way point of 2013.

Southern Libya: A Hub for Terrorism?

Southern Libya remains in turmoil, with frequent clashes between African Tubu nomads and Arab tribes preventing effective security measures from being implemented. According to Jouma Koussiya, a Tubu activist, one of the main problems is the government’s reliance on northern militias and northern commanders to provide security in the region, a policy that is actually weakening government control in southern Libya: “They know nothing about the region and they ultimately fail. Now tribes are working together to form a unified military council in order to secure the region, instead of the government” (AP, June 3).

There are also unforeseen dangers to be encountered; on Libya’s southern border with Chad, five members of the Martyr Sulayman Bu-Matara Battalion doing border patrols were recently abducted during a prolonged firefight by gunmen believed to be from Chad (al-Hurra [Benghazi], June 2; al-Tadamus [Benghazi], June 1; May 30). One of the main problems in securing the south remains the unwillingness of northern troops and militia members to serve in the harsh and unfamiliar conditions prevailing in the Libyan Desert. To remedy this, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has announced that bonuses of $1200 will be paid out to soldiers and militia members willing to work in the region. The announcement is part of a new government strategy to secure the towns and cities of the region first before beginning a second phase of operations to secure and monitor the vast border regions of the south (AFP, June 2).

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan insists claims that the attackers who struck a military barracks in the Nigérien city of Agadez and a French uranium facility near the Nigérien town of Arlit on May 23 came from southern Libya are “without basis,” saying that the export of terrorism was a practice of the Qaddafi regime but would not be tolerated in “the new Libya” (AFP, May 28). Defense Minister Muhammad al-Barghathi also denies that there is any security crisis in Libya, suggesting the situation is “stable,” asserting that the militias are doing important work under the control of the Defense Ministry and refuting reports that French security services are tracking al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) elements in southern Libya by claiming that “the al-Qaeda organization does not exist in Libya” (al-Jadidah [Tripoli], May 28; June 2).

Prime Minister Zeidan’s “no problems here” approach to the security crisis in southern Libya has been strongly criticized by some observers within Libya who maintain terrorists have created bases in southern Libya (al-Watan [Tripoli], May 28). Usama al-Juili, the defense minister in the Libyan Transitional National Council that preceded the current General National Congress (GNC) government, has expressed a different view of the security situation in the Libyan south:

The terrorists who had been moving from Libya toward Mali are currently reversing course. Which is to say that they are now heading from Mali toward Libya. So I am not astonished that southern Libya has been turned into a new sanctuary for the terrorists fleeing north Mali. Algeria was right when the country spoke out against the war in Mali. It knew the consequences of it. Algeria, though, has the resources to cope with a new geographic reconfiguration of terrorism after the military offensive in north Mali. As for Libya, it does not have these resources… Closing borders is something useless (Le Temps d’Algerie, June 13).

The disarray in the Libyan security structure prevents effective measures from being taken to secure the south, with the anomalous inclusion of largely independent militias within the security structure creating confusion and insecurity throughout Libya.

Libyan army chief-of-staff General Yusuf al-Mangush, generally viewed as a supporter of the militias, resigned under popular, military and governmental pressure following the June 8 massacre of protesters calling for the disarmament of the Libyan Shield militia that left 31 killed (including four members of the army’s Thunderbolt Special Forces unit who arrived to quell the violence) and 60 wounded. The new acting chief-of-staff, General Salim al-Qnaidy, has warned that “patience is running out with the militias” as he attempts to implement a GNC decision to “end the presence of all brigades and illegal armed formations in Libya even if the use of military force is required” (Quryna al-Jadidah [Benghazi], June 12; Libya News Network, June 9). The Libyan Shield-1 headquarters in Benghazi has since been occupied by government troops belonging to the al-Sa’iqah Special Forces and their heavy weapons seized (al-Watan [Tripoli], June 9). The Libyan Shield-1 commander, Wissam bin Hamid, has taken to the airwaves to denounce the protesters as Qaddafi loyalists and traitors to Libya even as other Libyan Shield bases are scheduled to be occupied by units of the national army (al-Tadamun [Benghazi], June 9; al-Watan [Tripoli], June 9).

The approach of the Libyan political leadership reflects the difficulty of the new Libyan government in asserting its writ in that nation – acknowledging that the government is incapable of controlling its own security situation is to admit the government does not have sovereignty over Libya and is in need of foreign intervention.

A French Role in Libya?

 French foreign minister Laurent Fabius indicated two weeks ago that France must “make a special effort on southern Libya,” presumably in excess of the modest Libyan requests for advice and training and equipment for border guards (Libya Herald, June 2). Despite Libyan signals that it intends to grapple with its deteriorating security situation by itself, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian appeared to hold out the possibility that French forces could be available for a mission in southern Libya if Tripoli desired it: “Libya is a sovereign country that is responsible for its own borders. It has to decide whether it wants extended support from the French or any other European country to secure its borders” (AFP, June 2). Rumors in Libya of an imminent French military intervention in the south prompted a denial from French President FrançoisHollande, who cited the absence of a UN mandate or a request from Libyan authorities for military assistance (AFP, May 31).

President Hollande, who is struggling to gain control of a French African foreign policy that has traditionally been in the hands of a select group of military and business interests, has described a new three-track policy in Africa that will include military training and support, environmental preservation and an emphasis on development that could involve opening European markets to African exporters (Fraternite Matin [Abidjan], June 6). Hollande has also signaled French willingness to provide military assistance at the request of regional governments.

However, a growing military commitment in Africa does not necessarily fit with new cuts to the French military budget that will see a reduction in the number of troops, reduced helicopter capability and a cut in the number of armored vehicles amongst other measures. General Jean-Philippe Margueron, the army second-in-command, has warned that a planned reduction in training raises the possibility of mission failure and the production of “cannon fodder” rather than combat-capable troops (Le Monde [Paris], June 11).

France is now looking to purchase 12 MQ-9 Reaper drones from the United States, with two of these to be permanently deployed in Africa to replace the aging Harfang drone systems currently based alongside U.S. drones in Niamey (AFP, June 11). While the Reapers are the choice of the French Air Force, the defense ministry has said Israel will be looked at as an alternative provider if a deal cannot be made with the United States. France is certain to seek weaponized versions of the Reapers, though Washington has so far been reluctant to provide armed drones to any purchasers, including its NATO allies (Defense Industry Daily, May 31).

Niger – The Latest Target

According to Nigérien President Mahamadou Issoufou, there is little doubt that the suicide bombers that struck a military base in Agadez and a French uranium plant in Arlit on May 23came from southern Libya: “For Niger in particular, the main threat has moved from the Malian border to the Libyan border. I confirm in effect that the enemy who attacked us… comes from the (Libyan) south, where another attack is being prepared against Chad” (AFP, May 28; RFI, May 27). [1] The Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to Issoufou’s statement by saying it “did not serve the interests of the two countries” and there was “no evidence of the participation of Libyan elements” (al-Manara, May 27).

Malian security officers say the attacks may actually have been planned by radical Islamists in Tarkint, a town in the remote Tilemsi Valley, which has served as a stronghold for the extremists (RFI, May 31). However, there are also reports from sources in Niger that the May 23 attacks were planned in Derna, a Cyrenaïcan Islamist stronghold on the Mediterranean coast (Jeune Afrique, June 9). The Nigérien intelligence service claims that the jihadists who escaped from Mali are now concentrated in the Ubari and Sabha Oases region of southwest Libya (Jeune Afrique, June 9).

Rhissa ag Boula, formerly a leading Tuareg rebel in northern Niger and now a special adviser to the Nigerien president, says that: “The south of Libya, where anarchy reigns, has become a safe haven for the terrorists hunted in Mali” (AFP, June 1). Another veteran Tuareg rebel leader and current MNLA spokesman Hama ag Sid’Ahmad confirmed the Malian and Libyan origin of the attackers, who belonged to the AQIM-related Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) and operated under the coordination of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mua’qi’un Biddam Brigade (“Those Who Sign in Blood”):

The terrorist groups got to that region through the Malian and Libyan borders. It’s not complicated; the borders are real sieves. Since [Mokhtar] Belmokhtar is the main organizer, without his presence and that of certain drug barons, MUJWA would not exist…  Even if the terrorist leaders no longer have major military resources and they are having mobility difficulties, they have money. They are quietly trying to reorganize, forget the leaders’ quarrels, and unite in order to fight together. It’s the presence of the French Special Forces that is preventing them from reorganizing quickly… (Le Temps.d’Algerie, May 27).

So long as Niger refuses to meet Libyan demands for the extradition of Mu’ammar Qaddafi’s son Sa’adi (who lives under house arrest in Niamey) and several other ex-members of the Qaddafi regime, little can be expected in the way of security cooperation between the two nations. Tripoli has indicated its unhappiness with the Nigerien approach by repatriating thousands of Nigeriens working in Libya whose remittances helped support many citizens of this deeply impoverished nation. With nothing in the way of employment waiting for them in Niger, these returnees may eventually pose a new security threat in Niger.

Niger is also having trouble hanging on to terrorists it has under detention; on June 1, 22 prisoners, including several convicted terrorists, were freed from a high-security prison in Niamey by three gunmen. One of those who escaped was Alassane Ould Muhammad “Cheibani,” a Gao region Arab with a history of prison escapes. Cheibani was serving a 20-year sentence for the December, 2000 assassination of William Bultemeier, a U.S. Embassy defense official in Niamey and the 2009 murder of four Saudi Arabians in northern Niger. Cheibani is also a prime suspect in the 2008 kidnappings of Canadian diplomats Robert Fowler and Louis Guay (RFI Online, June 4). [2]

Mali – Between Stabilization or a New War

In northern Mali’s Kidal region there is still no resolution to the differences between the Tuareg rebels of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – a secular separatist movement) and the central government in Bamako. The situation is growing critical as Malian troops continue their slow progress towards Kidal, which they have announced they are determined to enter despite the MNLA’s promise to oppose their entry. Mahamadou Djeri Maiga, the vice-president of the MNLA’s political wing, has promised that: “If we are attacked, it will be the end of negotiations and we will fight to the end” (AFP, June 4).

With the Malian army looking for revenge against the MNLA and their supporters for the January 2012 massacre of Malian troops taken prisoner in Aguel Hoc, there are signs that renewed clashes are inevitable. Most notable of these indications was the heavy fighting between MNLA rebels and Malian government troops that took place near the village of Anefis on June 5. This time, the MNLA withdrew, but once they are pinned up against the Algerian border in Kidal they will have to choose between further resistance or the abandonment of their cause (and the consequences that will follow).  The Malian troops, under the command of two of Mai’s most capable officers, Colonel Didier Dacko and Colonel Hajj ag Gamou, were accompanied by roughly 100 French troops, though it was uncertain whether they were there to aid the Malian army or to impede the outright defeat of the MNLA, which worked closely with French forces in finding and destroying Islamist elements hiding in the Idar des Ifoghas mountains.

A Malian government spokesman denounced what he described as “ethnic cleansing” in Kidal on June 4, promising that Malian troops would enter Kidal soon (L’Essor [Bamako], June 4). The charge of “ethnic cleansing” was in response to the MNLA’s arrest of dozens of Black Malians (mostly Peul/Fulani and Songhai) in Kidal during a hunt for “infiltrators” sent to the city by Malian military intelligence (RFI , June 3; AFP, June 3). Tensions in the city were reflected in a suicide bomber’s attempted assassination on June 4 of an MNLA colonel believed to have close ties to the French military (AFP, June 4).

The MNLA and the Malian government are once more at the negotiating table in Ougadougou, with Bamako working from the position presented in a UN Security Council resolution that the MNLA must lay down its arms and allow the Malian military to enter Kidal in return for negotiations by the next president regarding the status of Azawad. The MNLA believes it has already made sufficient concessions by abandoning its demand for independence and accepting the July elections (RFI, June 8). There is internal pressure in Bamako to press the administration to carry on the return of the Malian army to Kidal. Malian members of parliament declared in early June that they would not participate in the July elections if the Malian army was not present in Kidal (Info Matin [Bamako], June 4). The High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), founded in Kidal on May 19, largely from former members of rebel groups, has joined the MNLA in presenting a single position in the Ouagadougou negotiations.

Tuareg negotiators have indicated they are ready to sign a document advanced by the Burkina Faso mediators that would allow Malian troops to enter Kidal in advance of the planned July elections, but Bamako’s representatives have indicated they have reservations about the agreement, which would see rebels be confined to cantonments with their weapons in return for a “special status” for Azawad (northern Mali – a term Bamako does not wish to see in the document). Bamako is seeking complete disarmament and the pursuit of the arrest warrants issued for many Tuareg rebel leaders accused of various crimes before and during the Islamist occupation of northern Mali (AFP, June 13).

KazuraGeneral Jean-Bosco Kazura

The African troops currently deployed in Mali are expected to be absorbed in several months by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), a 2,600 man force under the command of General Jean-Bosco Kazura of Rwanda, with a second-in-command from Niger and a French chief-of-staff. Though Chad was looking to take command of the mission, a poor interview by the Chadian candidate for command appears to have precluded this possibility and with it, the possible participation of Chadian forces (RFI, June 11). Additional troops may come from China, Bangladesh, Burundi, Honduras, Norway and Sweden, with a 1,000 man French rapid reaction force (Jeune Afrique, June 13).

Conclusion

Chadian president Idriss Déby has warned of the threat posed by terrorist groups now based in southern Libya, not only to his own country, but also to Europe, and has called for an international intervention to enable Libya to form a secure and functioning state that is not a threat to its neighbors.  There is a danger of seeing this struggle as consisting of several different theaters defined by national boundaries, when this is contrary to the jihadist conception of this conflict, which is essentially borderless. AQIM, which was once largely restricted to activities within northern Algeria, has expanded into a number of related movements with operatives in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, and Libya and the potential to ally with other groups such as Boko Haram and Ansar al-Shari’a. With their mobility restored, the Islamist Jihadists of the Sahel/Sahara will continue to take advantage of regional political rivalries, under-equipped militaries and fears of neo-colonialism to rebuild their movement. Libya’s inability to secure its restless south and its readiness at the highest levels of government to ignore terrorist infiltration present the most immediate and most important challenges in restricting jihadist operations. Unless real international security cooperation can be established, the Islamist extremist groups may soon emerge with the upper hand in the struggle for the vast territories of northern Africa.

Notes

  1. For the attacks in Arlit and Agadez, see Andrew McGregor, “Niger: New Battleground for North Africa’s Islamist Militants?, Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, May 29, 2013, http://www.jamestown.org/programs/hotissues/single-hot-issues/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=40932&tx_ttnews[backPid]=61&cHash=7c12e2e7bda14085101f67dc09adf5fa

2. U.S. Embassy Bamako Cable 09BAMAKO106, February 23, 2009.

 

This article was first published in the June 14, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

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.

Chad and Niger: France’s Military Allies in Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

Aberfoyle International Security Special Report – February 15, 2013

As the long-promised ECOWAS/African Union intervention force cools its hells behind the lines in Mali, experienced desert fighters from Chad and Niger have stepped into the breach, operating side-by-side with the French in retaking northern Mali from the Islamists and now mounting search operations for Islamists hiding in the sun-baked mountains of Kidal region. With a total contribution of nearly 2,500 men (2,000 from Chad), the contingents from Chad and Niger provide a significant boost to combat capability of the French force of 4,000 troops. Back in Bamako, the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) continues to be assembled piecemeal from troops arriving from seven West African countries.

Chadian Troops on the Move in Northern Mali   (BBC)

Chadian Troops on the Move in Northern Mali (BBC)

Some 1800 Chadian troops have been joined in in the northern city of Kidal by several hundred soldiers from neighboring Niger who have been attached to the Chadian group since it passed through Niger to enter northern Mali from the south. These troops are now carrying out search-and-destroy operations to eliminate armed Islamists thought to be hiding in the caves of the Adar des Ifoghas mountains of north-eastern Mali. The Chadians are guided by local Tuareg belonging to al-Hajj ag-Gamou’s pro-government militia or the separatist Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA), the group that began the civil war in Mali over a year ago but was displaced by their former Tuareg Islamist allies in Ansar al-Din. Air support is provided by France, which has carried out scores of bombing runs in the region. So far, however, there seem to have been few contacts of any significance with Islamists in the region, many of whom may have already slipped across the international borders into Mauritania, Algeria, Libya or Niger. French reports describe their targets in the mountains as “mostly logistical depots and training centers” (AFP, February 5). The military intelligence chief of the Chadian deployment, Lieutenant Colonel Ibrahim Idriss, has identified the Chadian advantage in pursuing the Islamists: “We are Muslims like them, so we understand their ideology and we don’t fear them” (McClatchy Newspapers, February 8).

Chad-MaliChadian Troops in Mali (Reuters)

The Chadians spent several days in Menaka before heading north to Kidal. On the evening of February 8, Chadian and French forces entered the isolated garrison town of Aguel Hoc, scene of a rebel massacre of government troops in January, 2012.  The next day, the Chadians and French seized Tessalit and entered Kidal, which had already fallen under the control of the MNLA, who successfully demanded that Malian troops be excluded from the occupying force as a condition of turning over control of the city. The Kidal airstrip had already been taken by the French on January 29.

After the French and Malian troops failed to secure the homes of leading Islamists who had fled Gao and Timbuktu, leading to the loss of large quantities of important documents to looters and curious journalists, French and Chadian searches in Kidal are reported to have yielded large quantities of arms as well as a wealth of useful documents such as passports and lists of fighters. Telephone chips and computers found in Kidal have been sent on for analysis (RFI, February 5).

Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno, as then-commander-in-chief of the Chadian military, cooperated closely with French intelligence, Foreign Legion and air support units in the 1986-87 “Toyota War” that forced Libyan forces out of Chad permanently. The highly-mobile tactics developed by Déby and others in that war continue to characterize Chadian operations and have become the model for many insurgent groups and some government forces operating in the Sahara/Sahel region. The Chadian deployment in Mali is under the command of Déby’s son, General Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno.

Déby’s commitment of a substantial number of his best troops to the Mali intervention demonstrates the president’s confidence in his political control of Chad, his elimination of insurgent threats and the steady improvement of relations with neighboring Sudan that followed the 2010 rapprochement. Prior to that, both Khartoum and N’Djamena were engaged in a proxy war in which each side supported rebel movements inside their rival’s territory. Both regimes were nearly toppled in the process, but now there are plans to build a Qatari-financed road to tie the two countries. There is also a small French military base in N’Djamena with a pair of French fighter-jets and some 200 Legionnaires; it is not impossible that some type of guarantees were given by Paris regarding the preservation of the Déby regime in an emergency while his best troops are deployed in Mali.

Nonetheless, the Chadian capital of N’Djamena has been on a war footing since joining the Malian intervention. Dozens of suspects have been arrested as the Mobile Police Intervention Group carries out multiple patrols, identity checks and vehicle searches. A report citing an anonymous diplomatic source claimed 500 members of Nigeria’s Boko Haram had entered the capital, but this report was quickly denied by a Chadian government spokesman (Jeune Afrique, February 13; Radio France Internationale, February 14).

Chadian forces are also present in the Central African Republic (CAR), which they entered in mid-December 2012 to prop up the regime of President François Bozizé against the Seleka coalition of rebels marching on the capital of Bangui.

Niger, which has faced a series of rebellions from Tuareg rebels with loose connections to Tuareg rebels in Mali, has no wish to see the MNLA legitimized for fear separatist success in Mali will revive the relatively dormant Tuareg independence movement in Niger. Nigérien President Mahamadou Issoufou recently stated: “The MNLA is not representative of the Tuareg people in Mali. It represents a tiny minority” (Le Monde, February 4).  There is no doubt Issoufou is uncomfortable seeing his troops working side-by-side with the Tuareg separatists of the MNLA, but he has no more influence on the composition of the counterterrorist force than does Bamako, which has issued arrest warrants for the MNLA leaders that have been ignored by the French and their allies in Kidal.

Chadian Troops in Mali with Armored Personnel Carriers

Chadian Troops in Mali with Armored Personnel Carriers

According to documents said to have been seized by French forces in Mali, Niger was designated to be the site of the second phase of the Islamists’ plan to create an Islamic Emirate in the Sahara/Sahel region (al-Khabar [Algiers], February 13).  Issoufou confirmed that French Special Forces have moved in to protect Niger’s uranium industry facililties from an In Aménas-style attack. Most of the uranium produced in Niger is destined for French energy and military uses. Niger has enormous, largely unguarded borders with northern Mali, and has taken a strategic decision to take the fight to the Islamists even though this commitment will decrease the number of men available to maintain the security of Niger’s 500 mile border with Mali. Niger’s desert units are well-experienced and normally contain a number of former Tuareg rebels who have been re-integrated into Niger’s military, though it is unclear whether such individuals form part of the present deployment. Nonetheless, the Nigérien army is small and underfunded, leaving the president to seek military protection where he can. When a U.S. diplomat asked Issoufou on January 28 if Niger would be willing to host a U.S. surveillance drone base, the offer was accepted immediately (Reuters, January 29).

The Chadian deployment in Mali comes in stark contrast to that of Nigeria, which leads the AFISMA mission but has so far only managed to field under 300 of the 1,200 man deployment promised by Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan. Many of the men appear to have arrived without arms, preventing their deployment in most tasks, and morale has suffered from food shortages. In their search for provisions, officers and men are reported to be resorting to “courtesy calls” on local leaders who are then expected to “return the call,” usually with a large gift of food (Premium Times [Lagos], February 12).  Despite government claims of a fighting advance into northern Mali, Nigerian troops have yet to move out of Bamako. The deployment is highly unpopular in Nigeria, where many citizens worry the intervention will only provide new opportunities for vast sums of money to be siphoned from the national treasury. There are also critics who suggest that the army should finish dealing with the Boko Haram threat inside Nigeria before it engages in foreign adventures. Nigerian troops are already deployed abroad in Darfur with the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (still using the former acronym UNAMID). With AFISMA largely designed to be built around a Nigerian core, there seems little chance that the other West African contingents arriving in Bamako will see the front-lines any time soon. In a way they served as a diversion in the southwest while the real African combat group entered Mali from the southeast.

What the Tuareg Do after the Fall of Qaddafi Will Determine the Security Future of the Sahel

Andrew McGregor

September 16, 2011

At least 1,500 Tuareg fighters joined Muammar Qadaffi’s loyalist forces (though some sources cite much larger figures) in the failed defense of his Libyan regime. Many were ex-rebels residing in Libya, while others were recruited from across the Sahel with promises of large bonuses and even Libyan citizenship. Many of the Tuareg fighters are now returning to Mali, Niger and elsewhere in the Sahel, but for some the war may not yet be over; there are reports of up to 500 Tuareg fighters having joined loyalist forces holding the coastal town of Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace and a loyalist stronghold (AFP, September 3; September 5).

Tuareg Regions of North Africa

The Regional Dimension of the Libyan Regime’s Collapse

Media in the Malian capital have warned that the “defeated mercenaries” are back from Libya with heavy weapons and lots of money to prepare a new Tuareg rebellion, labeling themselves “combatants for the liberation of Azawad” (Le Pretoire [Bamako], May 9). Mali has not yet recognized the Transitional National Council (TNC) as the new Libyan government; Mali’s reticence in recognizing the rebels as the new government in Libya may have something to do with the large investments made in Mali by the Qaddafi regime (L’Independant [Bamako], September 6). The Libyan leader has significant support in Mali and other parts of West Africa and a number of pro-Qaddafi demonstrations have been witnessed in Mali since the revolution began in February.

The new president of Niger, Mahamadou Issoufou, has warned of Libya turning into another Somalia, spreading instability throughout the region:

The Libyan crisis amplifies the threats confronting countries in the region. We were already exposed to the fundamentalist threat, to the menace of criminal organizations, drug traffickers, arms traffickers… Today, all these problems have increased. All the more so because weapon depots have been looted in Libya and such weapons have been disseminated throughout the region. Yes, I am very worried: we fear that there may be a breakdown of the Libyan state, as was the case in Somalia, eventually bringing to power religious extremists (Jeune Afrique, July 30).

Algeria has its own concerns, fearing that instability in the Sahara/Sahel will provoke further undesirable French military deployments or interventions in the region.

Convoys Out of Libya

Tuareg troops escaping from Libya have been observed using 4X4 vehicles to cross into Niger (El Khabar [Algiers], August 29).On September 5, it was reported that “an exceptionally large and rare convoy” of over 200 military vehicles belonging to the southern garrisons of the Libyan Army entered the city of Agadez, the capital of the old Tuareg-controlled Agadez sultanate that controlled trade routes in the region for centuries (Le Monde, September 6; AFP, September 6). A number of people reported seeing Tuareg rebel Rhissa Ag Boula in the convoy (Le Monde, September 6). Ag Boula was last reported to have been under arrest in Niamey after re-entering Niger in April 2010. Ag Boula mistakenly believed he was covered by a government amnesty against a death sentence passed in absentia for his alleged role in the assassination of a politician.

According to NATO spokesman Colonel Roland Lavoie, the convoy was not tracked by the concentrated array of surveillance assets deployed over Libya: “To be clear, our mission is to protect the civilian population in Libya, not to track and target thousands of fleeing former regime leaders, mercenaries, military commanders and internally displaced people” (AFP, September 6). In a campaign that has seen NATO target civilian television workers as a “threat to civilian lives,” it is difficult to believe that a heavily-armed convoy of 200 vehicles containing Qaddafi loyalists was of no interest to NATO’s operational command. There has been widespread speculation that the convoy contained some part of Libya’s gold reserves, which were moved to the southern Sabha Oasis when the fighting began.

Nigerien foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum initially denied the arrival of a 200 vehicle convoy in his country, but admitted that Abdullah Mansur Daw, Libya’s intelligence chief in charge of Tuareg issues, arrived in Niger on September 4 with nine vehicles (Le Monde [Paris], September 8;  AFP, September 5). Daw was accompanied by Agali Alambo, a Tuareg rebel leader who has lived in Libya since 2009 and was cited as a major recruiter of hundreds of former Tuareg rebels in Niger. Alambo later described escaping south through the Murzuq triangle “and then straight down to Agadez” after his party learned the Algerian border was closed and the route into Chad was blocked by Tubu fighters who had joined the TNC (Reuters, September 11). Daw and Alambo reached Niamey on September 5 with an escort of Nigerien military vehicles. Libya’s TNC has promised it will request the extradition of leading Qaddafi loyalists from Niger (AFP, September 10).

General Ali Kana, a Tuareg officer commanding government troops in southern Libya, was reported to have crossed into Niger on September 9 with a force of heavily armed troops (Tripoli Post, September 9). A former spokesman for the Tuareg rebel group Mouvement des nigériens pour la justice (MNJ) said that Kana was considering defecting after having angered Libyan Tuareg by leading an attack on a Tuareg town in Libya in which several Tuareg were killed, and by recruiting Tuareg mercenaries from Mali and Niger but failing to pay them the huge sums of cash he was given by Qadaffi for the purpose (AP, September 9). Ali Kana was reported to be with Libyan Air Force chief Al-Rifi Ali al-Sharif and Mahammed Abidalkarem, military commander in the southern garrison of Murzuq (AFP, September 10).

Some Tuareg returning from the Libyan battlefields expressed disenchantment with their time in Libya, complaining they were not allowed to fight in units composed solely of Tuareg (AFP, April 21). Others have complained they were never paid; one fighter said he was part of a group of 229 Tuareg recruited by Agali Alambo with a promise of a 5,000 Euro advance, but had never seen a penny (AFP, September 3). Others did receive smaller payments and the offer of Libyan citizenship. One Tuareg fighter described being assigned to a Tuareg brigade that was later attached to Khamis al-Qaddafi’s 32nd Mechanized Brigade for battles in Misrata and elsewhere (The Atlantic, August 31).

Some Tuareg leaders in Niger and Mali are urging Tuareg regulars of the Libyan Army to rally to the rebel cause and remain in Libya rather than return to Niger and Mali with their arms but little chance of employment. The tribal leaders have set up a contact group with the TNC to allow Tuareg regulars to join the rebels without threat of reprisal in an attempt to ward off a civil war in Libya (Reuters, September 4, Radio France Internationale, August 23). “Niger and Mali are very fragile states — they could not take such an influx…” said Mohamed Anacko, the head of the Agadez regional council and a contact group member (Reuters, September 4). At the moment, however, crossing the lines to a disparate and undisciplined rebel army remains a dangerous proposition for Tuareg regulars closely identified with the regime.

The Tuareg may not be the only insurgents forced out of Libya; there are reports from Chadian officials that over 100 heavily armed vehicles belonging to Dr. Khalil Ibrahim’s Darfur-based Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) had crossed the Libyan border. Ibrahim had taken refuge in Libya after losing his bases in Chad to a Chadian-Sudanese peace agreement. JEM denied knowledge of the movement and also denied receiving weapons from Libya (AFP, September 9).

Libyan Tuareg

The Libyan Tuareg

Besides the West African Tuareg who rallied to Qaddafi, Libya is home to a Tuareg community of roughly 100,000 people, though the regime has never recognized them as such, claiming they are only an isolated branch of the Arab race. Though some Libyan Tuareg have opposed Qadaffi, many others have found employment in the Libyan regular army, together with volunteers from Mali and Niger. As a result, many Libyans tend to identify all Tuareg as regime supporters. Near the desert town of Ghadames local Tuareg were threatened by rebels seeking to expel them from the city before Algeria opened a nearby border post and began allowing the Tuareg to cross into safety on August 30 (Ennahar [Algiers], September 1; El Khabar [Algiers], September 5). Five hundred Algerian Tuareg were reported to have crossed into Algeria while the border remained open (Le Monde, September 8). Some of the refugees promised to settle their families in Algeria before crossing back into Ghadames with arms to confront the rebels (The Observer, September 2).

The Death of Ibrahim Ag Bahanga

The most prominent of the Tuareg rebel leaders, Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, was reported to have died in a vehicle accident in Tin-Essalak on August 26 after having spent most of the last two years as an exile in Libya (Tout sur l’Algérie [Algiers], August 29). [1] It was widely believed in Mali that Ag Bahanga was preparing a new rebellion with weapons obtained from Libyan armories (Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], August 17; Ennahar [Algiers] August 27).

He was reportedly buried within hours, preventing any examination of the cause of death despite some reports his body showed signs of having been shot repeatedly.  Some claim that Ag Bahanga was actually killed by other Tuareg in a dispute over weapons, though others in Mali have suggested the Tuareg rebel leader was killed by a landmine or even a missile after his Thuraya cell phone was detected by French intelligence services, though it seems unlikely the veteran rebel would make such a mistake (L’Indépendant [Bamako], August 30; Le Pretoire [Bamako], September 6; Info Matin [Bamako], August 29). Despite Ag Bahanga’s resolute opposition to the Malian regime, President Ahmadou Toumani Touré was reported to have sent a delegation to Kidal province to offer official condolences on the rebel’s death (Le Republicain [Bamako], August 29). Ag Bahanga was a noted opponent of the political and military domination of Mali by the Bambara, one of the largest Mandé ethnic groups in West Africa (Jeune Afrique, September 8).

The veteran Tuareg rebel had many enemies, including the Algerians, who were incensed by his refusal to adhere to the 2006 Malian peace agreement mediated by Algiers. His rebellion only came to an end when former Tuareg rebels and Bérabiche Arabs joined a Malian government offensive that swept Ag Bahanga and many of his followers from northern Mali in 2009 (see Terrorism Focus, February 25, 2009).

Ag Bahanga returned to Libya, where he became an active recruiter of Tuareg fighters from across the Sahel when the Libyan revolution broke out in February (L’Essor [Bamako], August 29).  One returning fighter described seeing Ag Bahanga fighting with loyalist forces at Misrata: “He was with many former rebels from Mali. They were fighting hard for Qaddafi” (The Atlantic, August 31).

If the many reports of Ag Bahanga shipping large quantities of heavy and light weapons and large numbers of 4X4 trucks back to Mali are true, Ag Bahanga was about to become an extremely powerful man in the Sahel. His death will satisfy many, but there are still concerns about the dispersal of his arms, which would certainly be of interest to buyers from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has developed contacts with some young Tuareg by employing them as drivers and guides in unfamiliar territory.

In an interview conducted only days before his death, Ag Bahanga expressed discontent with his one-time patron, offering what might be a bit of revisionist history: “The Tuareg have always wanted Qaddafi to leave Libya, because he always tried to exploit them without any compensation… The disappearance of al-Qaddafi is good news for all the Tuareg in the region…We never had the same goals, but rather the opposite. He has always tried to use the Tuareg for his own ends and to the detriment of the community. His departure from Libya opens the way for a better future and helps to advance our political demands…  Al-Qaddafi blocked all solutions to the Tuareg issue… Now he’s gone, we can move forward in our struggle” (El Watan [Algiers], August 29). Ag Bahanga, who at one point had unsuccessfully offered to turn his rebel movement into a transnational security force capable of expelling al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from the Sahel/Sahara region, also came out against AQIM’s Salafi-Jihadists: “Our imams advocate and educate our youth and families against the religion of intolerance preached by the Salafists, which is in total contradiction with our religious practice. In fact, on an ideological level, the Salafis have no control over the Tuareg. We defend ourselves with our meager resources, and we envision a day soon be able to bring Bamako to account” (El Watan, August 29).

Conclusion

Hundreds of thousands of workers have returned to Niger and Mali, which are unable to provide employment to the returnees. There are also 74,000 workers returning to Chad. Moreover, the loss of remittances from their work in Libya will devastate many already marginal communities reliant on such transfers. Many of the returnees suffered rough treatment at the hands of rebels who consider all black Africans and Tuareg to be mourtazak (mercenaries). Motivation, money, arms and a lack of viable alternatives form a dangerous recipe for years of instability in the Sahel/Sahara region, particularly if it is fuelled by a political cause such as the restoration of the Qaddafi regime or the establishment of an independent Tuareg homeland.

Ana Ag Ateyoub has been mentioned as the most likely rebel leader to succeed Ag Bahanga. Ag Ateyoub has a reputation for being a great strategist but is considered more radical than Ag Bahanga (L’Essor [Bamako], August 29; August 30). Ag Bahanga’s group remains a regional security wild card. If their late leader was actually intending to launch a new rebellion in Mali with high-powered arms obtained in Libya, will the group follow through with these plans?

Former security officials of the Qaddafi regime recently told a pan-Arab daily that Libyan intelligence has conducted extensive surveys of the more inaccessible parts of the country and areas of Niger and Chad while building ties to the local populations in these places (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 8). According to a TNC report based on a communication from former Libyan intelligence director Musa Kusa, Qaddafi is now moving between al-Jufrah district in the center of the country, home to a strategically located military base and airstrip at Hun, and the remote Tagharin oasis near the Algerian border, where he is guarded by Tuareg tribesmen (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 5).

Much of southern Libya and its vital oil and water resources remains outside rebel hands and might remain that way for some time if the Tuareg oppose the new rebel regime in Tripoli. It is possible that Qaddafi may threaten the new government from the vast spaces of southern Libya if he can gain the cooperation of the Tuareg. Despite signs of disenchantment with Qaddafi among the Tuareg tribesmen, there is still the lure presented by the vast sums of cash and gold loyalist forces appear to have moved south on behalf of Qaddafi, who has always understood the need to keep a few billion in cash under the mattress, just in case.

Tuareg rebel leader Agali Alambo believes Qaddafi could lead a prolonged counter-insurgency from the deserts of southern Libya: “I know the Guide well, and what people don’t realize is that he could last in the desert for years. He didn’t need to create a hiding place. He likes the simple life, under a tent, sitting on the sand, drinking camel’s milk. His advantage is that this was already his preferred lifestyle… He is guarded by a special mobile unit made up of members of his family. Those are the only people he trusts” (Fox News, September 13).

Though small in numbers, Tuareg mastery of the terrain of the Sahara/Sahel region, ability to survive in forbidding conditions and skills on the battlefield make them a formidable part of any security equation in the region. Historically, the Tuareg have been divided into a number of confederations and have rarely achieved a consensus on anything, including support for the Libyan regime or the ambitions of those seeking to establish a Tuareg homeland. However, the collapse of the Saharan tourist industry due to the depredations of AQIM and a worsening drought in the Sahel that is threatening the pastoral lifestyle of the Tuareg will only enhance the appeal of a well-rewarded life under arms. The direction of Tuareg military commanders and their followers, whether in support of the Qaddafi regime in Libya or in renewed rebellion in Mali and Niger, will play an essential role in determining the security future of the region, as well as the ability of foreign commercial interests to extract the region’s lucrative oil and uranium resources.

Notes

  1. For a profile of Ibrahim Ag Bahanga, see Andrew McGregor, “Ibrahim Ag Bahanga: Tuareg Rebel Turns Counterterrorist?” April 2, 2010, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2773

This article first appeared in the September 16, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

New Niger President Says Training, Weapons and Intelligence Needed in Fight against al-Qaeda

Andrew McGregor

April 14, 2011

Mahamadou Issoufou, the newly elected president of Niger, laid out his vision of a more active and cooperative military response to the threat posed to regional security by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). His views were presented in an interview with Beret Vert, a Niger Army review (Ennahar [Algiers], April 8; AFP, April 8).

Niger - IssoufouNigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou

Issoufou was sworn in as the newly elected president of Niger on April 8, the culmination of a successful democratic transition following the February 2010 military coup that overthrew President Mamadou Tandja. The new president faces enormous problems in stabilizing Niger, where severe economic pressures make smuggling, banditry, insurrection or even employment by AQIM seem like rational opportunities for restless young men. Niger was ranked 167 out of 169 states measured in the 2010 UN Human Development Index. Despite the economic pressures, the new president has promised the military better arms, training and equipment (AFP, April 8).

Warning that AQIM has the potential to destabilize the “whole of the Sahara,” Issoufou said the “countries of the north” were “indispensable” for training and equipping Niger’s defense and security forces. Suggesting that Niger’s military was operating “blind” in the vast desert regions of northern Niger, the new president urged Western cooperation in intelligence matters. He also supported the further growth of the joint Sahel intelligence center in Tamanrasset (Centre de Renseignement sur le Sahel – CRS) established by the intelligence chiefs of Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania on October 7, 2010 (see L’Expression [Abidjan], October 7).  Issoufou said he envisaged Niger’s military deployed in new barracks and forward posts throughout the country, including the deployment of Nigerien Special Forces in strategic frontier zones.

Niger’s own 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. Fees from uranium concessions form an important part of the military’s funding. The Tuareg have urged military recruitment in northern Niger, which would help end local perceptions of the army as an occupation force.

Only hours after his inauguration, Issoufou took an important step towards reconciliation with Niger’s Tuareg community by appointing Brigi Rafini, an Agadez Tuareg, as his new Prime Minister. Like Issoufou, Rafini was a former minister in the government of President Ibrahim Bare Mainassara, who was assassinated by members of his own bodyguard with a truck-mounted machine gun in 1999.

This article first appeared in the April 14, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Mali Pays the Price of al-Qaeda’s Asymmetrical Threat

Andrew McGregor

October 28, 2010

Over half the world’s kidnappings for ransom occur in Latin America, however, among these nations only Mexico and Colombia merit official U.S. travel advisories that mention the danger of kidnapping. Despite this, Mexico and Colombia continue to enjoy thriving tourist industries. Yet the African state of Mali, with only a handful of such kidnappings each year, has been afflicted with similar travel advisories, not only from the United States, but from other Western nations as well that have devastated a nascent tourism industry with enormous potential. The difference? Al-Qaeda.

Mali millitary 1Mali’s Military: Up to the Job?

With an economy based on agriculture and gold production, Mali is one of the poorest nations in the world. The development of a tourism industry based on the growing popularity of Saharan tourism (particularly in European markets) promised a new economic sector, a source of foreign currency and a potential solution to the unrest in Mali’s Saharan north, which is largely based on lack of economic opportunity. To the disappointment of Mali’s government, this growing economic sector has come to a halt due to the criminal activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), whose Southern Command now focuses on drug trafficking, smuggling and high-profile kidnappings for ransom. The tourism industry of some regions of the north is now operating at only 10-15% of capacity.

On October 15, Mali’s Minister of Tourism and Crafts, N’Diaye Ba, complained of what might be termed “the al-Qaeda effect,” or the disproportional damage caused by even the limited presence of Islamist terrorists:

While it is undeniable that some events that took place in the Sahel-Saharan strip incite prudence to avoid endangering the lives of visitors, it’s equally evident that a zero risk exists nowhere in the world… The use of the terrorist menace, which gives free publicity to the terrorists, seems like a fearful weapon to compromise all the prospects of development of a place, a region, a country (AFP, October 15).

Since al-Qaeda took advantage of Mali’s weak security infrastructure to establish bases in the vast desert wilderness of the country’s north roughly two years ago, Mali has entered a situation in which the presence of the terrorists prevents the economic development that would convince tribal elements in the north (particularly the Arab tribes and to a lesser degree, the Tuareg) from joining or doing business with AQIM units that are rolling in cash as a result of collecting enormous ransoms (estimates vary from 70 to 150 million Euros in total) based on their fearsome reputation.

International vs. Regional Solutions

Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré says that Mali is both “a hostage and a victim” of AQIM: “These people [i.e. AQIM] are not Malians. They came from the Maghreb with ideas that we do not know. The problem is the lack of regional cooperation. Everyone complains about their neighbor…” (Ennahar [Algiers], October 1). Mali’s government has declared a series of measures designed to deal with the concerns about its security:

• A rational occupation of territory by the state administration.

• Increased mobility on the part of troops for prevention and intervention.

• A social mobilization to reduce the influence of sects and criminal groups (AFP, October 15).

The G8’s Counter-Terrorism Action Group (CTAG) held a two day meeting in Bamako in mid-October to discuss the AQIM threat. President Amadou Toumani Touré told the meeting that security alone could not resolve the AQIM issue, saying that development of the Sahel region is necessary to undercut support for militant groups (AFP, October 14). Though the meeting was also attended by representatives of the African Union (AU), the UN, the EU and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), its success was hampered by the absence of Algeria, which refused to attend due to the presence of Moroccan representatives (Le Républicain [Bamako], October 14; Ennahar [Algiers], October 13; AFP, October 13). Tensions between the two states remain high due to disagreement over the status of the Western Sahara.

Malian Colonel Yamoussa Camara said in the meeting that foreign forces should avoid operations in Mali and limit themselves to providing training and equipment to Mali’s armed forces to prevent the latter from losing popular support (AP, October 13). There were complaints in Mali in September that Mauritanian troops were operating against AQIM in the north of the country while Mali’s own troops were busy with parades celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence (Jeune Afrique, October 9). Colonel Camara’s remarks were echoed a week later by Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mourad Medelci who said foreign military operations in the area are undesirable. According to Medelci, “We are responsible for security, as the Sahel, of all who live in the area where the situation is worrisome…   Algeria has never said that countries that are not part of this area were not affected [by terrorist activities]. If these countries can provide assistance, they are welcome but they cannot establish themselves among us to bring the solution” (Ennahar, October 22).

Mali’s insistence that regional cooperation is the key to solving the AQIM dilemma must overcome significant distrust between many of the countries of the Sahel/Sahara region. Besides the seemingly intractable diplomatic conflict between Algeria and Morocco, there is also suspicion of the motives and activities of Libya’s Muammar Khadafy. Even inside Mali, there are misgivings regarding the sincerity of Algeria’s counterterrorism efforts; according to numerous reports circulating in Mali, the last words of Colonel Lamana Ould Bou (a senior Malian security officer investigating AQIM activities in northern Mali before being gunned down in his home last June by unknown assailants) were, “The Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité [DRS] is at the heart of AQIM” (al-Jazeera, August 29; Le Hoggar [Bamako], October 11). The Algerian DRS is widely believed to have infiltrated operatives into the DRS, with some suspicious Sahel observers even claiming AQIM is a false-flag operation run entirely by the Algerian intelligence service.

The question of allowing foreign military operations in Mali became more complicated when Mauritanian aircraft in pursuit of suspected al-Qaeda fighters killed two civilians near Timbuktu in September (Reuters, September 20). However, with little ability to control its northern region, Mali seems determined to avoid inflaming AQIM by allowing military forces of France (the former colonial power) to be based there (Le Monde, September 22). Mali does, however, accept military training from French forces and has a number of American Special Forces training teams stationed within Mali (see Terrorism Monitor Briefs, June 4). Nevertheless, based on the inability of Mali’s military to even refuel Mauritanian forces during a September 18 clash with AQIM in northern Mali, Algerian authorities have described Mali’s armed forces as “incompetent” (Jeune Afrique, October 15).

The Arlit Hostage Crisis

The latest crisis involves the kidnapping of seven Areva and Satom employees from the uranium mine at Arlit in northern Niger on September 15. The operation was carried out by the Tarek Ibn Ziyad katiba (military unit) led by AQIM commander Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaid  (a.k.a. Abid Hammadou) (Le Monde, October 11). Five of the hostages are French; the other two are from Togo and Madagascar. Heavy fighting between AQIM forces under Algerian commander Yahya Abu Hamam and Mauritanian forces was reported shortly after the abductions (Ennahar, October 15; Jeune Afrique, October 9).

Mali military 2The Arlit Hostages

While this latest group of hostages is being held in northern Mali, there are denials from all sides that France ever requested permission to base troops or aircraft involved in the search on Malian territory, though this may be a sop to Bamako’s sensitivity on the issue. The air component of the search is thus based in Niamey in neighboring Niger, while French Special Forces are awaiting deployment in the Burkina Faso capital of Ouagadougou. The Kidal airstrip in northern Mali would be useful in the search, but would have the disadvantage of exposing French forces to direct attacks by AQIM (Jeune Afrique, October 9; Air & Cosmos [Paris], September 29; Le Monde, September 22). Not surprisingly, one of AQIM’s reported demands for the release of the hostages is a commitment from Bamako that further French and Mauritanian military operations will not be allowed on Malian territory (L’Indépendant [Bamako], October 12). When and if the time comes for a military intervention on Malian soil to save the hostages, it is expected that Bamako will look the other way until the operation is completed.

Is Regional Security Cooperation a Mirage?

As a result of the Tamanrasset meeting, a joint Sahel information center (Centre de Renseignement sur le Sahel – CRS) was established by the intelligence chiefs of Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania in Algiers on October 7 to collect intelligence from the security services of the four nations and make it available to the new joint military operations center in Tamanrasset (L’Expression [Abidjan], October 7).
In April, Algeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania formed the Tamanrasset-based Joint Operational Military Committee, designed to provide a joint response to border security and terrorism issues. Ten days after the Arlit abductions, the committee (composed of the military chiefs of the four nations) met on September 26 to establish a coordinated response against the AQIM threat. The committee is currently headed by Malian Brigadier-General Gabriel Poudiougou, but there is little enthusiasm in Bamako for the new security center in Tamanrasset, which is referred to at the highest levels of the government as “an empty shell” (Jeune Afrique, October 15).

The absence of Chad, Libya and Morocco from the new cooperative security infrastructure will certainly hinder efforts to eliminate AQIM from the region. The leaders of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Mali and Chad held a consultative meeting on the sidelines of the Arab-African Summit in the Libyan city of Sirté on October 10, though this did not seem to ease the admission of new members into the four-nation Sahel security grouping. Mali’s efforts to broaden the group have been continually vetoed by Algiers. Earlier this month, however, Libya donated two much-needed Italian Marchetti surveillance aircraft to Mali to combat local unrest (AFP, October 4).

Despite the insecurity in its own northern region and the fact the Arlit hostages were seized in Niger before being moved to Mali, Niamey has been quick to identify Mali as the source of regional insecurity. According to Amadou Marou, president of Niger’s National Consultative Council (which is managing the country in the aftermath of February’s military coup), “Somalia got away from us and northern Mali is in the process of getting away from us”  (AFP, October 15).

Conclusion

International crime statistics alone will not solve Mali’s dilemma, nor will claims that it is the object of a “disinformation campaign” (AFP, October 15). So long as AQIM can conduct one kidnapping or hold one hostage on Malian territory each year, it will, in the current perception that there is no kidnapper as deadly as an al-Qaeda kidnapper, prevent the necessary economic development of Mali’s northern region. To enable development, Mali is left in the unenviable situation of having to establish almost complete security in a vast region with precious few security resources or having to turn to foreign military forces to aid in the elimination of al-Qaeda elements – something these same forces have failed to achieve elsewhere. Mali, however, cannot disclaim any responsibility or involvement in the rash of AQIM kidnappings. A sophisticated network of mostly Malian negotiators and mediators has emerged, with these middlemen making enormous profits through receiving a cut of the ransoms. Some mediators are even believed to participate in the kidnappings and then act as negotiators (Info Matin [Bamako], October 14; L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], October 14; Daily Times [Karachi] October 12).  There can be little doubt that, as with the Sahel/Saharan narcotics trade, some of these illicit funds are reaching senior levels of the political and military structure in Bamako. This does not make Mali unique among nations facing similar problems, but the lure of easy money in an impoverished nation represents a threat in itself.

One option being considered in the Malian capital to deal with the security threat is rearming and deploying Tuareg fighters (only recently disarmed after rebelling against the central government) to hunt down and eliminate al-Qaeda operatives. At present, Bamako faces a problem that is more criminal in nature than political or religious, but foreign intervention brings the immediate risk of escalation and an uncertain political future in the event of a popular backlash in Mali. Neither prospect promises a new era of stability, so Bamako will likely continue for now in its calls for a regional security cooperation that may be largely illusory due to the mutual suspicions of the Sahel/Sahara nations.

This article first appeared in the October 28, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor