Mauritania – Will Islamist Crackdown Make It a Terrorist Target?

Andrew McGregor

When Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz identified political Islamists as extremists and national enemies of Mauritania last August, his bluntness surprised some observers: “Proponents of political Islam are all extremists… Islamists, who practice politics and wear ties, can take up arms if they cannot achieve their goals via politics” (Saudi Gazette, August 31).

Faced with what authorities believe is religious and political interference in Mauritania by Iran and Qatar and the threat posed by jihadists lurking along the border with Mali, the president has undertaken several steps to scale back Islamist activities in Mauritania, including the closing of Islamic universities and moving towards a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. Mauritanian troops are also now operating with the French-backed Sahel Group of Five (G5S – a regional security and development alliance that includes Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) to tackle Islamist terrorism throughout the Sahara-Sahel region. However, Mauritania’s poverty and an unemployment rate of 40 per cent make it an inviting target for political interference and religious agitation.

The Presidential Succession

Elections last September gave the ruling Union pour la République (UPR) party a majority in Mauritania’s National Assembly. The president has promised to step down at the end of his second term in 2019, though some suspect he may still be considering a third term. Abd al-Aziz is expected to choose his own successor and may select a military man as Mauritania’s next president with the support of the solidly loyal UPR. Abd al-Aziz is a former UPR leader, but was required to officially step away from the party when he became president. The Mauritanian opposition has warned that the nation’s stability “will suffer if the next president again comes directly from the army ranks” (Arab Weekly, November 4).

General Mohamed Ould al-Ghazouni (

General Mohamed Ould al-Ghazouani is considered a favorite to succeed Abd al-Aziz, but his November 4 appointment as Minister of Defense may be a sideways move intended to derail his succession. It is suggested that Abd al-Aziz fears his post-presidency influence will evaporate under a strong president like Ould al-Ghazouani, while the more pliable Colonel Cheikh Ould Baya (currently speaker of parliament and a UPR stalwart) might be more acceptable as Abd al-Aziz’s successor (Arab Weekly, November 4).

Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Education

Leading Mauritania’s political opposition is the Rassemblement national pour la réforme et le développement (RNPRD), better known as “Tewassoul.” Mohamed Mahmoud Ould al-Sidi leads the party, which is closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abd al-Aziz claims that the Muslim Brotherhood has caused the destruction of several Arab countries,” adding that the Brothers are working inside the political opposition to divide and destroy Mauritanian society (Saudi Gazette, August 31).

The Tewassoul leader has rejected charges of religious-political extremism:

“[The authorities] are extrapolating the reality of other Islamists upon us. It is better for them to give proof and facts to back their accusations. The difference between us and the others is that we are inspired by Islamic values in our political activities while others are exploiting Islam for their political benefit” (Arab Weekly, September 30).

In late September, authorities shut down two Islamic higher education institutions in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. Both the University of Abdullah ibn Yasin and the Center for Training Islamic Scholars were believed to be closely tied to the Tewassoul Party. Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood leader and prominent preacher Mohamed al-Hassan Ould Dadou was a leading faculty member at both institutions. The action resulted in student demonstrations and the arrest of two academics (University World News, October 2).

Shaykh Mohamed al-Hassan Ould Dadou

The day after the closures, Ould Dadou did not attack the government directly, but used his Friday sermon to warn that Arab countries were being “destroyed by despotism and injustice, the main causes for the destabilization of nations” swept up in the Arab Spring (AFP, September 26).

In preference to the opposition-affiliated schools, Ould Abd al-Aziz has stated his support for establishing an Islamic education center in Mauritania that would be affiliated with al-Azhar University in Cairo, a bastion of anti-extremism closely watched by the Egyptian government (MENA, March 19).

Mauritania and the Struggle for the Middle East

Mauritanians are overwhelmingly followers of the Sunni Maliki madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence), but there are fears among top clerics and other officials in Mauritania of an Iranian campaign to convert Mauritanians to Shi’ism. [1]

Relations between Iran and Mauritania began to warm in 2008, after the military coup led by Abd al-Aziz and the consequent severing of relations with Israel. Since then, however, Mauritania has been pulled into the Arab-Iranian dispute in the Middle East and relations with Iran have suffered as a result.

Iran’s ambassador to Mauritania was called into the Mauritanian foreign ministry on May 25, where he was informed the government would not accept any activities by the Iranian embassy intended to “change the doctrine or creed of Mauritanian society.” The ambassador was further informed that the state was appointing a new imam for the Shiite Imam ‘Ali mosque in Dar Naim (a suburb of Nouakchott), where scholarships were arranged for young Mauritanians to study at Shiite institutions in Iran and Lebanon (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], May 29). For its part, Iran denied the meeting ever took place, claiming Saudi Arabia was behind the “rumors” published in Mauritanian media (Fars News [Tehran], May 30).

In early June, Mauritania was one of several Arab nations to join the anti-Qatar “Quartet” of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism and religious extremism. A Mauritanian government spokesman, Mohamed Ishaq al-Kenti, claimed that Qatar was funding both Tewassoul and the Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt Today, September 8). UPR chief Sidi Mohamed Maham stated in October that “all Qatari attempts at intervention in [Mauritania] have failed… their bad intentions are clear towards the state of Mauritania” (al-Arabiya, October 5).

The Military Dimension

Mauritania’s military struggle with modern jihadism began in June 2005, when militants belonging to Algeria’s Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) crossed the border and attacked the Lemgheity military camp in Mauritania’s far north, killing 17 soldiers before withdrawing with prisoners, weapons and vehicles.

Only weeks after the 2008 military coup, gunmen from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) captured a Mauritanian patrol at Tourine. All 12 members of the patrol were decapitated and mutilated (Reuters, September 20, 2008; Tahilil [Nouakchott], March 21, 2011). The incident spurred General Ould Abd al-Aziz (then President of the High Council of State) and his old comrade, General Ould al-Ghazouani, to embark on an energetic program of reforms in the military designed to increase its efficiency, skills and operational capability. The two officers first met in 1980 at the Meknes military academy in Morocco and have operated closely ever since.

The most important step in the military reforms was to create small but highly autonomous and mobile Groupements spéciaux d’Intervention (GSI) led by energetic junior officers. The GSIs, each consisting of about 200 men, are capable of finding and destroying jihadist groups from advanced positions. Arms that were once directed to presidential security units were diverted to increase the firepower of the GSIs (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017; Le Point Afrique, July 18). American weapons and coordination with the Mauritanian Air Force’s Brazilian-made A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft gave Mauritanian counter-insurgency operations a new punch.

According to General Ould al-Ghazouni, military action in not enough: “We need development, to fight against the extreme poverty of a population that has no water, no food… There cannot be a rich army and a poor population” (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017). The general has identified several areas where military efficiency could be improved, including the provision of updated maps, a computerized operations room and technological training for recruits (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017).

General Hanena Ould Sidi (NordSudJournal)

General Hanena Ould Sidi, who was also heavily involved in the post-2009 military restructuring, has noted it was also necessary to simultaneously strengthen the judiciary, promote development and intervene in Islamic education to discourage extremism and “to disseminate the good teaching of Islam” (Le Point Afrique, July 18).

Improvements in military performance became visible in June 2011, when the army destroyed an AQIM base in Mali’s Wagadou Forest (70 km from the border) in an attack that left 15 militants dead. [2] AQIM followed up with a retaliatory raid on the Mauritanian military base at Bassiknou, in the southeast corner of the country in July 2011, but a decisive Mauritanian air-strike the following October on the Wagadou Forest destroyed two vehicles loaded with explosives in preparation for another attack on Mauritanian positions. Local AQIM commander Tayyib Ould Sid Ali was also killed and AQIM operations against Mauritania tapered off after that.

The G5 Sahel

Though Mauritania’s military is still short of funding, training and advanced arms, it is fully committed to participation in the French-backed G5S anti-terrorist alliance. The total force consists of seven battalions; two each from Niger and Mali, and one each from Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso. France provides intelligence and logistical assistance through its Operation Barkhane, a French counter-terrorist operation in the Sahara-Sahel region. Unlike its G5S partners, Mauritania does not allow French troops on its soil.

The GS5 has three zones of operation. The first is the Mali-Mauritania border region, the second is the triangular border region shared by Mali, Niger and Burkina Fase, while the third zone is along the Niger-Chad border. Mauritania and Mali each contribute a battalion to the G5S’s Western Zone of operations. Mauritania has a history of cross-border military operations in northern Mali, endured with varying degrees of acquiescence from the weak Malian government.

After a series of successful jihadi attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso (including a suicide bombing that destroyed the G5S headquarters), Mauritanian general Hanena Ould Sidi succeeded Mali’s General Didier Dacko as the G5S Joint Force commander in July. Ould Sidi studied at the Meknes military school in Morocco, commanded Mauritanian units in Cöte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic (CAR) and is a former director of military intelligence in Mauritania (RFI, July 18). The new G5S second-in-command is American-educated Chadian general Oumar Bikimo, who has commanded Chadian troops in northern Chad, Mali and the CAR.

General Oumar Bikimo of Chad

After the attack on its HQ, the G5S decided to move its headquarters from Sévaré to Bamako, but is still awaiting an exact location from the Malian government. Funds pledged to the G5S have been slow to arrive and the force is still short of vitally needed equipment (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], November 14).


Typical of a career military man, President Ould Abd al-Aziz is taking a direct approach to the problem of political Islam, attempting to eliminate armed Islamists beyond Mauritania’s borders while forcing domestic Islamists to the political and religious sidelines of Mauritanian society. Meanwhile, the nation’s economic weakness, high unemployment and deep Islamic traditions make it attractive to extremists. The combination of a potential state-wide ban of the Muslim Brotherhood, an aggressive military stand against jihadism and uncertainty over the presidential succession could make Mauritania a target for exploitation from regional jihadist groups such as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin, which is highly active just across the border with Mali.

However, there are reasons why Mauritania might survive this period of uncertainty. There appears to be little internal support for armed Islamism at this time and regional jihadists do not appear to consider Mauritania a priority since their 2011 defeat in the Wagadou Forest.  Much will depend on how far the president or his successor will go in attempting to root out Islamist influence in politics and education. The emergence of a significant degree of religiously-based internal dissent could act like a beacon for the region’s armed jihadists.


  1. United States Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017,
  2. See “Mali and Mauritania Conduct Joint Operations against al-Qaeda Base,” Terrorism Monitor, July 7, 2011,

This article first appeared in the December 19, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

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

Where Trafficking and Terrorism Intersect: A Profile of Mauritanian Militant Hamada Ould Kheirou

Andrew McGregor

March 31, 2014

The dramatic occupation of northern Mali by Islamist extremists in 2012 brought a number of otherwise poorly known jihadists to international attention, including 44-year-old Mauritanian Hamada Ould Muhammad Kheirou (a.k.a. Abu Qum Qum). As leader of the Harakat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad fi Gharb Afriqiya (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa – MUJWA), Ould Kheirou was briefly one of the most powerful individuals in northern Mali.


According to his family, Ould Kheirou was born in 1970 in Lebeiratt, a settlement in Mauritania’s southwest Trarza Region, a former emirate just north of the Senegal River (Magharebia, December 10, 2012).

Hamada Ould Muhammad Kheirou (al-Akhbar)

Ould Kheirou attended a Koranic school as a child, eventually developing something of a reputation as a poet in classical Arabic. The Koranic student grew up at a time when Salafist interpretations of Islam were penetrating Mauritania with support and funding from Saudi Arabia.

Eventually, Ould Kheirou became a preacher, known for his provocative sermons in Nouakchott denouncing the “innovations” of traditional Islamic practices in Mauritania. There is little doubt the fiery preacher came to the attention of Mauritanian security services as former president Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya initiated a crackdown on Salafists and other opponents of his regime in 2003. Perhaps not coincidentally, Ould Kheirou is reported to have left to join the jihad in Iraq the same year (Magharebia, December 10, 2012).

Joining al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb

Words, however, were not enough for Ould Kheirou, who was arrested in Nouakchott with two other men  in 2005 for committing acts of violence against worshippers in a mosque he claimed did not engage in “true Islam” (Jeune Afrique, October 3, 2012; Sahara Media, January 12, 2012). Mauritanian Islam is dominated by two Sufi orders, the Tijaniya and Qadiriya, though Ould Kheirou has been known to even criticize other Salafists if they are unwilling to take up arms. Ould Kheirou escaped detention with two other Islamists dressed as women a few months later in April, 2006. Unconfirmed rumors suggested that Ould Kheirou fled to neighboring Senegal, but in June 2007, an in absentia judgment found Ould Kheirou not guilty on all charges.

Shortly after this, Ould Kheirou appears to have joined Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamin Battalion, one of the armed wings of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the Sahara. During this period, Ould Kheirou began developing skills as an AQIM bomb-maker, assisted by fellow Mauritanian Tiyib Ould Sidi Ali.

In 2009, Ould Kheirou and Ould Sidi Ali were arrested in Bamako for bomb-making activities after their workshop blew up and were additionally charged with sending supplies to the forces of AQIM amir Mokhtar Belmokhtar in northern Mali. His stay in prison was again short; his release the following year appears to have been part of the terms for AQIM’s release of French hostage Pierre Camatte in February 2010 (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], August 27, 2010; Jeune Afrique, October 3, 2012). By August of the same year, Ould Kheirou was making his first AQIM video, explaining al-Qaeda’s objectives in the Hassaniya dialect of Arabic spoken in northwestern Africa in a video entitled On The Occasion of Ramadan Fighting is Ordained for You.” Ould Kheirou has a reputation amongst his fellow fighters for his sense of humor and his poetry recitals, which he punctuates with gunfire (Sahara Media, January 9, 2012). His poetry, designed to appeal to the warrior caste of the Mauritanian tribes, has featured prominently in AQIM videos.

Establishing the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa

Despite existing differences with the AQIM leadership over the domination of the movement by Algerian commanders and problems regarding the distribution of ransoms, Ould Kheirou’s creation of MUJWA in mid-2011 appears to have been less of a split within the movement than an effort at expansion through the creation of an organization with greater appeal to Black West Africans through appealing to their own traditions of jihad.

MUJWA’s first video, released on December 12, 2011, displayed three European aid workers abducted from the Polisario camp in Tindouf in October 2011. A second video released in December 2011 presented the ideological basis of the group, praising the 19th century jihads of West African Islamic rulers such as Amadou Cheikou, Umar Tall and Uthman Dan Fodio in what appeared to be a break from al-Qaeda’s usual Arab-centric narrative designed to entice Black Africans to join the West African jihad (AFP, December 22, 2011). Despite targeting Black West Africans for recruitment, MUJWA’s leadership remained almost exclusively dominated by Malian Arabs and Mauritanians. Suggestions that the creation of the new movement marked a split within AQIM were gradually dispelled by the apparent cooperation between the two movements after the “split” and MUJWA’s continued focus on the Algerian targets favored by AQIM.

Hisham BilalFormer MUJWA commander Hisham Bilal (center – note MUJWA child-soldier on right)

Despite the explicit attempts to appeal to Black African Muslims, MUJWA described itself as an alliance incorporating Arabs, Tuareg, Black Africans and various muhajirin (foreign fighters). The movement accused the Tuareg of the MNLA of racism, claiming that Blacks had no rights in the secular Tuareg independence movement. [1] However, MUJWA’s sole Black African commander, Hisham Bilal, quit the movement and returned to his native Niger with his men in November 2012, complaining that the Arab commanders of MUJWA viewed Black African jihadists as “cannon fodder” and believed “a black man is inferior to an Arab or a white” (AFP, November 9, 2012). For the duration of its existence, most of the leadership of MUJWA remained firmly in the hands of Lamhar Arabs from Tilemsi (Gao region of northern Mali) and various Mauritanian jihadists such as Ould Kheirou and his companions.

According to regional analyst Wolfram Lacher, MUJWA’s core leadership was drawn mostly from Lamhar Arabs who were heavily involved in narcotics trafficking and kidnapping activities with support and financing from Lamhar and Songhai businessmen. [2] These origins have sparked suspicions that the movement was more about putting a political and religious face on a criminal enterprise than bringing Islamic rule to the Sahara/Sahel region (RFI, August 9, 2012).

In early January 2012, only days after Mauritania issued an international arrest warrant for his arrest, Ould Kheirou appeared in a new video to “declare war on France, which is hostile to the interests of Islam… The jihad will be exported everywhere it is necessary and for God, we must be ready for anything” (AFP, January 3, 2012). Only a year later, Ould Kheirou’s movement would find itself face-to-face with French troops.

Islamic Caliphate in Northern Mali

When the largely Tuareg Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Tuareg Islamist Ansar al-Din movement seized control of northern Mali over January to April 2012, an opportunity was presented to regional jihadists to establish an Islamist administration based on their own interpretation of Shari’a. Working in cooperation with Ansar al-Din to drive out the MNLA, AQIM soon found itself in control of Timbuktu Province, while Gao Province came under the control of MUJWA.

Relying on their old relationship, Ould Kheirou and Mokhtar Belmokhtar worked closely together during the Islamist occupation of northern Mali, including joint operations against the secular MNLA. MUJWA’s governance in Gao alternated between strict application of Shari’a and attendant hudud punishments and greater leniency when faced with protests from local residents. Ultimately, MUJWA sought to impose its will on Gao by recruiting local Songhai (the majority in Gao) to form the core of the Islamic police. Some attempt was made at providing a working administration but the movement’s focus on enforcing Shari’a overshadowed these attempts.

In July 2012, al-Kheirou was added to the US Specially Designated Nationals sanctions list by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, along with his jihadi colleague, Ahmad al-Tilemsi, an Arab from northern Mali. [3] In the same month, Ould Kheirou was falsely reported to have crossed the border into southern Algeria’s Tamanrasset Province with four other MUJWA members to surrender to Algerian authorities (Echourouk al-Youmi [Algiers], July 8, 2012). Ould Kheirou was again reported captured, this time by the MNLA in February 2013, though the report was never confirmed (Tass, February 4, 2013).

Though MUJWA was supposedly a new movement with an independent agenda, its focus on Algerian targets in this period was virtually indistinguishable from AQIM’s agenda and confirmed that the movement was more interested in using northern Mali as a launching point for jihadist attacks than running a competent Islamic administration:

  • March 3, 2012: MUJWA claims responsibility for a suicide car-bombing on the Algerian Gendarmerie Nationale headquarters in Tamanrasset that killed the bomber and wounded 24 people, including ten to 15 gendarmes (al-Arabiya, March 3; Echorouk [Algiers], March 3). The bomber used a Toyota 4×4 packed with explosives.
  • April 2012: MUJWA kidnaps seven Algerian diplomats in Gao, demanding 15 million Euros and the release of dozens of jihadists from Algerian and Mauritanian prisons. (al-Watan [Algiers], May 3, 2012). One of these was executed on September 2, 2012.
  • June 29, 2012: A car bomber drove a Toyota 4×4 loaded with 1300 kilograms of explosives into a police station in Algeria’s Ouargla Oasis, killing one policeman and injuring three. MUJWA claimed the attack, saying it was in retaliation for Algeria “pushing” the MNLA to fight the Islamist mujahideen in northern Mali (Tout sur l’Algérie [Algiers], June 30, 2012; Reuters, June 29).
  • November 21, 2012: MUJWA kidnaps a French national in northern Mali shortly after he had crossed the border from Mauritania (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], November 21, 2012).

However, friction began to build between the various Islamist movements in northern Mali as preparations continued for a military intervention in the region and Ansar al-Din sought to move closer to its Tuareg brethren in the MNLA to present a united front in negotiations underway in Ouagadougou. Shortly after a major battle between the MNLA and MUJWA on November 16, 2012, a leading member of Ansar al-Din’s military command referred to MUJWA as the “common enemy” of both the MNLA and Ansar al-Din (Le Temps d’Algérie, November 27, 2012).

By early January, 2013, Ansar al-Din was engaged in a broad effort to unite the various Islamist movements active in northern Mali under its own “native” leadership. MUJWA lost its Salah al-Din Brigade when its commander, Sultan Ould Badi (a.k.a. Abu Ali), took his fighters (mostly from Gao and Kidal) over to Ansar al-Din (Sahara Media, January 2, 2013). Ould Badi was a former smuggler and member of AQIM before becoming a founding member of MUJWA (Echourouk al-Youmi [Algiers], September 2, 2012).

MUJWA – A Failed Experiment?

The French-led military intervention in northern Mali in January 2013 ran into little opposition from MUJWA as the movement and their fellow Islamists returned home, melted into the local population or fled to hidden bases in the rugged Adrar des Ifoghas region of northeastern Mali. On February 21, 2013, the UN Security Council added Ahmad al-Tilemsi and Ould Kheirou (as “Ould Khairy”) to its al-Qaeda sanctions list. Both were listed as MUJWA leaders. [4]

However, Ould Kheirou’s partnership with Mokhtar Belmokhtar had not come to an end. The two were identified as co-planners of the May 23, 2013 dual suicide bombings in Niger against a military post in Agadez and the French uranium mining facility in Arlit (RFI, May 30, 2013). The partnership was formalized in August 2013, when a statement announced the merger of MUJWA with Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamin Brigade “to achieve the unity of Muslims from the Nile to the Atlantic as part of a single project to face the Zionist campaign against Islam and Muslims.” The statement announcing the creation of a new movement called “al-Murabitun” went on to threaten French interests across the world while confirming the precedence of Osama bin Laden’s methods and ideals and swearing allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar and al-Qaeda chieftain Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, August 22, 2013). The place of Ould Kheirou in this new structure is unclear – Belmokhtar himself has pledged not to lead the group in order to make room for “a new generation” of Islamist militants, possibly including Ould Kheirou.


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

2. Wolfram Lacher, “Organized Crime and Conflict in the Sahel-Sahara Region,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 13, 2012,


4.  UN Security Council, “Security Council Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Adds Two Individuals to its List,” February 21, 2013,

This article first appeared in the March 31, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Mililtant Leadership Monitor.

New Ansar al-Shari’a Group Established as Mauritania Ponders Joining Intervention in Mali

Andrew McGregor

March 21, 2013

The largely desert nation of Mauritania has been engaged in an often deadly struggle against al-Qaeda terrorists and local Salafist militants for several years now. Many local Salafists now populate the prison in the capital of Nouakchott, though even this does not seem to have deterred some of them from carrying out various activities.

Mauritania MapAbu Ayyub al-Mahdi (a.k.a. Ahmad Salim bin al-Hassan), an imprisoned Mauritanian Salafist, announced the creation of a new militant group, Ansar al-Shari’a in the Shanqiti [Mauritanian] Country, on February 12, the latest in a series of autonomous but ideologically sympathetic Ansar al-Shari’a groups to spring up across North Africa and the Middle East.

One of the greatest promoters of the Ansar al-Shari’a phenomenon is a Mauritanian ideologue, Abu Mundhir al-Shanqiti, the author of an influential 2012 article entitled “We are Ansar al-Shari’a.” [1] Al-Shanqiti proposed gathering the disparate Salafist-Jihadist movement behind a unified objective – the rejection of democracy and the establishment of Shari’a as the leading principle in the Muslim world. As part of this process, al-Shanqiti maintains the movement must be brought out into the open from its present underground existence (al-Hayat, January 3). This may be a difficult task however; many of the Salafists detained in the Nouakchott prison have denied any association with the new branch of Ansar al-Shari’a (Al-Monitor, February 19).

Though President Muhammad Ould Abd al-Aziz kept Mauritanian forces out of the current ECOWAS-based African intervention force operating in Mali on the grounds that Mauritania was not an ECOWAS country and that the French-led intervention was launched without prior notice, he has indicated that Mauritania would be ready to provide troops to a UN-backed mission in Mali. The president added that Mauritania is aware of two problems driving the insecurity in Mali, these being Bamako’s tolerance of terrorist groups in northern Mali over the last 12 years and the “sometimes legitimate” demands of the people of northern Mali for “basic infrastructure, health and education” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], March 4).

Mauritanian military intervention in Mali is opposed not only by the Salafist community, but also by mainstream, secular politicians such as Ahmad Ould Daddah, the main opposition leader and secretary general of the Regroupement des Forces Démocratiques (RFD – Rally of Democratic Forces):

I am afraid we will participate in a war that we have no interest in — a war that poses danger to us and the region in general. What our region and the Sahel region need are building and development efforts to improve conditions; not the destruction of an already worn-out infrastructure… We do not want or accept that our region becomes the Afghanistan of the African Sahel. To remove any confusion, we affirm that we are against terrorists and terrorism. However, each war has two fronts; a fighting front and an internal front, which is more important than the fighting front in my opinion. When the national public opinion is not convinced of the reasons and pretexts of a war, it means that it does not serve the country. This affects the performance of the soldiers and makes them question the sanctity of their mission (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 11).

Ould Dadah initially supported Ould Abd al-Aziz, but now observes the president backing away from democracy to adopt a more military-style of rule and notes the adverse effects on military performance created by involving the military in politics, effects that could hamper the military’s ability to mount a campaign in Mali or even effectively guard its 2,237 kilometer border with that country:

We have become certain that he adheres to the mentality of a military rule, which is not proper in for a country that claims to be democratic. The practices of the regime encourage the army to become involved in politics, abandon its noble military mission, and to indulge in luxuries that destroy its combat ability. In my opinion, the army is the first to be harmed by the military regime. It is also dangerous when the army becomes involved in politics, because in this case politics are practiced through guns and weapons, not through reason, thinking, and logic. This is the logic of the military rule that is running the country (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 11).

In Mauritania, 3.5 million people live in a land of well over 1 million square kilometers. Mauritania’s security services lack the men and resources to properly patrol and monitor the nation’s borders, most of which cross lifeless deserts. This has left Mauritania open to attack by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) several times in the past, despite efforts to set up joint counter-terrorist patrols with the similarly under-equipped Malian army (see Terrorism Monitor July 7, 2011; November 11, 2010). On March 17, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the capture of five “Islamist terrorists” from northern Mali who were caught trying to infiltrate the border (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, March 18).

In early February, Mauritania launched a new initiative with its southern neighbor, Senegal, to coordinate military activity along the border with groups of villagers along the Senegal River who will act as the eyes and ears of the security services in identifying suspicious individuals or groups active in the border region (Al-Monitor, February 6). Senegalese troops recently arrested a Mauritanian al-Qaeda member who had slipped into the country across the border (PANA Online {Dakar], February 15). Mauritania is now hosting more than 150,000 refugees from northern Mali and claims to have intercepted several al-Qaeda militants posing as part of that number.

There are extensive historical and communal ties between the two countries – many of the Arab tribes of northern Mali have relatives across the border in Mauritania, while a significant number of Mauritanians have settled in northern Mali over the years. There have been repeated demonstrations in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott by Malian Arab refugees protesting human rights abuses by Malian troops following the French intervention force into northern Mali (RFI, March 12; AFP, March 11).

Mauritania hosted this year’s Operation Flintlock, an annual training exercise for North African and West African militaries sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense’s Africa Command (AFRICOM). The exercises, which ended on March 9, saw troops from the United States and various NATO allies provide training in counter-terrorist operations and field-craft. Last year’s exercises, which were to be held in Mali, were cancelled due to the Islamist occupation of Mali’s northern districts. Some of the African troops trained in this year’s event could wind up taking part in a possible UN peacekeeping operation in northern Mali.

This article first appeared in the March 21, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Intelligence Chief Abdullah al-Senussi Extradited to Libya to Reveal Secrets

Andrew McGregor

September 27, 2012

Libya’s most-wanted man, former intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi, was extradited to Libya on September 5, where he is expected to undergo intense and thorough interrogation by Libyan authorities and possibly security officials of some of the other nations in which al-Senussi is wanted for various major crimes such as terrorism, murder and kidnapping (Agence Mauritanienne d’Information, September 5).

abdullah al-senussiAbdullah al-Senussi

After several months of unconfirmed reports of arrests and escapes, al-Senussi was arrested in Nouakchott in March and eventually charged with illegal entry to Mauritania and the use of forged documents (AFP, September 5). Mauritanian authorities were initially reluctant to return al-Senussi, saying he would have to face the minor charges facing him in Mauritania first. Al-Senussi is now being held in the small maximum security Hudba al-Gassi prison in Tripoli, where many former members of the Qaddafi regime are being held. The current roster of prisoners in the facility includes three former Prime Ministers and former military intelligence chief Mustafa al-Kharroubi.

Before leaving Mauritania, Lebanese authorities succeeded in obtaining permission to interrogate as-Senussi regarding the disappearance in Tripoli of Lebanese Shiite leaders and Afwaj al-Muqawama al-Lubnaniya (AMAL) founder Imam Musa al-Sadr and two companions after a heated meeting with Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi in 1978. Lebanese sources described the session as “insufficient despite its importance” (al-Nahar [Beirut], September 1; September 4).

Al-Senussi, who faces the death penalty if convicted, is rumored to have been tortured on his arrival in Tripoli and to have attempted suicide while in Hudba al-Gassi, but these allegations were denied by the man responsible for keeping him behind bars, Khalid al-Sharif, a former member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and now the head of Libya’s National Guard (al-Sharq al-Awsat, September 20). Al-Senussi’s jailer maintains that his prisoner is kept in comfortable conditions and provided with appropriate food, but does admit al-Senussi had complained of “humiliations” such as having his trademark bushy hair shorn. Like his former LIFG colleague, Abd al-Hakim Belhadj, al-Sharif is reported to be a candidate for the post of Libyan Interior Minister, an appointment that would mark an utter reversal of the political status quo that existed in Libya for decades.
Al-Senussi was charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity in June 2011, but is expected to face similar charges in Libya rather than be extradited to the Hague. One issue of concern to Libyan authorities is determining the location of funds Qaddafi stored abroad before they are otherwise accessed or transferred. Al-Senussi is described as the primary defendant in the case surrounding the massacre of over 1,200 Libyan Islamists in Abu Salim prison in 1996. The trial of Saif al-Islam al-Qaddafi (currently held by the Zintan militia) has been postponed until further evidence is gleaned from al-Senussi’s interrogation (Tripoli Post, September 7).

According to Libyan prosecutors, al-Senussi has already confessed to the 1993 murder of a leading member of the Libyan opposition, Mansur Rashid al-Kikhia (MENA [Cairo], September 11). A former Foreign Minister and UN Ambassador in the Qaddafi regime, al-Kikhia was not seen again after being kidnapped in Cairo where he was seeking political asylum. Based on al-Senussi’s information, a corpse was disinterred in the yard of a Tripoli villa and is currently undergoing DNA testing. Al-Sharif described the leak of al-Senussi’s confession as being deliberate and made for “humanitarian reasons”
As the man who best knows the secrets of the Libyan regime and who was responsible for carrying out the late Libyan dictator’s darkest plans, al-Senussi is wanted by a variety of nations, including France, where he was convicted in absentia for his role in the 1989 bombing of a French passenger plane that killed 170 people, and by Saudi Arabia, which suspects him of organizing a 2003 plot to assassinate Crown Prince Abdullah.
The United States and a number of international human rights organizations have urged that al-Senussi be given a fair trial, though it is unlikely that any of the possible outcomes of such proceedings could offer anything more than a grim or even short future for the former intelligence chief. Libya is now seeking the extradition of a number of former regime officials from Egypt and has sent a list of wanted individuals to the Egyptian public prosecutor (MENA [Cairo], September 23).

This article was first published in the September 27, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

A Portable War: Libya’s Internal Conflict Shifts to Mali

Andrew McGregor

October 28, 2011

Mali, like its neighbor Niger, is facing the return of an estimated 200,000 of its citizens from Libya. Most are Malian workers and their families who have been forced to flee Libya by the virulently “anti-African” forces that have seized power in that country. Some, however, are long-term Tuareg members of the Libyan military who have suddenly lost their jobs but not their arms. Armed Tuareg began returning to northern Mali in large numbers in August and continue to arrive in their homeland in convoys from Libya (El-Khabar [Algiers], August 29).

Unfortunately, Mali has nothing to offer these returnees; not aid, not employment, nor even a sense of national identity; in sum, nothing that might provide some counter-incentive to rebellion. Disenchantment with the West is at an all-time high among the Tuareg. Even the French have fallen from favor; while the Tuareg could once count on a sympathetic reception in Paris and from elements of the French military, in the last few months Tuareg fighters have found themselves on the receiving end of French airstrikes and their home communities attacked by French-armed rebels. Both France and the United States have also made extensive efforts to train and equip the generally ineffective and cash-strapped militaries of Mali, Niger and several other Sahara/Sahel states in the name of combatting terrorism, improvements that run counter to Tuareg interests. A Malian government minister was quoted by a French news agency as saying the returning Malians were really a Libyan problem: “They’re Libyans, all the same. It’s up to the Transitional National Council [TNC] to play the card of national reconciliation and to accept them, so that the Sahel, already destabilized, doesn’t get worse” (AFP, October 10).

Pro-Qaddafi Tuareg Fighters in Libya

Another 400 armed Tuareg arrived in northern Mali from Libya on October 15, with many keeping their distance from authorities by heading straight into the northern desert (Ennahar [Algiers], October 18). Their arrival prompted an urgent invitation from Algeria for President Touré to visit Algerian president Abdel Aziz Bouteflika (Maliba [Bamako], October 17). According to Malian officials, the returned Tuareg were in two armed groups; the first with some 50 4×4 trucks about 25 miles outside the northern town of Kidal, the second consisting of former followers and associates of Ibrahim ag Bahanga grouped near Tinzawatene on the Algerian border (Reuters, October 20; L’Aube [Bamako], October 13). An ominous development was the recent desertion of three leading Tuareg officers from the Malian Army, including Colonel Assalath ag Khabi, Lieutenant-Colonel Mbarek Akly Ag and Commander Hassan Habré. All three are reported to have headed for the north (El Watan [Algiers], October 20).

Colonel Hassan ag Fagaga, a prominent rebel leader and cousin of the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga who has already deserted the Armée du Malitwice to join rebellions in the north, was given a three-year leave “for personal reasons without pay” by Maliian defense minister Natie Plea beginning on July 1, apparently for the purpose of allowing ag Fagaga to lead a group of young Tuareg to Libya to join the defense of Qaddafi’s regime (Le Hoggar [Bamako], September 16). Ag Fagaga is now believed to be back in northern Mali, preparing for yet another round of rebellion.

The Malian government’s response to these developments was to send Interior Minister General Kafougouna Kona north to open talks with the rebels. General Kona has experience in negotiating with the Tuareg and is trusted by President Touré (BBC, October 17).

According to some reports, Qaddafi offered the Tuareg their own Sahelian/Saharan state to secure their loyalty (al-Jazeera, September 28; El Watan [Algiers], October 20). Only days before his resignation, Dr. Mahmud Jibril, the chairman of the Executive Bureau of the Libyan TNC, suggested that Mu’ammar Qaddafi was planning to use the Tuareg tribes to fight his way back into power, adding that the late Libyan leader was constantly on the move in Tuareg territories in southern Libya, northern Niger and southern Algeria. Rather bizarrely, Jibril then claimed that Qaddafi’s operatives in Darfur were raising a force of 10,000 to 15,000 Rashaydah tribesmen from Sudan (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, October 19). The Rashaydah are an Arab tribe found in the Arabian Peninsula, but also in Eritrea and the Eastern Province of Sudan, where they moved in large numbers in the mid-19th century.  In general the Rashaydah remain aloof from local politics, preferring to focus on their camel herds. Jibril’s suggestion that large numbers of Rashaydah tribesmen could be rallied to Qaddafi’s cause seems strange and highly unlikely.

Arms Smuggling and Drug Trafficking

The Tamanrasset-based Joint Operational Military Committee, created by the intelligence services of Algeria, Mali, Niger and Mauritania in 2010 to provide a joint response to border security and terrorism issues, has turned its attention to trying to control the outflow of arms from Libya (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 8, 2010). The committee, which got off to a slow start, has announced its “first success”; identifying 26 arms traffickers and issuing warrants for their arrest (Jeune Afrique, October 14; L’Essor [Bamako], October 6). The list includes a number of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commanders and is based on an investigation that discovered three major networks for smuggling arms out of Libya, the “most dangerous” consisting of Chadians and Libyans (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], October 8).

Security sources in the Sahel are reporting that AQIM is expanding its operations into the very lucrative business of people-smuggling by setting up an elaborate network that has the added advantage of allowing AQIM operatives to infiltrate into Europe (Info Matin [Bamako], October 6).

Drug trafficking continues to be another destabilizing factor in northern Mali as well-armed gangs battle over the lucrative trade. In early September at least five gunmen were killed in a battle between Tuareg traffickers and Reguibat Arabs with ties to the Saharawi Polisario Front. The battle ensued after the Tuareg kidnapped three Reguibat, including a senior Polisario officer, Major Harane Ould Zouida (Jeune Afrique, September 20). Such incidents are far from unknown in today’s Sahara; in January a major battle was fought between Bérabiche Arabs running drugs to Libya and Tuareg demanding a fee for passing through their territory (El Watan [Algiers], January 4; see also Terrorism Monitor, January 14). In this environment, drug traffickers are likely to be offering premium prices for military hardware finding its way out of Libya.

Traditional authority is now being challenged in both the Arab and Tuareg communities of northern Mali as AQIM, smugglers, rebel leaders and traffickers compete for the loyalty of young men in a severely underdeveloped region. The “noble” clans of the Arab and Tuareg communities have also suffered electoral defeats at the hands of “vassal” clans, a development the former blame on the vassal candidates buying votes with smuggling money (U.S. Embassy Bamako cable, February 1, 2010, as published in the Guardian, December 14, 2010; Le Monde, December 22, 2010;, December 7, 2009). The rivalry has spilled over into a contest for control of trafficking and smuggling networks. Ex-fighters of the Sahrawi Polisario Front (currently confined to camps in southern Algeria) have also entered the struggle for dominance in cross-Saharan drug smuggling. Members of Venezuelan, Spanish, Portuguese and Colombian drug cartels engage in frequently bloody competition in Bamako that rarely attracts the attention of the police (El Watan [Algiers], January 3).

A Tuareg Member of Parliament from the Kidal Region, Deyti ag Sidimo, has been charged by Algeria with involvement in arms and drug trafficking. The MP may be extradited to Algeria if his parliamentary immunity is lifted (Info Matin [Bamako], October 13; Le Combat [Bamako], October 4; Jeune Afrique, October 9-15).

Attack on the Abeibara Barracks

An example of the government’s inability to secure the Kidal region of north Mali was presented on October 2, when gunmen arrived at the site of a military barracks under construction in Abeibara. The gunmen sent the workers away with a warning not to return under pain of death before blowing up the construction materials. A National Guard unit tasked with protecting the work was apparently absent at the time of the attack. Military officials admitted that they did not know if the gunmen were AQIM, soldiers just returned from Libya or part of a criminal gang involved in the trafficking the construction of the barracks was meant to prevent (Info Matin [Bamako], October 26; AFP, October 3). It has also been suggested the attack was the work of local companies that had been outbid on the construction contract (Le Prétoire [Bamako], October 5). Fifteen soldiers were killed when a military garrison at Abeibara was attacked by a Tuareg rebel group under Ibrahim ag Bahanga in 2008 (Reuters, May 23, 2008).