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

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).

Burned-out AQIM vehicle in the Wagadou Forest

Mauritanian Raid in Mali’s Wagadou Forest

Mauritanian jets carried out air strikes on October 20 on AQIM forces gathered in the Wagadou Forest (60 miles south of the Mali-Mauritania border), allegedly destroying two vehicles loaded with explosives (L’Agence Mauritanienne d’Information [AMI – Nouakchott], October 20; AFP, October 22). The Mauritanians appear to have hit their primary target, AQIM commander Tayyib Ould Sid Ali, who was on board one of the vehicles destroyed in the air strike. Mauritanian officials confirmed his death, saying Sid Ali was preparing new terrorist attacks in Mauritania after having been active in the region since 2007 (Ennahar [Algiers], October 22). The precision of the attack in difficult terrain suggested that Nouakchott had received accurate intelligence information regarding Sid Ali’s location. Mauritania’s security services had disrupted a Sid Ali-planned attempt to assassinate Mauritanian president Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz in Nouakchott in February by intercepting AQIM vehicles after they crossed the border (Quotidien Nouakchott, February 3; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, February 10).

Mauritania’s aggressive French-backed approach to the elimination of AQIM has seen several Mauritanian military incursions into Mali in the last year, including a previous ground assault on an AQIM camp in the Wagadou Forest in June that killed 15 militants and destroyed a number of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons possibly obtained from looted Libyan armories (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], June 25; AFP, June 26; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, July 7). Mali’s military has played only a minimal role in these operations and questions have been raised in Bamako regarding the government’s prior knowledge of these events and the military’s relative lack of participation.

2012 Elections

With the second term of Amadou Toumani Touré’s presidency coming to an end, national elections will determine a new government for Mali in Spring 2012.  Though at least 20 individuals are expected to run for president, the contest is expected to be fought hardly between three prominent candidates, Dioncounda Traore, Soumaila Cisse and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

Mali’s Islamists see a political opportunity in the coming elections, with noted religious leaders Cherif Ousmane Madani Haidara and Imam Mahmoud Dicko making it clear Islamist groups will be involved (L’Indépendant [Bamako], September 29).

Reshaping the Rebellion

Three factors have redrawn the shape and ambition of the simmering rebellion in northern Mali in the last few months:

  • The arrival in northern Mali (and neighboring Niger) of hundreds of experienced Tuareg combat veterans with enough weapons and ammunition to sustain an extended and possibly successful rebellion against a weak national defense force.
  • The death of the controversial rebel leader Ibrahim ag Bahanga has removed a powerful but often divisive force in the Tuareg rebel leadership. This has opened space for the development of new coalitions and the emergence of new leaders with a broader base of support.
  • The July declaration of independence by South Sudan has provided the lesson that a determined and sustained rebellion can overcome internal divisions and foreign opposition to arrive at eventual independence, even if secession means leaving with valuable resources such as oil or uranium.

On October 16 the Mouvement National de l’Azawad (MNA) announced its merger with the Mouvement Touareg du Nord Mali (MTNM), led until recently by the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga (, October 17). The resulting Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) stated its intention to use “all means necessary” to end Mali’s “illegal occupation” of “Azawad” if the Bamako government does not open negotiations before November 5.  Azawad is the name used by the Tuareg for their traditional territory in the Sahel/Sahara region north of Timbuktu. The term can also include traditional Tuareg lands in northern Niger and southern Algeria. The MNLA spokesman, veteran rebel Hama ag Sid’Ahmed, (former father-in-law of Ibrahim ag Bahanga) said that a number of high-ranking officers from the Libyan military had joined the group (BBC, October 17; Proces-Verbal [Bamako], October 17).

Two other groups have emerged since the return of the fighters from Libya with the stated intent of achieving autonomy for “Azawad.” The first is the Front Démocratique pour l’Autonomie Politique de l’Azawad (FDAPA), which includes veterans of the struggle for Bani Walid under the command of Colonel Awanz ag Amakadaye, a Malian Tuareg who served as a high-ranking officer in the regular Libyan Army (Kidal.Info, October 18; AFP, October 12; MaliWeb, October 25). The other group is an Arab “political and military movement” called the Front Patriotique Arabe de l’Azawad (FPAA). The group appears to be a kind of successor to the Front Islamique Arabe de l’Azawad (FIAA), an earlier expression of Arab militancy in northern Mali. Like the Tuareg, the Arab nomads of northern Mali have in the past suffered attacks from Songhai tribal militias such as the Mouvement Patriotique Ganda Koy (“Masters of the Land,” founded by Mohamed N’Tissa Maiga), which advocated the extermination of the nomadic Arabs and Tuareg of Mali (see interview with Maiga – Le Politicien [Bamako], July 21). These assaults played a large role in initiating the Tuareg and Arab rebellions of the 1990s and there have been calls in certain quarters of Mali for a revival of the Ganda Koy (Le Tambour [Bamako], November 25, 2008; Nouvelle Liberation [Bamako], November 19, 2008).


Mali is experiencing its own “blowback” as a result of its support for the Qaddafi regime in Libya. No effort was made to prevent Malian Tuareg from joining Qaddafi’s forces; indeed, the government even granted leave of absences to Tuareg officers who wished to fight in Libya. Bamako’s thinking no doubt went along the lines of believing that such assistance might help preserve the ever-generous Qaddafi regime; if, on the other hand, things did not go well for the Libyan regime, Bamako could at least count on the loss of a number of troublemakers and officers of uncertain loyalty. What was likely not anticipated was the return of hundreds of well-trained and well-armed Tuareg military professionals, some of whom have been absent from Mali for decades, along with most of the more recent pro-Qaddafi volunteers. Mali is suddenly faced with the possible existence of a professional insurgent force that needs only to fight a war of mobility on its own turf, territory that has often proved disastrous for a Malian military composed mostly of southerners with little or no experience of desert conditions and tactics. If another round of Tuareg rebellion breaks out in Mali, the security forces will be hard pressed to deal with it, leaving ample space and opportunity for AQIM to expand its influence and power at the expense of the Malian state.

This article first appeared in the October 28, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Mali and Mauritania Conduct Joint Operations against al-Qaeda Base

Andrew McGregor

July 7, 2011

Fighting continues along the Mali-Mauritania border as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) mounted a July 5 raid on the Mauritanian military base at Bassiknou, in the southeast corner of the country. Mauritanian security sources claim as many as 20 AQIM fighters were slain in the attack, which was repulsed after a half hour of heavy fighting. An AQIM statement claimed only two fighters were killed in the “well prepared” operation that was “carried out with top mujahideen leaders” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, July 6). Mauritanian air and ground forces were pursuing the raiders to the Malian border. The AQIM assault appears to have been in retaliation for the destruction of an AQIA base in Mali on June 24.