Has al-Qaeda Started a Feud with the Tuareg?

Andrew McGregor

August 19, 2010

Fallout continues in North Africa from the July 22 raid on elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The joint operation by French and Mauritanian security forces on Malian territory was intended to free 78-year-old hostage Michel Germaneau. The raid failed and Germaneau was killed in retaliation, but six AQIM operatives were killed by security forces, infuriating AQIM leaders, who continue to hold two Spanish hostages in northern Mali. An AQIM statement described the six dead al-Qaeda members as being three Tuareg, an Algerian, a Mauritanian and a Moroccan (Reuters, August 16).

GermaneauAbd al-Hamid (Hamidu) Abu Zaid, an AQIM commander responsible for a number of kidnappings and for the execution of British tourist Edwin Dyer, is reported to be suspicious that the Tuareg provided the precise information that enabled the joint commando force to locate and kill the six AQIM operatives. Abu Zaid took his revenge by abducting and murdering a Tuareg customs officer named Mirzag Ag al-Housseini, the brother of a senior Malian Army commander, Brahim Ag al-Housseini (El Khabar [Algiers], August 12). No ransom was sought for the captive, who was executed on August 12 (Radio France Internationale, August 13). A soldier abducted at the same time as Mirzag and another abducted civilian were released by AQIM on August 16 (AFP, August 16).

The leader of AQIM in Mauritania, Abu Anas al-Shanqiti, warned that AQIM would carry out reprisals against the “traitorous apostates, children and agents of Christian France” as a result of the raid (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, August 16; AFP, July 24). The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to these “threats uttered by assassins” by announcing that France’s security apparatus was “fully mobilized” (Le Monde, August 17; AFP, August 17).

Reports from Mali claim President Amadou Toumani Touré “is seething” over the Franco-Mauritanian commando operation in northern Mali. The President was apparently not informed of the operation in advance, nor were Malian forces called on to participate (Jeune Afrique, August 16).

Mali is still struggling with a simmering Tuareg insurgency in its vast and poorly controlled northern region. Colonel Hassan Ag Fagaga, a noted Tuareg rebel, has threatened to resume the insurgency if the government does not implement the terms of the 2008 Algiers Accord (El Khabar, July 15).  Colonel Ag Fagaga brought 400 Tuareg fighters in for integration with Mali’s armed forces in 2009. He has already deserted twice to join the Tuareg rebels in the north. Al-Qaeda has tried to ingratiate itself with the disaffected Tuareg of northern Mali but has had only marginal success. Some former rebels have even offered to form Tuareg counterterrorist units to expel the mostly Arab al-Qaeda group from the region.


This article first appeared in the August 19, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Courtroom Theater Ends as Mauritania Condemns al-Qaeda Cell to Death

Andrew McGregor
June 10, 2010

Following a short but dramatic trial, three self-proclaimed al-Qaeda members have been sentenced to death in Mauritania for their role in the murder of four French tourists in December 2007. The attack became known in Mauritania as “the Aleg case,” named after the small town near the murder site, about 250 km southwest of the capital of Nouakchott (see Terrorism Focus, January 9, 2008).

Mauritania Sidi Ould SidnaSidi Ould Sidna on Trial (center)

A total of twelve men were tried for the murders; four in absentia, with the other eight kept within a wooden cage in the Nouakchott courtroom. Only three were accused of the actual murders; the others were charged with complicity. Spectators attending the trial had to pick their way through a phalanx of riot police deployed on the court steps, submit to three separate body searches and give up any bags or cell phones before entry. Women wearing veils were prevented from entering. Foreign reporters, however, were encouraged to attend and report the proceedings. The charges faced by the main accused, Maarouf Ould Haiba, Sida Ould Sidna and Mohamed Ould Chabarnou, included terrorism, premeditated murder and rebellion against the state. After the murders, Sidna and Chabarnou fled to Guinea-Bissau, where they were tracked and arrested by local police with the assistance of French intelligence services. Haiba was arrested soon afterwards in Nouakchott (Ennahar [Algiers], May 23, 2010).

Though the three principal suspects (aged 22 to 29) insisted they were not responsible for the murders, they loudly proclaimed their membership in al-Qaeda, admitted their participation in al-Qaeda training camps and insisted their confessions had been extracted through torture. By demanding the death sentence, the prosecution put its own case in jeopardy. Important ballistics evidence obtained by French experts could not be used when Paris invoked its policy of refusing to allow experts to give evidence in capital cases. Other than that, there were no witnesses and few substantial exhibits in the three-day trial (al-Arabiya, May 25, 2010; Jeune Afrique, June 5, 2010; AFP, May 26, 2010).

In court, the three accused taunted the judges with accusations of apostasy and proclaimed that it would have been a great honor to have killed the victims – if they had done it. Charbarnou even sang the Muezzin’s call to prayer during the proceedings (AFP, May 24, 2010; Walf Fadjiri [Dakar], May 26, 2010; Jeune Afrique, June 5, 2010). The accused said they were “Soldiers of Allah,” and were determined to continue their war against France, the United States and their acolytes (Casafree.com [Morocco], June 5, 2010). Sidi Ould Sidna said he was unconcerned about his fate. “The court is only applying criminal law, not Islamic law. That’s why we’re not concerned by these decisions” (AP, May 25, 2010).

The sentences came down on May 25. The three principals in the case received the death sentences sought by the prosecutor, while the others received acquittals or short sentences ranging from six months to three years. After the death sentences had been issued, the condemned men continued their political theater, beginning with Maarouf Ould Haiba, who shouted at the judge, “God is Great! You’ll see, dog, we’ll go to paradise!” Haiba then held up a black cloth inscribed with the Muslim profession of faith in white letters – “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Messenger.” Sidi Ould Sidna turned to the five French citizens in attendance and drew his fingers across his throat in the universal slaughtering gesture while Mohamed Ould Chabarnou shouted, “Between us and the France of Sarkozy is the sword!” (Dawn [Karachi], May 26, 2010; Jeune Afrique, June 5, 2010).

The death sentence was last applied in Mauritania in 1987, when three Black African officers were executed for planning a coup against the Bidan Moor-dominated government. While Mauritania has been considering abolition of the death penalty, death by both hanging and firing squad remain legal methods of execution (Le Quotidien de Nouackchott, May 26, 2010). All death sentences since 1987 have been commuted to life imprisonment, but there are indications the government may press for capital penalties in this case. The murders resulted in significant economic damage to Mauritania when the Paris-Dakar rally was canceled as a result of the attack. The country’s important tourism sector collapsed soon after. France, the former colonial power, also remains an important economic and political partner of Mauritania. Lawyers for the defendants filed an appeal the day after sentencing, citing the prosecution’s description of the ballistics evidence during the trial without having this evidence formally entered into the record (APA, May 26, 2010; AFP, May 26, 2010).

This article first appeared in the June 10, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

New Military Strategy against Terrorism in Mauritania

Andrew McGregor
February 26, 2010

Taking Algeria’s lead in securing its southern borders in the Sahara/Sahel region against terrorists, smugglers, drug traffickers and kidnapping gangs, the Mauritanian Army has announced the creation of a new military zone along Mauritania’s northeastern border with Algeria and its eastern border with Mali (for Algeria, see Terrorism Monitor, January 7, 2010). Special transit corridors and authorized gateways requiring mandatory military permits will be created in the largely uninhabited border region. General Mohamed Lamine Ould Etalib warned, “Anyone who does not comply with instructions of military units will risk being shot at directly. If anyone tries to disobey orders, he will fall under suspicion and will be directly shot” (al-Jazeera, February 14, 2010).

Mauritania Troops

Mauritanian Troops

Additionally, all foreigners who have not entered Mauritania through official transit points have been ordered to report to authorities to rectify their status. Mauritanian Interior Minister Mohammad Ould Abileil stated that failure to use one of the 35 official border posts could result in interrogation and deportation (Ilaf.com, February 11, 2010). Colonel Mohamed Lamine Ould Taleb took to local television to announce that “this whole border region is now under the authority of the Mauritanian army which is imposing in it strict surveillance measures” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], February 15, 2010).

Though the plan is largely a response to a series of al-Qaeda attacks on Mauritanian military units in the region and the activity of kidnapping gangs, the presence of French and Spanish oil firms in the area has been given as another reason for establishing a new security regime. The notoriously ill-equipped Mauritanian army and police received a major shipment of French military supplies in January, some of which appears to have found its way to a new “Special Intervention Group” patrolling the northern border region (Jeune Afrique, February 11, 2010).

Without surveillance aircraft, Mauritania will be hard-pressed to seal the vast and inhospitable border region from experienced smugglers who may know the desert better than Mauritania’s security forces.

While Mauritania sees threats from Algeria and Mali, Morocco has taken steps to secure its borders with Mauritania to prevent the movement of armed terrorist groups and smugglers. These measures include the introduction of a mobile scanner for examining trucks and containers at the busy Karkarat border checkpoint, the first of its kind in the region (Ilaf.com, February 11, 2010).

This article first appeared in the February 26, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Mauritania’s Imprisoned Islamists Debate Jihad with Religious Scholars on Public Television

Andrew McGregor
February 4, 2010

Buoyed by the successful transition of power after recent elections and the reconciliation of the government and opposition, Mauritania is now taking the unprecedented step of broadcasting a televised debate on the meaning and merits of jihad from inside a Nouakchott prison. On one side was a panel of officials and scholars, on the other was a divided group of some of Mauritania’s most dangerous convicts, including the leader of al-Qaeda in Mauritania, Khadim Ould Saman (al-Jazeera, January 19, 2010).

Mauritania - Khadim Ould SamanKhadim Ould Saman (center)

In the last few years, Mauritania has battled a low-level but often shockingly violent insurgency led by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (see Terrorism Monitor, August 20, 2009; July 30, 2009; February 23, 2005; Terrorism Focus, October 1, 2008; January 9, 2008).

The two-day event (January 18-19) was attended by 67 Salafist prisoners, most of whom still await trial. The panel of scholars was led by Shaykh Muhammad Hassan Ould Daou and the Minister of Islamic Affairs, Ahmed Ould Nini, who announced, “We are here today to discuss ways and means to get out of a crisis that threatens civil peace in a nation known for its spirit of tolerance, magnanimity and openness” (AFP, January 2, 2010). One member of the panel explained, “The objective is to encourage [the prisoners] to repent and to support a fatwa that condemns fundamentalism and religious violence – a fatwa which imams will later disseminate in mosques” (Jeune Afrique, January 29, 2010). One of the central questions examined in the dialogue was the legitimacy of attacks against Muslims and non-Muslims.

Ould Saman, who wore an “Al-Qaeda” T-shirt to one of the sessions, maintains that attacks on the Islamic Republic of Mauritania are a religious duty due to the government’s failure to uphold Shari’a. During the debate, Ould Saman insisted the scholars and clerics had no choice but to follow his example:

Indeed, we are right to face infidels everywhere in Muslim lands until they leave every part of Muslim countries and until we liberate them. We have the right to fight a handful of people who rule Muslim countries until we remove them by fighting them by the sword and until we enforce the rule of Shari’a. It is the right of Muslims to be ruled by the Shari’a… You [the clerics] have no knowledge and are wrong to describe us as ignorant and religious extremists (al-Jazeera, January 19, 2010; January 23, 2010).

Ould Saman, however, appears to represent a minority view among the prisoners, 47 of whom signed a document calling for dialogue with Mauritanian religious scholars. The document praised the outreach work of the scholars, saying they have explained certain concepts “which they previously did not understand” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 11, 2010). Still, about 20 irreconcilables continue to support Ould Saman’s hardline views, even with the possibility of an amnesty dangling before them. This group, which includes some of Mauritania’s best-known terrorists, is aware that AQIM has demanded their release in exchange for three Spanish hostages. Many of the Salafist detainees have complained of torture and mistreatment while in prison, though human rights groups report an improvement in this area under the new regime.

Ould Saman escaped from the same prison in 2006 and is alleged to have used his freedom to murder four French tourists in December 2007 and to organize an attack on the Israeli embassy (now closed) in February 2008. He was re-arrested in April, 2008 (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, April 30, 2008). After his arrest, Ould Saman was charged with using Mauritania as a base for “terrorist acts against a foreign country [Israel] and belonging to a terrorist organization” (AFP, August 26, 2009). The talks, which are being followed closely by the public, are supported by Mauritania’s newly legitimate Islamist party, Tawassoul.
This article first appeared in the February 4, 2010 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

First Suicide Bombing in Mauritania May Herald New al-Qaeda Offensive

Andrew McGregor
August 20, 2009

Suicide bombing made its first appearance in Mauritania on August 8 when a man armed with an explosives belt blew himself up outside the walls of Nouakchott’s French embassy. The blast killed the bomber and wounded three, including a Mauritanian woman and two French guards. No claim of responsibility was made for the bombing, which came three days after a military coup leader was sworn in as president following a disputed election. Security forces suspect the attack was the work of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Mauritania Djouadi IIYahya Djouadi, a.k.a. Abu Ammar

Mauritanian security services fear the bombing was a diversion intended to divert military and security resources from preventing a larger terrorist operation planned for Mali or Algeria (El-Khabar [Algiers], August 11, 2009). A secondary goal may have been the fulfillment of threats made earlier by AQIM against France and French interests.

Security services are reportedly looking for a Mauritanian explosives expert whose identity was revealed through the interrogation of arrested “Salafi-Jihadists.” The man, in his twenties, is believed to have been trained by Algerian terrorist and explosives expert Charef Ben Smar (a.k.a. Abu Khabab). Nevertheless, security officials do not see the presence of a major AQIM leader behind this relatively ineffective terrorist attack (El-Khabar [Algiers], August 11, 2009).

Security officials suspect an AQIM unit led by Yahya Djouadi and Abu Anas Abd al-Rahman al-Shinqiti is active in the desert region of eastern Mauritania. Djouadi is the Amir of AQIM’s Southern (Sahel) command and a U.S. and U.N. designated terrorist. Djouadi was previously based in northern Mali. Al-Shinqiti is a cleric and native of Mauritania (Bilad al-Shinqit = Land of the Shinqitis, i.e. Mauritania). The AQIM leader recently appeared in a video in which he promised new attacks on Mauritania and Western interests throughout North Africa. Al-Shinqiti found Mauritania’s efforts to establish democracy particularly disturbing, claiming it had “extirpated Islam from the state… Democracy will lead to Jewish-American occupation [of Mauritania] and to the proliferation of the parties of Satan” (El-Khabar, August 12, 2009).

On August 13-14, the military chiefs of staff of Mauritania, Algeria, Mali and Niger met in Tamanrasset to discuss “joint confrontation of the crimes at the borders and in particular terrorism” (Al-Hayat, August 13, 2009). The military leaders negotiated protocols for “hot pursuit” of terrorist suspects across national borders and the establishment of a joint operations center. Algeria has frequently complained of Malian leniency in dealing with terrorists and the recent military cooperation effort was almost derailed when Mali released three al-Qaeda fighters in a prisoner exchange (El-Khabar, August 12, 2009).

Paris and Washington have reversed their earlier opposition to the military coup carried out last year by General Muhammad Ould Abd al-Aziz, who deposed Mauritania’s first democratically elected president. The General’s subsequent election to president on July 23 in a contest denounced locally as a fraud has received warm approval from both France and the United States (Afrik.com, August 7, 2009; Al-Ahram Weekly, July 23-29, 2009; Reuters, August 5, 2009).

In Nouakchott, French Minister for Cooperation Alain Joyandet announced, “With this election, Mauritania has become not only respectable again, but has also become once again for France a key partner in the region” (Reuters, August 5, 2009). On his return to Paris, Joyandet made clear the reason for the French turnabout: “France was delighted at the democratic election of the new president Aziz who made very strong declarations against terrorism… France is a historic partner of Mauritania and together we want to fight terrorism” (France 3 TV, August 9, 2009).

This article first appeared in the August 20, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Mauritania Steps up Campaign against al-Qaeda after Disputed Elections

Andrew McGregor
July 30, 2009

According to Algerian security sources, an ambush set by the Mauritanian army along the border with Algeria narrowly missed killing a number of high-profile members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (al-Jazeera, July 25, 2009). The Mauritanians launched the operation after receiving intelligence information suggesting AQIM operatives were present in Mauritania’s eastern desert, preparing new attacks to divert pressure on AQIM fighters in northern Mali and Niger. Mali is in the midst of an offensive using Tuareg and Arab militias against the AQIM presence in Mali’s difficult northern desert. Among those in the AQIM force who escaped the ambush near the Algerian border were the so-called “Amir of the Sahara,” Yahya Jouadi (a.k.a. Yahya Abu Ammar), AQIM’s chief qadi (judge) in Algeria, Abelrahman al-Tantaghi (a.k.a. Abu Anas al-Mauritani), and three other senior members, including two Mauritanians and a Moroccan.

Mauritania - borderThe Mauritanian-Algerian Border (Paxgaea)

Two Islamist militants believed to be AQIM operatives were arrested in Nouakchott on July 17, following a shoot-out with security forces. State security chief Mohamed Lemine Ould Ahmed said the pair had come from Mali and were responsible for the June 23 murder of American citizen Christopher Leggett, who ran a computer and language school in the Mauritanian capital (Le Mali en Ligne, July 2, 2009; AFP, July 18, 2009). AQIM claimed responsibility for the murder. The remaining two members of the four-man cell, Didi Ould Bezeid and Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Hmeimed, were arrested in the following days (AFP, July 25, 2009).

Mauritania, Mali and Algeria have agreed on greater military cooperation to deal with AQIM, which exploits national borders and hostile terrain to maintain their activities in the Saharan region.

Following his victory in the July 18 presidential elections disputed by the opposition, General Mohamed Ould Abdelaziz vowed to renew efforts to eliminate terrorism in Mauritania. General Abdelaziz took power in an August 2008 coup, using the threat posed by terrorism as one of his main justifications for seizing power from a democratically elected president, Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi. The General has pledged to increase the size and efficiency of the army but has also promised to address the causes of terrorism. “We need to fight terrorism in terms of security but also by improving the living conditions of the people and fighting ignorance” (BBC, July 20, 2009).

This article first appeared in the July 30, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Calls for Jihad in Mauritania

Andrew McGregor

October 1, 2008

Eleven soldiers and one civilian were abducted by AQIM after a September 15 ambush in the Tourin area of Mauritania’s Tiris Zemmour province, near the iron-ore mining town of Zouerate. The missing men were found decapitated and mutilated in a desert area on September 20 (AFP, September 21).

Zouerate 1Tiris Zemmour Province, Mauritania

The 12 men are believed to have been killed by Algerian elements of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) (Al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], September 21). The militants seized two military vehicles, weapons and a large quantity of ammunition. Despite being over 500 miles from the closest border at the time of the attack, the militants managed to evade patrols and aerial surveillance in making their escape (AFP, September 17).

Mauritania’s president, Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdellahi, was deposed by a military coup on August 6. He and Prime Minister Yahya Ould Ahmad Waghf remain under house arrest. The coup leader was General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who claims Abdallahi was negotiating with Islamist militants, going so far as to offer them positions in the government in return for an end to political violence.

A Mauritanian newspaper said sources within the military reported that U.S. intelligence informed the Mauritanian command that vehicles carrying armed militants were in Tiris Zemmour province. To the displeasure of the Americans, the Mauritanian military failed to take the information seriously (Al-Akhbar, September 16).

AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack in a September 23 internet message (al-Fajr Media Center, September 23). The statement said the attackers were under the command of Shaykh Abd al-Hamid Abu Zaid. The operation was designed to “avenge the oppressed prisoners in the Mauritanian prisons” and urged members of the military to “repent” and abandon “this hireling army of the Jews and the Christians.” Mauritania is one of only three Arab nations to have diplomatic relations with the state of Israel.

Zouerate 2Carrying away the product of the open-pit mine at Zouerate

In a video entitled “A Message to our Ummah in the Islamic Maghreb,” AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdul Wadud (a.k.a. Abdelmalik Droukdel) called for jihad against Mauritania’s government, claiming that Mauritania “has become a nest of foreign intelligence, at its head the [Israeli] Mossad… Does [Mauritania] think that the Al-Qaeda Organization in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb will accept this situation and leave Israel in peace inside its embassy, throwing off its venom and plotting and fomenting coups and inciting the military against the sons of the nation, the best of its youths? ” (Al-Fajr Media Center, September 21).

The imprisoned leader of al-Qaeda in Mauritania, Khadim Ould Saman, issued a statement in August opposing the coup: “The coup that established the new regime is undoubtedly authored by the infidel West… It is then our duty to launch a holy war against it” (Taqadoumy [Nouakchott], August 30). The militant leader is facing charges in connection with the massacre of four French civilians last year.

Mauritania’s Communications Minister tried to downplay the threat while calling for international assistance: “What’s happening are pretty major incidents that are, however, taking place in the far north and as you know very well what happens in Siberia doesn’t necessary bother people in Moscow. That said, I would very much like the international community to assume its role of solidarity with us because this danger doesn’t only affect Mauritania. It’s a danger to the whole world” (Radio France Internationale, September 23). Morocco responded quickly by sending a team of military engineers and technical experts from the Gendarmerie to help identify weaknesses in Mauritania’s border security (Assabah [Casablanca], September 23).

The deteriorating security situation in Mauritania will inevitably have a negative effect on efforts to restore a civilian, elected government. The current military regime is expected to use the attack to seek the restoration of U.S. military aid, suspended after the August coup

This article first appeared in the October 1, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus

GSPC Leader Issues New Threat to U.S. Military Bases in North Africa

Andrew McGregor

May 17, 2006

A recent threat from a prominent Algerian jihadist may expand Algeria’s 14-year-old Islamist revolt to include U.S. military targets in the African Sahara and Sahel. The statement, issued by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (Khaled Abu al-Abbas), comes at a time when the movement is under intense pressure from Algerian counter-terrorism units. In an interview on the website of the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), Belmokhtar, a veteran of the Afghan jihad, pledged his support to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network while recounting the tribulations of a “jihad of conspiracies and disasters.”[1]

GSPC 1Mokhtar Belmokhtar

 After rising through the GSPC ranks, Belmokhtar disappeared from Algeria for two years, during which time it is believed he was in Mali. In June 2003, there were reports that Algerian commandos and Malian security services had broken up a Belmokhtar-led attempt to attack the U.S. Embassy in Bamako with a truck bomb. After becoming a fugitive in Mali, Belmokhtar returned to southern Algeria to organize the southern command of the GSPC. He was said to have led the January 7, 2005 attack on a military convoy at Biskra that killed 13 Algerian soldiers and five civilians. In the statement, Belmokhtar complains of the establishment of U.S. military bases in Mali and Niger and the future creation of bases in Mauritania and Algeria, claiming that they are a response to reports of GSPC contacts with al-Qaeda.

As part of its national reconciliation policy, the second of Algeria’s two mass amnesties of Islamist radicals took effect on March 13. As part of the amnesty, 2,200 militants (many of whom were involved in savage atrocities) were released from prison while the families of their victims poured into the streets of Algiers in protest. A general amnesty has been offered to fighters still in the field that expires at the end of August. Many GSPC leaders have taken advantage of the offer, each bringing with them their secret knowledge of GSPC activities while promising to encourage other militants to follow their example. The policy is an enormous gamble for the government; rumors abound of ex-prisoners who have returned to arms, but the government has not confirmed any instances of this. Belmokhtar cites the immunity granted to the Algerian military for their role in the civil war as a reason to continue his jihad.

In June 2005, a Belmokhtar-led GSPC raid on the remote Lemgheiti barracks in Mauritania (near the Mali border) killed 15 soldiers. The 150-man assault force apparently contained a large number of Mauritanians who were heard speaking Hassaniya, the Mauritanian dialect of Arabic (Nouakchott Info, June 7, 2005). The attack accomplished little and was even condemned by Mauritania’s Islamist opposition.

With the raid on Lemgheiti, the GSPC demonstrated that they still pose a threat to isolated military outposts, but their ability to attack targets such as U.S. military bases is doubtful. The movement can count only some 500 to 600 fighters, and these cannot be easily concentrated in one place. Many GSPC leaders have been killed or captured in the last few years, including Abu Bilal al-Albani, who is believed to have been Belmokhtar’s liaison with the shrinking northern faction of the movement. Even Belmokhtar’s father has been in touch with the militant to urge him to abandon his struggle against the government (Asharq al-Awsat, January 3). Despite the tiny size of his force, Belmokhtar is not content to take on just the United States and his own government, but has also promised to punish the governments of Mauritania, Niger and Mali for their cooperation with the U.S. military (La Liberté, May 11).

GSPC 2 Until now, there has been little credible evidence that the GSPC in Algeria was coordinating their activities with al-Qaeda (declarations of support for al-Qaeda is not the same as operational cooperation). Much of the evidence presented by Algeria’s Department of Intelligence and Security tying the GSPC with bin Laden’s group cannot be independently verified and in some cases has been hotly disputed (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2005). On May 3, UPI reported that the northern Algeria-based leader of the GSPC, Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud Abdel Malek, made an appeal in a letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for assistance. UPI gave no indication where they obtained the letter, which contains unlikely errors arising either from the translation or the Arabic original.

Despite GSPC declarations of allegiance, it appears al-Qaeda has backed off from its connections to the Algerian militants, whose organization is considered unreliable due to defectors and infiltration by the security services (al-Hayat, June 7, 2005). Nevertheless, the Algerian government has emphasized these “connections” in order to obtain military and counter-terrorism assistance. Based largely on GSPC activities, the United States has upgraded a $7 million regional military assistance program (the Pan-Sahel Initiative) to the $500 million Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Initiative. Despite U.S. expressions of concern that al-Qaeda might create operational bases in the desert (a near impossibility), the new program appears to have more to do with securing emerging petroleum resources in the Sahara/Sahel region.

It is difficult to see how al-Qaeda could provide any direction or material support to Belmokhtar’s militants in south Algeria, who have been increasingly contained in remote regions by Algerian security forces. Aside from the occasional raid or ambush, Belmokhtar’s faction of the GSPC has been more occupied with smuggling than revolution in the last few years (El Watan, January 11, 2005).

In Algeria, the appeal of petro-wealth is now stronger than the urge to continue the misery of La sale guerre (The Dirty War). Rising prices for petroleum products have led to a sudden revival of Algeria’s battered economy and the government is using oil revenues to build infrastructure and pay down its foreign debt ahead of schedule. Belmokhtar and the remaining GSPC holdouts are swimming against the tide of public opinion in Algeria. Even Hassan Hattab, the GSPC founder, now repudiates his association with the group and calls for the remaining militants to take advantage of the amnesty. Belmokhtar’s threat to attack U.S. installations may be seen as an effort to internationalize the GSPC’s war to revitalize a movement that is slowly dying in Algeria.

This article first appeared in the May 17, 2006 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Focus.

[1] http://www.moon4321.net/pages/hiwar5.html .

Military Rebellion and Islamism in Mauritania

Andrew McGregor

February 23, 2005

Mauritania, the vast desert refuge of the Arab/Berber Moors in northwest Africa, may seem a distant front in the war on terrorism. Yet the pro-Israel/U.S. policies of its President, Maaouya Ould Taya, have sparked an Islamic revival in this traditionally moderate nation, a country that takes pride in being the world’s first Islamic Republic. Mauritania has experienced no domestic acts of terrorism or known al-Qaeda activity, but the President claims Islamists with foreign connections guided three recent coup attempts. The unexpected outcome of the just-completed trial of 181 alleged insurgents helps shed some light on the nature of the Islamist threat in Mauritania.

Led by 20-year-old Iraqi tanks, a rebel faction of the army smashed into the capital of Nouakchott on June 7, 2003, driving to the presidential palace. The insurgents were led by a secret group of officers who styled themselves as “The Knights of Change”. Heavy fighting continued for three days until a final breakout attempt by the surrounded rebels was defeated. At least 15 people were killed and 68 wounded.

Mauritania - Major Hanana“Knights of Change” Leader Major Salih Ould Hanana

From the beginning, the regime blamed Libya and its close ally Burkina Faso of instigating the rebellion and supplying arms and military equipment, presenting captured weaponry to support its claim. And though the blame was publicly applied elsewhere, the administration quietly closed three important Saudi institutions in Nouakchott. In any case, the President announced that foreign-linked Islamists intent on destroying the achievements of his government were responsible for the fighting. Ould Taya also maintained that two further coup plots were broken up in August and September 2004.

The Trial

Because of security concerns and the large number of suspects, the trial was moved in late 2004 to Wad Naga, a desert military garrison 50 kilometers from the capital. There were numerous charges of torture from the detainees which appeared to be verified by smuggled footage of beaten, starved and chained prisoners aired on satellite TV and the Internet. Medical attention was denied and protests by the prisoners’ families were met with mass arrests. Three prominent Islamists were arrested for distributing the photos.
Coup leaders Major Salih Ould Hanana and Captain Abdul Rahman Ould Mini entered guilty pleas. Hanana used his time in court to deny receiving foreign assistance and to describe the President as “[A] despot who doesn’t respect the laws of the country or international conventions… I wanted to change a rotten and illegal regime by way of a coup, similar to that launched on 12 December 1984 by President Ould Taya.” [1] Islamist rhetoric was noticeably absent from Hanana’s address. Ould Mini cited the tribalism prevailing in the government and the injustices in the army as reasons for his leading role in the “Knights of Change”. [2]

Both Hanana and Ould Mini were given life with hard labor. Even the defense lawyers were surprised by how little evidence was provided for the second and third coup attempts. When the verdict was brought in, the opposition leaders held responsible for these later plots were all acquitted. Prosecutors sought but failed to obtain the death penalty in 17 cases. Over 100 of the accused were released, with most of the rest receiving 18 month sentences.

Mauritania’s New Foreign Policy

Diplomatic relations with Israel were opened in 1999, prompting an angry response from Iran and many Arab nations. The President no longer attends Arab summits and the tightly controlled official press has a noticeable lack of information about Iraq or Palestine. Ould Taya’s shift in alignment from the Arab/Islamic world to the U.S. and Israel has created a wide gulf in Mauritanian society. The French and Arabic speaking Mauritanians feel a natural attachment to France (the former colonial power) and the Arab world. The Islamic opposition warns that allowing Israel to establish a presence in the country is to open the door to Israeli intelligence activities in North Africa. The U.S. and NATO are both interested in developing Mauritania as a cornerstone for anti-terrorism operations in North Africa.

Calls for change have also been fueled by the discovery of large offshore oil reserves. Production is scheduled to start next year at an initial rate of 75,000 barrels per day. While the amount is not large compared to some Arab states, it has life-changing potential for impoverished Mauritanians who survive on an average income of US$1 per day. The leading company in Mauritania’s new offshore oil industry is Australia’s Woodside Petroleum, with major contracts for development awarded to the Halliburton Corporation. The opposition fears that the oil revenues will be swallowed up by a well-entrenched system of government corruption.

The Opposition

The same ethnic, tribal and caste divisions that characterize Mauritanian society fracture the political opposition. Both government and opposition remain dominated by the Bidan, the “White Moors”. Despite the name, paternal descent from Arab/Berber roots is more important in determining status as a “White Moor” than actual skin color. The “Black Moors”, or Haratin, may be understood as black African freedmen who have completely assimilated to Moorish culture and religion. The Bidan are further divided by clans and castes, the warrior and marabout (religious) castes being the most important. The marabouts form the traditional Islamic leadership. Some 30% of the population is composed of non-Moor black African Muslims in the south of the country. Some Bidan are alleged to still keep black Africans as slaves.

Mauritanian democracy is more a matter of form than substance. A Parliament exists, though real power rests with the President. Small and ineffective political parties are allowed to contest elections (when not banned by Presidential decree). The regime has refused to register Islamic political parties and the Ba’ath party has been banned since 1999, though there is a lingering Ba’athist influence in the army’s officer corps as a result of many officers receiving military training in Iraq from 1984 to 1996. Many of the known Ba’athists in the army were dismissed in 2000 amidst the dissatisfaction with Mauritania’s new friendship with Israel. Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 more Iraqi-trained officers were dismissed and a large number of “Islamists” rounded up.

Islamism is a relatively new phenomenon in the country, which remains heavily influenced by the traditional Sufism of the Tijaniya and Qadiriya orders. Islamic activities are tightly controlled by the Ministry for Islamic Development and Culture and the officially approved mosque leaders can usually be mobilized in support of the government.

Mauritania - Abu HafsFormer al-Qaeda Spokesman Abu Hafs al-Mauritani

The most notorious of Mauritania’s radical Islamists is a high-ranking al-Qaeda leader, Abu Hafs al-Mauritani (Mahfouz Ould al-Walid). Abu Hafs acts as a spiritual advisor to al-Qaeda, though he has no special following in this regard. He followed Bin Laden from Sudan to Afghanistan where the U.S. believes he played an important role in planning the East African embassy attacks and 9/11. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz has suggested that Abu Hafs was the prime al-Qaeda advocate for cooperation with Saddam Hussein. In the months after 9/11 Abu Hafs acted as an al-Qaeda spokesman, denying responsibility for the attacks. [3] Abu Hafs was mistakenly reported killed by the U.S. in Afghanistan in January 2002. He is now believed to be in Iran, possibly under detention. [Update, February 22, 2016 – Abu Hafs spent ten years in Iranian prison before being extradited to Mauritania].

Less well known is a relative through marriage, Mohammadou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian who acted as liaison between the Hamburg cell and Osama bin Laden in planning the 9/11 attacks. Ould Slahi is reported to have made two trips to Afghanistan for al-Qaeda training. In 1999 Ould Slahi was in Montreal, where he is alleged to have helped Ahmad Ressam with the “Millennium Plot” bombing attempt. Arrested by Mauritanian police in 2001, Ould Slahi is now believed held in a special CIA unit at Guantanamo Bay. [Update: February 16, 2016 – After fourteen years, Ould Slahi remains in Guantanamo Bay without charges, where he is reported to have experienced torture, sexual abuse and mock executions].

Conclusion: “The Hanana Effect”

With the trials drawing to a close, the Ould Taya government announced a 400% increase in the minimum wage, bonuses for civil servants and improved living conditions for the military, developments that quickly became known as “the Hanana effect”. The announcements came just as most of Mauritania’s people face severe food shortages as a result of last year’s devastating locust plague.

In the end, neither Ba’athism nor Islamism seem to have been decisive factors in the military rebellion. Within the army and the government Ould Taya is accused of favoring tribesmen from his homeland in the northeast. The inequitable distribution of promotions and poor living conditions for the military undoubtedly had as much to do with the coup as political factors. Some of what is called Islamist (i.e. Salafist) activity is actually the reassertion of the marabout caste in their role as Islamic leaders. The marabouts are alarmed with the radical change in foreign policy of their Islamic state. More locally they have lost control of the Qur’anic schools to the Government but retain close ties with the army and the civilian opposition. The Islamist-Salafist trend remains marginal in Mauritania and certainly does not have the type of influence needed to be mount coups or form a Shari’a based government. No connection between the Islamists and the putschists was established in the trials.

Ould Taya sees an opportunity to solidify his rule through participation in the war on terrorism, even if it means creating Islamist threats and external aggressions where none exist. Hanana and some other rebel officers come from warrior tribes that traditionally work closely with the marabouts. There may be further cooperation between these two castes to restore the customary balance of power within Mauritania. This local reaction to Ould Taya’s tribalism and authoritarianism remains open to exploitation by Salafist extremists but no evidence exists that this process has begun. Growing ties with the U.S. and Israel are isolating the Ould Taya regime, which will increasingly have to rely on the loyalty of the army. Furthermore, Ould Taya may see a U.S. military presence and Israeli security assistance as insurance for the survival of the regime.

This article was originally published in the February 23, 2007 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

1. ‘Proces de OuadNaga: Audience du 23 decembre, 2004′, Nouakchott-Info, www.mapeci.com/700/actualite.htm .
2. ‘Le Capitaine Ould Mini plaide coupable’, Nouakchott-Info, Dec. 25, 2004, www.mapeci.com/701/actualite.htm .
3. ‘Al-Jazeera interviews bin Laden deputee Abu Hafs al-Mauritani: The Relationship between Tanzim al-Qaedah and the Taliban movement’, November 20, 2001 (Broadcast December 11, 2001) www.aljazeera.net/programs/special_interview/articles/2001/12/12-4-1.htm.