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, .
2. ‘Le Capitaine Ould Mini plaide coupable’, Nouakchott-Info, Dec. 25, 2004, .
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)

Abu Hafs al-Urdani: The Quiet Mujahid

Andrew McGregor

February 2, 2005

A little known veteran jihadist, Abu Hafs al-Urdani, made a rather dramatic entrance onto the world stage on February 5, 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell displayed his photo in a speech before the U.N.Security Council. Abu Hafs was identified as part of fellow Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s “Iraq-linked terrorist network.” (Abu Hafs al-Urdani is not to be confused with al-Qaeda leaders Abu Hafs al-Masri, who is deceased, or Abu Hafs al-Mauritani. Al-Urdani also has no connection to the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade).

Abu Hafs al-UrdaniAbu Hafs al-Urdani

Almost immediately after Saudi Amir Abu al-Walid (‘Abd al-Aziz al-Ghamidi) was reported killed in Vedeno province in April 2004, al-Jazeera carried a statement from the Chechen Majlis al-Shura (Command Council) that Abu Hafs had succeeded al-Walid as commander of the foreign Mujahideen in Chechnya. As a Jordanian, Abu Hafs is the first non-Saudi to command the foreign fighters (though the FSB claims he holds Saudi citizenship). Abu Hafs, like every other Arab mujahideen leader, is claimed by Russian intelligence to be a close associate of Osama Bin Laden, but the Russians have offered no evidence to support this claim. In the wake of the Beslan massacre, Abu Hafs was identified as the financier of the terrorist operation, working from a camp in Chechnya’s Vedeno district. (Saudi Abu Omar al-Saif has also been accused by the FSB of being the Beslan paymaster.)

Abu Hafs was likely commander of the approximately 80 foreign fighters (mostly Arabs and Turks) who accompanied Chechen warlord Ruslan “Hamzat” Gelayev in his return to Russia in August 2002. In the last two years there has been a gradual change in the composition of the foreign mujahideen. Turks and diaspora “Chechen-Arabs” now appear to be at least as well represented in the small corps of foreign volunteers as the more ideologically driven Gulf State Arabs. (This was recently confirmed by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. See: Alexei Berezin: “Most of Foreign Mercenaries killed in Chechnya are Turks,” RIA Novosti, January 3, 2005.) The topic of Turkish fighters in Chechnya was raised during President Vladimir Putin’s October 2004 state visit to Turkey. The promotion of a Jordanian to commander of the foreign mujahideen may reflect a shift in external financing from the hard-pressed Saudi charities to diaspora-based organizations. There are indications that external financing for the Chechen fighters is at a low ebb, though the problem has been eased by the seizure of Russian funds destined for the Chechen government and extortion of Chechen collaborators. (See Mark MacKinnon’s interview with Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, Chechenpress, October 31, 2004.)

Much of the FSB’s information on Abu Haf’s career comes supposedly through the interrogation of one his fighters, Algerian Abu Muskhab (Rabat Kamal Burakhlya), who was arrested entering Azerbaijan for medical treatment on September 17, 2004. Russian intelligence claims Abu Muskhab was present at the Beslan school seizure in early September 2004 with two other Algerians, Osman Larussi and Yacine Benalia, both of whom were already reported killed in a Russian operation in Chechnya on March 8, 2004. According to anonymous FSB sources, Abu Hafs joined Amir al-Khattab and Abu al-Walid in the Tajikistan civil war of 1994-95 before becoming a military trainer in Khattab’s camp in Chechnya in 1995, where he married a Chechen woman.

In 1996, Abu Hafs relocated to Georgia “on Osama Bin Laden’s order” to take charge of al-Qaeda operations in the Pankisi Gorge. Abu Hafs is allegedly in charge of the distribution of all al-Qaeda funds sent to Chechnya. (Before his death last year, Russian intelligence usually attributed this role to al-Walid.) Abu Hafs is also described as having been in charge of weapons supplies to the fighters in the Pankisi Gorge. (This statement implies that arms were being shipped in to the fighters. Aside from the practical difficulties of such international shipments, it is known that Gelayev arranged the re-outfitting of his men from Georgian sources in exchange for joining the fighting in Abkhazia. Russian arms are also available from the cash-strapped Russian rump garrisons in Georgia). In the FSB’s account, Abu Hafs returned to Chechnya in 2002 at the request of Khattab’s successor, Abu al-Walid. After his return Abu Hafs took a second wife, the widow of Yemeni mujahideen leader Abu al-Ja’afar. Abu Hafs’ picture was recently published on the website of the “Chechen Informational Center,” posing in the firing position with a weapon in a white winter uniform and traditional Chechen lambskin hat.

During his stay in Georgia, Abu Hafs operated under the name “Amjet” (or Amzhet). There were numerous reports of Abu Hafs’ largesse, building both a mosque and hospital in the Pankisi Gorge. According to Georgian security, the hospital was military in nature and (even more questionably) entirely funded by al-Qaeda. However, there seems to be little value to a military hospital that would be inaccessible from Chechnya for over half the year (due to ice and snow in the mountain passes) and would require the continued cooperation of the Georgian government to operate.

On August 20, 2004, Abu Hafs issued a rare statement, addressed to the Conference of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League. The statement urged member states to avoid participation in the Chechen presidential elections, warning that their role as observers offered legitimacy to the actions of the Russian army, which included “the killing of unarmed innocent civilians among the sheikhs, the women and the children, the rape of the virgin Chechen women, the looting of the oil wealth of Chechnya, and the attempt to subjugate the Chechen nation and the obliteration of its Islamic identity” (Communiqué from Abu Hafs al-Urdani, Commander of the Foreign Mujahideen in Chechnya, August 29, 2004). Abu Hafs signed his statement as “Commander of the Eastern Front,” the same role that Abu Walid held in the Chechen command.

Abu Hafs followed this statement with another on September 19, 2004, in which he berates the failure of Arab leaders to support the Chechen struggle as “treason against Allah.” The mujahideen leader also declared “the commencement of attacks on Russian and American interests in Chechnya after having observed that the Russian and American sides continue to [attack] the honor and dignity of Islam and the Muslims in Chechnya, Palestine, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and in other Muslim countries” (Communique from Abu Hafs al-Urdani, September 19, 2004). The statement is unusual in its targeting of the U.S., something typically avoided by Chechen militants. Even Basayev prefers to forgo threats to the U.S. in favor of warning the U.S. of the consequences of inaction as Russia descends into dictatorship.

In December 2004, the Russian army reported the presence of 200 Chechens and 30 Turkish-speaking fighters receiving training in the Pankisi Gorge. The camp is allegedly run by two members of Abu Hafs’ group, Abu Rabiya and Abu Atiya (also described in the Powell presentation). The latter was last heard from in September 2003, when he was arrested in Azerbaijan. Georgia has suggested these reports are a provocation designed to apply pressure in the ongoing dispute over the status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Abu al-Walid began his career as the successor of Emir Khattab in a similarly muted fashion, though his public wariness did not prevent his death from a Russian shell. Like Abu al-Walid, Abu Hafs is now vilified by Russian intelligence as the main representative of al-Qaeda in the North Caucasus. FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev has identified the detention of Abu Hafs as a priority for all the secret services of Russia. On December 3, 2004, Russian Special Forces announced the killing of a Syrian citizen in Ingushetia known as “Marwan,” said to be a deputy to Abu Hafs. According to the FSB, Marwan was closely tied to several Turkish Islamist groups.

If Abu Hafs is to have a longer career than al-Khattab and Abu al-Walid as leader of the foreign mujahideen he will need to keep a low profile. Antagonizing the U.S. is unlikely to contribute to his safety, especially in view of the alleged American surveillance contributions to the demise of Chechen President Dzhokar Dudaev and warlord Ruslan Gelayev. Without a public presence, however, Abu Hafs will have difficulty in keeping the Chechen struggle in the field of vision of the international Islamist donor community.

This article first appeared in the North Caucasus Analysis 6(5), February 2 2005