Albghabass ag Intallah: Reasserting Traditional Tuareg Leadership at the Expense of Ansar al-Din

Andrew McGregor

January 29, 2013

Alghabass ag Intallah, a young Tuareg politician and tribal leader, has placed himself in a position where he can play a crucial role in determining the future of the ongoing conflict in northern Mali. Ag Intallah’s January 23 split from the Islamist Ansar al-Din of Iyad ag Ghali is a serious blow to the movement and a challenge to Ag Ghali’s leadership ambitions in the region.

Alghabass 1Alghabass ag Intallah

Prior to his split from Ansar al-Din, Ag Intallah has been, for the last year, the perplexing public face of Ansar al-Din; a man who not long ago embodied Tuareg traditional rule and opposition to religious and political extremism but who now acted as the lead negotiator for Ansar al-Din, a radical Islamist movement allied with al-Qaeda.

Forming the Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad

Ag Intallah’s new group, the Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), is almost exclusively composed of Malian Tuareg who have left the ranks of the radical Ansar al-Din as the latter is hammered by French airstrikes while falling back before a French-led ground offensive. Ag Intallah was immediately joined in the MIA by former Ansar al-Din spokesman Muhammad ag Arib. The movement’s founding statement described the defectors as “the moderate wing of Ansar al-Din” and added that the newly formed MIA “totally differentiates itself from any terrorist group, condemns and rejects any form of extremism and terrorism and commits itself to fighting them.” While appealing to Bamako and Paris to cease hostilities in the areas it claimed to control (Kidal and Menaka), the movement also expressed its interest in “the establishment of an inclusive political dialogue” (Tout sur l’Algerie, January 24). Following the announcement, Alghabass told Reuters by phone that: “We want to wage our war and not that of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM]” (Reuters, January 24).

This approach would be consistent with the view of French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who recently explained that northern Mali’s “terrorist and jihadist groups must be differentiated clearly from the movements that are representing the north of Mali and the people of this area in all of their diversity. Neither these movements nor the people are targeted under any circumstances by the military action which we have started…” (RFI, January 17).  Statements such as these appear to be a clear invitation for the Tuareg to abandon Ansar al-Din’s hardliners and their al-Qaeda associates to avoid being targeted by French military power.

A day before the MIA’s announcement, an Algerian government source told an Algiers daily that if the new formation agrees to fight terrorist groups (specifically AQIM and MUJWA) and respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Mali, “they will be qualified to speak in the name of the Ifoghas [Alghabass’ tribe] and we shall help them” (Tour sur l’Algerie, January 23).

Two days after the creation of the MIA, Ansar al-Din suffered another blow when Colonel Kamo ag Menali announced he was leaving Ansar al-Din to join the secular Tuareg nationalists of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad. At the time of his defection, the Colonel was based at the time in Léré, close to the Mauritanian border (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], January 25).


Alghabaas ag Intallah has been described as tall (about 6’4”) and imposing, with a quiet charisma that reflects his station in the local Tuareg hierarchy. [1] Alghabass was born into the highest levels of the Kidal Tuareg leadership as the middle son of the Amenokal (chief) of the noble Ifoghas tribe, the traditional rulers of the Kidal region. His father, Intallah ag Attaher, has been Amenokal since 1963, but has been ailing for some years and has lately devolved much of his power on his designated successor, Alghabass

Alghabass 2Intallah ag Attaher

Though blessed with many advantages in his pursuit of election to Mali’s National Assembly, Alghabass has been pursued by charges of electoral irregularities, particularly in what was expected to be a close contest with Zeid ag Hamzata in July, 2007. Ag Hamzata’s campaign registration documents mysteriously disappeared only hours before the filing deadline, a situation remarkably similar to one that occurred when Ag Hamzata had challenged Alghabass’ younger brother for the mayoralty of Kidal three years earlier. Rumors in Kidal insisted that the registrar had been paid $20,000 to “lose” Ag Hamzata’s papers. [2] One Bamako daily suggested Alghabass’ election was reliant on “the partiality of the representatives of the administration, fraud, corruption, buying of officials at polling stations and the abusive use of proxies” (Le Républicain [Bamako], August 3, 2007).

Ag Intallah is reported to have useful contacts with the Qatari royal family, for whom he arranges hunting trips in the Sahara (Jeune Afrique, October 3, 2012;, November 21, 2011).

Opposing Extremism in Azawad

Alghabass’ personality and place in the Tuareg hierarchy expanded his political role from National Assembly deputy to regional mediator and spokesperson for the Tuareg of Kidal. In September, 2007, Alghabass was deeply involved in mediation with the rebel movement of Ibrahim ag Bahanga to obtain the release of a large number of hostages, a role for which his background made him well-suited (Le Républicain [Bamako], September 20, 2007; L’Indépendant, September 19, 2007).

In the early months of 2009, Alghabass came into conflict with Lieutenant Colonel Lamana Ould Bou, a military intelligence officer with Mali’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (DGSE) and  a former member of the Front Islamique Arabe de l’Azawad (Arab Islamic Front of Azawad – FIAA), an Arab rebel movement active in northern Mali. Colonel Lamana had been active in organizing a number of Arab militias in northern Mali that had been partially credited with driving Tuareg rebel forces under the late Ibrahim ag Bahanga from the region in February, 2009 (see Terrorism Monitor, February 25, 2009). Alghabass, however, told U.S. diplomats in Bamako that Lamana’s men were nothing but Arab smugglers and bandits working out of the relatively lawless In Khalil border post with Algeria (In Khalil has lately become the base of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s new AQIM faction – see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10).

Colonel Lamana was assassinated in June, 2009 in Timbuktu by assassins believed to belong to AQIM. There were later reports that Arab tribesmen from Timbuktu took revenge for the murder by killing four AQIM members in November, 2010 (AFP, November 4, 2010; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 25, 2009).

In August 2009, Alghabass and fellow National Assembly deputy Ahmada ag Bibi (later a leading member of Ansar al-Din) told American diplomats in Bamako that the Malian government had failed to implement the 2006 Algiers Accords, particularly in terms of reintegrating Tuareg fighters into the Malian military, incorporating Tuareg youth into the national economy and sponsoring development projects in northern Mali. Both Alghabass and Ag Bibi urged the U.S. government to pressure Bamako to use the Tuareg against al-Qaeda elements active in northern Mali, apparently without success. [3] By late 2009, Alghabass was taking a public hardline towards the Salafist militants; “Our agenda is to form a delegation of resource persons to see where al-Qaeda is and ask it to leave our territory, or we will fight (Le Républicain [Bamako], December 9, 2009).

Alghabass also told U.S. diplomats that the outbreak of hostage-taking by AQIM groups could be blamed on the reluctance or unwillingness of Algerian and Mali to undertake effective counterterrorist operations, suggesting that al-Qaeda elements in the region could be defeated easily by any serious effort on the part of Algiers or Bamako. Alghabass added that he had tried to raise the issue of the failure of Mali’s security services to confront AQIM at the National Assembly, but had been personally dissuaded by then-President Amadou Toumani Touré. [4]

Joining Ansar al-Din

Alghabass’ February, 2012 decision to leave the MNLA for Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement may have been encouraged by an incident that occurred when the rebellion was just starting in January, 2012. Alghabass’ was reported to have been safely removed from Kidal by Iyad ag Ghali just as Tuareg loyalists were searching house-to-house for Alghabass and other suspected rebel leaders (Jeune Afrique, April 20, 2012). The loyalist militia was led by Colonel al-Hajj ag Gamou, a member of the large Imghad Tuareg clan, a “vassal” clan in the Tuareg hierarchy that discovered a combination of democracy and demographics could give the Imghad political power over their customary superiors, the “noble” Ifhoghas.

The relationship between Alghabass and Iyad ag Ghali was complicated by the fact that the latter was clearly leader of the Ansar al-Din, but by any understanding of the local traditional Tuareg hierarchy, Alghabass was quite clearly senior to Iyad ag Ghali, a factor that might have encouraged Iyad in making Alghabass the movement’s senior negotiator in distant Ouagadougou. Deepening Iyad ag Ghali’s resentment was the fact that he was bypassed as the appointed successor of the Ifogha in favor of the Amenokal’s son (Jeune Afrique, November 3, 2012).

As a representative in the National Assembly, Alghabass was known as a strong supporter of President Amadou Toumani Touré. Before announcing his departure from the government to join the MNLA rebels, Alghabass is reported to have called President Touré to express his disappointment that, despite his personal loyalty to the government, Malian policy had failed to develop or benefit the north (Toumast Press, January 27).

Alghabass’ membership in Ansar al-Din conflicted with the views of his father, Intallah ag Attaher, who issued a public statement in mid-April, 2012 stating his support for the MNLA and calling for the international community to recognize the independence of Azawad (northern Mali). The Amenokal went on to ask all groups that did not support independence (including Ansar al-Din and AQIM) to leave the region and condemned “all groups who kidnap foreigners in Azawad and terrorize the local population” (Toumast Press, April 18, 2012). However, Intallah ag Attaher’s repudiation of Ansar al-Din did not prevent anti-Ansar rioters from targeting his home in June, 2012 in the absence of his son (Le Républicain [Bamako], June 6, 2012).

In March, 2012, Alghabass was telling interviewers that he was fighting for the introduction of Shari’a in northern Mali (Jeune Afrique, March 22, 2012). By June, 2012, however, there were reports from the Tuareg community that a faction of Ansar al-Din led by Alghabass was in growing conflict with Iyad ag Ghali’s hard-line Islamists (Toumast Press, June 9, 2012).

Ag Intallah led a delegation of seven Ansar al-Din representatives to the first joint talks with the MNLA on November 16, 2012. Hosted in Ouagadougu and mediated by Burkina Faso president Blaise Compaoré, the talks were viewed by some as a first step in detaching Ansar al-Din from its Islamist allies. The creation of the MIA will likely bring Alghabass and his followers into an alliance with the MNLA, which has already taken advantage of the French intervention to seize Kidal. MNLA spokesman Moussa ag Assarid was quick to express the movement’s support for the military intervention; “We’re ready to help; we are already involved in the fight against terrorism… We can do the job on the ground. We’ve got men, arms and, above all, the desire to rid Azawad [northern Mali] of terrorism” (AFP, January 14). However, the MNLA must change its separatist agenda to be welcomed into negotiations with France and Algeria.


The loss of Alghabass ag Intallah will have a significant impact on the degree of support Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghali can count on in his home region of Kidal. However, the departure of Ansar al-Din’s more moderate members may encourage greater extremism in the remaining faction. Ansar al-Din spokesman Sanda Ould Bouamama appeared to bringing the movement in line with the global jihad preached by al-Qaeda in his reaction to the French intervention in northern Mali: “Oil companies lead this war. Hence, it has become the duty of the mujahideen all over the world, whether Algerians or other nationalities, to target the interests of the West and its companies that finance the war” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 23).

Alghabass ag Intallah has an opportunity to help save Mali’s Tuareg militants from destruction by offering a refuge for disillusioned followers of Ansar al-Din. By participating in joint “counter-terrorism” operations with the MNLA (and possibly alongside advancing Franco-Malian forces) against AQIM and their Islamist allies in the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), Alghabass may embody the reassertion of traditional leadership in the Tuareg communities of the Kidal regon and renew his role as a lead negotiator – this time as the representative of a primarily nationalist movement rather than as the representative of an Islamist movement with little popular support in Kidal. Bamako cannot hope to resolve the crisis in northern Mali without the cooperation of local partners – preferably known commodities with experience at negotiation and a well-grounded constituency. Ag Intallah fits the bill but knows it, and will use the leverage offered to ensure his political future while reshaping the political structure of his homeland.


1. Cable 09BAMAKO211, U.S. Embassy Bamako, April 6, 2009,

2. Cable 07BAMAKO594, U.S. Embassy Bamako, June 1, 2007,

3. Cable 09BAMAKO567, U.S. Embassy, Bamako, Agust 26, 2009,

4. Cable 09BAMAKO211, U.S. Embassy Bamako, April 6, 2009,

Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi Urges Merger of Salafism and Sufism

Andrew McGregor

January 27, 2013

Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a Muslim Brotherhood ideologue and one of the most influential men in modern Sunni Islam, has long resisted the Salafist trend of condemning Sufi Muslims as heretics and even apostates. Though he has been offered the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood several times, al-Qaradawi has always declined, saying he would prefer to be a guide for the nation in general, rather than be the leader of a specific group. The Shaykh has pursued this goal through a highly successful media strategy, involving a satellite television show and a popular website, IslamOnline. Nevertheless, he is held in suspicion by the West and is banned from travelling to the UK and the United States. The Shaykh recently offered his views on several issues, including the Sufi-Salafist split in Sunni Islam, in an interview carried by a pan-Arab daily (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 23, 2010).

QaradawiYusuf al-Qaradawi (Right)

Al-Qaradawi naturally objects to Egypt’s official ban on political participation by the Brotherhood, asking if it is really possible that religious people are banned from practicing politics and participating in the development of the country: “There is no doubt that this is a crime, because religion is the essence of life, and the religious individual has the right to participate in building the country through his personal opinion, be it political, economic, educational, or health opinion… If the groups are banned from working publicly, they will start to work underground. The Islamist groups might be forced to work secretly. This is an unhealthy situation, because whoever works in the open can be held to account for his actions, and you can criticize him, but how can you hold to account whoever works in secret?”

Though the interview took place shortly before the uprising in Tunisia, al-Qaradawi noted that many of the governments in the Arab and Islamic world do not have any popular support and derive their authority solely from rigged elections disguised as democracy: “They are governments that are hated by their peoples, and they govern their countries by brute force and martial and emergency laws rather than governing through the consensus of the people.”

With regard to a growing perception in the Sunni world that Shi’a Islam is intent on expanding its numbers and territory in the Middle East, al-Qaradawi warned that Shiites are trained for preaching their creed and have access to large funds to promote Shi’ism as well as having the support of a major nation — Iran— behind them.

In his defense of Sufism, al-Qaradawi brought up the names of two medieval theologians who are regarded as providing many of the intellectual underpinnings of Salafist Islam: Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah (12633-1328) and his disciple, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim (1292-1350). According to al-Qaradawi, the two were “among the greatest Sufis,” but rejected what was inappropriate in Sufism: “Personally, I call for ‘making Sufi into Salafi’ and ‘making Salafi into Sufi.’ The Sufi takes from the discipline of Salafi in not following the fabricated Hadith, polytheist rites, and tomb-side rites, and we want the Salafi to take from the Sufi tenderness, spirituality, and piousness. From this mixture we get the required Muslim.”

Hassan al-BannaMuslim Brotherhood Founder Hassan al-Banna

In his search for reconciliation between the two trends of Sunni Islam, al-Qaradawi also called upon the thought of Muslim Brotherhood founder Shaykh Hassan al-Banna (1906-1947), saying al-Banna conceived the Brotherhood as an inclusive grouping of Sunni Muslims: “It is a Salafi movement as it calls for returning to the Koran and Sunna, it is a Sufi tendency as it calls for purifying the hearts and returning to God, it is a Sunni way that is based on honoring the Prophet’s companions and on the work of the Sunni school of thinking.”

Al-Qaradawi suggested that, contrary to public perceptions, Salafism is in fact a constantly evolving trend in Islam that now encompasses several schools of thinking, including those that are close to “centrism” and the ideology of the Muslim Brothers. After long denouncing the Brothers for participation in politics, the Salafists have now taken to politics in a major way. Exposure of the modern Salafists to developments in the wider world through travel after years of isolation and access to theological literature previously unavailable has also led to changes in Salafist jurisprudence.

Al-Qaradawi said the violent Salafi-Jihadi groups do not share the same agenda as the Muslim Brothers, who have told them: “We have tried such things, but they have not been helpful, and we have not gained anything out of them other than detention, suffering and victimization.” He noted that many of these groups, especially those in Egypt, have now reconsidered their strategies, issuing books of “Revisions” outlining their mistakes. Nevertheless, “All Islamist movements are entitled to try for themselves, and start from zero until they reach the conclusions of the preceding groups.”

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

Tribes and Terrorists: The Emerging Security Threat from Libya’s Lawless South

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2013

One of the reported demands of the terrorist group that seized the In Aménas gas field last week was safe passage to the Libyan border, some 30 miles away and the likely launching point for their attack on Algeria.  This should not be surprising, despite a stream of statements from Benghazi regarding increased security in southern Libya, an oil-rich region that has also become a home for criminal gangs, arms traders, smugglers, militias, armed tribal groups and foreign gunmen since the fall of the Qaddafi regime.

Tubu Border GuardsTubu Border Guards (Rebecca Murray/IPS)

The alleged planner of the In Aménas attack, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, is believed to have traveled to southwestern Libya in the fall of 2011, possibly returning there in the spring of 2012. In November 2011, Belmokhtar told a Mauritanian news agency that he had purchased Libyan weapons to arm his group (Nouakchott Info, November 11, 2011; CNN, January 21, 2012).  He was again reported to be in southwestern Libya by Malian security sources in March 2012 (AFP, March 12, 2012). Both occasions would have allowed Belmokhtar to establish important connections with local Islamists or others willing to work for him. Belmokhtar could also have used these trips to reconnoiter routes from northern Mali through Niger into southwestern Libya, possibly by crossing the lifeless Tafassâsset desert.

At least two of the terrorists involved in the attack on Algeria’s In Amenas natural gas facility have been identified as Libyan by the Algiers government (Libya Herald, January 17). Amidst fears that Libya might have provided the staging ground for the terrorist raid on In Aménas, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan promised that “Libya will not allow anyone to threaten the safety and security of its neighbors” (Reuters, January 19). Zidan’s government has rejected the “attacks on Mali,” urging a return to dialogue to resolve the situation there (Tripoli Post, January 21). Prime Minister Zidan has been reluctant to acknowledge terrorist activity within southern Libya, but claims that “There are powers that don’t want stability involved in white slavery, drugs smuggling, arms smuggling, money laundering and others who want North Africa to be a theatre of instability” (Libya Herald, January 19).

Protecting Libya’s Oil Infrastructure

Libya has recently created the Petroleum Faculty Guard (PFG), a force dedicated to protecting energy operations in the vast Libyan interior. In the aftermath of the In Aménas attack, the PFG announced it was taking steps to secure Libyan energy facilities, including “the formation of a special operations room, adding military air support and increasing guards and military personnel, and intensifying security patrols inside and outside the sites around the clock to block any attempt from anyone who wishes to compromise public property” (Libya Herald, January 18).  As seen in Algeria, however, deploying troops as guards is not enough; they must be well-commanded, maintain an appropriate system of patrols and level of vigilance and be supplied with the necessary intelligence to do their job.

Efforts are under way to try and integrate many of the militias active in southern and western Libya into the newly-formed National Guard, which operates directly under the Libyan head-of-state but may soon be transferred to the control of the Interior Ministry. For the moment, many members of the 10,000 man force are working in support of the Libyan Border Guards (Libyan Herald, January 8).

Last December, EU foreign ministers met to consider the problems created by the trafficking through Libya of arms and illegal migrants (many of them bound for Europe). Italy emphasized the need for stronger border controls and urged its counterparts to initiate a border guard training mission by January, a proposal considered “unrealistic” by other EU diplomats, who suggested training could wait to begin in mid-2013 (Reuters, December 10, 2012).

Prime Minister Ali Zidan rejected rumors that the southern al-Wigh airbase was being used as a base for French operations in Mali or as a base for terrorist operations in Algeria (Reuters, January 19; al-Wataniyah TV, January 19; Tripoli Post, January 21). Al-Wigh was an important strategic base for the Qaddafi regime, being located close to the borders with Niger, Chad and Algeria. Since the rebellion, the base has come under the control of Tubu tribal fighters under the nominal command of the Libyan Army and the direct command of Tubu commander Sharafeddine Barka Azaiy, who complains: “During the revolution, controlling this base was of key strategic importance. We liberated it. Now we feel neglected. We do not have sufficient equipment, cars and weapons to protect the border. Even though we are part of national army, we receive no salary” (Libya Herald, December 23, 2012). Since the hostage-taking in neighboring Algeria, Prime Minister Zidan has ordered surveillance operations and patrols to be stepped-up in the region of al-Wigh (al-Wataniya TV, January 19).

Only days before the raid on In Aménas, the premiers of Libya, Algeria and Tunisia met on January 12 at the Libyan oasis border town of Ghadames to discuss border security, with an eye to securing their borders “by fighting against the flow of arms and ammunition and other trafficking” (AFP, January 10). There are continuing tensions in the region around Ghadames near Libya’s border with Tunisia and Algeria, where Arab-Berber tribes have sought revenge on the local Tuareg community, parts of which provided security support to the Qaddafi regime during the battle for Libya.

On December 15, Libya’s ruling General National Congress (GNC) declared that Libya’s borders with Algeria, Chad, Niger and Sudan would be temporarily closed and designated the regions of Ghadames, Awbari, Sabha, al-Shati, Murzuq and Kufra as military zones to be ruled by a military governor. Only certain roads in the south would remain open, with Prime Minister Zidan warning that caravans, convoys or other groups using anything other than official frontier posts would face action by land forces or military aircraft (Libyan News Agency, December 16, 2012; Libya Herald, December 18, 2012). Two days later, Libyan fighter-jets struck a suspected smugglers’ camp in the Kufra region near the borders with Chad and Sudan. During the anti-Qaddafi rebellion, Sudanese troops coordinating with Qatari forces moved into the strategically important Kufra region and helped rebel forces seize the oasis (Sudan Tribune, August 28, 2011; Telegraph, July 1, 2011). According to air force spokesman Colonel Miftah al-Abdali, Libyan warplanes would monitor the Kufra region from the border with Chad to Jabal al-Uwaynat and Jabal al-Malik near the border with Egypt (Libyan News Agency, December 19). Eventually Libya plans to establish only one authorized border crossing with each of its four southern neighbors, Chad, Niger, Sudan and Algeria (AFP, December 19).

The new military governor for the south has the authority to detain and deport illegal immigrants, initiating a round-up of refugees and migrants in parts of southern Libya. These powers were seen as necessary in expectation of a greater flow of “illegal immigrants” from an expected war in northern Mali. Libya is concerned that if things go poorly for the Islamists in Mali, there will be a reverse flow of fighters and weapons back into southern Libya in the hands of armed groups.

Tunisia – A Conduit for Libyan Weapons?

On January 12, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki suggested that local jihadists had ties with terrorist forces in northern Mali and that Tunisia was “becoming a corridor for Libyan weapons to these regions” (AFP, January 12). The Tunisian border with Libya is rife with the smuggling of everything from milk to explosives since the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. Violent incidents have become common – two uniformed Libyans were arrested on the night of January 17 after using a 4X4 vehicle to attack the Tunisian security post at Jedelouine (Libya Herald, January 18; For the smuggling routes across the Tunisian-Libyan border, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 20, 2011).

While the hostage crisis was still ongoing in Algeria, Tunisian security forces announced the discovery of two large arms depots in the southeastern town of Medenine on the main route to Libya. The materiel seized at the depots included bombs, missiles, grenades, rocket launchers, ammunition, bullet-proof vests, uniforms and communications equipment (Tunis Afrique Press, January 18).

The Egyptian Border and the Route to Gaza

A minor crisis in Libyan-Egyptian relations occurred on January 18 when a Lebanese newspaper, al-Diyar, reported that Egyptian prime minister Hisham Qandil claimed Egypt had rights over parts of eastern Libya. Though historical claims to parts of the Libyan Desert once existed, they were renounced by Egypt in a 1925 agreement with Italy, the occupying power of the time. After Libyan premier Ali Zidan appealed for clarification, the Egyptian government issued a firm denial: “These alleged statements were not made by Qandil or any Egyptian official” (Egypt State Information Service, January 21).

Libya and Egypt fought a three-day border war in July, 1977 after Qaddafi sent thousands of protesters on a “March to Cairo” to protest Egypt’s progress towards a peace treaty with Israel. When the demonstrators were turned back at the border, Libyan forces raided the coastal town of Sollum, the site of fighting between Sanusi militants and the British-controlled Egyptian Army during the First World War. Retaliation came swiftly in the form of three Egyptian divisions supported by fighter-jets destroying Libyan opposition as they crossed the border into Libya. A complete invasion was averted only by the mediation of Algerian president Houari Boumediène.

More recently, it appears that a shipment route for Libyan arms on their way to Sinai and Gaza has been opened along the northern coast of Egypt, encouraging greater activity by militants in the area. There are fears in Cairo that these militants could eventually turn the Libyan weapons against the Egyptian government (see Terrorism Monitor, May 18, 2012). [1]

Sabha Oasis – A Strategic Base under Threat

GNC President Muhammad Magarief toured southern Libya earlier this month, meeting with Major General Omran Abd al-Rahman al-Tawil and other military officials in the strategic southern oasis of Sabha. While in Sabha, Magarief’s hotel was attacked by gunmen who wounded three of his guards (Libya Herald, January 6; al-Jazeera, January 13).

Six days of clashes between the Qadhadhfa (the Arab-Berber tribe of Mu’ammar Qaddafi) and the Awlad Sulayman tribe left four dead and several others wounded in Sabha on January 2 (AFP, January 2). An attempt by Libyan Special Forces units to enter the town on December 31 and impose a truce ultimately failed when fighting resumed (Libya Herald, January 4). The oasis town, 500 miles south of Tripoli, was the site of an important air-base during the Qaddafi regime and many of the current tribal clashes are rooted in differences between the Qadhadhfa, regarded as Qaddafi supporters, and the Awlad Sulayman, who opposed Qaddafi in the rebellion (see Terrorism Monitor, April 5, 2012).

The inability of security forces in Sabha to keep detainees under lock and key has contributed to the insecurity in the region. On December 4 there was a mass breakout of 197 inmates from the Sabha jail with the apparent assistance of the Judiciary Police responsible for guarding them (Libya Herald, December 6, 2012). Local authorities claimed most of the prisoners were common criminals, while others were alleged to be Qaddafi loyalists (Reuters, December 5). In July 2012, 34 prisoners escaped another detention facility in Sabha by crawling through ventilation shafts. The most recent breakout was followed by 20 southern GNC representatives walk out of the Libyan Congress to protest the “deteriorating security situation in their region,” saying the government’s inability or unwillingness to address these problems was “the last straw” (AFP, December 16, 2012; Libya Herald, December 6, 2012; December 18, 2012).

There are plans to spur development in Sabha by turning its military airport into a regional air cargo hub, but this is unlikely to happen so long as the region remains plagued by violence and instability.

Kufra Oasis – Where Race Politics Meets Border Security

Clashes between the Black African Tubu and the Arab Zawiya tribe continue in the southeastern Kufra Oasis, where inter-tribal fighting earlier this month developed into firefights between the Tubu and members of the Libyan Desert Shield, a pro-government militia that was flown into Kufra last year to bring the region under control. Desert Shield has failed to win the trust of the Tubu, who accuse the militia’s northern Arabs of siding with the Zawiya. According to a Tubu tribal chief in Kufra: “We want the army to secure Kufra, and not a group of civilian revolutionaries who have no military principles” (AFP, January 9; For the struggle over Kufra, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 5, 2011, Terrorism Monitor, February 23, 2012).

Tubu fighters in the Kufra region are led by Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur, head of the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya (TFSL), founded in 2007 to combat the Qaddafi regime on behalf of the disenfranchised Tubu community. Following a failed revolt against Qaddafi and his “Arabization” program, the Tubu had their citizenship stripped, access to services cancelled and their homes bulldozed. Prior to the declaration of a military zone in the south, Mansur maintained that Libya’s southern borders from Sabha to Kufra were controlled and guarded by desert-savvy Tubu tribesmen after the fall of Qaddafi (Libyan Herald, December 23, 2012; January 13, 2013). Local Arab tribes accuse the Tubu of actually seizing control of the region’s smuggling routes for their own profit.

Government authorities maintain there are only some 15,000 Tubu tribesmen in Libya, while Tubu activists claim the real number is closer to 200,000. According to Tubu activist Ahamat Molikini, the Tubu are confronting an Arab desire to create a new demographic reality in the south: “Many from the [Arab] Zuwaya and Awlad Sulayman tribes want the Tubu people out before they create a new Libya, before it becomes a democracy. They provoke the Tubu with these new attacks and killings, they create conflict to evict them.”  These tribes have succeeded in convincing the northern Arab tribes that the native Tubu who predate the Arab presence in southern Libya are actually foreigners (a popular Qaddafi canard) “with an agenda to make southern Libya an independent country” (Minority Voices Newsroom, January 8).

No Better in Benghazi

In the de facto Libyan capital of Benghazi, meanwhile, a campaign of attacks on members of the police and military continues as Western nations begin to pull out their nationals amidst rumors of an impending terrorist attack. Many of the victims of assassination were formerly employed by the Qaddafi regime (Xinhua, January 14; January 16; see Terrorism Monitor Brief, August 10, 2012). The government is considering what it described as a “partial curfew” to help deal with the deterioration of security in Benghazi (Middle East Online, January 17).

Western diplomats also continue to be targeted; on January 12, unidentified gunmen fired on the Italian consul’s bullet-proof car, damaging the vehicle but causing no casualties in a strike that Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi described as “a vile act of terrorism” (AFP, January 13; Xinhua, January 12). On January 16, Italy agreed to provide logistical support to air operations targeting terrorists in northern Mali after shutting down its Benghazi consulate and withdrawing all diplomatic personnel (Telegraph, January 16; UPI, January 16; Reuters, January 16).

On January 19, a car carrying Libya’s defense minister, Muhammad al-Barghati, came under attack at the Tobruk airport, east of Benghazi. Al-Barghati claimed the attack was the work of followers of al-Sadiq al-Ghaithi al-Obeidi, a reputed jihadist who had just been sacked as deputy defense minister after refusing to bring his fighters under the command of the army’s chief-of-staff. Al-Obeidi was formerly responsible for border security and the security of foreign oil installations (AFP, January 19; Reuters, January 21).


The “closed military zones” of the south are little more than a fiction without the resources, personnel and organization necessary to implement strict controls over a vast and largely uninhabited wilderness that is nonetheless the heart of the modern Libyan state due to its vast reserves of oil and gas that provide the bulk of national revenues and its aquifers of groundwater that permit intensive agriculture and supply drinking water for Libya’s cities.

The Libyan GNC and its predecessor, the Transitional National Council (TNC), have failed to secure important military facilities in the south and have allowed border security in large parts of the south to effectively become “privatized” in the hands of tribal groups who are also well-known for their traditional smuggling pursuits. In turn, this has jeopardized the security of Libya’s oil infrastructure and the security of its neighbors. As the sale and transport of Libyan arms becomes a mini-industry in the post-Qaddafi era, Libya’s neighbors will eventually impose their own controls over their borders with Libya so far as their resources allow. Unfortunately, the vast amounts of cash available to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb are capable of opening many doors in an impoverished and underdeveloped region. If the French-led offensive in northern Mali succeeds in displacing the Islamist militants, there seems to be little at the moment to prevent such groups from establishing new bases in the poorly-controlled desert wilderness of southern Libya. So long as there is an absence of central control of security structures in Libya, that nation’s interior will continue to present a security threat to the rest of the nations in the region, most of which face their own daunting challenges in terms of securing long and poorly defined borders created in European boardrooms with little notice of geographical realities.


1. See Andrew McGregor, “The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell,” Jamestown Foundation “Hot Issue,” November 20, 2012,[tt_news]=40137&cHash=bc3b95312dc7c4911c1727f4b929e2fd

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

The South African National Defense Force: A Military in Freefall

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2013

Despite an eagerness to use the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) as an means of projecting the nation’s influence abroad, there is evidence that South Africa’s government has so neglected or mismanaged its military assets that it may soon be unable to defend itself, much less engage in international adventures.

South African TroopsSouth African Troops in the Central African Republic

Laat year, Roelf Meyer, the chairman of South Africa’s defense review committee, identified a number of strategic goals for the SANDF, including:

  • Maintaining the security of South Africa’s borders
  • Promoting peace and security in Africa
  • Assisting civil authorities in policing or anti-poaching efforts
  • Establishing South Africa as a responsible leading member of the African Union
  • Responding to new regional threats such as piracy (Business Day [Johannesburg], April 13, 2012).

However, with a reduced force size and inadequate resources, the SANDF will soon have difficulty meeting most of these goals. The SANDF is already estimated to be three battalions short of what it requires to meet current commitments (Johannesburg Star, January 9).  Defense spending is now 1.2 % of GDP, shy of the IMF’s recommended 2%, and there are no plans to increase it.

Considering the current restraints on SANDF, the president’s decision to deploy a reinforced paratroop company of some 400 men to the Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this month took many by surprise, not least because of the president’s failure to inform parliament of the deployment and the costs involved as he is required to do by the South African constitution (Johannesburg Star, January 8; for the intervention in the CAR, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10). The South African force was chartered into the CAR due to a lack of operable transport aircraft.

Prior to the CAR deployment, SANDF already had nearly 2,000 personnel active on peacekeeping and training missions in Darfur, the CAR and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Some 1,200 South African troops were amongst the 1,500 man UN peacekeeping force (the Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo – MONUSCO)  that was heavily criticized in November for allowing a few hundred rebels to take the Congolese city of Goma with little fighting (See Terrorism Monitor, November 30, 2012). With a total strength of over 19,000 and a budget of over $1.4 billion annually, MONUSCO is the largest and most expensive peacekeeping force in the world (Daily Monitor [Kampala], December 29, 2012).

Life in the South African military is not seen as desirable by many potential recruits. Pay can be erratic, HIV rates are as high as 25% (making these troops unavailable for external deployment) and an estimated 35% of South Africa’s military barracks have been classed as unfit for human occupation since 2007 (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 21, 2012).  Without money to operate sophisticated equipment, skilled staff continue to flee at the end of their enlistment and there is little opportunity for new recruits to train in skills useful in the civilian world. Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Defense has described abuse of women in the SANDF as “common,” adding that many female recruits have been impregnated by their instructors (BUAnews, November 26, 2011). Racial abuse of black subordinates by white senior officers also remains a problem 19 years into the integration process (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], August 21, 2011). South African troops are unionized and have at times clashed with police during pay disputes.

With the 2012 defense budget of $3.8 billion still far below the 2% of GDP required to maintain the armed forces, the South African defense department began looking at ways of generating income, including contracting out soldiers to municipalities to do various labor and infrastructure repair projects. The department also created the Defense Estate Management agency to lease or sell-off defense department lands. Much of the land owned by the SANDF came by way of British government endowments of military facilities made on the condition that they could only be used for defense purposes (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 21, 2012).

There has also been a temptation to use the military as a well-armed police force to suppress labor unrest and gang activity. Considerable controversy was generated last year when President Jacob Zuma deployed 1000 SANDF troops to aid police in disarming striking Lonmin miners following a massacre by police (Johannesburg Times, September 21, 2012; SAPA, September 16).  Western Cape premier Helen Zille issued a request for troops to fight “emergency levels” of gang violence in Cape Town in July (AFP, July 10, 2012).  By late November, there were calls for the army to be sent to rural areas of the Western Cape to prevent violence by striking farmworkers (SAPA, November 28, 2012).

Sending the SANDF into the streets of South Africa damaged President Zuma’s credibility as the South African Development Community (SADC) facilitator in neighboring Zimbabwe, where he has urged that Zimbabwean troops be confined to barracks. According to the state-run Daily Mail, if South African presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj “thinks he will be able to still come here and continue mindlessly preaching about keeping the army in the barracks as part of President Zuma’s mediation, then he does not take himself seriously” (New Zimbabwe, September 24, 2012).

Politicization of the military is still a problem in South Africa. There has been speculation that the current chief of the SANDF, Angolan-trained Lieutenant General Solly Zacharia Shoke, received his appointment as a result of his history as a commander in Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing (SAPA, May 11, 2011). Umkhonto we Sizwe forces were integrated into the newly formed SANDF between 1994 and 2004. An investigative commission recently declared that the SANDF was too politicized, a situation typified by former Defense Minister Lindiwe Sisulu’s preference for wearing SANDF uniforms at public occasions (SAPA, April 28, 2011).

A sometimes unaccountable procurement process remains a problem for the South African military; last year the political opposition revealed over $7.75 billion had passed through a defense department slush fund that had failed to reveal to parliament how the money had been spent (Johannesburg Times, April 18, 2012). The army has been overlooked in recent acquisition programs and is close to finding itself equipped with obsolete equipment in terms of armored personnel carriers, logistics vehicles and main battle tanks (Financial Mail [Johannesburg], October 21, 2012).

During the years of sanctions, South Africa developed a competitive and innovative defense industry. Since then a somewhat diminished defense industry has survived domestic cutbacks by turning to the export trade. Now, however, once innovative designs are becoming dated while research and development funding is drying up, threatening a once profitable industry that was a reliable employer of skilled labor (Financial Mail [Johannesburg], October 21, 2012).

South Africa’s once-effective air force has new aircraft but cannot afford the fuel and maintenance needed to keep them in the air. Despite this, one element of the air force that did see extensive time in the air was Squadron 21, charged with flying South African VIPs and government ministers. Former defense minister Lindiwe Sisilu booked 203 flights over three years in chartered luxury Gulfstream jets at an estimated cost of $4.5 million. Some 63 of the flights were empty, as they were intended solely to pick the minister up somewhere and take her to another destination in what one opposition critic described as “a staggering waste of money” (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], November 9, 2012).

In 2012, President Zuma decided the Boeing Business Jet purchased by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, for $66 million in 2001, was no longer good enough for presidential travel. Controversy erupted when it was learned the defense department had been instructed to purchase two Boeing 767s for Zuma’s exclusive use, two Boeing 737s for the exclusive use of his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe and two smaller business jets for former presidents and government ministers. Following the predictable uproar, the SANDF leased two executive jets from a Nigerian charter company at a cost of $88 million over five years (Mail & Guardian [Johannesburg], April 8, 2012; Johannesburg Star, October 19).

While government ministers travel in luxury, the South African Air Force (SAAF) still transports troops in 70-year-old Dakota aircraft. One of these, a Dakota C47TP (an upgraded DC-3 with turbine engines) crashed last December, claiming 11 lives when it was unable to fly above inclement weather. The crash came shortly after the military decided it could no longer afford a maintenance contract for its military aircraft (SAPA, December 6, 2012; Sunday Times [Johannesburg], December 10, 2012). World War II-era Dakotas also continue to be used for surveillance of South Africa’s 3,900 kilometer coastline in the absence of modern surveillance aircraft (Sunday Times [Johannesburg], April 18, 2012). Meanwhile, 26 new Swedish-built Gripen fighter-jets, purchased at a cost of R10 billion, average only two hours in the air each week; not enough to keep the machines in operable condition and far from the 10 hours of flight-time each week considered necessary to keep pilots well-trained (Sunday Times [Johannesburg], December 10, 2012).

Former SAAF chief Lieutenant General Carlo Gagiano retired in 2012 after trying to resign in late 2011 during his hospitalization for stress as he continued to try unsuccessfully to find enough money for the fuel and maintenance to keep the SAAF in the air. His successor, Lieutenant General Fabian Zimpande Msimang (the first black chief of the SAAF) will have trouble keeping all but executive travel jets in the air if current funding problems continue.

The once formidable South African navy now spends little time at sea. Replacement parts and maintenance budgets barely exist, leaving only one of the navy’s four new frigates operational and only one its four new submarines able to put out to sea (Sunday Times [Johannesburg], December 10, 2012). South African Navy ships and SAAF aircraft carry out anti-piracy operations in the Mozambique Channel, though this mission is also threatened by underfunding.

Despite economic troubles and a collapsing military, South Africa still desires to be a major player in Africa, which encourages it to commit to missions that stretch the military’s capacity to breaking point.  Unless current trends are reversed, the steady transformation of the SANDF into an assembly of riot police and border guards will be completed in just a few years. Geography and reputation have left South Africa with few external enemies, but it is also extremely wealthy in various resources. South Africa was only cobbled together from various constituent parts a little more than a century ago, and it would not be surprising if a general collapse of South Africa’s security infrastructure invited the emergence of secessionist movements drawing on both domestic and external inspiration. South Africa’s eventual inability to project force beyond its borders will also have important implications for regional security in sub-Saharan Africa.

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Egypt’s Muslim Brothers Watch as Divisions Rend Their Salafist Challengers

Andrew McGregor

January 25, 2013.

As the February 25 parliamentary elections grow near, the political wings of Egypt’s Salafist movement continue to fragment, raising questions about the movement’s ability to replicate its relative success in last year’s elections, in which the movement took nearly a quarter of the available seats despite being political neophytes.

Abd al-GhafourEmad Abd al-Ghafour (al-Jazeera)

Egypt’s Salafist movement was shaken on December 26, 2012, when Nur Party leader Emad Abd al-Ghafour and two former Nur Party spokesmen, Yousri Hammad and Muhammad Nur, joined roughly 150 other party members in a mass resignation followed by the creation of the new Watan (Homeland) Party (Daily News Egypt, December 29, 2012). The Nur Party was the lead element in a largely Salafist coalition that placed second in parliamentary elections last year before that parliament was dissolved as unconstitutional by a June decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court of Egypt.

Abd al-Ghafour became engaged in a power struggle with Nur Party vice-chairman Shaykh Nasser al-Borhami, a founder of al-Da’wa al-Salafiya (the Salafist Calling), an Islamist group formed in 1970s Alexandria as a rival to the Muslim Brotherhood that later created the Nur Party as its political expression. Al-Ghafour led a wing of the party that called for internal reform of the powerful role played in political decisions by the clerics of al-Da’wa al-Salafiya. Not surprisingly, al-Ghafour and al-Watan have lost the support of the Salafist Calling, which will inevitably hurt their appeal to the party’s core constituency. Referring to the dispute, Ahmad Badie, a prominent Nur Party defector and new Watan Party spokesman, said: “The role of clerics should be restricted to handing down edicts and opinions on matters that pertain to the Shari’a… but they should not be involved in elections or day-to-day politics” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 21).

Watan Party vice-president Dr. Yusri Hamad explained in an interview with a pan-Arab daily that the new party’s ultimate reference is Islamic Shari’a, “the general model for all Salafist parties.” Al-Watan, however, will not be “exclusionist,” but will welcome the participation of Copts and women in its ranks: “We have spoken about women’s rights and dignity and the importance of women playing a role. At the same time, we are also extending our hand in national partnership to the Copts because Egypt was not built by any one faction or entity; therefore everybody is invited to participate in the country’s construction and development.”   This openness will not, however, extend to guaranteeing women roles as candidates for the party. In the Egyptian context, Hamad says Salafism “means that we believe that state-building and reform must be based on two things; modernity, in addition to the traditions and values that are present and which distinguish Egypt from other countries” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 7).

Borhami and the Nur Party are adamant that mandatory representation for women and Christians in the new Egyptian parliament is a violation of Shari’a and the constitution; “Allocating quotas for women and Copts simply because of their gender or religion is blatant discrimination” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 21). The Nur Party was forced to include female candidates in the previous parliamentary election to avoid being banned from participation.

Given the measured words of the Watan leaders and their temperate demeanor, it is somewhat surprising that they have aligned themselves closely with Shaykh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, an outspoken and unpredictable preacher who spoke at the Watan founding despite planning to announce his own Salafist party days later.

Abu Ismail keeps his place in Egyptian headlines through an apparently endless series of provocative statements. Most recently he blamed Egypt’s post-revolution economic collapse on “rumors about the economy” spread by the political opposition (al-Shorouk [Cairo], January 4). He has also condemned the national protests scheduled for January 25, describing their advocates as “criminals” who want “to burn the country” (Daily News Egypt, January 4).

Abu Ismail has repeatedly called for the dismissal of Interior Minister Major General Ahmad Gamal al-Din after police tried to enter his political headquarters following an outbreak of political violence. A series of violent attacks on the offices of the Wafd Party and its newspaper as well as the offices of the Popular Current, a political coalition led by Neo-Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi (Karama Party), were blamed by police on members of Abu Ismail’s party.  Abu Ismail denied any knowledge of the attacks but was undone by his own followers, who celebrated their role in the attacks on their Facebook accounts (Daily News Egypt, December 16, 2012).

Abu Ismail has said he will not run for president or for the House of Representatives (the new name for Egypt’s parliament), adding that he had only run for president in the last election from fear that the regime would mount a counter-revolution (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 22). Before his disqualification from the contest on the grounds his mother had dual U.S.-Egyptian citizenship (a violation of electoral rules), Abu Ismail shocked many Salafists with his advocacy of rebellion against “unjust” rulers. Despite the suspicions raised by his support for this very un-Salafist belief, Abu Ismail seems to have appealed to many young Islamists who subsequently entered his camp (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], January 21).

Besides their alliance with Abu Ismail’s Umma al-Misriya Party, al-Watan is seeking to build a coalition named Watan al-Hor (Free Homeland) with other Salafist parties, including the Asala (Fundamentals) Party of Shaykh Muhammad Abd al-Maqsud, Hizb al-Fadila (Virtue Party), Hizb al-Islah (Reform Party) and the Islamist New Labor Party. Negotiations continue regarding the participation of two other parties, Hizb al-Wasat (Center Party), a moderate breakaway faction of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmia (Building and Development Party), the political wing of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya.

Though an accelerating process of political divisions is usually regarded as a troubling sign for most political movements or ideologies, the deputy chief of the Nur Party, Mustafa Khalifa, has put a more attractive spin on the political fragmentation, suggesting it will provide voters with “more alternatives from across the political spectrum” (al-Ahram Weekly, January 23). In a less rosy light, it appears that, unlike the more powerful and enduring Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist movement in Egypt has fallen victim to the growth of personality-driven politics. There is little to differentiate between the aims and ideology of the growing number of Salafist political parties; in most cases these differences could probably be accommodated within a single party. As the new Salafist formations draw their strength from existing parties, a space is opened for the emergence of confrontational leaders such as Abu Ismail who have the potential of polarizing the nascent electorate. The Muslim Brotherhood can also be expected to exploit the Salafist divisions in February’s parliamentary election by presenting themselves as a movement where the promotion of Islam in daily life is more important than the success or failure of individuals.

This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor, January 25, 2013.

A Response to the Crusaders? Defining the True Purpose of the Attack on In Amenas

Jamestown Special Report, January 18, 2013

Andrew McGregor

As the Algerian government continues to control a haphazard and inconsistent flow of information from In Aménas, the site of this week’s dramatic hostage-taking by Islamist militants, there continues to be confusion over the number of hostages killed in an assault by Algerian security forces and even the fate of the militants themselves.

In Amenas 1The remote In Aménas gas field is close to the Libyan border, some 1600 kilometers from the capital of Algiers, and is operated as a joint venture between BP, Norwegian Statoil and the Algerian government-owned Sonatrach. However, with most of the facility now in the hands of the Algerian military after a bloody intervention, the main questions that must be addressed at this point involve the origin and purpose of the attackers. The answers to these questions may differ significantly from those provided by the militants themselves over the last two days.

“Those Who Sign in Blood”

At the core of the attack is veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), a prominent al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander whose differences with the movement’s leadership resulted in Belmokhtar splitting with AQIM in October to set up his own fighting group, “the Brigade of Those Who Sign in Blood.” In early December, Belmokhtar led a column of fighting vehicles and loyalists to the Malian border post of al-Khalil, close to the frontier with Algeria (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, January 10).  Al-Khalil is just north of the Adrar des Ifoghas Mountains of Kidal and is a vital border post along a main Saharan highway that brings all types of commerce, licit and illicit, south through the Algerian desert town of Adrar. Algeria announced that its borders had been sealed and secured on January 14, two days before the raid on In Aménas (AFP, January 14).

Belmokhtar’s new militant formation issued a statement of responsibility for the raid on In Aménas on January 16, declaring the attack “a response to the blatant intervention of the Crusader French forces in Mali” and the Algerian “conspiracy with the French to strike the Muslims in Mali” (, January 16). Though the claim of responsibility suggested that the attack was made in response to Algeria’s January 14 decision to allow over-flights by French military aircraft, such an assault would in fact require weeks of planning and organization, even more so if the attack was actually mounted from Mali, as the attackers claim. A spokesman for AQIM’s Katibat Mulathamin confirmed that “the commando” had been prepared for this operation for nearly two months “because we knew in advance that the [Algerian] regime would be a good ally of France in the war against Azawad [i.e. northern Mali] (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 17).

Most interesting was a nearly simultaneous claim of responsibility from AQIM’s Katibat al-Mulathamin (“Brigade of the Wearers of the Veil,” a reference to the male Tuareg custom of wearing a veil – Arabic “litham”). This brigade was formerly Belmokhtar’s command before his split with the rest of the AQIM leadership in October. If this was not simply a case of AQIM trying to jump onboard an ongoing operation, it would seem to indicate that Belmokhtar’s split with the rest of the organization was not as severe as thought or has been subject to some degree of reconciliation in recent weeks.

in amenas 2One of the kidnappers told a French news agency by phone that his group were “members of al-Qaeda” under the command of Mokhtar Belmokhtar and had come “from northern Mali” (AFP, January 16). However, this claim merits some deeper examination. The distance from Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s new base in the Malian border town of al-Khalil to In Aménas is no less than 725 miles as the crow flies. For those not blessed with wings, the actual drive would be significantly longer, using both Algerian highways and desert tracks that would take the attackers around the north side of Algeria’s Hoggar mountains. While it is true that Algeria’s border with Mali is long and difficult to defend, it is difficult to envision the passage of a large convoy of militants through the busy section between al-Khalil and the Algerian border post at Bordj Mokhtar without detection. A sizable convoy would be required to carry out the attack, carrying its own food, water and fuel as well as fighters, weapons and munitions. If the attackers were indeed able to travel in a heavily-armed convoy from one end of Algeria to the other without the least interference or detection from Algerian security forces, this would indicate either Algerian government cooperation or a complete breakdown in Algeria’s security infrastructure, both unpalatable alternatives. A third option, however, is that such claims are intentional misdirection designed to conceal the real point of origin of the attackers – Libya.

Algerian Interior Minister Dahou Ould Kablia hinted at the unlikelihood that the attackers had come direct from Mali or any other country, saying that the terrorists had come “not from Mali, nor from Libya, nor from any other neighboring country” (Algérie Presse Service, January 16). By the next day, however, Kablia had changed his mind, now claiming that the attackers were from Libya, without elaborating (Echorouk [Algiers], January 17).

A terrorist attack of this type was somewhat unexpected, at least based on previous experience. Even at the height of clashes between Algeria’s Islamist militants and government forces in the 1990s, the Islamists never attempted to penetrate a heavy security cordon placed around Algeria’s vital oil and gas infrastructure in the southern desert region. Fighting from well-concealed bases in the heavily-wooded Kabylie Mountains of northern Algeria was always preferable to mounting operations in difficult desert terrain where no cover was available from air surveillance or attack. In this sense, it seems that proximity to Libya may have been the deciding factor in the selection of In Aménas as a target. Libya is still struggling to consolidate control of its desert interior and the distance from the Libyan border to In Aménas could be easily covered at night, allowing the attackers to emerge undetected with the rising of the sun. The nearby Algerian military camp entrusted with protecting the gas installation did not go into action until the terrorists has already seized the facility.

The Purpose of the Attack

Belmokhtar’s new group is one of a host of new Islamist formations to suddenly emerge in northern Mali. According to a spokesman from the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA), these new groups are intended to “fight the neighboring countries, especially Algeria” (Le Temps d’Algerie, January 16).

The raiders were reported to have demanded the release of 100 Islamists from Algerian prisons in exchange for the hostages, which seems to have been the real purpose of the hostage-taking (AFP, January 16). Unusual for a Belmokhtar kidnapping, there was no mention of a cash ransom, though it is possible that not all the details regarding demands have become available. The assailants claimed to be equipped with mortars and anti-aircraft missiles, saying “We hold the Algerian government and the French government and the countries of the hostages fully responsible if our demands are not met. It is up to them to stop the brutal aggression against our people in Mali” (, January 16).

According to Algerian government sources, the raid began at 5 AM when three vehicles carrying heavily armed terrorists attacked a bus carrying foreign workers to the local airstrip, overpowering its security escort and killing at least one foreign worker (Algérie Presse Service, January 16; L’Expression [Algiers], January 16). Algeria’s Interior Minister, Dahou Ould Kablia, was clear from the first; there would be no negotiations with the terrorists.

Algerian helicopters opened fire on the terrorists when they tried to flee the gas plant in vehicles using hostages as protection. Among those killed in the first Algerian attack was Abu al-Bara, an Algerian associate of Belmokhtar and the apparent leader of the raid (al-Akhbar, January 17). Others killed in the Algerian assault include veteran jihadist Lamine Boucheneb (a.k.a. Amir Tahir), leader of the Fils du Sahara pour la justice islamique and Mauritanian Abdallahi Ould Humeida. According to a source within the “Signatories in Blood,” the raiders were a diverse group that included jihadis from Canada, Algeria, Mali, Egypt, Niger and Mauritania (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 17).

The hostage-taking was somewhat unusual in that both kidnappers and abductees remained in touch with the outside world by telephone. One of the hostages told France 24 TV that the prisoners had been force to wear explosive belts by the raiders, who promised to blow up the gas plant if attacked by Algerian forces (France 24, January 16). Another hostage reported that the attackers had mined the entire plant and were will armed with rocket-propelled grenades (Le Figaro [Paris], January 16).  As the Algerian military made its final assault on the complex, a spokesman for the hostage-takers was on the phone with a Mauritanian news agency, threatening to kill the hostages against a background of loud explosions before the line went dead (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 17).

After the Algerian military had retaken control of the gas facility, an AQIM spokesman promised more operations would be mounted against the Algerian regime, warning Algerians to “keep away from the locations of foreign companies, as we will strike where nobody would expect” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, January 17).


The raid suggests that Belmokhtar continues to work closely with AQIM elements despite the differences that led the veteran jihadist to assemble his own formation in early December. However, there is a strong possibility that Belmokhtar’s raid on In Aménas will have the inevitable result of dragging a so-far reluctant Algeria into the conflict in northern Mali. Mauritania, another hold-out despite a history of intervening in northern Mali against al-Qaeda elements, has now reversed its position and agreed to deploy combat troops in northern Mali (Jeune Afrique, January 16). Chad has also decided to send a so-far indeterminate number of its highly capable desert fighters to Mali, thus furnishing, together with Algeria and Mauritania, the missing elements of an African intervention force that was far too reliant on West African troops with little knowledge of Saharan-style desert warfare. If Algiers does commit to the military destruction of the Islamist forces in northern Mali, Belmokhtar’s ill-timed raid on In Aménas may be remembered as the beginning of the end for the Mali-based Islamists.

Though unsuccessful in the short-term, the raid will have long-term impact on the Algerian energy industry as expat workers are recalled or leave on their own accord and Algerian military resources are diverted to protecting isolated desert installations. There is a strong possibility of further strikes in Algeria to relieve pressure on embattled AQIM units in northern Algeria, where recent and effective counterterrorist operations have put the movement on its heels. Most important, however, is the realization that it is Libya, rather than northern Mali, that has become a base for terrorist operations in the Sahara/Sahel region.

Did France Move Too Soon in Mali?

Andrew McGregor

Jamestown Foundation Commentary, January 16, 2013

When an Islamist offensive took the Malian town of Konna late last week, France decided to respond with a military intervention it declared was necessary to prevent Islamist forces from taking over the rest of the country.

Mali map 2The Islamist offensive was led not by al-Qaeda, but by Ansar al-Din, a largely Tuareg Islamist movement that has been aggressively consolidating its control of northern Mali in recent weeks at the expense of its erstwhile (and largely foreign) allies in al-Qaeda and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). The unexpected move south was almost certainly designed to further this consolidation by demonstrating the movement’s military skills while offering a common cause to gather in the disunited Islamists under Ansar al-Din’s banner. Putting pressure on Bamako to take negotiations seriously instead of waiting for an international intervention was certainly another objective.

Given that French unilateral intervention in Libya dragged its NATO allies into a war that has destabilized the entire Saharan/Sahel region and created new and unforeseen opportunities for radical Islamist groups, the reluctance of France’s allies to leap into this new intervention should not be surprising. Though France has received commitments of logistical and humanitarian support from leading EU nations, Canada and the United States, it would probably take a major military reversal to bring troops from these nations into the conflict. In a military sense there seems little doubt that France has the means to defeat the Islamists in open warfare. French vulnerability lies in its massive economic interests in the Sahara/Sahel region and the exposure of tens of thousands of French citizens to retaliation in the form of kidnappings or murders. MUJWA has already vowed to strike at French interests and citizens “everywhere; in Bamako, in Africa and in Europe.”

If it intends to retake northern Mali on behalf of Bamako, France will have great difficulty performing the task without deploying ground forces. Mali’s military has always performed abysmally in northern Mali and there is no reason to think that it will do any better now against an enemy that is better organized and armed than ever before. Simply pushing it ahead with promises of French air support will likely be insufficient to reverse Islamist gains in the region. Mali’s most effective troops, its loyalist Tuareg and Arab militias, have been sidelined due to racial suspicions in Bamako. The addition of a small composite force drawn from a variety of Francophone nations belonging to ECOWAS is likely to have little impact on the ground in the absence of any type of planning, preparation or experience in mounting joint operations.

While the Tuareg of Ansar al-Din actually reside in northern Mali and may decide to mount a campaign to defend territory they regard as theirs, other militants belonging to al-Qaeda and related groups may decide to bolt rather than be placed in the unusual position of trying to defend fixed positions. Algeria and other neighboring nations have been preparing to seal their long and undefended borders, but are still far from completing these efforts. Al-Qaeda, which relies on mobility for its survival, may thus be able to escape a French-led offensive that has begun too soon for border security measures to be implemented.

There are numerous promises from French allies to provide training to Malian regulars, but with the campaign already underway it would seem to be a bit late for such measures. There is also a danger that Bamako could unleash pro-government Black African tribal militias in the wake of an advance by the Malian army. With a record of atrocities against the Arab, Tuareg and Mauritanian peoples of northern Mali, these militias could easily initiate a round of racially-inspired violence that could last for years or even decades. Ansar al-Din have done their own part to sour racial relations in Mali by massacring over 100 mostly southern soldiers taken prisoner when the northern garrison at Aguel Hoc was captured by the Islamists in January, 2012.

The question is whether the French intervention was an overreaction. Though the Ansar al-Din offensive was certainly designed in part to test the resolve of Malian military forces based in the “front-line” cities of Mopti and Sévaré, there was actually little chance for several thousand Tuareg fighters and their allies to take Bamako and the rest of southern Mali, a region where they would be heavily outnumbered by a hostile population that could count on a massive international military response to help expel the Islamists. Ansar al-Din’s political agenda is restricted to lightly-populated northern Mali; the movement has never expressed a desire to conquer the rest of Mali, nor would its planners be likely to delude themselves that such an effort would be possible without armed allies in the south, and these simply do not exist. The Ansar al-Din offensive has proven to be a strategic mistake, though in itself this would seem to confirm that the movement did not expect a military response from France to what amounted to little more than a probing of Malian government defenses.

Who is Joining the Battle in Mali?

Andrew McGregor

Aberfoyle International Security Special Report, January 15, 2013

When Tuareg-led Islamist groups advanced into the “no-man’s land” between Islamist-held northern Mali and government-controlled southern Mali, it precipitated a new war in the Sahel/Sahara region that probably neither side expected at this time.

french in maliThe largely Tuareg Ansar al-Din movement (led by veteran rebel Iyad ag Ghali, a.k.a. Abu al-Fadl) dropped out of peace talks on January 3 and announced it was prepared to resume hostilities after determining Bamako’s negotiators were only playing for time before an international military intervention could be mounted. In pressing south, Ansar al-Din was likely pursuing the following limited objectives rather than making a move on the Malian capital of Bamako:

  • Consolidate military command and control over divided Islamist fighting forces, including Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) forces recently defected to Ansar al-Din
  • Establish Ansar al-Din as the principal military and political force in northern Mali
  • Test the resolve of Malian military forces and their militia allies in Mopti and Sévaré
  • Pressure the Bamako government to take negotiations seriously before scheduled peace talks resumed later this month.

Unfortunately, the nations with the greatest experience in fighting al-Qaeda militants in the Sahara, Algeria and Mauritania, are not represented in the pro-government forces being assembled in Mali as part of the French-led Operation Serval, though they are taking important steps to seal their borders to prevent the escape of Islamist fighters. Algiers has also approved the over-flight of French military aircraft. On the other hand, nationals of both Algerian and Mauritania are well represented in the Islamist forces occupying northern Mali. Another nation that could make a major contribution to the anti-Islamist coalition is Chad, whose fighters redefined desert warfare in their campaigns against Libya’s military in the 1980s. Chad had expressed interest in joining an international intervention force, but cooled to the idea after Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno decided the force was too badly organized to commit Chadian troops, though he may yet accede to French requests for troops.

ECOWAS Chairman and Côte d’Ivoire President Alassane Ouattara ordered an immediate deployment of the 3,300-man UN-authorized AFISMA on January 11 (PANA Online [Dakar], January 14). However, with the ECOWAS intervention now moved up from its scheduled date of September, 2013, these troops will now arrive with little coordination, planning or training for their mission.

As of January 15, the following international deployments or pledges have been made:

France – 750 French troops are now present in Mali, with an additional 1,750 on their way. Of the existing deployment, 400 soldiers belong to the French Marine Infantry (the Marine Infantry are not amphibious troops in the American and British sense, but are rather the old French colonial infantry designed for overseas service. French marine infantry units have seen significant service in Afghanistan). Most of these troops arrived from the French base in Chad, possibly accompanied by some of the 200 French Foreign Legionnaires stationed there.

French aircraft in Mali include two older Mirage F1 CR fighter jets on loan from the French Operation Epervier, based in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena. These aircraft may have seen service against Libyan forces in the Chadian desert wars of the 1980s. A squadron of Dassault Rafale multirole combat aircraft began bombing operations in Mali on January 13 after flying in from their base in France.

There are also an undetermined number of Gazelle helicopter gunships belonging to the 4e Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales (4e RHFS), a Special Forces unit based in the Pyrenees town of Pau. Ansar al-Din claims to have destroyed two French attack helicopters already, though French spokesmen have admitted to only one. Unlike previous campaigns against various African rebel groups, Ansar al-Din is well-equipped with modern anti-aircraft weapons looted from Libyan armories.

The existing French deployment includes some sixty armored vehicles and light tanks suitable for desert warfare, many of which have arrived from the French base in Senegal.

France has urged the estimated 6,000 French citizens resident in Mali to evacuate the country.

United States – U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has asserted that “there is no consideration of putting any American boots on the ground at this time” (New York Times, January 15). However, the U.S. is expected to provide a variety of military aid, including intelligence, communications support, non-lethal surveillance drones, surveillance aircraft and in-flight refueling services.

United Kingdom – The UK is providing only “limited logistical support,” consisting of two transport planes. The first RAF C-17 left on January 13. Transport aircraft are vital in moving African forces into Mali as they have no air transport capabilities of their own. British troops may participate in training Malian troops.

Canada – Canada sent a single C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft on February 15 on a one-week deployment to ferry French troops and equipment to Bamako. This deployment may be renewed.

Belgium – Belgium has committed two C130 Hercules transports and one to two rescue helicopters with a total of 80 personnel. The deployment will be reviewed at the end of February.

Germany – Early reports from French sources that German troops had joined the first deployment of French forces now appear to have been false. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has declared that “the deployment of German combat troops is not up for debate” (AFP, January 13). Germany might still participate in an EU training mission for Malian troops. Logistical and medical support are other possibilities.

Spain – Spain is considering sending a military transport plane with 30 personnel to ferry French and African troops, but may wait until an EU meeting on January 17 to make a final decision.

Denmark – Denmark is expected to contribute one C-130 transport on a three-month deployment.

Niger – Neighboring Niger has pledged 500 troops, though it is not yet clear whether this force will include former Tuareg rebels who have been incorporated into the Nigerien military. Niamey has also taken steps to seal its common border with Mali.

Burkina Faso – Burkina Faso (former Upper Volta) has committed 500 troops, some of whom may be American-trained.  Burkinabe President Blaise Compaoré has played an important role in hosting peace talks between Bamako and the two Tuareg insurgent groups, the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar al-Din.

Nigeria – Nigeria, which has the largest military in West Africa, was once expected to provide the bulk of the troops in the projected 3,300 man ECOWAS intervention force (AFISMA), though it has yet to send combat troops to Mali. The Nigerian AFISMA commander, Major General Shehu Abdulkadir, has already arrived in Bamako. A Nigerian Air Force technical support team is in place, though their mission is limited to assessing “infrastructure, to provide back-end support and to help maintain the Malian air force” (AFP, January 12). The Nigerian military has pledged a force of 900 troops (up from an original pledge of 600), with the first company expected to arrive in Mali on January 16.

Togo – Togo has pledged 500 troops from the Forces armées togolaises (FAT).

Benin – Benin has pledged 300 troops to operate alongside the Togolese forces.

Senegal – Senegal has pledged 500 troops. The Senegalese military has extensive peacekeeping experience and many of its troops are American-trained.

Ghana – Ghana is sending 120 troops from the Engineering Corps of the Ghana Armed Forces (GAF).

Guinea – Guinea has pledged one company of troops (approximately 150 men).

MNLA – The Malian Tuareg separatists of the MNLA have offered to assist France in driving “terrorist forces” out of northern Mali, in language the movement usually uses to refer to AQIM and MUJWA, but not their fellow Tuareg of Ansar al-Din. Though the MNLA was driven into the background by the Islamist coalition after a series of successes against the Malian military in early 2012, it has since engaged in a number of battles with AQIM and MUJWA, which it regards as foreign interlopers and drug-traffickers.

European Union – The EU is expected to provide training and financing through the European union Training Force-Mali (EUTM-Mali), though this will take the form of bilateral agreements rather than coming under the EU umbrella.

African Troops Pour into Central African Republic to Halt Rebel Advance

Andrew McGregor

January 11, 2013

African troops from several nations have begun to arrive in the Central African Republic (CAR) in an effort to save the embattled regime of President François Bozizé Yangouvonda. The latest threat to the Bozizé regime began on December 10, 2012, when a coalition of three rebel movements known as “Seleka” began an offensive in the north of the country, covering 500 km over rough terrain in only 19 days before halting close to the capital of Bangui.

The rebels met only minimal resistance from government troops (the Forces armées centrafricaines – FACA) and troops belonging to the Mission de consolidation de la paix en République Centrafricaine (MICOPAX), an international force of over 500 troops from Chad, Gabon, Cameroon and the Congo. Bozizé has dismissed his own son, Jean-Francis, from his post as Defense Minister over the failure of the army to offer any resistance to the rebel advance (PANA Online [Dakar], January 4). For now the rebel advance has halted outside Damara, roughly 100 miles from the capital of Bangui as both parties head to talks in the Gabon capital of Libreville.

The CAR has abundant reserves of uranium, diamonds and timber, but continued insecurity and corruption have left the landlocked nation one of the poorest and most underdeveloped on earth. The military often goes unpaid for months at a time and has occasionally relied on emergency shipments of cash from France to prevent new rounds of mutinies. As a result, the poorly trained and ill-led force has come to resemble yet another bandit group that rarely conducts operations of any size outside the capital. The Presidential Guard is largely composed of Chadian mercenaries.

The rebel coalition is composed of three groups that came to terms with the government in the 2008 Libreville Comprehensive Peace Agreement; the Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR), the Convention des patriotes pour la justice et la paix (CPJP) and the Front démocratique du people centrafricain (FDPC). These groups accuse Bozizé of failing to meet the terms of the agreement over the last five years and now demand his ouster. Seleka is under the nominal command of Michel Djotodia, a founding member of the UFDR and is represented in Paris by Eric Massi, the son of Charles Massi, a former government minister and CPJP leader who was killed in mysterious circumstances after his arrest in 2009. Seleka’s military chief is Aubain Issa Issiaka. Though the coalition is united in their hatred of Bozizé, they appear to be unable to agree on little else (Jeune Afrique, January 2). Despite the unwillingness of the international contingent to confront the rebel advance so far, Gabonese MICOPAX commander General Jean-Felix Akaga has warned Seleka that “We will not give up Damara, this must be clear. If the rebels attack Damara, this will mean that they have decided to take on the ten countries of Central Africa” (Jeune Afrique, January 2).

The CAR’s Territorial Administration Minister, Josué Binoua, claims that the rebel groups are in fact composed of rebels from Darfur and the remnants of Mahamat Nouri’s Alliance nationale pour le changement démocratique (ANCD), a relatively inactive Chadian rebel group since it lost the backing of Khartoum in 2010 (for the collapse of the Chadian rebellion, see Terrorism Monitor, October 28, 2010). The ANCD has denied any involvement in the rebellion (AFP, January 4). According to Binoua, the leaders of the rebellion studied in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and intend to impose Wahhabist beliefs on the CAR (Jeune Afrique, January 7). Though many of the rebels are indeed Muslims from the northern CAR, these claims seem designed to rally international support behind the Bozize regime by raising the specter of a takeover by Salafi-Jihadists similar to that in northern Mali.

Several nations have responded to an appeal for more troops from Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno, chairman of the Communauté économique des Etats d’Afrique centrale (CEEAC), the multinational body sponsoring MICOPAX. Congo-Brazzaville has committed 120 troops, as has Gabon and Cameroon. These forces are expected to join the 400 Chadians deployed at Damara, the last outpost before Bangui (PANA Online [Dakar], January 1; RFI, January 2; January 4; AFP, December 31, 2012). The reinforcements will operate under the command of MICOPAX. However, Gabonese Defense Minister Ruffin Pacome Odzonga has made it clear that “the mandate of the Gabonese troops is provide a buffer and not to fight the rebels” (RFI, January 2). CEEAC is composed of Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, and Sao Tomé and Principe.

South Africa is also sending 400 members of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) to the CAR on a limited deployment ranging from January 2 to March 31. Whether these troops would participate in operations against the rebels remains uncertain, as their mandate mentions only assisting FACA with “capacity building” and assisting in the “planning and implementation of the disarmament, demobilization and re-integration processes” (SANews [Tshwane], January 7).

A detachment of several hundred French troops in Bangui as part of Operation Boali (intended to support the CAR military and international forces of the CEEAC) have been detailed to protect French nationals and diplomatic premises in the CAR capital. [1] CEEAC forces are expected to replace local vigilante groups in the capital known as Kokora. Armed with machetes and bows and arrows, these groups have detained or abused Muslims in the capital whom they accuse of being a fifth column for the rebels (AFP, January 2; January 5).


1. France Diplomatie, December 27, 2012, For Operation Boali, see

This article first appeared in the January 11, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor

Islamist Groups Reconfigure in Northern Mali as Intervention Looms

Andrew McGregor

January 11, 2013

Just as the days of cooperation between the three Islamist groups that seized control of northern Mali last year seemed to be over, the three groups appear to have mounted a joint push southwards towards Malian Army lines near Mopti and Sévaré. The move may be intended to present a united front before peace talks resume in Ouagadougou on January 19, though the exact composition of the force remains uncertain. The advance may also offer an opportunity to test the resolve of the Malian Army and its allied militias, which have been talking tough but showing little sign of mounting an offensive against the Islamists any time soon.

TimbuktuIslamist Fighters in Timbuktu

In the last few weeks, a combination of internal racial and religious tensions between the Islamist groups has been exacerbated by a perceived need to reconfigure alliances in the region to prepare for an inevitable external military intervention. The largely Tuareg Ansar al-Din movement commanded by Iyad ag Ghali (a.k.a. Abu al-Fadl) also appears to be making efforts to consolidate a leading role amongst the militant groups. Important changes are afoot in the command structure of the other Islamist groups in northern Mali which have, until now, been dominated by Mauritanian and Algerian Arab commanders.

In an interview with an Algerian newspaper, Shaykh Awisa, a leading member of Ansar al-Din’s military command, referred to the movement’s shift away from an alliance with the largely Black African Islamists of MUJWA (Movement for Jihad and Unity in West Africa) in favor of closer ties to its former partner, the Tuareg nationalist MNLA: “Our relations with the MNLA are very good. We have a common enemy [i.e. MUJWA]. There are no problems between our movement, Ansar al Din, and the MNLA” (Le Temps d’Algérie, November 27, 2012). The MNLA fought a fierce battle with MUJWA on November 16, 2012.

MUJWA has identified a replacement for Hisham Bilal, believed to have been the first sub-Saharan individual to command an al-Qaeda-associated jihadist combat unit. Bilal and a number of his men returned to his native Niger and surrendered to authorities there on November 8, 2012, complaining that the Arab commanders of MUJWA viewed Black African jihadists as “cannon fodder” and believed “a black man is inferior to an Arab or a white” (AFP, November 9, 2012). Bilal’s successor is a Beninese national using the nom de guerre “Abdullah.” The new commander is reported to speak Yoruba, a major language in Nigeria as well as Benin, and may have been responsible for contacts between MUJWA and northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram movement (Radio France Internationale, December 31, 2012).  According to one report, MNLA leader Bilal ag Acherif was in the Nigerian capital of Abuja in mid-December, trying to convince authorities there that his movement could, with Nigerian arms and logistical support, provide a bulwark against the expansion of Boko Haram (Jeune Afrique, December 16, 2012).

MUJWA speaks of itself as an alliance between native Arab, Tuareg and Black African tribes and various muhajirin (“Immigrants,” i.e. foreign jihadists) from North and West Africa. According to MUJWA, their “war” against the MNLA was sparked not only by the Tuareg nationalists’ refusal to adopt Shari’a as the law of the land, but also by their racial attitudes, suggesting that in the MNLA, “the Black has no rights, while the White has rights” (in Malian usage, “white” is applied to Tuareg, Arabs and Mauritanians). [1] To further its official position on race relations, MUJWA cites a familiar hadith (saying of the Prophet Muhammad) recorded by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (780-855 C.E.): “An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety” (Musnad Ahmad 22391).

On January 2, MUJWA’s Salah al-Din Brigade announced it had decided to leave MUJWA and join Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement. The decision by Brigade leader Sultan Ould Badi (a.k.a. Abu Ali) to swear allegiance to Ag Ghali apparently came after lengthy efforts by Ansar al-Din leaders to unify the Islamists. Most of the fighters in the Salah al-Din Brigade are reported to hail from Gao and Kidal (Sahara Media, January 2).

A leading member of the MNLA and its provisional Azawad government denied rumors of dissent within his movement while warning at the same time that any member of Ansar al-Din who allies himself with MUJWA will be treated as a MUJWA fighter (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 10, 2012). At the moment there are no hostilities between the MNLA and Ansar al-Din, both primarily Tuareg rebel movements who have been engaged in joint peace talks being held in Ougadougou and Algiers despite their conflicting goals. However, on January 3, Ansar al-Din leader Iyad ag Ghali announced that his movement would no longer abide by its offer to end hostilities with the Bamako government due to the latter’s failure to bring anything of substance to negotiations in Ougadougou and its decision to recruit mercenaries from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire to fight in northern Mali (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], January 3; AFP, January 3).

Within al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a Mauritanian, Muhammad al-Amin Ould al-Hassan Ould al-Hadrami (a.k.a. Abdallah al-Shinqiti), is reported to have been appointed the new amir of the Furqan Battalion to replace Yahya Abu al-Hammam, who took over as amir of AQIM’s Sahara command (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, October 18, 2012). Al-Shinqiti finished a degree from Nouackcohott’s Higher Institute for Islamic Studies and Research in 2006 while serving a 14-month prison term before joining AQIM (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], December 31, 2012). AQIM’s penchant for cigarette and drug smuggling has created friction with Ansar al-Din, which has vowed to eliminate the trade in areas under its control (Le Temps d’Algérie, November 29).

In order to broaden its base, Ansar al-Din now appears to be abandoning its strict adherence to the non-native Salafism that brought the movement into conflict with many residents of northern Mali. In negotiations being held in Burkina Faso, Ansar al-Din has backed away from its insistence that Shari’a be applied throughout Mali rather than just northern Mali (Azawad). Movement leaders such as Iyad ag Ghali and Algabass ag Intalla have been meeting with local religious leaders and tribal chiefs to assure them Ansar al-Din does not intend to interfere with the traditional form of Islam practiced in the region (Jeune Afrique, December 21). By doing so, the movement hopes to marginalize the foreign Salafists commanding AQIM. If Ansar al-Din is to have any success in the ongoing negotiations with Bamako it must be able to demonstrate some degree of popular support and thus cannot afford to continue alienating local Muslims. Such moves also help bring Ansar al-Din closer to the MNLA, which rejects the introduction of Islamist extremism into the region.

Meanwhile, Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), who split from AQIM after a dispute with the movement’s leadership in November, is reported to have relocated with a detachment of loyalists and MUJWA fighters equipped with dozens of vehicles armed with heavy machine-guns to al-Khalil, an important transit point for smugglers and legitimate traders alike near the Algerian border (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 26, 2012; for Belmokhtar’s split, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, November 15; November 30). The occupation of al-Khalil gives Belmokhtar an opportunity to control fuel smuggling in the region as well as shipments of food and other goods to northern Mali. [2]

While northern Mali was once neatly divided between the three armed Islamist groups in the region, Ansar al-Din has now moved its forces out of Kidal into Timbuktu and Gao regions, once the preserves of AQIM and MUJWa, respectively. AQIM appears to have responded to this move by creating a new brigade to operate in Kidal, the Katibat Yusuf bin Tachfine, led by a Kidal Tuareg named Abu Abd al-Hamid al-Kidali (Le Temps d’Algérie, December 3, 2012). In the current environment of mistrust in northern Mali, a joint operation may be the only way of preventing an outbreak of clashes between the sometimes cooperative, sometimes antagonistic Islamist movements operating in the region.


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

2. For al-Khalil, see Judith Scheele, Smugglers and Saints of the Sahara: Regional Connectivity in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, 2012.

This article first appeared in the January 11, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor.