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

Andrew McGregor

March 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Islamist Militias Take to the Streets as Egyptians Look for Solutions to Internal Security Crisis

Andrew McGregor

March 21, 2013

Though it lacks the compelling and convenient images produced in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during Egypt’s dramatic January, 2011 revolution, Egypt has been plunged into what has been variously described as a counter-revolution, a continuation of the 2011 revolution or an attempt by Islamist forces to consolidate power by taking advantage of Egypt’s internal security crisis. With police walking away from their duties across the country, Egyptians are seeking solutions to a security collapse that has given free rein to criminals, vandals and political extremists. Solutions such as massive reforms in the Interior Ministry or even privatization of the police have been floated, but Egypt’s Islamist movements have come up with their own solution – the creation and deployment of Islamist militias known as “popular committees.” The inability of the government to deal with the ongoing security crisis and the growing divide between Egypt’s religious and secular communities has many Egyptian politicians and commentators raising the possibility of a civil war.

Islamist MilitiasPublic protests have been fueled by economic turmoil, fuel shortages and controversial court decisions such as the acquittal of seven police officers tried for their role in the soccer-related violence that claimed 74 lives in Port Said in February, 2012 (21 civilians have been sentenced to death for their involvement in the violence) (al-Arabiya, March 11). Ongoing strikes in the industrial sector have paralyzed economic development.

Some demonstrations have involved shutting down public transportation and assaulting railway passengers, behavior that was unthinkable in pre-revolution Egypt (Ahram Online, February 11). Even the Mugamma building, Egypt’s monument to labyrinthine bureaucracy in Tahrir Square, has been subject to assault by demonstrators as security forces stood by (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 24). Cairo’s “Ultra” soccer hooligans have also engaged in vandalism and public violence in their deadly feud with Egypt’s security forces. A Muslim Brotherhood website has claimed that former leading officials of the now dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP – the ruling party of the former regime) are instigating the Ultras to attack the Muslim Brothers (, March 15). Several days later, the same website claimed that former NDP members were alternately bribing citizens to go on strike or forcing them to strike at gunpoint (, March 18).

In a troubling development, weapons appear to be pouring into the traditionally unarmed civilian population of Egypt since the revolution and the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in neighboring Libya. A recent sweep by Egyptian police seized 423 weapons, including machine guns and rifles (Middle Eastern News Agency [MENA – Cairo], March 17).

In what could be an embarrassing challenge to Egypt’s pretensions of leading the Arab world, reports have emerged that the Arab League is considering moving its headquarters out of Cairo due to continued violence that has forced the group to relocate many of its meetings (Ma’an News Agency [Bethlehem], March 18). Foreign investment is in steep decline and Egypt’s tourist industry, a vital source of hard currency, is floundering as Western tourists look for more secure places to vacation. For Egypt’s Islamists, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as they seek to replace Western tourists with Muslim tourists from the Gulf States, though the latter seem to be avoiding Egypt as well.

Citizen’s Arrests or Privatization?

Egypt’s prosecutor-general Talat Abdullah (an appointee of Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi) created a storm of controversy by urging “all citizens” to combat the destruction of private and public property and the creation of roadblocks by exercising “the right afforded to them by Article 37 of Egypt’s criminal procedure law to arrest anyone found committing a crime and refer them to official personnel” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 10; al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). A later statement from Abdullah’s office tried to back away from advocating citizen arrests, but had little impact.

Article 37 is an existing but little-used piece of legislation that allows citizens to arrest defendants for offenses that can be punished by no less than one year in prison – making an arrest on lesser offences could result in a charge of illegal arrest. These provisions are clearly designed to limit the use of Article 37, but these details are likely to be overlooked in the current heated environment. According to a military source cited by a major Cairo daily, “The statements of the prosecutor-general regarding granting citizens arrest powers are a clear attempt to legalize the militias of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists on the streets and to give them the right to arrest citizens, which puts Egypt on the verge of a civil war and ends the state of law” (Ahram Online, March 11).

While secular opposition parties denounced the prosecutor-general’s statement as an attempt to legitimize Islamist militias and a violation of the constitution, the secretary general of the Islamist Hizb al-Bena’a wa’l-Tanmia (Building and Development Party) Ala’a Abu al-Nasr, hailed the announcement, saying “The decision of the prosecutor-general to grant citizens the right to arrest vandals is a correct decision based on the law… The decision comes as a first step to confront systematic violence in Egypt” (Ahram Online, March 11).

The dismissal of prosecutor-general Abdullah and the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil are among the demands an opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, has said must be met before they will participate in forthcoming parliamentary elections (Ahram Online, March 14). Talat Abdullah has submitted his resignation once already since his November 2012 appointment after hundreds of public prosecutors staged a sit-in outside his office (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). The largest of Egypt’s Salafist parties, the Nur Party, is also backing calls for the replacement of the Qandil government.

On March 9, Sabir Abu al-Futuh, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa’l-Adala (FJP – Freedom and Justice Party), announced that the party was considering legislation that would give private security firms the right to bear arms, make arrests and be engaged by the state to provide domestic policing functions. Abu al-Futuh also recommended the establishment of armed “popular committees “in the event that police continue their strike action.” Ahmad Fawzi of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party called Abu al-Futuh’s proposal “a continuation of the Islamist group’s ongoing endeavors to monopolize power in all of its forms, whether it be police, army or judiciary” (Ahram Online, March 10).  Some Egyptians warn that privatization of the domestic security services would open the way for U.S. security firms to set up shop in Egypt with the approval of their “friends” in the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 16).

The Interior Ministry

Striking police oppose what they describe as the “Brotherhoodization” of the Interior Ministry and call for the dismissal of another Mursi appointee, Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim (Ahram Online, March 15). Scores of police stations and Central Security Force (CSF) camps across Egypt (including those in the main cities of Cairo and Alexandria) have joined the strike that began March 7 when security forces in the Suez town of Ismailiya refused to deploy to Port Said, where several police officers have been killed in ongoing unrest. Egypt’s security services are still reeling from the public contempt that followed their brutal response to the anti-Mubarak revolution and fear that association with the ruling party will only further alienate the security forces from the public. According to one striking policeman, “We don’t want to be hated and feared by the people; we don’t want to be treated as the enemies of the people and the servants of the regime” (Daily News Egypt, March 9). The striking policemen are also calling for better arms to tackle the wave of lawlessness sweeping Egypt.

Islamist Militias 2Many policemen have been suspended after growing beards to express their affiliation with Islamist movements. Though an Administrative Court ruled in favor of the “bearded policemen” on the grounds of religious freedom, the Interior Ministry has refused to follow the court’s ruling, leading to further demonstrations and the creation of an official Facebook page: “I am a bearded policeman” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 14). There are now also demands from some members of the army that they be allowed to grow beards, demands that have been interpreted in some quarters as an attempt to turn the army into an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Watan [Cairo], March 17).

One of the early victims of the police strikes was the CSF commander, Magid Nouh, who was replaced on March 8 by CSF veteran Ashraf Abdullah after he failed to persuade the security services to allow him to return to work (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 8; al-Jazeera, March 8). The Egyptian president followed this move by making a personal visit to the Cairo headquarters of the CSF where he returned to the familiar language of “external threats” by warning the officers: “Beware, our outside enemy is seeking to create division among us, and we must not allow it” (Ahram Online [Cairo], March 15).

Al-Gama’a al-Islamiya

Leading the effort to form “popular committees” is al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI), a Salafist group that turned to non-violence after a long record of terrorist attacks through the 1980s and 1990s. Many leading members of the GI and BDP are former militants released from prison during the 2011 revolution.

According to a spokesman for the BDP, the GI’s political wing, “community police groups would step in under the supervision of the Interior Ministry,” while claiming that “this system is applied in other countries” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 12). Another BDP spokesman has complained the police are forcing the people to choose between torture or a lack of security: “We call on the police to meet their duty in protecting state institutions and not to give up the country’s security and stability in such critical times” (Ahram Online, March 9).

Asim Abd al-Magid, a senior GI member, has been given the job of organizing the GI’s “popular committees.” Besides calling on Egyptians to gather at mosques to form militias, Abd al-Magid has shown only slight respect for the security services: “Any policeman who wants to leave his position can do so, but he will not be allowed to come back… We want to purge the ministry of such elements anyway” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12).

Satellite television has carried footage of the “Gama’a al-Islamiya police” parading in the streets of Asyut in cars and motorcycles despite warnings from the police that their activities are illegal (al-Hayat TV, March 12). In the city of Minya, the BDP has joined with the Salafist Nur Party to form “popular committees” to restore order in the streets (Ahram Online, March 9). 

The Muslim Brotherhood

The vice-president of the FJP (the Brothers’ political wing), Dr. Rafiq Habib (a Coptic Christian), believes that the chaos in Egypt’s streets is the work of secular forces and representatives of the old regime who see the violence as a means of preventing the Islamists from governing the country effectively, thus opening an opportunity for the restoration of the old regime (sans Mubarak) (, March 15).

The Brotherhood has been unnerved by a series of arson attacks on its offices throughout Egypt that began last December. At times, these attacks have resulted in pitched street battles between anti-Brotherhood protestors and Brotherhood self-defense groups (Amal al-Ummah [Alexandria], March 19). In an effort to come to grips with the spiraling violence, the leader of the Muslim Brothers, Dr. Muhammad Badi, launched an initiative on March 16 that calls for all the various political factions to remove their supporters from the streets for a specific period of time so that maximum efforts can be made to re-build the country (, March 17).

The possibility of Islamist militias taking to the streets reminded many Egyptians of the shocking photos published in 2006 that showed a military display at Cairo’s Islamic al-Azhar University put on by a Muslim Brotherhood student group known as “the Hawks,” though the event was later dismissed by the Brotherhood as nothing more than “a theatrical display” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, December 13, 2006). More recently, Cairo’s al-Dustur daily reported on March 20 that Muslim Brotherhood members had received military training at CSF camps in preparation for fielding militias, though the Interior Ministry has denied these claims.

The Army

Demonstrations in Alexandria have called for the resignation of President Mursi, the trial of Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim on charges of killing demonstrators in the Suez region and the return of the army to run the country until new elections can be held (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 8). A recent poll by Cairo’s Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies showed a surprising 82 percent of Egyptians want the army to take control of the country on a temporary basis (al-Masri al-Youm [Cairo], March 18). The poll results were released days after residents of al-Nasr City took to the streets on March 15 to demand a return to military rule (MENA, March 15). Calls for the return of the army are also beginning to appear with frequency in the non-Islamist Egyptian press.

Defense Minister General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi maintains that the “Brotherhoodization” of the military is a near impossibility, but has warned recruits to abandon sectarian or political allegiances when they enter the military (al-Ahram [Cairo], March 15). Whether they form the government or not, the Muslim Brotherhood cannot easily transform the leadership of an institution that has spent decades purging all officers suspected of being sympathetic to the Brothers. While the situation could be changed very gradually through loosening restrictions on officer-candidates, command of the military cannot be simply handed over to a group of inexperienced Islamist subalterns. The Islamization of the military could more realistically take one or two decades – any sudden attempt to transform the military would inevitably result in yet another coup d’état and a return to military rule. The military’s surprising cooperation with the Brotherhood so far has raised the possibility that the command has simply given the Islamists enough rope to hang themselves in trying to transform a deeply entrenched social and political system. When popular opinion cries out for a return to the stability of military rule and foreign governments begin to give indications they are ready to look the other way, the military will be in a prime position to return to government or install a more pliant regime. The Army still controls a large but undefined section of the national economy, making it a necessary partner in any shift in political direction.


Before his death last year, former Egyptian intelligence chief General Omar Sulayman warned of the creation of Islamist militias in Egypt and the consequent threat of a civil war: “The Muslim Brotherhood group is not foolish, and hence it is preparing itself militarily, and within two to three years it will have a revolutionary guard to fight the army, and Egypt will face a civil war, like Iraq (al-Hayat, May 22, 2012; see also Terrorism Monitor Brief, June 1, 2012).

The Egyptian Army has indicated that the creation of private militias is a “red-line” for the military that could bring on military intervention to restore state control (Ahram Online, March 11). Interior Minister Ibrahim has insisted there is no role for vigilantes or militias in Egypt: “From the minister to the youngest recruit in the force, we will not accept having militias in Egypt. That will be only when we are totally dead, finished” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 12). For Egypt, however, the greatest challenges to internal security may be yet to come, as Egyptian jihadists return from the battlefields of Syria and exiled Egyptian members of core al-Qaeda take advantage of the security collapse to re-infiltrate the country and resume the type of bloody operations that marked the struggle between Islamist terrorists and security forces in the 1990s.

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

Shock Waves Continue from Mysterious Suicide Blast at U.S. Embassy in Ankara

Andrew McGregor

March 21, 2013

In terms of scale alone, the February 1 suicide bombing that killed a Turkish security guard and injured a Turkish journalist outside the U.S. Embassy in Ankara was a relatively minor event that did not succeed in causing any significant damage to the embassy itself. Nonetheless, the attack carried out by left-wing militant Ecevit Sanli has created political and diplomatic reverberations throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Ankara Bombing 1Marxist Suicide Bomber Ecevit Sanli

Though suicide bombings are most commonly associated with Islamist groups, Sanli was a long-term member of a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary group that adopted the tactic of suicide-bombing in 2001, the Devrimci Halk Kurtuluş Partisi-Cephesi (DHKP/C – Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front). After several years of inactivity following the death of founder Dursun Karatas in 2008, the Marxist-Leninist group suddenly renewed activities in September, 2012.

In the embassy attack, Sanli is reported to have used an electric detonator to set off six kilograms of TNT strapped to his body. The suicide bomber had previously been imprisoned for an attack on an Istanbul barracks in 1997. After three years in pre-trial detention, Sanli engaged in hunger strikes with dozens of other prisoners in Istanbul’s Umraniye Prison in 2000 to prevent their transfer to one of Turkey’s feared F-Type prisons, which emphasize social isolation in modern, sterile institutions, an environment that prisoners refer to as “white torture.”

Mass hunger strikes have been common in Turkey’s high-security F-Type prisons. Scores of prisoners have died in these events, while Sanli and hundreds of others subsequently suffered from Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a degenerative brain disease better known as “Wet Brain.” Caused by thiamine deficiency, the syndrome is common in chronic alcoholics and individuals who have engaged in extended hunger strikes. F-Type Prisons are reserved for terrorists, political prisoners and organized crime leaders. The DHKP/C has been prominent in leading prison hunger strikes. Turkish intelligence has suggested that the DHKP/C used militants suffering from terminal illnesses in a number of suicide attacks carried out in the last seven months (Today’s Zaman, February 4).

Released on parole after an eight month hunger strike, Sanli eventually disappeared and was sentenced to death in absentia in June, 2002 (later reduced to life in prison). Sanli next appeared in Germany in September, 2002, where his application for political asylum was denied after his record of terrorist acts came to light. Germany, however, refused to deport him to Turkey for fear he might be tortured. By 2011 he had lost the right to reside in Germany and was ordered not to leave Cologne (Der Spiegel [Hamburg], February 11). German intelligence continued to track Sanli’s whereabouts in Germany but lost sight of him last October. It is believed that Sanli planned the Ankara attack while still in Germany.

Anger is growing in Turkey over the alleged failure of various EU states, particularly Germany, to cooperate with Ankara in bringing an end to the use of European nations as bases for extremist groups carrying out terrorist operations in Turkey (Today’s Zaman, February 5). Germany’s reluctance to extradite suspected Turkish extremists was brought up only days after the bombing in talks between Turkish Interior Minister Muammer Guler and his German counterpart, Hans-Peter Friedrich (Hurriyet Daily News, February 14).

According to the DHKP/C claim of responsibility that followed the embassy attack, “Our warrior [Sanli] carried out an act of self-sacrifice by entering the Ankara embassy of the United States, murderer of the peoples of the world” (Today’s Zaman, February 4). The statement went on to condemn Turkey’s close security relationship with the United States, citing issues such as the installation of Patriot missiles and NATO’s creation of a radar base at Kurecik that Iran claims is intended to defend Israel, not Turkey (Milliyet, February 10).

Shortly after the attack, President Abdullah Gul revealed that Turkey’s security services had information in January that the DHKP/C was planning an attack, but “unfortunately it could not be prevented and the attack against the embassy took place” (Hurriyet Daily News, February 6). Turkish police are searching for two other DHKP/C members who entered Turkey alongside Sanli from a training camp in Greece. There are fears the two may be planning further suicide attacks (Zaman Online, February 17). A statement issued earlier this month by the Milli Istihbarat Teskilati (MIT – Turkey’s national intelligence organization) warned Istanbul policemen that the DHKP/C was using internet search engines, Facebook and Twitter to obtain the photographs and addresses of police officers (Milliyet, March 4).

The Police Intelligence Department revealed at a recent parliamentary hearing that a 2008 DHKP/C plot to attack the home of Prime Minister Erdogan and a 2009 plan to assassinate former justice minister Hikmet Sami Turk had been foiled by electronic surveillance. The information was given during a hearing in which the police defended their use of wiretaps by claiming 284 terrorist attacks had been stopped and 138 “bombers” arrested in the last three years (Hurriyet Daily News, February 24). Many Turks are puzzled by the persistence of what one local columnist called “rogue groups with absolutely no foundation in society,” and tend to see the hand of Turkey’s “deep state” structure behind the resiliency of Turkey’s terrorist groups, including movements that appear to be still fighting the Cold War, such as the DHKP/C (Today’s Zaman, February 4).

The prior knowledge of an impending DHKP/C attack mentioned by President Gul may have been the reason why Turkish security forces cracked down on the group in the weeks before the bombing, arresting over 80 suspects. After the attack, the crackdown intensified. 167 people were detained in country-wide raids on suspected DHKP/C members on February 18. Many of the detainees were identified as professionals or public servants belonging to the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Unions (KESK), whose offices were also raided. The raids uncovered documents containing the license numbers and identity information of Ankara judges and prosecutors who have worked on DHKP/C-related cases (Hurriyet Daily News, February 19, February 20; Today’s Zaman, March 11).

Ankara Bombing 2A March 14 raid in the Okmeydani neighborhood of Istanbul was resisted by the occupants of a fortified DHKP/C safe-house, who endured tear gas while trying to burn documents. Twelve people were detained, six of whom were reported to be under 18. The occupants of the safe-house were said to have illegally tapped into electricity, water and natural gas supplies. A gathering of socialists protested the arrest later that day and were dispersed by Istanbul police using pepper spray (Today’s Zaman, March 14, March 15).

Greece, which has usually refused to extradite suspects to Turkey, appears to have re-examined its approach in the wake of a March 4 meeting between Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After the meeting, Samaras was reported to have ordered the closing of two DHKP/C training camps in the Lavrion and Oropo regions. The movement is now said to have moved its headquarters to an apartment in Thessaloniki (Daily Star [Beirut], March 9; Hurriyet Daily News, March 9). Greece has also promised to extradite the elusive Zeki Gurbuz, leader of the Marksist Leninist Komunist Parti Turkiye (MLKP) and a DHKP/C member identified only as “S.E.” (Today’s Zaman, March 15).

Various theories have been advanced to explain the motivation behind the attack on the U.S. embassy, some based on the belief that the DHKP/C is a “deep-state” legacy working as a subcontractor for other extremist groups or intelligence agencies in order to raise funds for their own operations. If this is the case, there are three possible clients for the embassy attack:

  • Syria, as a covert effort to harm the United States, but with a message attached for Ankara regarding its pro-rebel position on Syria. Turkish security analyst and Jamestown contributor Nihat Ali Ozcan pointed to a possible connection between the bombing and the development of a proxy war between Turkey and Syria: “It is no secret that during the Cold War, Syria hosted Marxist-Leninist movements. When Turkey changed its stance against Iran and Syria, everybody started to look at the old files to see ‘what kind of networks we had’” (Hurriyet Daily News, February 18).
  • Iran, as part of a larger proxy war against American interests. The attack would also convey Tehran’s dissatisfaction with Turkish policies in Syria.
  • Kurdish rebel commanders belonging to the Parti Karkerani Kurdistan (PKK), as a message to Ankara that they will continue operations even as the government enters talks with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The DHKP/C is rooted in Turkey’s Alevi community, a sectarian affiliation including Turks, Kurds and Arabs and comprising approximately 10 percent of Turkey’s population of 75 million people. Alevism is a syncretic faith that, like Alawism, combines elements of Shi’ism, Christianity and pre-Islamic rites and beliefs. Alevis, who are generally strong supporters of Turkish secularism, have been under pressure from the AKP government for several years to conform to Sunni orthodoxy (EDM, October 12, 2007).

Analyst Nihat Ali Ozcan has suggested that the DHKP/C’s Marxist allegiance is of less importance than its “ethnic-sectarian identity”; “There are some homegrown organizations in which most members share a common allegiance to the Alevi faith beneath the cloak of Marxism… Accordingly, with the end of the Cold War, the true colors of the DHKP/C were derived not from Marxism, but from this kind of sectarian identity” (Hurriyet Daily News, February 7).

Marching to Timbuktu: The Unwanted Conquest of Mali that Made a Marshal of France

Dr. Andrew McGregor

Military History Online

March 21, 2013

Marching 1When French troops launched a military intervention against Islamist militants in Mali in January 2013, many of those advancing on the legendary city of Timbuktu may have been unaware that it had been 119 years since a French colonial army column under Major Joseph Joffre had entered that ancient trading capital. Rather than a triumph for France, the 1894 occupation was in fact a planned act of insubordination by Joffre and other French colonial officers. The truth was France didn’t want Timbuktu.

Joffre is best known as the commander of all French armies in World War 1 after his victory at the Marne in 1914 was credited with saving France. At the height of his fame in 1915 his military report of the 1894 occupation of Timbuktu was reprinted under the title My March to Timbuctoo. Unfortunately, Joffre’s account of his campaign along the Niger River disappoints adventure seekers; it is instead a model of dryness and economy of words devoid of personal observations or impressions. Brevity was no doubt called for, as the true story of insubordination, atrocities and war for war’s sake that was behind the conquest of Timbuktu was hardly the material with which to build the reputation of a Marshal of France.

Episodes such as the conquest of Africa have traditionally been envisioned in a haze of flags, bayonets and noble officers falling for the glory of some European power, presumably for the eternal benefit of both the occupier and the occupied. The problem was that the responsible ministries in Paris were often at odds with their armed representatives, the French colonial army. While the government sought profitable colonies in fertile regions of Africa, the army sought a permanent state of war. In the long period of peace France experienced in Europe from 1870 to 1914, combat experience in Africa (or Indo-China) was the only way to make rapid advancement through the ranks. As a result, the French colonial officer corps made their own decisions on expanding French possessions into a far less profitable interior. Failure in these efforts could bring death or dismissal, but punishment of a victorious feat of French arms was a rare occurrence. It was a risk that many colonial officers, including Joffre, were willing to take.

Marching 2French Soudan – Larger than France

In Joffre’s time, targeted atrocities and summary executions were the tools of the colonial army, regardless of its pretensions at “bringing civilization” or “ending slavery.” African colonial troops joined the army for the prospect of plunder; the official pay was negligible, but war meant an opportunity for self-enrichment and an escape from the drudgery of small-scale agriculture. Women captured on campaign were routinely distributed to the colonial troops before being sold on as slaves. The motivations of France’s young officers were clothed in better fabric on the way out from France, but the realities of how French control was imposed by officers far beyond the supervision of Paris soon made themselves apparent. From that point a young officer had a choice: return to stultifying garrison duty in France or do things “the colonial way” and make a career for oneself in the deserts of Africa.

As a young officer in the engineers, Joffre saw little action in the Franco-Prussian War. France’s military humiliation at the hands of the newly-united Germans in 1871 brought a temporary decline in French pride in its armed forces. The best escape from post-defeat depression and opportunity for advancement was service overseas in the colonial army, which seemed determined to erase the French disgrace of 1871 through a series of aggressive campaigns against little-known peoples in far-off places. Joffre took this route (though his motivation seemed to derive mainly from the early death of his wife) and participated in the two-year battle with China for control of northern Formosa (modern Taiwan) in 1884-85.

Marching 3French Column on the March

When Joffre arrived in 1892 in his new assignment in “French Soudan” (as the French colonies in West Africa were known), he was already marked by a prodigious bulk, an enormous mustache and “a magnificent appetite,” as one of his biographers put it. His orders were to build a railway connecting the Senegal River and the Niger River, but he soon found himself involved in a scheme conceived by his superior officer to take Timbuktu in defiance of official orders. As Lieutenant-Colonel Etienne Bonnier devised his plan to take the city, Joffre became his willing accomplice, commanding an overland invasion column intended to rendezvous with Bonnier’s force, which was to be carried in barges down the Niger. Bonnier left his subordinates orders that the newly arriving civilian governor was to be obeyed in all things, save military matters, on which he was to be ignored. The new governor, Albert Grodet, was a controversial figure in the French colonies but was given the appointment because it was felt he would be tough enough to confront the undisciplined colonels of the Colonial Army head-on. Grodet’s experience as governor of French Guiana , home of France’s vast and lethal penal camps (popularly but inaccurately known as “Devil’s Island”) was doubtless counted in his favor when assessing his ability to tame the colonels.

Bonnier and Joffre were preceded to Timbuktu by the gunboats Mage and Niger, under the command of Lieutenant Boiteux, an impetuous young officer who was busy defying Bonnier’s own commands by taking his boats into Timbuktu. Boiteux landed at Kabara, Timbuktu’s port on the Niger, and headed inland with a group of sailors to claim the city for France. A small party of Tuareg appeared but was driven off by the guns of the Mage, directed by the gunboat’s second-in-command, Léon Aube, son of Admiral Aube, the former Marine Minister. The Tuareg scattered and Timbuktu was taken without further opposition.

For Bonnier, however, the rashness of the young lieutenant now gave cover to the unauthorized invasion – Boiteux’s flotilla was in danger in Timbuktu and had to be rescued by the armed columns already under way. A furious Governor Grodet issued new orders for Bonnier to return immediately, but the colonel refused, reassuring the governor that the conquest of Timbuktu would entail no new expenditures to the French purse.

Colonel Bonnier entered Timbuktu in December, 1894, but only stayed there a few days before moving west to join Joffre’s column. By now both Bonnier and Joffre had been sacked by Grodet for insubordination and orders had been issued from Paris for their recall, but Bonnnier cited military necessity as the reason for his continued disobedience. Bonnier had no knowledge of Tuareg tactics and was shadowed by them until the Tuareg pounced on his camp at Goundam in the early hours of a January morning. Bonnnier had not taken even the most basic precautions, such as mounting patrols, posting sufficient pickets or constructing a zariba, a rough fence of thorn brush around the camp. The Tuareg first stampeded the column’s own livestock through the camp to create confusion and then fell on the colonial troops with swords, spears and daggers. Though the Tuareg took losses, the toll of 82 dead in the French camp, including Bonnier and nearly all the European officers, represented a shocking loss and Bonnier was posthumously denounced in Paris for his incompetence. Léon Aube, the second-in-command of the Mage, was killed while leading a small patrol near Kabara on December 28 when a large number of Tuareg descended on his patrol, massacring Aube, the Mage’s French petty officer and 18 laptots (locally raised sailors).

By this time it was clear that French politicians who had supported the establishment of colonies in Africa’s more lucrative coastal regions had lost control of the colonial project to the military, which always discovered one more threat to security in a neighboring territory that would justify yet another military campaign into the interior. In Paris there were new calls for the government to restore discipline in the officer corps of the colonial army, but the occupation of Timbuktu by Joffre’s column was reluctantly recognized as a military achievement and Joffre promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. Joffre was allowed to remain in the new possession, where he set about the “near annihilation” (as he himself put it) of the Tuareg tribes he believed responsible for the Goundam massacre. For six months after occupying Timbuktu, Joffre defied explicit orders to show restraint in the region by taking revenge on the Tuareg, including tribes not involved in the attack at Goundam. Joffre’s punitive columns carried out large-scale massacres of Tuareg tribesmen and seized their animals to force their submission. The severed heads of opponents of the French occupation began to appear in village markets as a warning that Tuareg domination of the region was over. The slaughter of the Tuareg, who by this time were all considered a threat to the French regardless of their attitudes to the occupation, continued for several years after Joffre’s 1894 departure for new assignments.

Marching 5Tuareg Warriors on a French Colonial Postcard

Unfortunately for the Tuareg, their sheer tenaciousness and fighting skills worked against them; ambitious young officers of the colonial army soon recognized that success against the Tuareg brought more recognition than a defeat of lesser tribal warriors. Engaging the Tuareg in battle became more useful to a burgeoning military career than negotiating a peace settlement.

Lieutenant Boiteux, whose arrival in Timbuktu with the Niger River flotilla had made him only the third European to set foot in Timbuktu, survived the campaign, but unlike Joffre, Boiteux was disciplined by the army and committed suicide after an illness in 1897. (By a strange historical coincidence, the first French soldier to be killed in France’s 2013 campaign in northern Mali was Lieutenant Boiteux of the 4ème Régiment d’Hélicoptères des Forces Spéciales [RHFS – 4th Special Forces Helicopter Regiment]). Joffre, however, was feted as the conqueror of Timbuktu and granted an unusual military celebrity unavailable to those who conquered more important but less legendary cities. As for Grodet, he was ultimately unable to control the Marine colonels and eventually fell victim to changing political winds in Paris that brought the militarist faction to power. The governor was blamed for every military failure in French Soudan since his arrival and his often questionable prior service as governor of Martinique and French Guiana was raised in the press and halls of government. It was more than enough to have Grodet recalled in 1895.

The Colonial Army’s brutal methods were not publicly revealed until 1899, when one officer, appalled at the indescribable violence of the infamous Voulet-Chanoine Mission, resigned and described the atrocities in a letter home from Timbuktu that eventually reached the French parliament, where it sparked a national scandal.

By the time Joffre left French Soudan in 1894, he had established his military reputation. He survived the disease-ridden campaign to conquer Madagascar at the turn of the century before being made chief of the French general staff in 1911, despite having no experience at staff work and very little experience of battle. However, Joffre’s lack of political affiliation and absence of any apparent religious tendencies served him well in the highly politicized and sectarian French command.

Joffre took his place as one of the foremost figures of the First World War by denying the German advance on Paris in 1914 at the Battle of the Marne. France had nearly fallen in a matter of weeks due to Joffre’s belief that the Germans would invade France through Lorraine rather than Belgium, but his coolness in command when it appeared the whole French army was on the verge of collapse in the Fall of 1914 brought him the affection of a nation that came to refer to him as “Papa Joffre.” Up to this point, Joffre’s most notable success in “battle” had been his largely unopposed occupation of a small, dusty city in West Africa. As with his success at Timbuktu, controversy over responsibility for the triumph at the Battle of the Marne emerged, with many suggesting it was General Joseph Simon Galliéni’s battle plans that had determined French success at the Marne. Though rewarded with command of all the French armies, Joffre’s devotion to outdated tactics that bled the army white and his removal of most of the guns from the Verdun forts to support ineffective offensives made it clear that the great general was out of his depth. In December, 1916 Joffre was removed from operational command and made a Marshal of France in compensation, bringing a career made on the conquest of Timbuktu to an end.

Joffre came into criticism in his later years for having taken accolades as “the conqueror of Timbuktu.” Bonnier’s brother, a general, wrote a book criticizing Joffre on this point in 1926. When he was given a summary of the work, Joffre is recorded as having remarked; “But yes! It was Bonnier who was the conqueror of Timbuktu… as for me, I guarded it.” It was Joffre’s recognition that it was in fact Bonnier’s obsessive determination to become the conqueror of the legendary city of Timbuktu that unwittingly launched the career of a French military legend.


Desmazes, René: Joffre: La victoire du caractère, Nouvelles éditions Latines, Paris, 1955

Gentil, Émile,: La chute de l’empire de Rabah, Hachette, Paris, 1902

Grevoz, D.: Les canonnières de Tombouctou: les Français à la conquête de la cité mythique 1870-1894, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1992

Hall, Bruce S.: A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600 – 1960, African Studies no. 115, Cambridge University Press, 2011

Henzelin, Émile: Notre Joffre: Maréchal de France, Librairie Delagrave, 1919 Paris, 1917

Jaime, Jean Gilbert Nicomède: De Koulikoro À Tombouctou Sur La Canonniere “Le Mage,” Paris, 1894 (Ulan Press Reprint, 2012)

Joffre, General [Joseph]: My March to Timbuctoo (Operations of the Joffre Column before and after the Occupation of Timbuctoo), London, Chatto and Windus, 1915

Kanya-Forstner, AS, The Conquest of the Western Sudan: A Study in French Military Imperialism, Cambridge University Press, 1969

Kanya-Forstner, AS, “The French Marines and the Conquest of the Western Sudan, 1880-1889,” In JA De Moor (ed.). Imperialism and War: Essays on Colonial Wars in Asia and Africa, Brill, Leiden, 1989

Recouly, Raymond, General Joffre and His Battles, C. Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1917

Taithe, Bertrand: The Killer Trail: A Colonial Scandal in the Heart of Africa, Oxford, 2009


French Cooperation with Tuareg Rebels Risks Arab Rising in Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2013

The military situation in the Kidal region of northern Mali is growing more complex by the day. France is conducting counterterrorist operations in the region with its Chadian and Nigérien allies while soldiers of the Malian Army remain excluded from the zone at the request of two Tuareg rebel groups Bamako would like to eliminate – the separatist Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), recently formed by defectors from Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din. It is France’s military cooperation with the MNLA (and to a lesser extent with the MIA) in securing Kidal that is now threatening to ignite a tribal war in northern Mali.

kidal-fortFrench Colonial-era Fort in Kidal. Built 1917. (Vitka)

For France, cooperation with the Tuareg MNLA is a military necessity. The movement is largely drawn from the local Ifoghas Tuareg and guides with intimate knowledge of the terrain are essential in the campaign to exterminate the well-armed Islamists hidden in the caves, rocks and vegetation of the mountainous Tigharghar region. Likewise, the MIA is seen as useful in tracking down fugitive Tuareg Islamists from Ansar al-Din, including the movement’s leader, Iyad ag Ghali. The Islamists have already proven their ability to launch devastating ambushes on the counterterrorist forces. For northern Mali’s Arab minority, however, the military alliance between intervention forces and the Tuareg rebels has revived the ancient rivalry between the Arab tribes and the Berber Tuareg. With this rivalry now erupting into armed clashes and the Malian Army (largely composed of Black African tribes from the south) now accused of excesses against the lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arabs in Timbuktu and Gao, the French military now faces the danger of being drawn into a new tribal conflict that will inevitably set back efforts to rid northern Mali of jihadis and narco-traffickers.

Arabs form approximately 10% of northern Mali’s population of 1.2 million, while the Tuareg account for roughly 50%. The main Arab groups are the Bérabiche (who worked closely with the French in the original conquest of northern Mali 119 years ago), the “noble” Kunta and the Telemsi. The Arab tribes are not any better known for inter-tribal cooperation than the fractious Tuareg tribes.

The situation in Kidal was described by Muhamad Mahmud al-Oumrany, a former ambassador and the current president of the Arab Community of Mali:

“The whole Arab community, which was residing in Al-Khalil, was forced to evacuate      the town. It is the first time that ethnic cleansing by a community of another. The cause is that the Kidal area is regarded today as a safe haven for the MNLA. There is no Malian army to restore stability, to restore the law. It is only the MNLA that is in the region. It loots and if any protest is made, it runs to the French army to say: “These are Islamists. They are terrorists.” It is an unacceptable situation and it is going to lead definitely to a clash between the Arab and Tuareg communities” (RFI, March 3).

Al-Oumrany is more favorable to the MIA, under the leadership of Algabass ag Intallah, saying that the noble Intallah family is the key to restoring security to the Kidal region (RFI, March 3).

Unfortunately for the Arabs, their community is hardly free of associations with AQIM and its ally, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). Many of the Bérabiche Arabs of northern Mali have cooperated with the AQIM presence for several years out of a combination of economic necessity and ethnic solidarity. For some Arabs, it is the ideological appeal of al-Qaeda that has drawn them into their ranks. Omar Ould Hamaha, a Timbuktu Bérabiche Arab, is the leader of MUJWA and recently formed a local Bérabiche version of Ansar al-Shari’a on December 9, 2012 to protect Arab interests and promote jihad in the Arab community.

Kidal Region (BBC)

Kidal Region (BBC/Google)

The Arab community in Timbuktu has warned of retaliatory ethnic violence in the wake of abuses committed by the Malian Army and even other civilians who do not differentiate between Malian Arabs and al-Qaeda jihadists (RFI, February 23). The community has sent representatives to Paris to plead their case and is urging that Colonel Ould Meydou, a Telemsi Arab, be released from Bamako to lead his largely Bérabiche Arab militia into Timbuktu to restore order (RFI, February 23). The colonel is unpopular with the Malian Army putschists, who have refused to allow him to use his considerable desert-fighting skills against the Islamists. The MNLA strongly dislike Meydou – many of them have clashed with him before in earlier Tuareg rebel formations.

Arab refugees in Mauritania have also mounted protests against what they describe as “ethnic cleansing” by the Malian Army, citing a number of massacres, missing people taken by soldiers and other disorders that are difficult to confirm in the tight information regime currently imposed on northern Mali (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], February 20; February 22).  Despite this, a number of Malian officers and men have been recalled to Bamako for investigation into human rights abuses committed in the wake of the French advance.

In response to these abuses, the Arab community of northern Mali has created a secular self-defense militia with an estimated 500 members. The Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA) was created in February, 2012 as the Front de Libération nationale de l’Azawad (FNLA) and formed from members of earlier Arab militias and Arab soldiers of the Malian Army who defected after the fall of Timbuktu. Since the rebellion began last year, the movement has drawn increasing numbers of young Arab men looking for some form of protection for their community (Sahara Press, January 12, 2012). The MAA has two strongholds in northern Mali, the first at Telemsi near the Mauritanian border and the second at Tinafareg close to the border with Algeria.

MAA secretary general Ahmad Ould Sidi Muhammad has warned of an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Tuareg and has called for Mauritania and Algeria to be aware of “the grave danger of this unholy alliance between France and the MNLA and the dangerous implications for the region’s people” (Sahara Media, March 4).

A large number of Arabs from Timbuktu took refuge from the Malian Army in the border town of al-Khalil (or In Khalil), a small but strategically important town that controls both smuggling and legal trade across the Algerian border. As such, it formed the last base for AQIM Amir Mokhtar Belmokhtar before it was occupied by the French. After the arrival of the French,  the Arab refugees began to complain of rough treatment by the MNLA, including car-theft, looting and ultimately rape (, February 23). The MNLA occupation, according to the movement, was designed to cut off the Islamists in the Adrar des Ifoghas from food, fuel and other supplies brought in by smugglers.

On February 23, a column of up to 30 vehicles attacked the MNLA based at al-Khalil. The MNLA claimed that they were under attack from elements of MUJWA under Ould Hamaha supported by Ansar al-Shari’a and MAA fighters under the command of MAA chief-of-staff Colonel Hussein Ould Ghulam, a defector from the national army (Combat [Bamako], February 23).  The MNLA succeeded in selling this version of events to the French, who launched airstrikes on the MAA, destroying several vehicles. The MAA withdrew from the attack and returned to their base in the In Farah region close to the border with Algeria, furious at the French intervention on behalf of the MNLA (RFI, February 25). MUJWA claimed responsibility for two car bombs that went off in near MNLA checkpoints that killed two Tuareg fighters on February 22, but made no comment on their alleged role in a battle with the MNLA and French units (RFI, February 23).

An MAA leader, Boubacar Ould Talib, suggested that it was “illogical” for the MAA to cooperate with the Islamists: “We came to al-Khalil to ensure the security and safety of the Arab interests and we will never coordinate with the terrorists in that.” Ould Talib also stated that the MAA was ready to coordinate in counterterrorist efforts with the French at any time (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 27). The day after the attack on al-Khalil there were fresh clashes between the MAA and MNLA near Tessalit, where the Arab movement claimed the MNLA Tuaregs had committed numerous abuses against the Arab residents (RFI, February 24).

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has said: “In Kidal, we are living a particular situation and we do our best to be on good terms with the Tuaregs” (RFI, February 23). However, the defense minister has here ignored the fact that French forces are also fighting alongside the Imghad Tuareg militia led by Colonel al-Hajj ag Gamou, bitter enemies of the Ifoghas leadership of the MNLA and the MIA. At some point, all the contradictions of the French campaign in northern Mali will catch up with it, unless the French succeed in pulling out first. In either case, the hastily-planned intervention has consistently ignored the political and sociological aspects of the campaign, likely at a great future cost to the inhabitants of northern Mali.

This article first appeared in the March 8, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor

Dead or Alive? The Fate of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2013

Despite claims that “terrorist kingpins” have been eliminated in the secret war being fought in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains of northern Mali, evidence of such results remains in short supply. Most notable among those allegedly killed in the fighting is Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), a veteran al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader who soared to international prominence as the self-proclaimed organizer of January’s devastating terrorist attack on the Algerian oil facility at In Aménas.

Chadian army chief-of-staff General Zakaria Ngobongue reported that Belmokhtar was killed on March 2 by Chadian troops during a battle in the Ametetai Valley. The Chadians also reported killing a number of other terrorists in the battle and the seizure of 60 vehicles, GPS systems and sophisticated communications equipment (RFI, March 3).

Alleged Death Photo of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Alleged Death Photo of Mokhtar Belmokhtar

Evidence of Belmokhtar’s death remains slim. Radio France Internationale published a very low quality photo of a mobile phone image (essentially a photo of a photo) of what appears to be the partially revealed and blood-covered face of Belmokhtar, with the rest of the body concealed by a fabric wrapping. The original image was supposedly recorded on the cell phone of a Chadian soldier, though there are now claims that the corpse was actually that of Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid, another senior AQIM commander (RFI, March 4; March 5; Paris Match, March 4; France24, March 5). Chadian authorities, however, have refused to French appeals for proof of the deaths of the two AQIM leaders; according to Chadian president Idriss Déby: “”It’s in accordance with the principles of Islam that the remains of these two terrorists have not been put on display” (AFP, March 4).

Belmokhtar’s Algerian AQIM colleague and rival, Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid (a.k.a. Muhammad Ghadir), was reported dead on February 28 (Ennahar [Algiers], February 28). Abu Zeid was the leader of the Tarik Ibn Zayid brigade of AQIM. Algerian security services were reported to have examined the corpse and Abu Zeid’s personal weapon at a military installation in northern Mali, but were unable to conclusively identify the body as his.  The Algerians are now conducting DNA tests using samples taken from Abu Zeid’s relatives in Algeria (El Khabar [Algiers], March 2).

An unofficial posting that appeared on various jihadi websites confirmed that Abu Zeid had been killed, but claimed his death occurred in a French bombardment rather than as the result of actions by the Chadian army. The message also claimed that Belmokhtar was “alive and leading the battles” and would release a statement soon (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], March 2; March 4). Adding to the confusion was a statement from rebel Tuareg of the Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) announcing that it had turned over remains believed to be those of Belmokhtar to French military forces, though it was unclear how the MNLA came into possession of these remains (El Khabar [Algiers], March 4).

According to the French military’s chief-of-staff, Admiral Edouard Guillaud, the death of Abu Zeid was “likely, but it is only likely,” while on the death of Belmokhtar the Admiral would only say that he was “extremely cautious” (Europe 1 Radio, March 4). French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also had his reservations over President Déby’s claim that Belmokhtar was dead: “We can’t be sure it is him… If the Chadian president can bring us proof, so much the better. If it is true it would be very good news but it would not resolve everything” (AFP, March 6).

MNLA spokesman Hama ag Sid’Ahmed confirmed Abu Zeid’s death on the basis of reports from local notables and the testimony of the three young survivors of the French air raid that hit Abu Zeid’s hideout. However, Sid’Ahmed claims that various notables who know Belmokhtar have reported he is alive and well but has left the combat regions. According to the same sources, Omar Ould Hamaha, the leader of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) was still active in the region between Gao and Tessalit (Le Temps d’Algérie, March 5).

The continuing hunt for extremists in the mountains of Kidal and the possible elimination of several top al-Qaeda leaders has raised concerns in France over the safety of the French hostages still being held by AQIM and its allies. There are many rumors regarding their fate, but Admiral Guillaud says the army does not believe the hostages are with the terrorists in their mountain hide-outs: “We think the hostages are not there [where air strikes are taking place], otherwise we would not be carrying them out” (AFP, March 4).

In their search for militants, the French military is using French-built Harfang surveillance drones (previously employed in Afghanistan and Libya) and Atlantique-2 surveillance aircraft. Also in use is the Eurocopter Tiger, a multi-role aircraft that can conduct surveillance as well as carry out airstrikes. However, despite a lack of cover in many areas, AQIM’s gunmen have proved remarkably skilled at disguising their movements and camps in northern Mali. The Tigharghar region of the Adrar des Ifoghas is especially suited for concealment and offers numerous opportunities for ambushes, as the Chadians have discovered. According to a French military spokesman, AQIM has established underground bunkers with pre-positioned arms and food depots in the mountains that fighters can move between with ease (AP, February 28).

MNLA fighters cooperating with French forces in Kidal have begun house-to-house searches for Islamists and are focusing on the residences of members of the Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA), a newly formed group of Tuareg Islamists who abandoned Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement when French forces began advancing into northern Mali (For the MIA and its leader, Algabass ag Intallah, see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 29). The MNLA continues to reject all efforts by the MIA to form a political alliance, saying that the MIA members “bear the scent of AQIM” (RFI, March 3).

Across the border, Algeria has stepped up efforts to prevent Islamist penetration by mounting extra patrols and reconnaissance flights. A multi-arm operational task force has been set up at the military base at Tamanrasset under the command of former Special Forces commander Major General Ammar Athamnia, commander of the 6th military region (Tamanrasset). According to one American report, the United States has also committed resources from the CIA, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Joint Special Operations Command in the hunt for Belmokhtar and other AQIM warlords (Wall Street Journal, February 11).

So long as France continues to impose a blanket of silence over military operations in the Kidal region it will remain difficult to confirm reports emerging from the bitter conflict being fought there. The idea of Mokhtar Belmokhtar making a last stand, trapped by Chadian and French troops in the rocks of the Ifoghas mountains, seems contrary to everything we know about Belmokhtar, including his dedication to mobility and advance preparation of escape routes and caches of arms and supplies. Belmokhtar also appeared to lack the ideological conviction that was characteristic of Abu Zeid and other AQIM commanders. It is possible that may have changed in recent months, but the answer to that question lies in the true motivations behind Belmokhtar’s attack on In Aménas, motivations that remain poorly understood as of yet. It would seem more likely for Belmokhtar to have made a break from his base at the town of al-Khalil on the Algerian border into Niger and gone on into southern Libya, where Belmokhtar established contacts with local jihadis over the last two years. He may also have sought unofficial help from contacts in Algerian intelligence formed during Algeria’s long “dirty war” against AQIM’s Islamist predecessors. In its need for morale-boosting news after suffering heavy losses in the Ifoghas mountains, Chad’s military leadership may have acted rashly by announcing the deaths of Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid. However, now that the announcements have been made, it has become essential to verify or dismiss these claims in order to formulate the future direction of the counter-terrorist campaign in the Sahara/Sahel region. Belmokhtar and Abu Zeid are too dangerous to be allowed to cast a permanent shadow over efforts to pacify and develop a deeply impoverished region whose problems cannot be solved by sectarian terrorism.


1. See “Chad and Niger: France’s Military Allies in Northern Mali,” Aberfoyle International Security Special Report, February 15, 2013,

This article first appeared in the Jamestown Foundation’s March 8 issue of Terrorism Monitor