Armed Clashes Narrowly Averted in the Sinai after Enigmatic Abduction of Egyptian Security Personnel

Andrew McGregor 

May 30, 2013

A potentially explosive situation in Egypt’s volatile Sinai Peninsula appears to have been averted with the May 22 release of seven members of Egypt’s military and security forces after a six-day abduction by what is believed to be an armed Islamist faction.  The circumstances of the release remain unclear and have fostered a variety of claims and accusations.

Nabil Na'imShaykh Nabil Na’im

 The kidnappers were identified as members of Tawhid wa’l-Jihad by Shaykh Nabil Na’im, a leading member of the Egyptian Jihad organization and former associate of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri. Shaykh Nabil was freed during the Egyptian Revolution after two decades in prison (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 23). According to Shaykh Nabil, Tawhid wa’l-Jihad’s denial of involvement was “a deception” designed to avoid a military campaign against the movement. Noting that Tawhid wa’l-Jihad has aligned itself with al-Qaeda, Shaykh Nabil suggests that al-Qaeda serves Israeli objectives “in an ignorant and foolish way” that promotes an alleged Israeli plan to resettle Gazans in the Sinai: “At present, the West and Israel look at Sinai as a land that has no owner in which al-Qaeda is running wild, and this is something dangerous.” The shaykh described Tawhid wa’l-Jihad as a takfiri organization (one that declares Muslims who oppose its agenda to be apostates): “They are ignorant about the Islamic Shari’a – we have lived with them and know them well.”

Egyptian Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim confirmed that the kidnapping was part of an effort to obtain the freedom of Shaykh Hamadah Abu Shita, a leader of Tawhid wa’l-Jihad who was reported to have been tortured in Turah Prison after attacking a prison guard (MENA, May 21; Ahram Online, May 23). The kidnappers were also alleged to have demanded the release of a number of prisoners being held at the police station in the North Sinai town of al-Arish (MENA, May 22). The search for the hostages prompted a major military incursion into the politically sensitive Sinai – aside from ground and aerial security sweeps over the North Sinai, Egyptian troops were deployed in large numbers in the capital of al-Arish, the town of Shaykh Zuwayid and the border town of Rafah (MENA, May 21).

The kidnapping proved unpopular with most parties active in the Sinai, including North Sinai’s tribal chieftains, who called for the immediate discovery and arrest of those responsible (MENA, May 25). Not all the Sinai Salafists were content with the kidnapping; the Ahl al-Sunna wa’l-Jama’a group condemned the action (MENA, May 22). Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the world’s leading center of Islamic studies, issued a statement describing the abductions as a contradiction of the teachings of Islam and a violation of internationally understood norms of personal freedom (MENA, May 20). According to Shaykh Muhammad Adli, “Everybody was searching for the soldiers, even Salafist Jihadists. Everybody condemned this act… If the soldiers had not been released, a war would have flared up in the area” (Dream 2 Satellite Television [Cairo], May 25).

Various theories were advanced to explain the incident and its resolution; one such, attributed to secular sources, suggested that Gaza’s HAMAS had engineered the entire abduction and then deliberately yielded to President Muhammad Mursi’s delegation without a shot fired in order to make the Egyptian president look good (Xinhua, May 22; Egyptwindow, May 25). Reports from the Sinai that Mursi had played no role in liberating the hostages contrasted with claims the president had agreed to release a certain number of prisoners in exchange for the release of the hostages (Amal al-Ummah [Alexandria], May 23). Some of the detainees were said to have been in custody for four years without charge. A military source told a Cairo daily that it was the tribal leaders who convinced the kidnappers to release their captives, partly because they sympathized with the kidnappers’ cause, if not their actions: “Tribal leaders coordinated with military intelligence. They refused to cover for the kidnappers and informed them that they will not support them” (Ahram Online, May 22).

The main mediator in the negotiations has been identified as Shaykh Muhammad Adli, a renowned Egyptian qari (one who recites the Quran from memory) with experience in mediating problems in the Sinai. Adli reported his help was requested by the kidnappers, who were willing to release the hostages but feared being attacked during the handover. The shaykh praised the efforts of the commander of the Second Field Army, Major General Ahmad Wasfi, and contrasted the more patient approach of the security forces with their reaction to the 2004 bombing of a Sinai resort, when “everybody was arrested and tortured, including me” (Dream 2 Satellite Television [Cairo], May 25).

HAMAS denied any role in the abductions and said the movement has become a subject of suspicion in Egypt due to an Israeli proposal to resettle Gazans in the Sinai, a proposal that has failed to find support in the Palestinian population. Dr. Musa Abu-Marzuq, a senior HAMAS member, noted that the movement has no interest in antagonizing Egypt: “The Gaza Strip and HAMAS are not a superpower that puts itself on an equal footing with Egypt” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 22).

muhammad dahlanMuhammad Dahlan

In some quarters, suspicion of responsibility for the abductions fell on Palestinian Fatah strongman Muhammad Dahlan (a.k.a. Abu Fadi), a bitter enemy of HAMAS who has been accused by many Palestinians of corruption and collaboration with Israeli intelligence services. HAMAS claims to have obtained confessions from a number of Dahlan’s supporters implicating the Fatah leader in organizing the kidnappings to advance a three-fold agenda involving the creation of instability in Sinai to benefit Israeli interests in the region, the provocation of confrontations between the Egyptian army and Sinai-based jihadi groups and an attack on the reputation of HAMAS that would complicate its relations with Cairo (al-Akhbar [Cairo], May 27).

Dr. Essam Muhammad Hussein al-Erian, the vice-chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Hizb al-Hurriya wa’l-Adala (Freedom and Justice Party), accused Dahlan of playing a role in the abductions through Dahlan’s deployment of over 500 gunmen in the Sinai with financing from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of attempting to create a cell in the UAE dedicated to the overthrow of the UAE government (al-Hayat, May 25). Dahlan responded by accusing the Muslim Brothers of acting as the agents of the United States and Israel: “This is not the first time the rumor-mongering bats of the Muslim Brotherhood circulate lies and illusions to cover up their failure and crimes of their militant gangs against Egypt and Palestine… You have been the genuine allies and loyal associates of the U.S. and Israel. Your lies no longer fool anyone” (Ahram Online [Cairo], May 27).

According to a Salafist source within the Sinai who was involved in the negotiations, the presidential delegation failed in its efforts before military intelligence negotiated an end to the hostage-taking without making any specific deals (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], May 26). Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim insists that no negotiations were conducted with the kidnappers, though he acknowledged the efforts of tribal chieftains in helping avoid a military operation against the abductors (MENA, May 21). Despite this, tribal leaders were still angered that they were left out of the final resolution and were unable to obtain the identities of the kidnappers from the security forces. According to Naim Gabr, head of the Coalition of Sinai Tribes, “If security authorities don’t inform us of what happened, we will convene a meeting of all tribes to mull a joint response… If the intelligence apparatus and military lose the tribes’ trust, the consequences for Sinai – and Egypt’s national security in general – will be dire” (Ahram Online, May 26).

For some Egyptians, the quiet resolution to the abductions leaves too many unanswered questions. After a government statement said the identities of the abductors was known to the Interior Ministry, it is difficult for many Egyptians to understand why no arrests have been made, especially when the government continues to maintain that no deal was made for the release of the hostages. To combat the growing Islamist militancy in the Sinai, President Mursi has ordered the Ministry of Religious Endowments (awqaf) to send moderate preachers and well-known imams to Sinai to challenge the religious extremism of the jihadis (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], May 26).

President Mursi has publicly urged his security chiefs to finish their counter-terrorist operations in the Sinai before returning to base and General Wasfi has pledged that the Army will remain in the Sinai until it restores law and order to the region (MENA, May 23). There are, however, suspicions that the army will draw down sooner rather than later to permit the President to avoid alienating Salafist politicians who are sympathetic to the aims of Islamist factions operating in Sinai.

This article first appeared in the May 30, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Yemen’s Presidential Adviser Views al-Qaeda’s Role in Yemen

Andrew McGregor

May 30, 2013

Salim Salih Muhammad, a veteran of Yemeni politics and an adviser to Yemen’s president, Abd-Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, recently offered his views on al-Qaeda’s current role in Yemen and the ongoing security crisis in that country during an interview with a pan-Arab daily (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 25).

salim salihSalim Salih Muhammad

Salim Salih is a member of the Yafa’a tribe of southern Yemen’s Lahij governorate and was for a time foreign minister of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY – 1967-1990) before going into exile after the 1994 civil war. Salim Salih was also a presidential adviser on counterterrorism issues to deposed president Ali Abdullah Salih after his return from exile in 2002. [1]

Describing last year’s al-Qaeda occupation of several urban areas in the Abyan Governorate as “a catastrophe by all standards,” Salim Salih notes that the growth of Salafist religious trends in Yemen support the growth of al-Qaeda:

In my assessment, what is demanded is to stop the fatwa-s which some clerics issue in a way that leads to extremism and violence and help Yemen, its south and north, to carry out projects, employ the youths, combat poverty, and open the door for conscription in the areas stricken by the 1994 war and the Saada [Houthist] war… Dealing and handling this issue requires that all means be employed, including closing the sources of ideological extremism, ending poverty and unemployment among the young men, and constant dialogue with the youths and giving them the chance in their capacity as the pillar of the future. The security or military side should not be used as a sole solution to confront al-Qaeda or the groups that carry weapons.

In response to Yemeni government claims that Iran is interfering with Yemen’s internal politics by providing arms and other support to the Shiite Houthist rebels of northern Yemen, Salim Salih says that “some Iranian establishments export the ideas of the revolution on a sectarian basis, and this does not serve Iran or the its interests in the Gulf, Bab al-Mandab, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Arabian Sea. We advise the wise men in Iran and their moderate authorities to revise the issue and enter from the doors and not from the windows…” Iran’s Foreign Ministry issued a firm rejection of the Yemeni claims on May 28 (Yemen Post, May 28).

Yemen’s security forces continue to battle units of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an associated group, Ansar al-Shari’a, which has proven adept at assassinating senior Yemeni security officials. Ansar al-Shari’a attacks continue in several areas, most notably in al-Baydah Governorate, where the movement’s fighters have besieged a military base at al-Tha’alib for a week, cutting off all food and supplies in an attempt to take the base. Gunmen believed to be affiliated with Ansar al-Shari’a also attacked military facilities in Lahij Governorate on May 29 (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 30; Akhbar al-Yawm [Sana’a], May 30). In eastern Yemen, several villages were occupied by al-Qaeda elements this week in the Hadhramawt Governorate (Yemen Post, May 27).

Yemenis are also enduring the consequences of a prolonged campaign of sabotage against the nation’s energy and communications infrastructure. In recent days alone, fiber optics cables have been cut in three southern governorates and an oil pipeline blown up in Ma’rib Governorate (al-Umana [Aden], May 28; al-Masdar [Sana’a], May 28). Most troublesome, however, is the devastating effect on the Yemeni economy and general quality of life created by a constant stream of attacks by tribesmen and Islamists on the nation’s power supply infrastructure. The government’s inability to ensure electrical power has led to a series of angry demonstrations that have a tendency to break out into violent clashes with security forces. President Hadi’s promise to strike saboteurs with “an iron fist” has failed to deter the sabotage (Ma’rib Press, May 28; al-Sahwah [Sana’a], May 28; al-Wahdawi [Sana’a], May 28). There are reports that President Hadi is about to order a military assault on Ma’rib tribesmen who have continued to cut power lines and pipelines (Yemen Post, May 30).


  1. U.S. Embassy Sana’a Cable 03SANAA225, September 10, 2003, Available at:


This article first appeared in the May 30, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor


Niger: New Battleground for North Africa’s Islamist Militants

Andrew McGregor 

May 29, 2013

When a pair of suicide bombings occurred almost simultaneously at important economic and military targets in Niger last week, it raised the specter of broadening Salafi-Jihadist activities paralyzing the political and economic development of a vast stretch of north and west Africa. Niger, possibly the poorest nation in the world, has seen the resource industries that are its hope for the future become the focus of radical Islamist efforts to damage French interests in the region.

Niger MapDespite being over 90% Muslim, Niger’s citizens find themselves threatened by the growing presence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its associates in its northern regions and troublesome incursions by Nigerian Boko Haram militants and bandits posing as Boko Haram in its eastern regions. With a small and poorly equipped military of only 5,200 troops, the intensification of militant activity in Niger may force Niamey to recall its force of roughly 600 soldiers from the Malian intervention and may possibly preclude Niger’s participation in the UN peacekeeping force planned for deployment in northern Mali.

The Attacks at Agadez and Arlit

A dawn double car-bombing against a military base in Agadez on May 23 killed at least 18 soldiers and left 13 wounded (RFI, May 23). After four of the attackers (all wearing suicide belts) were killed by Nigérien troops, one or two others took two officer cadets hostage and locked themselves in an office (AFP, May 23). At the request of President Issoufou, French Special Forces assisted Nigérien troops in isolating and killing the last attackers on May 24 (RFI, May 26). In all, some ten jihadists were reported killed in the action. Nigérien authorities initially denied that any hostages were taken by the surviving attackers, but later admitted both cadets were killed, though it remained unclear if they were killed by the Islamists or in the crossfire during the assault by Nigérien troops and French Special Forces (AFP, May 24; Reuters, May 24). The massive explosions at the military base created panic in Agadez, followed by military sweeps of the city looking for the suicide bombers’ accomplices.

A second attack roughly 30 minutes later targeted the Somaïr uranium mining and processing plant located seven kilometers from the northern Niger town of Arlit. A uniformed suicide bomber pulled his explosives-laden 4X4 in behind a bus delivering workers to the morning shift at the plant and forced his vehicle through the plant’s entrance before the gates could be closed. The tactic was identical to that used by a MUJWA suicide car-bomber at the National Gendarmérie headquarters in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset (the home of the Algerian Army’s 6th Division) in early March, 2012 (La Tribune [Algiers] March 3; Le Temps D’Algérie, March 6).At least 13 employees were injured and one killed in the Arlit attack, which took place just outside the facility’s power plant and badly damaged the mine’s grinding and crushing machinery (RFI, May 23). Somaïr is a Nigérien subsidiary of French uranium giant Areva, which owns 64% of the Arlit uranium mine.

Information gathered at the French Ministry of Defense in Paris indicated that the Arlit attackers had taken advantage of the fact that French Special Forces were not actually located at the camp, but were rather based nearby, thus creating what a French colonel described as “an enormous flaw in the security process” (RFI, May 24). Arlit had been targeted before: in September, 2010, seven Areva employees and a local sub-contractor were kidnapped from the site. Four French hostages from that operation remain in the hands of AQIM, though their current whereabouts is unknown.

Though Niger has been the target of AQIM kidnapping operations in the past, suicide bombings are a tactical innovation for Islamists operating in that nation. Nigérien troops in northern Mali were targeted by a May 10 MUJWA suicide attack on their base in Ménaka, close to the Niger border (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, May 16).

Who is Behind the Assault on Niger?

It appears the bombings in Niger were directed by Mokhtar Belmokhtar (a.k.a. Khalid Abu al-Abbas), the Algerian jihadist who became North Africa’s most-wanted man after a January attack on the Algerian gas plant at In Aménas left 38 hostages dead. That attack was carried out by Belmokhtar’s al-Muwaqi’un bi’l-Dima (Those Who Sign in Blood) Brigade, which Belmokhtar announced was also responsible for the attacks in Arlit and Agadez. Belmokhtar’s claim of responsibility contained a number of pointed warnings to the Niger government related to Niger’s participation in Operation Serval, the French-led military intervention in northern Mali.  After stating that the suicide attacks in Niger were intended to avenge his late comrade and rival, AQIM commander Abd al-Hamid Abu Zeid (a.k.a. Muhammad Ghadir), Belmokhtar said the attacks were also a “first response” to the claim by the Nigérien president that the jihad in northern Mali had been defeated militarily. Describing this “crusade against Shari’a” as “more a media victory than a military victory,” Belmokhtar then warns the Nigérien president that the mujhahideen will “move the war into his own country if he doesn’t withdraw his mercenary army [from Mali]” (, May 23).

Abdul Walid al-SahrawiAdnan Abdul al-Walid al-Sahrawi

Responsibility for the attacks was initially claimed by spokesman Adnan Abdul al-Walid al-Sahrawi on behalf of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA). According to al-Sahrawi, the operations were conducted “against the enemies of Islam in Niger. We attacked France and Niger for its cooperation with France in the war against Shari’a” (AFP, May 23). Some clarification was later received from the AQIM Mulathamin Brigade’s Mauritanian spokesman Hassan Ould al-Khalil, who described the operation as a joint effort between MUJWA and Belmokhtar’s al-Muwaqi’un bi’l-Dima, adding that the attackers hailed from Sudan, Mali and the Western Sahara (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], May 23).Niger’s foreign affairs minister, Muhammad Bazoum, downplayed the importance of determining which Islamist faction actually carried out the attacks: “In my opinion, we are faced with a well-coordinated ‘international’ group which gets its supplies from the same sources of finance, which has the same expertise and the same logistics. Whether it is MUJWA or another group, there is no difference from our point of view” (RFI, May 24).

It is possible that the attacks may have involved Nigérien MUJWA fighters who have returned to Niger since the beginning of Operation Serval. According to Foreign Affairs Minister Muhammad Bazoum, many Peul/Fulani youth were recruited by MUJWA from Tillabéri, a town on the Niger River, about 120 kilometers northwest of the capital of Niamey (RFI, May 24). According to Niger’s minister of the interior, many of the Peul/Fulani recruits to MUJWA had been involved in a long struggle with Niger’s Tuareg and the conflict in northern Mali offered an opportunity to take armed revenge on the Tuareg while making good money in the employ of the Islamists (Jeune Afrique, April 29). Tillabéri now hosts some 30,000 refugees from the northern Mali conflict in three camps and is currently in the midst of a cholera epidemic (Xinhua, May 21). There are also fears that militants could easily disguise themselves as refugees under current conditions in order to enter Niger or other countries neighboring northern Mali. Mali is not the only source for refugees in Niger; several thousand Niger citizens, many of the Koranic students from Maiduguri, have been forced to flee back into Niger from the fighting between Boko Haram and the Nigerian security services during the ongoing Nigerian government offensive (RFI, May 18; May 22).

Only two days before the attacks on Arlit and Agadez, Niamey had hosted the Nigerian minister of state for foreign affairs, Nurudeen Muhammad, who was there to request military assistance from Niger in the fight against Boko Haram terrorists in the Lake Chad region amidst rumors (denied by Abuja) that Nigeria would draw down its commitment to AFISMA in northern Mali to assist in the offensive against Boko Haram (RFI, May 22; Reuters, May 21). Nigeria and Niger share a poorly regulated 940 mile border. The two nations agreed on a defense pact last October that calls for intelligence sharing, joint military exercises and military support when requested (Reuters, May 21). Boko Haram militants attacked a joint patrol of Nigerian and Nigérien troops on April 15 along the border near Baga in the Lake Chad region (AFP, April 26).

Economic Factors

In condemning the attacks in Niger, Malian foreign minister Tièman Coulibaly noted that “In the fight against terrorists in the Sahel, we don’t only need a military and security solution, but also economic solutions that offer young men in the sub-region opportunities (PANA Online [Dakar], May 24). However, despite the presence of enormous quantities of uranium ore and the recent emergence of a promising oil industry, life in Niger remains both harsh and precarious, offering the potential for embittered local residents to join attacks on foreign dominated industries that do not appear to benefit the impoverished general population.

Nigérien uranium fuels France’s domestic nuclear energy program and its nuclear weapons program. With most of its uranium extraction industry in the hands of French mining giant Areva, Niger now ranks as the world’s fourth largest producer of the mineral. Niamey would like to renegotiate what it regards as an unfavorable deal with Areva and to see uranium operations expanded, but a combination of political unrest in the ore-bearing region and depressed global uranium prices have led Areva to several times put off development of the giant mine at Imouraren, which is now scheduled to open in 2015 (AFP, May 23). In these conditions, the industry actually has only a small impact on Niger’s desperately impoverished economy. Niamey is trying to address the problem by diversifying the industry, granting uranium exploration licenses to Canadian, Indian and Australian firms. 

The initiation of Chinese oil operations in the eastern province of Diffa (near Lake Chad) have only brought unrest to the region due to the perception that oil revenues fail to benefit the Diffa region and hiring practices that effectively exclude locals. Unemployed youth who used to be able to find employment in Libya rioted for in Diffa for three days recently, demanding priority in hiring at the Chinese drilling site (RFI, April 29; April 29; May 3).

The Tuareg Question

The majority of Niger’s population belongs to the Hausa and Djerma-Songhai ethnic groups. As in Mali, the Tuareg (who make up roughly 10% or Niger’s population of 17 million) share the more arid northern regions of Niger with other ethnic groups, including Tubu (who have joined the Tuareg in past rebellions and have connections to the Tubu militias of southern Libya), Arabs, Kanuri and Peul/Fulani. However, fears that the Tuareg rebellion in Mali might cross the border to Niger have not materialized so far, largely in part due to general dissatisfaction with the human and material costs of the most recent rebellion in 2007-2009 and the relative success of integration efforts in the wake of that conflict. Niger mounted a significant security campaign to intercept, disarm and reintegrate Tuareg veterans of the Libyan military who returned to Niger after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, encouraging the most militant returnees to bypass Niger after clashing with Nigérien troops and head for northern Mali instead, where government control of the north was much less effective (Jeune Afrique, May 20). Niger has a small but growing Salafist population, concentrated at the moment in Niamey and Maradi, the latter being just north of the border with Nigeria and close to the Islamist stronghold of Kano. Though Salafism enjoyed a brief popularity amongst certain Tuareg supporters of Iyad ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din movement in Mali, it has made few inroads amongst the mainly Sufi Tuareg of Niger.


Nigérien authorities insist that the suicide bombings that have targeted the Nigérien military and economic infrastructure will not deter Niger from its commitment to counter-terrorist operations carried out in league with France and Niger’s regional allies. French President François Hollande has meanwhile indicated France was willing to help Niger “destroy” Islamic militants operating in that country, but tempered the French commitment by saying: “We will not intervene in Niger as we did in Mali, but we have the same willingness to cooperate in the fight against terrorism” (AFP, May 23). Continued attacks on vital French interests in Niger may change this approach at some point.

The sophistication and effectiveness of the attacks (which contrast with the poorly executed MUJWA suicide attacks in Gao) suggest the participation or supervision of veteran jihadists rather than the enthusiastic but unskilled fighters of MUJWA. Islamist militants appear to have adapted to the increased presence of surveillance drones and aircraft in the region, avoiding the risk posed by long-distance raids in strength by fighting in close, mounting attacks in small numbers that can easily be concealed until the last moment, whether in the urban population of Agadez or in a mass of workers reporting for work at Arlit. Resource industries and military installations continue to present prime targets for their political and economic impact, though it is possible that the militants might turn to more random attacks on the civilian population in Niger if it refuses to back away from counter-terrorist efforts in cooperation with Western partners.

There are also indications that the attacks in Niger are only part of a spread of jihadi activities throughout the Sahel/Sahara region as a consequence of the dispersal of the jihadists who had concentrated in northern Mali before the French-led intervention. After the Niger bombings, Hassan Ould al-Khalil, the spokesman of AQIM’s Mulathamin Brigade, warned his home nation of Mauritania that it could expect similar attacks if it contributed troops to the new UN peacekeeping force being organized for deployment in northern Mali (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], May 23).

Nigérien president Mahamadou Issoufou maintains that: “According to the information we have, the attackers [in the Agadez and Arlit incidents] came from southern Libya… I know the Libyan authorities are trying hard. But Libya continues to be a source of instability” (Reuters, May 25; for southern Libya’s security crisis, see Terrorism Monitor, April 19). During a May 2 visit to Paris, Niger’s foreign minister, Muhammad Bazoum, had warned of the threat posed by Islamists setting up “international terrorism bases” in loosely governed southern Libya: “Southern Libya is not under the control of the state and we have information that suggests that a certain number of jihadists are now in this area… As long as the Libyan state is a state that is unable to control its borders, there is a risk [to its neighbors]” (Reuters, May 2). With violent extremists such as AQIM’s Mokhtar Belmokhtar operating in the region seemingly at will, it is becoming clear that the effort to sweep terrorists and radical Islamists from northern and western Africa cannot be compartmentalized according to the borders of local nation-states, but must rather be part of a comprehensive and coordinated multi-national effort with significant external assistance. However willing they might be, nations such as Niger simply do not have the resources and manpower to unilaterally ensure security in vast and lightly-populated regions that offer operational bases and useful transit routes for extremists building a more widespread jihad against Western interests and “apostate” governments in northern Africa. 

This article first appeared as a Jamestown Foundation “Hot Issue,” May 29, 2013.

Ombatse: Nigerian Religious Cult Joins War on the State in Central Nigeria

Andrew McGregor

May 16, 2013

Nigeria has experienced years of sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims and endured massacres and bombings by religiously-inspired groups like Boko Haram. Now, however, with the slaughter of as many as 90 members of Nigeria’s security forces, practitioners of one of Nigeria’s many forms of traditional religion have challenged the state’s authority in central Nigeria’s Nasarawa State, lying roughly on the dividing line between the Muslim majority north and the Christian majority south.

Ombatse 1Traditional Religion and Moral Reform in Nasarawa

The Ombatse cult is based on traditional forms of worship practiced by the Eggon ethnic group. The Eggon people of Nasarawa State are roughly divided in their religious allegiance to Christianity and Islam, but many see no contradiction in also following more traditional belief systems. The Eggon speak their own Benue-Congo language (Eggon), though traditional oral histories of the group trace their origin to Yemen. Today, they are concentrated in the Lafia, Akwanga and Nasarawa-Eggon districts of Nasarawa State.

Though Ombatse (meaning “Time has Come”) has kept a relatively low profile for some years despite occasional clashes with non-Eggon neighbors and police, the traditional religious movement has embarked on a violent campaign of moral and spiritual reform implemented through forced conversions, though the campaign also draws on currents of political frustration and perennial disputes with semi-nomadic herders like the Fulani, who use the same land as sedentary agriculturalists like the Eggon.

Ombatse was allegedly formed as the result of a revelation received in a dream that called for male Eggons to purify society and rid it of social evils such as promiscuity, adultery, crime, alcohol consumption and smoking (Daily Trust (Lagos), November 25, 2012). One Ombatse member described the group’s focus: “The sect is highly purified and its members are not into alcoholism, sexual intercourse and stealing. Our members are highly moral and dedicated to their cause only” (BBC Hausa, May 10). The group’s founders have been identified as movement chairman Haruna Musa Zico Kigbu, movement secretary Zabura Musa Akwanshiki, Sgt. Alaku Ehe, Shuaibu Alkali, Iliyasu Hassan Gyabo and Abdullahi Usman.

According to the Ombatse chairman: The religion had existed since time immemorial with a shrine ‘Azhili’ interceding for the people. Consequently, people linked with the ‘Ombatse Group’ usually ask the shrine for rain, good harvest and many other fortunes. Therefore, Ombatse Group is not a [form of] witchcraft; neither does it have anything to do with fighting wars” (National Mirror [Lagos], December 2, 2012).

Ombatse spokesman, Zachary Zamani Allumaga, explained the purpose of the movement and its origins in a December, 2012 interview with a Nigerian daily:

The invasion of the Europeans, Christianity and the Islamic jihad, all these influx changed the status quo. Our forefathers had their own way of worship which is the traditional way of worship before the influx. The coming of these foreigners infiltrated the place and consequently affected their style of worship. My father who is still alive practiced both the traditional religion and Christianity and he is still alive. I also have an uncle who is a Muslim and at the same time practices the traditional religion. These have all tested the two divides. I am a confirmed communicant Catholic and at the same time too, a traditional worshipper. Now, what led to us bringing back this traditional worship to our people is because of the complaints we receive every now and then from our people about the evil and vices that have pervaded our society and our state. These things were not there according to what our fathers told us. The society used to be serene and orderly till the advent of the foreigners. Some of those societal ills include murder, theft, rumor mongering, secret society and witchcraft (Vanguard [Lagos], December 22, 2012).

Ombatse members typically wear black clothing and bundles of charms to provide magical protection from gunfire. There is little place for women in Ombatse and they are barred from entering Ombatse shrines. Both Ombatse leaders and their opponents point out that not all Eggon are members of the traditional cult. Ombatse and all other ethnic militias in Nasarawa State were officially banned in late 2012.

Spiraling Violence in the Eggon Community

A pattern of worsening communal and religiously-inspired violence has emerged over the last year in Nasarawa State:

  • June 2012 – Communal violence erupts between the Eggon and the Alago ethnic group. The latter took the worst of it, complaining that local security forces were unwilling to intervene against the Ombatse militia (Leadership [Abuja], July 1; Daily Trust [Lagos], January 19).
  • Mid-October, 2012 – Several clashes erupt between Eggon and Fulani. Many of the dead were reported mutilated by machetes (Daily Trust [Lagos], January 19).
  • November 17, 2012 – An attempt by Nigerian security forces to raid the Allogani cult center in the Nasarawa-Eggon district on November 17 to arrest the Ombatse chairman and secretary while they were conducting an initiation and oath-taking ceremony resulted in a gunfight in which three soldiers were shot. Hours later, cult members set up a barricade on the Lafia-Akwanga road and smashed cars that attempted to evade the barricade. Security forces endured abuse from the drivers of long lines of halted vehicles for their failure to remove the barricades (Sunday Trust [Lagos], November 18, 2012). The raid brought Ombatse into conflict with the state; according to Ombatse spokesman Zachary Zamani Allumaga: “What happened that day at the Azhili shrine when the security operatives invaded us was reminiscent of what terrorists would do by using a suicide bomber to bomb a church. I can’t still imagine” (Vanguard [Lagos], December 22, 2012).
  • November 21, 2012 – Violence erupted in Agyaragu, a suburb of the state capital of Lafia, when Ombatse killed at least ten people of the Christian and animist Koro ethnic group (a.k.a. Jijili, Migili) with firearms, machetes and axes. Some 50 homes were also burnt to the ground (Daily Trust [Lagos], November 21, 2012; November 25, 2012). Following the incident, Ombatse chairman Haruna Musa Zico Kigbu denied his movement had anything to do with the communal violence: “As far as we are concerned, our rules forbid members from starting a fight and killing, and as such, we cannot be connected with violence” (Daily Independent [Lagos], December 12, 2012).
  • January 9-14, 2013 – Seven Fulani were killed by Ombatse members in a pair of remote villages in Nasarawa State. The Ombatse members also killed a large number of Fulani-owned cattle, which they leave behind in accordance with their beliefs. Dozens may have been killed in the retaliatory fighting that followed (Royal Times of Nigeria, January 14; Daily Trust [Lagos], January 19).
  • January 13, 2013 – Five Ombatse members were killed by security forces when they tried to prevent the seizure of a large quantity of arms and ammunition (Royal Times of Nigeria, January 14).
  • February 7, 2013 Four villages and towns in Nasarawa State experience Fulani vs. Eggon violence. Both Eggon and Fulani blamed the other ethnic group for initiating the fighting (Sunday Trust [Lagos], February 10; Leadership [Abuja], March 22).

The Alakyo Massacre

If Ombatse had escaped national attention so far by being classed as yet another ethnic militia clashing with its neighbors in a relatively obscure part of the country, the movement seized national and even international headlines with a massive and deadly ambush of state security forces on their way to raid the Ombatse shrine in Alakyo (six miles outside the state capital of Lafia). The May 9 raid was launched to arrest the movement’s leader after local people had complained the religious movement was carrying out forced conversions and oath-taking in regional churches and mosques.

Ombatse 3Police Vehicles Destroyed by Ombatse (Nigerian Eye)

Ombatse members claimed a total of 95 policemen and state security agents were killed, while police have admitted to 30, with seven still missing (Nigerian Tribune, May 9; AFP, May 9). Most media reports suggested a figure in the range of 55 to 65 dead, but a nurse reported a local hospital had received 90 corpses and was awaiting the arrival of another 17 (Daily Trust [Lagos], May 11). Police later revealed that four policemen were still being held hostage by the Ombatse. According to one report, the failed raid was carried out without proper clearance from Abuja and a local military unit declined to join the police and state security men in the raid on these grounds (Premium Times [Abuja], May 12).

After the slaughter, the bodies of the security men were burned beyond recognition in large fires. One veteran police respondent described it as “the most cold-blooded act I have witnessed against the law enforcement community in my three decades in the force” (Premium Times [Abuja], May 10). Large scale protests by the wives and families of the deceased have paralyzed the state capital as the charred bodies are gradually brought into Lafia.

An Ombatse member described how cult members had heard rumors for days that security forces were preparing to arrest the cult leader. Remaining vigilant, they intercepted 12 trucks full of heavily armed policemen who claimed they were not going to the cult shrine: “We said we did not agree. Suddenly, they threw tear gas at us and it did not affect us. Next, they opened fire and killed nine of our members, and we retaliated by using axes to hack them to death” (BBC Hausa, May 10). Another Ombatse member told a Nigerian news agency: “In self-defense we killed 95 of them, we have no guns. It was machetes that we used in defending ourselves and eventually [we] killed them” (Sahara Reporters [Lagos], May 9).

One officer speaking on behalf of nine other police survivors said it was plain the militia was aware of their coming and had set up an ambush at a particularly narrow part of the road. Perhaps reflecting a common spiritual base with the attackers, the officer recounted that the heavy fire of the security forces was “futile, as bullets were not penetrating them” (Leadership [Abuja], May 10). While the ten survivors, many of them wounded, succeeded in escaping in the last truck in the convoy, other officers who tried to flee into the bush were pursued and cut down with machetes. The attackers seized a considerable quantity of arms that will make them an even more potent force on their home ground.

Most alarming was the fact that great lengths had been taken to keep the timing and destination of the security convoy a secret, even to the extent that most of the men did not know where they were going. As one police officer remarked: “That the cultists would anticipate and wreck this kind of attack on security people speaks volumes of either infiltration or mission betrayal” (Premium Times [Abuja], May 10). Two police corporals of Eggon origin were eventually arrested on charges of leaking information regarding the raid to Ombatse. At the time of their arrest they were in possession of three AK-47 rifles and a large quantity of charms (Daily Trust [Lagos], May 11).

Religion or Politics?

Some Eggon claim to have engineered the election of Nasarawa State governor Umaru Tanko al-Makura (a non-Eggon Muslim) by invoking the intervention of the Ombatse shrine. However, al-Makura has since fallen out of favor with the Eggon.  Allumaga and other Ombatse leaders now accuse successive Muslim governors of Nasarawa State of attempting to carry out an “ethnic cleansing” of Eggon from parts of the state (Nigerian Tribune, May 12). Many Eggon are now supporting the candidacy of a fellow Eggon, current state minister of information Labaran Maku, in the 2015 election for governor.

Ethnic militias have frequently been formed and deployed for intimidation purposes in Nigerian electoral contests and there are some in the state capital of Lafia who believe Ombatse has a political purpose related to the inability of the Eggon to produce a governor from their own group despite their numbers in the state. The militia may in this sense be part of an effort to rally the frequently disunited Eggon behind a single purpose through oath-taking and appeals to traditional norms (Premium Times [Abuja], May 10).

The Nasarawa Commissioner for Information, Hamza Elayo, has suggested that some Eggon politicians may have recruited Ombatse to further their cause: “It is obvious they are being sponsored by some ambitious politicians… The security agencies have been closing in on such politicians but I don’t want to mention names” (AFP, May 9). An official statement by Governor al-Makura confirmed the administration’s view that the Ombatse violence was political rather than religious in nature: “The crisis has no religious [dimension] as speculated by some sections of the media; some people are just bent on destroying the state because they feel they are not in power” (Premium Times [Abuja], May 12).

Ombatse 2Ombatse Detainees

Even Ombatse spokesman Zachary Zamani Allumaga has acknowledged the movement has a political purpose. Referring to their self-declared responsibility for the election of the present governor, Allumaga noted:

There is serious animosity against the Ombatse group simply because they are aware that we went to Azhili [a traditional deity] and prayed for the political landscape of Nasarawa State to change for good, and indeed it changed…  As 2015 is approaching, we are aware that some people are planning to ensure the Eggon nation is dislodged from the political landscape of the state, so they call us all kinds of names so that they can hang us. But I can assure you, we are prepared to pray to Azhili with all legitimacy (Vanguard [Lagos], December 22, 2012).


Before the Alakyo massacre, Ombatse spokesmen were united in denying any involvement in the violence in Nasarawa State, often by blaming it on “rogue elements,” but some Ombatse members are now admitting their responsibility for attacks on Nigerian security forces, if not neighboring communities. The Alakyo incident has left Ombatse in control of a large quantity of arms and ammunition, making the cult a significant threat to non-Eggon communities in Nasarawa as well as to state security forces, who will inevitably seek revenge for the horrific slaughter on the road to Alakyo. Whether formed initially by a desire for moral reform, a perceived need for self-defense against aggressive pastoralists or even as an armed adjunct to local electoral politics, Ombatse has entered a new phase of insurgency against the state, giving Abuja yet another security headache in central Nigeria even as it struggles to contain insurgents and terrorists in the northern and southern regions of the country.


1. I.D. Hepburn, Ian Maddieson and Roger Blench, A Dictionary of Eggon, Cambridge, January 2, 2006,

This article first appeared in the May 16, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Niger Revamps Security Structure to Face Islamist Threat

Andrew McGregor

May 16, 2013

As Niger struggles to expand its uranium industry and exploit potentially rich oil reserves in its northern regions, it has been forced to address the security consequences of being a neighbor to northern Mali, southern Libya and northern Nigeria, all regions experiencing large levels of political and religious violence that have little respect for national borders.

Niger ArmyNigerien Troops

Niger’s army played an important role in Operation Serval, the French-led military intervention in northern Mali. Rather than operating with the rest of the African units that gathered in Bamako but played no important role in the fighting, Nigérien troops entered northern Mali alongside Chadian forces from Mali’s southern border with Niger. Niger now deploys over 650 soldiers in northern Mali at Gao, Ansongo and Menaka (RFI, May12). The Nigérien base at Menaka was the target of a May 10 suicide attack. A car full of explosives managed to burst through the gates of the camp, but was destroyed by Nigérien troops without any casualties other than the suicide attacker (AFP, May 10).

Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou, who has met three times in the last year with French president François Hollande, is urging a strong mandate for the UN peacekeeping force that is expected to replace the current ECOWAS operation:  It should not be a classical-type mission like was the case in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans or in the Congo. Considering the nature of the enemy, this mission should be offensive” (RFI Online, May 14).

Niger’s foreign minister, Muhammad Bazoum, recently warned it had obtained information confirming that armed Islamists driven out of northern Mali by Operation Serval had shifted operations to Libya’s lightly-governed southwest, presumably by passing through northern Niger. According to Bazoum, “Mali has been settled, but Libya is far from being resolved, and today we think Libya is one of the biggest international terrorism bases… These bases, because they are terrorists,’ they will be a threat for Libya’s immediate neighbors” (Reuters, May 2). Veteran Nigérien Tubu militant Barka Wardougou also appears to have shifted his base of operations across the border into southern Libya, which has a substantial Tubu population.

Though Niger is usually graded as the poorest nation in the world, it has been forced to increase its defense budget in reaction to external threats and the presence of al-Qaeda operatives in the northern desert. While the minister of defense boasts of increased salaries, expanded recruitment and purchases of military equipment such as tanks, the minister of the interior points out that “this is money that we take from the education and health budgets” (Jeune Afrique, April 29). There are also plans to expand Niger’s internal intelligence agency, which consists at the moment of only roughly 100 men.

Niger’s army, the roughly 8,000 man Forces Armées Nigeriennes (FAN), is dominated by members of the Djerma-Songhai, historical rivals of the Saharan Tuareg of northern Niger, who, like their cousins in northern Mali, have engaged in several rebellions against the southern-dominated government. Though the Tuareg rebels of northern Mali and northern Niger have cooperated in the past, there have been no overt signs of unrest amongst the Tuareg of Niger since the Tuareg/Islamist rebellion began in Mali last year. The army continues to have close ties to France, the former colonial power, but has received increasing levels of U.S. training and assistance in recent years. A new U.S. training mission for African peacekeepers operating in Mali will begin on June 24 and will involve up to 30 U.S. instructors (Reuters, May 16).  There are already roughly 100 American military personnel in Niger, most of them involved with the operation and protection of U.S. drones based in Niamey.

French and American drones began flying surveillance missions out of Niamey’s Hamani-Diori Airport in February and there is speculation that Washington may consider creating a permanent base for drone operations in Niger.  Despite Niger’s ever-precarious economic situation, the presence of these unmanned aircraft has created a degree of “drone envy” in the Niamey government and military, which is “seriously considering” the purchase of its own drones. According to President Issoufou: “Without them we are blind and deaf people” (Jeune Afrique, April 22).

Nigeria’s Boko Haram and bandits posing as Boko Haram members continue to pose a threat to security in the areas along Niger’s southern border with Nigeria. To counter these activities, Niger contributes troops to the decade-old Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), composed of troops from Nigeria, Chad and Niger. The MJTF runs operations against Boko Haram groups active in the border region, though Niamey recently denied Nigerian claims that Nigérien troops were involved in an April 19 firefight near Lake Chad in which 185 civilians were killed in the crossfire between security forces and Boko Haram suspects. Niger defense minister Mahamadou Karidjo maintained that “No element of Niger’s army took part in these clashes… Boko Haram is not a direct threat for Niger; we are leaving Nigerians to deal with their own problem (AFP, April 26). In recent days more than 1500 Nigérien national who had been living on the Nigerian side of the border have fled the recurrent Boko Haram-related violence around Lake Chad back into an area of Niger that is already experiencing a food crisis (RFI Online, May 14).

Niger also faces the task of dealing with Nigérien jihadists returning home after being dispersed by Operation Serval. Many are reported to be Fulanis who were offered considerable recruitment bonuses but had little ideological commitment to the Islamist cause (Jeune Afrique, April 29). The best known returnee is Hisham Bilal, a former commander in the Islamist Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) who returned to Niger with his men last November after complaining that MUJWA’s Arab leaders used Black African jihadists as “cannon fodder” (AFP, November 9, 2012).

This article first appeared in the May 16, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Arabs and Tuareg Clash in Struggle for Destiny of Northern Mali

Andrew McGregor

May 16, 2013

New fighting between northern Mali’s Arab community and Tuareg rebels working with French intervention forces in the region threatens to escalate into a wider ethnic conflict in the run-up to July’s national elections. While efforts are under way to ease tensions between the communities, there is also suspicion that some of these efforts are opportunistic and designed to advance certain personal political agendas.

Azawad Map 2The clashes, centered around the town of Bir, have involved members of the largely Tuareg Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA – a secular separatist movement) and the Mouvement Arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), an Arab militia created in February 2012 as the Front de Libération nationale de l’Azawad (FLNA) and formed from members of earlier Arab militias and Arab soldiers of the Malian Army who deserted after the fall of Timbuktu to Islamist groups last year.

The MAA announced it had expelled Tuareg fighters belonging to the MNLA from the town of Bir (30 miles northeast of Timbuktu) on April 22 after 14 to 15 MAA battlewagons entered the town. Movement spokesman Moloud Muhammad Ramadan said the action was taken to protect village residents who were threatened by the MNLA’s presence, though there were later charges that MAA fighters looted Tuareg properties in Bir (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], April 22). French military aircraft overflew the town several times to observe the situation, though they did not send in ground forces (RFI, April 26). As clashes between Arabs and Tuareg intensified, troops from Burkina Faso and the Malian Army entered Bir on May 6 (AP, May 7). The Arab fighters withdrew, but remained close to the town to observe developments and await an opportunity to return.

Malian troops conducted searches and carried out arrests in Bir, but they and the Burkinabe force withdrew by May 10, leaving the town open to new outbreaks of violence as a column of Arab battlewagons re-entered Bir on May 11, looting homes and shops while searching for Tuareg men. MAA spokesmen Moloud Muhammad Ramadan admitted that the Arab fighters were members of the MAA, but insisted they were operating outside the movement’s control in an effort to retrieve items looted from the Arab community in In Khalil by Tuareg members of the MNLA (RFI, May 12). The local Tuareg community claims to have had nothing to do with the MNLA looting of In Khalil. Ramadan denied charges that Tuareg livestock at Bir were slaughtered by MAA fighters and stated that the MAA “has nothing against the Tuareg, but hunts the MNLA wherever it may be” (Mali Actualités, May 5).

The trouble in Bir has its direct origin in the MNLA’s occupation of the border town of In Khalil in February, which Arab residents claim was followed by wide-scale pillaging and rape. The MAA responded by attacking the MNLA positions in In Khalil on February 23 with a column led by MAA military commander Colonel Hussein Ould Ghulam. The Arab militia was driven off after being hit by French airstrikes in support of the MNLA (Le Combat [Bamako], February 23; see Terrorism Monitor Brief, March 8).

To press their demands for the return of Arab property or cash compensation, MAA fighters kidnapped the son of the Tuareg marabout [Islamic religious scholar] of Bir, who remains missing (RFI, May 9). However, Arab elders in the town opposed the kidnapping, suggesting it would result only in more violence between the communities (RFI, April 29).

Clashes between Tuareg and Arab groups have occurred elsewhere in northern Mali as well. Arab residents of Anefis, a town roughly halfway between Gao and Kidal, complain that Tuareg fighters of the MNLA entered that town on April 24, killing four Arab merchants before cleaning out their shop and charging fees to pass through MNLA checkpoints (Procès Verbal [Bamako], May 1). It is not only the rebel Tuareg that have come into conflict with the Arabs of northern Mali; Arab residents of the town of Taguilalt (60 miles outside of Gao) have complained that Tuareg troops of the Malian Army (presumably part of Colonel al-Hajj ag-Gamou’s command) looted the village on April 16, arresting 12 Arab men and “provoking and humiliating “other Arab residents (al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], April 17). The Timbuktu Arab community is still calling for information on the whereabouts of eight Arab traders and one Songhai member who they claim were abducted by Malian troops on February 14. Malian authorities in Timbuktu claim only one Arab trader was taken (RFI, May 2).

Besides the Arab “self-defense” militias, Malian Arabs seeking reforms through legal and democratic means formed al-Karama (Dignity) last year in the Mauritanian capital of Nouakchott, where many Malian Arabs have taken refuge for the duration of hostilities in northern Mali. Though they admit they lack political experience, al-Karama leaders say they will not concede the right to govern to “cunning” and more experienced political operators who rule through “the lie, the plot and the threat” (Mali Actualités, April 12). The leader of al-Karama is Muhammad Tahir Ould al-Hajj, a leading member of the Timbuktu Arab community.  The movement’s secretary, Muhammad Ould Mahmud, insists al-Karama opposes all forms of terrorism and drug-trafficking and welcomes the recent establishment of a national Dialogue and Reconciliation Commission (Mali Actualités, May 4).

In a parallel effort to find a political solution to the situation in northern Mali, the High Council of Azawad was formed on May 2 by a number of Kidal community leaders and headed by Muhammad ag Intallah, a son of the chief of the Ifoghas Tuareg of Kidal, Intallah ag Attaher. The mainly Tuareg group says it seeks to unite all the “sons of the Azawad” under a single banner to negotiate with Bamako without recourse to armed struggle, partition or alliance with Islamist groups (RFI, May 7). However, despite accusations that the HCA is nothing more than a renamed version of the rebel MNLA, that movement has announced it wants no part of the HCA and is seeking direct negotiations with Bamako (RFI, April 26; May 8). Bamako, in turn, insists on MNLA disarmament before talks can begin. There are, however, reports that fighters of the largely Tuareg Mouvement Islamique de l’Azawad (MIA) led by Alghabass ag Intallah (another son and designated successor of the Ifoghas chief) are integrating into the MNLA. These reports would seem to confirm earlier charges that the recently formed MIA was nothing more than a way-station for Ansar al-Din defectors seeking to join the secular MNLA before direct talks resume with Bamako (RFI, April 29; for Alghabass ag Intallah and the MIA, see Militant Leadership Monitor, January 30).

The Arab-Tuareg tensions are escalating as the defeated Islamist groups turn to terrorist tactics to prolong their struggle against French “Crusaders,” their military allies and the Malian state:

  • On May 4, two Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) suicide bombers killed two members of the Malian military when they attacked a patrol near Gao (RFI, May 5).
  • On May 10, three suicide bombers attacked a Malian Army checkpoint in Gossi, while a fourth was killed trying to enter the Gossi military camp. In the early hours of the same day,  an assailant tried to drive a car bomb into the camp used by Nigérien troops in Menaka, but was killed when his car exploded under fire from the camp’s guards (Reuters, May 10; AFP, May 10). The Niger deployment has also been struck by the death in Bamako of its senior officer, General Yaya Seyni Garba, apparently from natural causes (Agence de Presse Africaine, May 11).
  • Three suicide bombers struck in Gossi on May 11, wounding two soldiers, while a fourth suicide bomber was killed in Menaka before he could detonate his explosives. MUJWA claims responsibility for both attacks (AP, May 11). The continuing attacks bring into question the security of nation-wide elections planned for July.
  • While Bamako has escaped most of the violence that has consumed the north for the last year, there are disturbing indications that the dispersed Islamists are preparing new attacks within the capital. In late April, Malian military intelligence arrested seven Malian citizens alleged to members of a MUJWA cell preparing a bombing campaign in Bamako (RFI, April 29; Jeune Afrique, May 1).

Meanwhile, there are reports that the 2012 military coup leader, Captain Amadou Sanogo, is seeking asylum in Gabon or Nigeria. Sanogo, who has barely left the Kati military base outside of Bamako since the coup, is alleged to now fear reprisals from other member of the military after a number of internal clashes and disputes within the army (PANA Online [Dakar], May 1).

This article first appeared in the May 16, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Russian Interior Ministry Revives its Armored Train in the North Caucasus

Andrew McGregor

May 14, 2013

In an effort to control “banditry” and rebel activity in the North Caucasus region, Russia’s Interior Ministry is returning its sole armored train to service on the often dangerous rail lines of southern Russia. The main mission of the armored train Kozma Minin, which has spent some years sitting in a rail-yard, will be to counter the insurgents’ mine attacks on Russian rail lines. The Kozma Minin is expected to join several other Ministry of Defense armored trains returned to service in the North Caucasus in 2010 (see EDM, February 23, 2010).

Armored Train Kozma MininWW II’s Armored Train Kozma Minin

The original Kozma Minin was a World War II armored train named for a Russian merchant who helped Prince Dmitri Pozharsky defend Russia against a Polish invasion in the early 17th century. Completed in February 1942, the original Kozma Minin was a formidable fire platform, with two covered wagons each having two T-34 tank turrets and six 7.62mm machine guns. Two open armored wagons each contained one M-8 rocket launcher and two 37mm anti-aircraft guns. An armored locomotive and several flat-bed cars completed the train.

Unlike its namesake, which might be described as a battleship on rails, the modern Kozma Minin is the battle cruiser of military trains – lightly shielded but highly mobile. While Russia’s other armored trains have been used to provide fire support for military operations in the Caucasus as well as rail security operations,  the armament of the Kozma Minin is intended for a defensive role that will allow the train to conduct mine-clearing operations, line maintenance and other defensive roles.

The Interior Ministry’s version of the Kozma Minin was built by a Volga-Vyatka OMON unit in 1994 from old railway platforms, railway ties, scrap metal and whatever other suitable materials might be found. The covered wagon of the train was painted in a brown and green camouflage pattern and most of the train was covered in well-worn camouflage netting, giving the entire train the appearance of a relic from a much earlier war. Despite its improvised and ramshackle construction, the Kozma Minin soon became the pride of Interior Ministry troops based in the North Caucasus, continuing its important work in the North Caucasus until it was retired to a rail-yard in 2002. Several cars of the train were marked with the acronym “OMOH,” the Cyrillic version of OMON (Otryad Mobilniy Osobogo Naznacheniya or Special Purpose Mobile Unit), the common term used for Interior Ministry units.

Before undertaking its new tasks, the Kozma Minin is being fitted with modern anti-mine technology, including the Kamysh (Cane) M4K system, made public in 2009. The mine-disabling system uses white noise to interfere with radio-controlled explosive devices, operating effectively at a distance of up to 20 meters.

Providing the new system works, it will be a vast improvement over the train’s old mine-prevention procedures, which involved the train moving at a walking pace in suspect areas behind combat engineers with mine-sniffing canines.  Measures are also being taken in the reconstruction to improve the safety of train personnel, which was usually provided for in the old train not so much by “armor,” but by an improvised mixture of sand-bags and timbers.

For armament, the Kozma Minin relies on two quad-barrel ZPU-4 air defense machine guns and ten hard-mounted AGS-17 automatic grenade launchers and machine guns.The ZPU-4 is a modification of the original ZPU, brought into Soviet service in 1949 and one of Russia’s most popular arms exports since. Mounted on a pick-up truck, the weapon was widely used by both sides in the Libyan Rebellion.

Additional firepower is provided by a BMP-2 (an amphibious infantry combat vehicle) chained to a flat-bed car with sand-bags to protect the wheels. The BMP02 is equipped with a 30mm 2A42 autocannon, a 9P135M anti-tank guided-missile launcher capable of firing a variety of anti-tank missiles and a 7.62mm machine gun. Ministry of Defense armored trains usually include one BMP-2, but also mount one to two T-62 tanks with a more powerful 115mm cannon.

The rebuilt Interior Ministry train is expected to be based either at Mozdok in North Ossetia or, more likely, at Khankala, a rail station east of Grozny in Chechnya where armored trains belonging to the Ministry of Defense are stationed. Khankala is also home to a Russian military base hosting the 42nd Motorized Rifle Division.

When finished, the train will transport Interior Ministry supplies and personnel in addition to providing rail security, much as it did in its earlier incarnation. The overhaul of the Kozma Minin is expected to be finished by December 1, 2013 and will cost an estimated $635,000.


Izvestia, April 10, 2013; Gennady Zhilin, “Baikal, Terek and Co.”;, April 11, 2013,

This article first appeared in the May 14, 2013 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor

Dissension and Desertions Begin to Plague Uganda’s Military

Andrew McGregor

May 2, 2013

Uganda’s military is one of the most active in Africa, with ongoing operations in Somalia, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reflecting Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni’s willingness to use his nation’s military to establish Uganda as a regional power in east Africa.  Internally, the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF) is still engaged in operations against the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in western Uganda. Last year, the UPDF threatened to intervene militarily in South Sudan if Khartoum attacked the new nation (Sudan Tribune, April 20, 2013). UPDF operations in Somalia and the CAR have the active support of the U.S. Defense Department.

updf trooperIn recent months, over 400 UPDF servicemen have deserted, often with their arms. Surprisingly, 37 of the deserters were members of the elite Special Forces Command (SFC). According to an investigation carried out by a Kampala daily, the deserters had been part of a larger SFC group assigned to fell trees and clear bush around President Museveni’s ranch in Mpigi district. The elite troops resented being deployed in heavy labor tasks with no apparent military purpose, though the army maintains the men were used to clear “an observation zone to spot enemies” (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 25). Desertion has rarely been a problem in the SFC in the past as SFC members are better trained and better paid than other UPDF commands and receive an extra food allowance. Many of the deserters from other units appear to come from the northern and eastern parts of Uganda, reflecting complaints of discrimination in the UPDF against recruits from certain geographical regions. Uganda’s Internal Security Organization (ISO) is reported to be running intensive search operations in pursuit of the deserters that have already resulted in over 100 arrests (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 30).

Deserters are thought to have been among those responsible for a March 4 attack on the Mbuya army barracks that appears to have been designed to seize enough weapons to arm a criminal group or rebel movement. Though the attack was repulsed after a firefight, there are concerns the attackers may have had support from active service members at the Mbuya base (New Vision [Kampala], March 5; Daily Monitor [Kampala], March 6; Observer Online [Kampala], March 19).Colonel Felix Kulayigye, who was appointed Chief Political Commissar of the UPDF in March, says that the problem is that many recruits are joining the army to make money rather than serve the nation: “There has been a misunderstanding that there is a lot of money in the army… A job seeker is simply a wage seeker, and if the wage is not satisfactory to their expectations, they run away” (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 25).

MuhooziBrigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba

A lively debate has opened up in Uganda regarding the merits of the SFC commander, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, who also happens to be the first son of President Museveni. Muhoozi received education and training at Sandhurst, Fort Leavenworth and the U.S. General Staff College but his rapid rise through the ranks of the UPDF has prompted questions surrounding political interference in the promotion process. The president’s son took only one year to rise from second lieutenant in 2000 to major in 2001. Last August, Muhoozi was promoted to Brigadier ahead of many senior colonels and given command of the SFC. According to Minister of Defense Dr. Crispus Kiyonga, Muhoozi was “promoted on merit because he has trained and is very hard-working” (Daily Monitor [Kampala], March 1). After questions were raised about the appointment by opposition politician and former UPDF colonel Dr. Kizza Besigye, the president took the extraordinary step of responding to charges of nepotism by penning a lengthy refutation published in a Kampala daily (Saturday Monitor [Kampala], February 17). As SFC leader, Brigadier Muhoozi commands Uganda’s most capable troops, organized in 11 battalions with a total of 10,000 soldiers tasked with protecting the president, guarding oil infrastructure and carrying out special military operations as required. There is reason to believe that Muhoozi’s military career is intended as a stepping stone to his eventual succession of his father as Ugandan president.

Uganda’s Special Forces have been effective in carrying out special missions of the type recently described by the commander of Uganda’s African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) contingent, Brigadier Michael Ondoga: “You may have special scenarios like an enemy hiding somewhere in a narrow place and he can only be dealt with in a special way, say at night by surprising him. These are the kind of special operations we are talking about. Those special scenarios that need night visual equipment and high speed to execute and return. They also carry out night operations in built up areas. They are well trained and have that capability. They can move in quickly and carry out surgical operations and come out” (Ugandan News, March 23).

Ugandan/AMISOM operations in Somalia have been complicated by Ethiopia’s March decision to withdraw its roughly 8,000 man force from Somalia. Ethiopian troops entered western regions of Somalia in November 2011, but have remained outside the AMISOM command structure. Al-Shabaab fighters are moving to re-occupy areas from which they were once expelled by the Ethiopian forces (AFP, April 26).  Ugandan police do not believe the Islamist al-Shabaab has lost its ability to carry out terrorist operations and have consequently issued a public alert warning information has been received of potential terrorist attacks by the Somali Islamists (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 27). There are currently over 6,000 Ugandan soldiers deployed in Somalia.

However, the UPDF is planning a similar withdrawal from joint operations in the Central African Republic designed to eliminate the decades-long threat posed by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Working alongside elements from the U.S. Special Forces, Ugandan military operations in the CAR have greatly reduced the number of killings and abductions carried out by the LRA, but Kony remains at large and is expected to exploit the Ugandan withdrawal to resume operations in the region (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 4). Service in the CAR campaign is disliked by many of the Ugandan troops deployed there and is thought to be behind a number of the recent desertions.

The transformation of the UPDF from a guerrilla force to a national army has not eased a tendency for some officers to be outspoken on political matters, despite the implications for civil-military relations. Many serving and retired officers recently welcomed the verdict of a General Court Martial in the case of former military intelligence chief Brigadier Henry Tumukunde. The Brigadier was ordered released with a “serious reprimand” after being arrested in 2005 following remarks he made in a 2005 radio interview questioning Museveni’s leadership and the decision to abolish term limits on the presidency. Former internal security deputy director and current opposition politician Major John Kazoora suggested Tumukunde’s prosecution and other government moves to stifle dissent were proof that “The country has gone full cycle into dictatorship. Museveni has muzzled parliament and does not want divergent views” (Daily Monitor [Kampala], April 19; April 18).

Uganda’s alliance with the United States and the West and the role of the UPDF in establishing regional security have helped mute Western criticism of election irregularities and authoritarian tendencies in the Museveni government. Nonetheless, the government will find it hard to avoid the internal repercussions of these policies. With the UPDF providing the backbone of the Museveni regime, any signs of dissent within that force are bound to have political importance in Kampala, where opposition figures are eager to use any lever to dislodge the president’s grip on power.

This article was first published in the May 2, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Islamist Violence in Tripoli Defies Efforts to Restore Security in Libya

Andrew McGregor

May 2, 2013

An estimated 80% of the two-storey French Embassy in the suburban al-Andlus neighborhood of Tripoli was destroyed by a car bomb in morning of April 23. The massive blast also damaged four neighboring houses. Remarkably, only two French gendarmes were injured in the 7 AM attack, which seemed designed to avoid mass casualties amongst the hundreds of Libyans who assemble outside the embassy later in the morning to seek French visas. No group has claimed responsibility, though the Interior Ministry and Foreign Ministry have both typically blamed Qaddafi loyalists rather than radical Islamists for the bombing (Le Monde, April 26; Xinhua, April 23).

French Embassy, Tripoli

The attack may actually have been connected to French operations against Islamist militants in northern Mali. The bombing came one day after France’s decision to extend its military mission in Mali and coincided with a visit to Tripoli by Jacques Myard, chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 24). Islamists in Tripoli and Benghazi expressed their anger with the French intervention in January protests. Since then, there have been concerns in Libya that continued inability to prevent attacks on foreign nationals and facilities in Tripoli and elsewhere in Libya might invite further foreign military intervention (al-Watan [Tripoli], April 24; February Press [Tripoli], February 24).

Libyan officials still see the hand of Qaddafi loyalists behind much of the insecurity in Libya. According to Libyan Defense Minister Muhammad al-Barghathi: “There are enemies inside Libya from the former regime who are still active in undermining the internal situation and influencing some leaders.” In light of the bombing and earlier attacks on the Italian ambassador in January and the fatal assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September, Libyan Foreign Minister Muhammad Abd al-Aziz concedes the existence of radical Islamists in Libya, but believes “The solution is to have a dialogue with them and to pursue a policy of integration with the families. To use force is not the right approach within the context of the national reconciliation necessary to rebuild Libya” (Le Monde, April 26).

Car-jackings and gunfights between militias have become daily occurrences in Tripoli, which was known for its safety until recently. Libya’s militias are also opposing the development of a free press, a crucial step in the development of a democratic society. Beatings, threats and illegal detentions have all been used to silence attempts to report on militia activities in Tripoli (Reuters, May 1). In recent days the Libyan government has come under siege from the militias and even its own police, making the establishment of a functioning government nearly impossible:

  • On April 28, armed men and vehicles surrounded the Foreign Ministry in a continuing blockade to demand the dismissal of Ministry employees who worked for the Qaddafi regime.
  • On April 29, former rebels briefly occupied the Finance Ministry.
  • On April 29 and 30, policemen took over the Interior Ministry twice to demand raises and promotions.
  • On April 30, 20 to 30 gunmen pulled up in front of the Justice Ministry in trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns and occupied the building, sending Ministry workers fleeing. The gunmen were angered by remarks made by the Justice Minister regarding illegal prisons run by the militias (AFP, May 1; BBC April 30).

As well as arms, much of the Qaddafi regime’s internal surveillance equipment has fallen into the hands of various Libyan militias. According to Interior Minister Ashur Shuwayil, these militias are now using this equipment to monitor senior members of the Libyan government, the General National Congress (parliament) and members of the media (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 24). Inside Libya, there is a debate over whether the intimidation practiced by the militias is a useful stimulus to moving the revolution forward or crass manipulation of the political process by politicians looking to expel potential opponents from the government (BBC, April 30).

Libya’s Defense Minister says the government has sought help from Canada, Australia, India, Pakistan, Jordan and Egypt in creating a new professional army to replace the militias. Of these nations, Egypt has been most receptive to Libya’s request, despite experiencing its own breakdown in internal security (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 24). Libya’s Defense Ministry is seeking to obtain modern, sophisticated weaponry, but must wait another year for UN restrictions on arms sales to Libya to expire. Describing the army of the Qaddafi regime as “a joke,” Defense Minister al-Barghathi maintains that Libya trying to restore security and is “seeking to build an army whose number is proportionate with the population despite Libya’s vast territory, but in ways that lead to units that are small in size but professional and equipped with special weapons—and in which aircraft are used in particular” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 24).

Yusuf al-MangushMajor General Yusuf al-Mangush

Libyan armed forces chief-of-staff Major General Yusuf al-Mangush continues to face opposition from officers of the new national army, especially in Benghazi and other eastern regions. Though government officials continue to express confidence in al-Mangush, a recent conference in al-Burayqah saw army officers, militia leaders and civilian leaders call for the chief-of-staff’s immediate dismissal and an investigation into missing funds issued to the Libyan Army’s General Staff (al-Watan [Tripoli], April 23). One of the groups represented at the conference was composed of current and former army officers who have organized under the name “Free Libyan Army Officers Assemblage.” The group has called for the elimination of the Libyan Army’s General Staff and its replacement with an independent body of qualified personnel (al-Hurrah [Tripoli], April 20).

At some point, the new government will need to assert its authority if it wishes to end armed attempts to direct the government’s direction. For now, however, the government remains outmanned and outgunned, lacking the firepower advantage normally expected with government militaries. With UN Chapter VII restrictions on arms sales to Libya still in effect for another year, Libya’s government will have to seek other means of restraining the militias, which in at least one sense could be viewed as a favorable development, as an argument could be made that shipping even more arms to Libya might contribute little to solving the nation’s many problems.

This article was first published in the May 2, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.