Why are Egypt’s Counter-Terrorism Efforts Failing in the Sinai Peninsula?

Andrew McGregor

December 15, 2016

In October 2011, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi declared “the military situation in Sinai is 100 percent secure” (Daily News Egypt, October 6, 2011). Four years later, Army spokesman Brigadier General Muhammad Samir assured Egyptians that the North Sinai was “100 percent under control” (al-Jazeera, July 2, 2015). Even Dr. Najih Ibrahim, a former jihadist and principal theorist of Egypt’s al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (GI – Islamic Group) declared as recently as last August that for Sinai’s branch of the Islamic State: “This is the beginning of the end for this organization…  It cannot undertake big operations, such as the bombing of government buildings, like the bombing of the military intelligence building previously … or massacre, or conduct operations outside Sinai. Instead, it has resorted to car bombs or suicide bombings, which are mostly handled well [by Egyptian security forces]” (Ahram Online, August 11; August 15).sinai-ea-map

Since then, Islamic State militants have carried out highly organized large-scale attacks on checkpoints in al-Arish, killing 12 conscripts on October 12 and another 12 soldiers on November 24. Together with a steady stream of almost daily IED attacks, mortar attacks and assassinations, it is clear that militancy in North Sinai is far from finished.

Since 2004 there have been a series of jihadist groups operating in the Sinai. The latest face of militancy in the region is the Wilayet Sayna (WS – “Sinai Province”), a name adopted by the Sinai’s Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (ABM – Supporters of Jerusalem) following its declaration of allegiance to the IS militant group in November 2014. The secretive WS has been estimated to include anywhere from several hundred to two thousand fighters. Despite operating for the most part in a small territory under 400 square miles in with a population of roughly 430,000 people, a series of offensives since 2013 by the Arab world’s most powerful army in North Sinai have produced not victory, but rather a war of attrition. The question therefore is what exceptional circumstances exist in the North Sinai that prevent Egypt’s security forces from ending a small but troubling insurgency that receives little outside support.

As in northern Mali in 2012, the conflict in Sinai has merged a localized ethnic insurgency with externally-inspired Salafi-Jihadism. The conflict persists despite the wide latitude granted by Israel in terms of violating the 1979 Camp David Accords’ restrictions on arms and troops deployed by Egypt in the Sinai. Unsettled by the cross-border activities of Gazan and Sinai terrorists, Israel has basically granted Cairo a free hand in military deployments there since July 2015.

At the core of the insurgency is Sinai’s Bedouin population, culturally and geographically separate from the Egyptian “mainland.” Traditionally, the Bedouin of the Sinai had closer relations with Gaza and Palestine to the northeast than the Egyptian nation to their west, though Egypt’s interest in the Sinai and its resources dates to the earliest dynasties of Ancient Egypt. The Israeli occupation of the region in 1967-1979 left many Egyptians suspicious of pro-Israeli sympathies amongst the Bedouin (generally without cause) and led to a ban on their recruitment by Egypt’s military or security services.

According to Egyptian MP Tamer al-Shahawy (a former major-general and military intelligence chief), social changes began in the Sinai after the 1973 war with Israel: “After the war a major rift in ‎tribal culture occurred — on one hand was the pull of the Sufi trend, on the other the pull of ‎money from illegal activities such as smuggling, drug trafficking and arms dealing… For a number of reasons the government was forced to prioritize a security over a socio-‎economic political response.”‎ (Ahram Online, August 15).

Lack of development, land ownership issues and Cairo’s general disinterest in the region for anything other than strategic purposes erupted in the terrorist bombings of Red Sea tourist resorts from 2004 to 2006. The deaths of at least 145 people led to a wave of mass arrests, torture and lengthy detentions that embittered the Bedouin and further defined the differences between “Egyptians” and the inhabitants of the Sinai Peninsula. With the local economy struggling due to neglect and insecurity, many young men turned to smuggling, a traditional occupation in the region. Like northern Mali, however, smuggling has proven a gateway to militancy.

In recent decades, Islamist ideology has been brought to the Sinai by “mainland” teachers and by students returning from studies in the Nile Valley. Inattention from government-approved religious bodies like al-Azhar and the Ministry of Religious Endowments left North Sinai’s mosques open to radical preachers denouncing the region’s traditional Sufi orders. Their calls for an aggressive and Islamic response to what was viewed as Cairo’s “oppression” and the support available from Islamist militants in neighboring Gaza led to a gradual convergence of “Bedouin issues” and Salafi-Jihadism. Support for groups like ABM and WS is far from universal amongst the tribes and armed clashes are frequent, but the widespread distaste for Egypt’s security forces and a campaign of brutal intimidation against those inclined to work with them have prevented Cairo from exploiting local differences in its favor. The army claims it could “instantaneously purge” Sinai of militants but has not done so out of concern for the safety of residents (Ahram Online, March 21).

Egypt’s Military Operations in the Sinai

Beginning with Operation Eagle’s deployment of two brigades of Sa’iqa (“Thunderbolt) Special Forces personnel in August 2011, Cairo has initiated a series of military operations designed to secure North Sinai, eradicate the insurgents in the Rafah, al-Arish and Shaykh al-Zuwayad districts of North Sinai, eliminate cross-border smuggling with Gaza and protect the Suez Canal. While meeting success in the latter two objectives, the use of fighter jets, artillery, armor, attack helicopters and elite troop formations have failed to terminate an insurgency that has intensified rather than diminished.

sinai-ea-al-saiqaAl-Sa’iqa (Special Forces) in Rafah

The ongoing Operation Martyr’s Right, launched in September 2015, is the largest military operation yet, involving Special Forces units, elements of the second and third field armies and police units with the aim of targeting terrorists and outlaws in central and northern Sinai to “pave the road for creating suitable conditions to start development projects in Sinai.” (Ahram Online, November 5, 2016). Each phase of Martyr’s Right and earlier operations in the region have resulted in government claims of hundreds of dead militants and scores of “hideouts,” houses, cars and motorcycles destroyed, all apparently with little more than temporary effect.

Military-Tribal Relations

Security forces have failed to connect with an alienated local population in North Sinai. Arbitrary mass arrests and imprisonments have degraded the relationship between tribal groups and state security services. Home demolitions, public utility cuts, travel restrictions, indiscriminate shelling, the destruction of farms and forced evacuations for security reasons have only reinforced the perception of the Egyptian Army as an occupying power.  Security services are unable to recruit from local Bedouin, while ABM and WS freely recruit military specialists from the Egyptian “mainland.” It was a Sa’aiqa veteran expelled from the army in 2007, Hisham al-Ashmawy, who provided highly useful training in weapons and tactics to ABM after he joined the movement in 2012 (Reuters, October 18, 2015). Others have followed.

The role of local shaykhs as interlocutors with tribal groups has been steeply devalued by the central role now played by state security services in appointing tribal leaders. In 2012, a shaykh of the powerful Sawarka tribe was shot and killed when it became widely believed he was identifying jihadists to state security services (Egypt Independent, June 11, 2012)

The use of collective punishment encourages retaliation, dissuades the local population from cooperation with security forces and diminishes the reputation of moderate tribal leaders who are seen as unable to wield influence with the government. Egypt’s prime minister, Sherif Ismail, has blamed terrorism in North Sinai on the familiar “external and internal forces,” but also noted that under Egypt’s new constitution, the president could not use counter-terrorism measures as “an excuse for violating public freedoms” (Ahram Online, May 10).

Operational Weaknesses

The government’s media blackout of the Sinai makes it difficult to verify information or properly evaluate operations.  Restrictions on coverage effectively prevent public discussion of the issues behind the insurgency, reducing opportunities for reconciliation. Nonetheless, a number of weaknesses in Cairo’s military approach are apparent:

  • Operations are generally reactive rather than proactive
  • A military culture exists that discourages initiative in junior officers. This is coupled with an unwillingness in senior staff to admit failure and change tactics compared to the tactical flexibility of insurgents, who are ready to revise their procedures whenever necessary
  • An over-reliance on airpower to provide high fatality rates readily reported in the state-owned media to give the impression of battlefield success. The suppression of media reporting on military operations in Sinai turns Egyptians to the militants’ social media to obtain news and information
  • The widespread use of poorly-trained conscripts. Most of the active fighting is done by Special Forces units who reportedly inflict serious losses in their actions against WS. As a result, WS focuses on what might be termed “softer” military targets for their own attacks; checkpoints manned by conscripts and conscript transports on local roads. There are reports of poorly paid conscripts leaking information to Sinai-based terrorists for money (Ahram Online, October 21).
  • A failure to prevent radicalization by separating detained Sinai smugglers or militants with local motivations from radical jihadists in Egyptian prisons
  • An inability to stop arms flows to the region. Though effective naval patrols and the new 5 km buffer zone with Gaza have discouraged arms trafficking from the north, arms continue to reach the insurgents from the Sharqiya, Ismailiya and Beni Suef governorates

Islamist Tactics in Sinai

The Islamist insurgents have several advantages, including intimate knowledge of the local terrain and a demonstrated ability to rejuvenate their numbers and leadership. Possession of small arms is also extremely common in Sinai despite disarmament efforts by the state. The WS armory includes Kornet anti-tank guided missiles, RPGs and mortars. Many weapons have been captured from Egyptian forces operating in the Sinai.

According to WS’ own “Harvest of Military Operations” reports, IEDs are used in about 60% of WS attacks, guerrilla-style attacks account for some 20%, while the remainder is roughly split between sniper attacks and close-quarter assassinations. Since 2013, over 90% of the targets have been military or police personnel as well as suspected informants (al-Jazeera, May 1). In 2016, IED attacks have numbered roughly one per day. The bombs are commonly disguised as rocks or bags of garbage.

sinai-ea-checkpointEgyptian Army Checkpoint, al-Arish

Well-organized assaults on security checkpoints display a sophistication that has worried military leaders. Checkpoint attacks since October 2014 often involve the preliminary use of suicide bomb trucks to smash the way through fixed defenses, followed by assaults by gunmen, often in 4×4 vehicles which have been banned in military operational zones since July 2015. Car bombs and mortars have been used to launch as many as 15 simultaneous attacks, demonstrating advanced skills in operational planning. Snipers are frequently used to keep security forces on edge and the ambush or hijacking of vehicles on the road complicates the movement of security personnel.

Military intelligence has not been able to overcome WS security measures. WS is notoriously difficult to infiltrate – recruits are closely vetted and often assume new identities. Trackable communications devices are discouraged and the group’s cell structure makes it difficult to obtain a broader picture of its organization and membership. At times it is not even clear who the group’s leader is. Sinai Bedouin chiefs have complained that when they do give warnings to the military of militant activity, their warnings are ignored (Egypt Independent, August 7, 2012)

There is intense intimidation of residents not sympathetic to WS and its aims. The group has even warned ambulance drivers not to transport wounded security personnel to hospitals (Shorouk News, December 21, 2015). Suspected informants are shot, though the WS tries to remain on good terms with locals by providing financial aid and social assistance. Sympathetic residents are able to provide a steady flow of intelligence on Egyptian troop movements and patterns.

sinai-ea-brigadier-mahmoudBrigadier General Hisham Mahmoud (Daily News Egypt)

WS focuses on state institutions as targets and rarely carries out the type of mass-casualty terrorist attacks on civilians common to other theaters of jihad. However, public, security and religious figures are all subject to assassination. In November, WS beheaded a respected 100-year-old Sufi shaykh of the Sawarka tribe for “practicing witchcraft” (Ahram Online, November 21). Even senior officers are targeted; in November Air Force Brigadier General Hisham Mahmoud was killed in al-Arish; a month earlier Brigadier Adel Rajaei (commander of the 9th Armored Division and a veteran of North Sinai) was killed in Cairo. Both men were shot in front of their own homes (Ahram Online, November 4). In July, a Coptic priest in al-Arish was murdered by Islamic State militants for “fighting Islam” (Ahram Online, July 1). Religious sites inconsistent with Salafist beliefs and values are also targeted for destruction. The shrine of Shaykh Zuwayad, who came to Egypt with the conquering Muslim army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As in 640 C.E., has been attacked multiple times in the city that bears his name.

When Egyptian military pressure becomes too intense, insurgents are able to take refuge in Jabal Halal, a mountainous cave-riddled region south of al-Arish that acts as a main insurgent stronghold and hideout for fugitives. The area is home to many old Israeli minefields that discourage ground operations, though Egypt’s Air Force claims to have killed scores of militants there in airstrikes (Egypt Independent, August 20, 2012).

Conclusion

Egypt’s large scale counter-insurgency operations have been disappointing for Cairo. Such operations do not have the general support of the local population and are regarded by many as suppression by outsiders. The army and police are not regarded as guarantors of security, but as the violent extension of state policies that discriminate against communities in the North Sinai. So long as these conditions remain unchanged, Egypt’s security forces will remain unable to deny safe havens or financial support to militant groups.  Air-strikes on settled areas, with their inevitable indiscriminate and collateral damage, are especially unsuited for rallying government support.

Excluding the Bedouin from Interior Ministry forces foregoes immediate benefits in intelligence terms, leaving security forces without detailed knowledge of the terrain, groups, tribes and individuals necessary to successful counter-terrorism and counter-smuggling operations. However, simply opening up recruitment is not enough to guarantee interest from young Bedouin men; in the current environment they would risk ostracization at best or assassination at worst. With few economic options, smuggling (and consequent association with arms dealers and drug traffickers) remains the preferred alternative for many.

Seeking perhaps to tap into the Russian experience in Syria, Egypt conducted a joint counter-insurgency exercise near al-Alamein on the Mediterranean coast in October. The exercise focused on the use of paratroopers against insurgents in a desert setting (Ahram Online, October 12, 2016). Russia is currently pursuing an agreement that would permit Russian use of military bases across Egypt 10 October 2016 (Middle East Eye, October 10; PressTV [Tehran], October 10). If Cairo is determined to pursue a military solution to the Islamist insurgency in Sinai, it may decide more material military assistance and guidance from Russia will be part of the price.

A greater commitment to development is commonly cited as a long-term solution to Bedouin unrest, though its impact would be smaller on ideologically and religiously motivated groups such as WS. Development efforts are under way; last year President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi committed £E10 billion (US$ 560 million) to new industrial, agricultural, transport and housing projects (al-Masry al-Youm, March 8). Unfortunately, many of these projects are in the Canal Zone region and will have little impact on the economy of North Sinai. More will be needed, but with Egypt currently experiencing currency devaluation, inflation, food shortages and shrinking foreign currency reserves, the central government will have difficulty in implementing a development-based solution in Sinai.

This article first appeared in the December 15 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

“Why Take Up Arms?” Tuareg Loyalty to the State in Mali

Andrew McGregor

Aberfoyle International Security

December 1, 2016

With a small population of roughly 2 million people spread as tiny minorities in five African states, the survival of the Berber Tuareg might appear to rely necessarily on ethnic solidarity. This, however, has never been the case with the Tuareg, who nurture often violent differences between confederations, tribes, clans and social classes. It was these differences, in part, that prevented the Tuareg from mounting an effective, unified opposition to the consolidation of their territories under French colonial rule in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. While the Tuareg gained a reputation as perpetual rebels to colonial rule, this perception ignored the Tuareg confederations that aligned themselves with the French and assisted the expansion of their empire in Africa.

In similar fashion, modern Tuareg rebels and separatists in northern Mali have been the focus of international media in recent years, but there are Tuareg groups and leaders who see their future in a united Malian state. One such leader is known as Le Renard de Kidal, the “Fox” of Mali’s north-eastern Kidal region, the desert home of some of Mali’s most committed rebels. The Fox is General al-Hajj ag Gamou, loyal to the Bamako government and the first and only Tuareg member of Mali’s general staff.

General al-Hajj ag Gamou (Le Figaro)

With over three-and-a-half decades of active military life behind him, ag Gamou enjoys intense loyalty from the men in his command, many of whom have been with him for years. As one NCO put it: “Gamou, he eats with us, he fights with us. Despite his rank, he remains simple. This is a good warrior. One wants to be like him” (Bamada.net, June 27, 2013).

Now, as both an officer in the Malian Army and the leader of a powerful and personally dedicated desert-based militia, ag Gamou finds himself at the center of a social upheaval in the Tuareg world that has become inextricably tangled with the still-simmering rebellion of Arab and Tuareg separatists in Mali’s Kidal region.

From Shepherd to Soldier

Born in 1964 in Tidermène (Ménaka district), al-Hajj ag Gamou worked with his father herding goats instead of attending school. Like his father, ag Gamou is a member of the Imghad, a Tuareg group who act as hereditary vassals to the smaller but “noble” Ifoghas group in northern Mali’s traditional Tuareg hierarchy. [1]

As a 16-year-old, ag Gamou left drought-ridden Mali to join Libya’s Islamic Legion, a largely unsuccessful 1972-1987 attempt by Mu’ammar Qaddafi to create a multinational elite Arab fighting force to further his pan-Arabist policies. Relying on unsound historical and linguistic contortions designed to prove the Berber Tuareg were actually Arabs, Qaddafi recruited heavily from Tuareg communities in the Sahel. [2] Poorly trained and often reliant on impressed migrant workers to fill its ranks, the Legion never achieved elite status and performed poorly against French-supported Tubu warriors on its main battlefield, Chad. Nonetheless, the young ag Gamou received Special Forces training in Syria before fighting alongside Palestinians in Lebanon’s civil war and later in Qaddafi’s attempt to seize northern Chad, believed at the time to be uranium-rich (L’Opinion [Paris], June 9, 2014). By the time the Legion was dissolved, ag Gamou had likely been well exposed to Qaddafi’s belief that the tribes of the Sahel should reject the region’s traditional social hierarchies

Similar ideas were forming in northern Mali. Like the earlier colonial French, Mali’s post-independence government continued to rely on the powerful Ifoghas Tuareg to assert authority over other Tuareg groups in northern Mali in the name of the government. However, the absence of state institutions in northern Mali meant an absence of development, infrastructure, health care, security and employment, all encouraging an illicit smuggling-based economy and a cycle of rebellion and temporary reconciliation when one or both sides were exhausted.

When democracy was introduced with independence in 1960, members of lower social orders in Arab and Tuareg society such as the Imghad were able to use their greater numbers to place their representatives in positions of authority over the local “noble” clans. The rejection by these clans of any social restructuring has been a core issue in nearly every rebellion in northern Mali since independence.

Return to Mali and Rebellion

After the Libyan defeat in Chad, ag Gamou returned to Mali, where he became involved in the Libyan-supported 1990-1996 Tuareg rebellion as a leading member of the Libyan-supported Armée Revolutionnaire de Libération de l’Azawad (ARLA). French historian Pierre Boilley met ag Gamou in those days and described him as “a taciturn and secretive man. He did not make grand speeches. He could get brutally excited, but he was pleasant” (Bamada.net, June 27, 2013). As usual, the Tuareg failed to unite in a common cause and ag Gamou’s ARLA became engaged in a violent rivalry with Iyad ag Ghali’s Mouvement populaire de l’Azawad (MPA). Ag Gamou had served alongside ag Ghali, an Ifoghas, in the Islamic Legion.

In February 1994 ag Gamou made a strategic mistake by kidnapping Intallah ag Attaher, the amenokal (chief) of the Ifoghas of Kidal. Though the amenokal was eventually returned unharmed in a prisoner exchange, the event was viewed by many Ifoghas as an unforgivable assault on the traditional social order and led to ARLA’s military defeat. Over two decades later the event still has repercussions – Intallah ag Attaher’s eldest son, Mohamed ag Intallah, is the new amenokal, while another son, Alghabass ag Intallah (the former right-hand man of Iyad ag Ghali in Ansar al-Din) is now head of the HCUA, an Ifoghas dominated militant group based in Kidal. Neither have forgotten the kidnapping, which continues to poison relations between the Imghad and the Ifoghas.

Mohamed ag Intallah with al-Hajj ag Gamou (Maliweb.net)

An End to Rebellion

As the rebellion wound down, Gamou joined other rebel fighters integrating with the Malian army. Integration allowed for further military training at the Koulikoro military school and deployment to Sierra Leone as a peacekeeper in 1999 (for which he was decorated) before assignment to Gao in 2001. His services resulted in promotion to lieutenant colonel and eventual command of the Kidal region in 2005. Gamou once explained his decision to become a government loyalist: “With the [1990-96] rebellion, we have obtained what we sought. Me, I have not been to school and I am a Colonel-Major. Why take up arms?” (Bamada.net, June 27, 2013).

The 2007-2009 Tuareg rebellion found Gamou on the government side in a bitterly fought campaign against Ibrahim ag Bahanga’s Alliance Touareg nord Mali pour le Changement (ATNMC). The tide turned against the rebels in 2009 when joint operations between Gamou’s Tuareg Delta militia, Colonel Muhammad Abd al-Rahman Ould Meydou’s Arab militia and Special Forces units of the Malian regular army (Echelon tactique inter-armes – ETIA) swept rebel bases in the north and drove the insurgents into Algeria. [3] Gamou’s work in the campaign brought him an appointment to President Amadou Toumani Touré’s personal staff despite concerns he was increasingly involved in northern Mali’s lucrative smuggling industry.

The Grand Deception

Many Malian Tuareg fought for the Qaddafi regime during the 2011 Libyan revolution. As the regime crumbled, ag Gamou was put in charge of welcoming these fighters back and urging their integration into the Malian Army, but the only takers were fellow Imghad (L’Aube [Bamako], February 18, 2016). The others quickly formed new armed movements, most notably the separatist Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) and the Islamist Ansar al-Din, led by ag Gamou’s rival Iyad ag Ghali.

When a January 24, 2012 joint MNLA-Ansar al-Din rebel attack on Aguelhoc resulted in the massacre of its mostly southern-origin garrison after their ammunition ran out, ag Gamou rushed north from Kidal only to find the attackers had withdrawn. Small-scale clashes continued for two months after the rebellion began, when ag Gamou found his 500-man force surrounded and cut off from escape routes by a combined rebel force. After the Aguelhoc massacre surrender did not appear to be an option for the 200 southern troops under his command, while Iyad ag Ghali had already made his desire to slay ag Gamou well known. With the collapse of the Malian Army and a military coup in Bamako, there was no chance of relief from the south. Ag Gamou now made a shocking announcement – he had decided to go over to the rebels:

I changed sides because the Malian government has great difficulties in assuring the army’s defense of territory… Today I am dejected both physically and morally. Since I joined the Malian Army, I vowed to never betray it. But, today, I feel I am worn out. I fought as best I could with the means available to me. Against heavily armed men and a state that could not support me in my fight, I could not find a solution that could save us, me and my comrades (L’Indépendant [Bamako], April 2, 2012).

Contacting the MNLA’s Colonel Assaleth ag Khabi, ag Gamou agreed to join the rebel movement in exchange for protection from Iyad ag Ghali. The southern troops were disarmed and the MNLA demanded their handover, but Gamou refused, saying they were now his hostages. Granted freedom of movement by the rebels, Gamou headed for Niger and reported to the Malian consul in Niamey that his men were still loyal and ready to be repatriated to Bamako (Jeune Afrique, April 11, 2012; Bamada.net, June 27, 2013 ).  The ruse had saved his command and left the rebels fuming.

A quick return to Bamako, however, was impossible. Mali’s army had abandoned the north, overthrown the president and was now consuming itself in bitter street battles between outnumbered Touré loyalists (the “Red Berets” of the presidential guard) and American-trained “Green Beret” putschists under Captain Amadou Sanogo. As Islamist militants poured into northern Mali, sidelining the politically secular MNLA, ag Gamou and his men were forced to watch helplessly from Niger: “It was very hard, very hard to be in a foreign country for a year” (France24.com, May 2, 2013). On December 2, 2012 an al-Qaeda operative attempted to kill ag Gamou in Niamey, but a potentially lethal shot was deflected by the commander’s cell-phone.

Tribal Map of Mali (Source: “Atlas Jeune Afrique 2010,” in: Bossard, L. (ed.), An Atlas of the Sahara Sahel, OECD, Sahel and West Africa Club, 2015, p. 191).

Return and Revenge

The launch of the French-led Operation Serval to retake northern Mali in January 2013 provided the opportunity for Ag Gamou’s fighters to join a column of Nigerien and Chadian troops crossing into northern Mali to link up with French forces advancing from the south. Ag Gamou helped drive Islamists of the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) from Gao and loaned guides who provided invaluable services to Chadian and French troops fighting in the rocky and forbidding Adrar des Ifoghas region north of Kidal. However, the rivalry with the MNLA persisted, and Gamou found himself recalled to Bamako in March 2013 after arresting three MNLA members in Kidal who were aiding French forces in Operation Serval.

After the campaign, ag Gamou was decorated and elevated to the rank of brigadier general by a new unity government on September 18, 2013 (Le Débat [Bamako], January 3, 2014). MUJWA had not forgotten him however, and took their revenge on November 18, 2013 by murdering two members of his family (including a 3-year-old girl) and wounding two others (L’Indépendant [Bamako], November 25, 2013).

Assault on Kidal

Despite the expulsion of the foreign Islamists, the situation in the north remained tense with many fugitive Tuareg Islamists from Ansar al-Din transferring their loyalty from ag Ghali to a new and more politically acceptable movement, the Haut conseil pour l’unité de l’Azawad (HCUA). Despite all advice to the contrary, Prime Minister Moussa Mara insisted on visiting Kidal on May 17, 2014 to assert Malian sovereignty. Protesters prevented his plane from landing, so he arrived by helicopter. Ag Gamou and 60 of his men accompanied the PM’s convoy into the rebel stronghold, increasing local anger (Jeune Afrique, June 10, 2014).

Fighting broke out almost immediately between the Malian garrison and elements of the MNLA, HCUA and the separatist faction of the Mouvement arabe de l’Azawad (MAA), forcing Mara to seek protection in the MINUSMA (Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali) peacekeepers’ camp outside of town. By the 19th, government reinforcements began arriving, including troops freshly trained by the European Union.

On May 21 a government offensive on Kidal led by the 33rd Para-Commando Regiment (the “Red Berets”) and supported by BRDM-2 armored patrol cars and Malian infantry (the “Green Berets”) appeared to go well until the rebels launched a three-pronged counter-attack in the early afternoon. Mistakenly thinking the Paras had been destroyed, the Green Berets fled, with many soldiers and officers taking refuge in the MINUSMA camp outside the city (the 1200 peacekeepers and 100 French troops at the camp took no part in the fighting). After taking heavy losses, the Paras were forced to surrender, leaving Kidal firmly in rebel hands. Ag Gamou’s men were pursued southwards, with the commander’s right-hand man, Colonel Faisal ag Kiba, killed in the retreat. Panic spread as far as Gao and Timbuktu while Malian troops fled other towns without firing a shot, taking refuge in MINUSMA camps or even fleeing across the border into Algeria (Maliactu.net, February 24).

In Bamako, new President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta fired Defense Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga and denied ordering the offensive (L’Opinion [Paris], June 9, 2014). Ag Gamou’s role as one of the three leaders of the offensive (along with Brigadier Didier Dacko and Colonel Abdoulaye Coulibaly) resulted in a serious but apparently temporary blow to his military prestige. With both the army and its militia allies recognizing that the military required a field general as chief-of-staff rather than an “office general,” Arab and Fulani militia leaders at the Ouagadougou peace talks recommended ag Gamou as new chief-of-staff to replace General Mahamane Touré, who resigned following the Kidal affair (Maliweb, May 29, 2014). [4]

The Formation of GATIA

Imghad leaders observed that only armed groups were invited to the peace negotiations and decided to form their own in August 2014, the Groupe d’autodéfense des touareg Imghads et allies (GATIA). According to a statement issued by the movement, GATIA “was created… to protect the Imghad people and their allies who have been abandoned by the state in an area where there are armed groups that kill and humiliate with impunity” (Africa News/Reuters, August 29).

The pro-Bamako GATIA began successful operations against the MNLA in October 2014. Ag Gamou’s role as GATIA leader was initially unacknowledged, but he appeared to use a 2016 Facebook posting to remove all ambiguity: “I am from GATIA. I have never hidden it,” adding “Mali will never be divided; I am Malian. So long as I live, the conspirators will never achieve their aims. And after my death, I have trained men to defend the territorial integrity of Mali” (Le Malien [Bamako], September 23). [5]

A proliferation of armed groups in the north made negotiations almost impossible, so most groups agreed in June 2014 to align themselves to either a pro-government coalition (La Platforme) [6] or an opposition coalition (Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad – CMA). [7] The general view in southern Mali is that the CMA is “feudal, anti-republican and anti-democratic” (Koulouba.com, August 1, 2016). As tensions increased between the two coalitions, GATIA set up checkpoints at the northern and southern entries to Kidal in mid-June 2016.

Ten people were killed on July 22 in fighting between GATIA and the CMA that some believed was a struggle for control of the smuggling trade (Maliactu.net, August 10). UN human rights observers and MINUSMA aerial surveillance recorded forced displacements and even executions of rival clansmen by GATIA elements, though a GATIA spokesman explained these as the result of “intercommunal tensions” (Reuters, August 31, 2015).

A series of clashes followed through the summer as the CMA attempted to break the GATIA blockade. After a September 16 battle at In Tachdaïte, a MNLA official claimed ag Gamou’s fight against the Ifoghas was only a pretext designed to gather popular support for his true purpose – establishing government control of areas now held by the CMA while using his growing military importance and political influence to protect trafficking networks. The official went on to say that peace with ag Gamou would be impossible as all his officers were drug traffickers using arms from government arsenals to control drug routes (Journal du Mali, September 22). GATIA in turn claims that CMA figures are involved in drug transports; in reality there are few Tuareg and Arab gunmen in northern Mali who are not involved in some type of smuggling, the only lucrative work available.

Despite reverses in Kidal itself, GATIA continues to maintain an effective blockade of the city that makes life there difficult (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], September 21). GATIA will not allow humanitarian aid to cross into Kidal unless it is associated with its distribution. Air transport is not an option as the airport is closed due to a proliferation of land-mines (Reuters, October 17).

GATIA’s activities have drawn the ire of the U.S.; American ambassador to Mali Paul Folmsbee recently demanded that Bamako “put a stop to all ties both public and private with GATIA, a group of armed militia that is not contributing to the north” (Africa News/Reuters, August 29). U.S. ambassador to the UN Samantha Power similarly called for Bamako to “cease all supports to groups that are subservient to it,” while deploring the involvement of a Malian general (ag Gamou) who “continues to lead a northern militia” (L’indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], October 3).

Ag Gamou (left) with General Didier Dacko (right)

Mali’s army chief-of-staff, General Mahamne Touré, was replaced by on June 29 by his deputy, Brigadier Didier Dacko, who was at the same time promoted to Major General (L’Essor [Bamako], July 8; Jeune Afrique, July 18). Dacko, a member of the Bobo tribe (a group straddling the border with Burkina Faso), has a reputation as a fighting officer and has worked closely with Gamou on many operations. The change suggests GATIA will continue to be able to rely on the Malian Army for funds and weapons.

Conclusion: An Obstacle to Peace?

Ag Gamou once declared: “I have no political ambition. I am a soldier; soldiers are outside of politics. I am here to defend the territorial integrity of Mali… Politics does not interest me. Not at all” (RFI, March 6, 2013). Nonetheless, many in Mali now suspect Gamou’s involvement with GATIA reflects growing political ambitions. Bamako’s inability and/or reluctance to establish central control over northern Mali has left the region open to the rule of local strongmen, particularly if such individuals have the advantage of reflected legitimacy through an official role in the national armed forces. Politically, however, Gamou does not enjoy President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s trust in the way Amadou Toumani Touré trusted him. Western diplomats may regard ag Gamou as an obstruction to a negotiated settlement in the north, but for many in the region this professional soldier represents the face of a new social order no longer based on a hereditary hierarchy.

Notes

  1. For the Imghad, see Baz Lecocq, Disputed Desert: Decolonisation, Competing Nationalisms and Tuareg Rebellions in Northern Mali, Brill, Leiden, 2010, pp.6-7.
  1. Lieutenant Colonel Kalifa Keita, Conflict and Conflict Resolution in the Sahel: The Tuareg Insurgency In Mali, Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle PA, May 1, 1998, p.13
  2. See US Embassy Bamako Cable 09BAMAKO538_a, August 12, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09BAMAKO538_a.html
  3. General Touré was eventually retained in the post and made his official retirement on December 31, 2015.
  4. The authenticity of this statement was challenged by GATIA’s secretary general (Jeune Afrique, September 23, 2016).
  5. The coalition was formed June 14, 2014, and includes GATIA, the MAA-Platforme, the Coordination des mouvements et fronts patriotiques de résistance – CMFPR (a mainly Songhai and Fulani/Peul group) and the Mouvement pour le salut de l’Azawad (MSA), a Tuareg MNLA splinter group that opposes Ifhoghas domination of the Kidal region and joined La Platforme on September 17, 2016.
  6. The CMA was formed June 9, 2014. The coalition includes the MNLA, HCUA, MAA-Dissident, CMFPR II and the Coalition pour le peuple de l’Azawad (CPA), a largely Tuareg MNLA splinter group that favors federalism over separatism.