Mali and Mauritania Conduct Joint Operations against al-Qaeda Base

Andrew McGregor

July 7, 2011

Fighting continues along the Mali-Mauritania border as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) mounted a July 5 raid on the Mauritanian military base at Bassiknou, in the southeast corner of the country. Mauritanian security sources claim as many as 20 AQIM fighters were slain in the attack, which was repulsed after a half hour of heavy fighting. An AQIM statement claimed only two fighters were killed in the “well prepared” operation that was “carried out with top mujahideen leaders” (Agence Nouakchott d’Information, July 6). Mauritanian air and ground forces were pursuing the raiders to the Malian border. The AQIM assault appears to have been in retaliation for the destruction of an AQIA base in Mali on June 24.

Malian Troops in Training

Joint Malian-Mauritanian military operations in western Mali led to the discovery and destruction of the AQIM base roughly 70 km from the border with Mauritania. The camp was found in the Wagadu Forest in the Nara cercle (subdivision) of the Kouikoro region of western Mali.

Joint operations in the area involving hundreds of soldiers began on June 21 after reports emerged that suspected AQIM members were planting mines in the area around a new AQIM camp. Suspicions were confirmed on June 22, when a camel was blown up after stepping on a mine (AFP, June 24).

The AQIM camp was discovered and destroyed in a June 24 attack. Two Mauritanian soldiers were killed when their vehicle struck a mine at the entrance to the camp, but otherwise AQIM took the worst of it in the heavy fighting that followed the surprise strike. Some 15 AQIM fighters were killed and the rest fled into the bush. Locals reported seeing some fugitives heading north toward the Sahara (AFP, June 26; June 28). It was possibly some of these fighters who regrouped to help mount the attack on the Bassiknou military base.

Mauritanian military sources said the AQIM camp had housed anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons that posed a threat to national security. The origin of the weapons was unclear – there are concerns that AQIM has procured weapons from Libyan stockpiles during the ongoing rebellion in that country.

AQIM released a statement on July 4 claiming the raid had been “a crushing defeat” for the Mauritanian military, which it suggested had lost 20 soldiers and 12 army vehicles in the attack, to a loss of only two AQIM members. The statement accused Mauritania’s leaders of carrying out a “proxy war on behalf of France” and said the AQIM unit was under the command of veteran Mauritanian militant Khalid al-Shanqiti (a.k.a. Mahfouz Ould al-Walid) (AFP, July 4). Algerian AQIM commander Yahya Abou Hamam has also been reported to be active in the Wagadou Forest area with the largely Mauritanian “al-Mourabitun Battalion” (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], June 25).

The successful operation nonetheless incurred the ire of the Mauritanian opposition on the grounds it had endangered the lives of soldiers and civilians without consulting parliament (PANA Online [Dakar], June 30). Others suggested the operation would only have a “negative impact” on counter-terrorism efforts and asked why Mauritanian troops were alone in the fight and without the assistance of their counter-terrorism partners, Algeria, Mali and Niger (Sahara Media, June 27). Questions have also been raised about the state of Mali’s sovereignty as Mauritanian troops carry out their third military operation in Mali (Le Republicain [Bamako], June 24).

Malian troops apparently did not take part in the actual attack on the AQIM camp, but were involved along with Mauritanian troops and aircraft in searching for AQIM elements that had escaped the raid (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], June 25). The searchers were forced to proceed with caution, fearing both mines and ambushes in the rough bush country. Mine-clearing teams went to work in the area but were unable to prevent three civilians being killed by a mine on June 28 (Le Combat [Bamako], June 27; AFP, June 28).

Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré made extensive changes in early June to the leadership of the armed forces involved in combatting al-Qaeda, removing a number of officers suspected of collaboration with local criminals assisting bandits and terrorists (Le Politicien [Bamako], June 23).

Mauritania has serious concerns over repeated AQIM raids and infiltrations carried out across the border with Mali. Last February, three vehicles from Mali containing suspected AQIM operatives were intercepted by Mauritanian security forces outside the capital of Nouakchott. It was believed the suspects intended to kill Mauritanian president Muhammad Ould Abdel Aziz with a powerful car bomb, which was detonated by a mortar shell during the fighting, leaving three terrorists dead, nine soldiers wounded and a bomb crater eight meters deep (see Terrorism Monitor Briefs, February 10). Mauritanian security forces were searching Nouakchott in late June for three armed AQIM suspects believed to have infiltrated from Mali to carry out a suicide bombing (Sahara Media, June 22).

This article was originally published in the July 7, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.