Yesterday a suicide bombing — Mauritania’s first — seriously injured one Mauritanian and wounded two Frenchmen in Nouakchott. The attacker detonated at the foot of the “corner of death,” a spot known for traffic accidents, an uphill turn heading toward the French Embassy, but closer to the UAE and Libyan ones. His target was the French Embassy, and the two wounded Frenchmen were embassy security. The culprit, Ahmedou Ould Sidi Ould Vyh al-Barka, hailed from Arafat (though it is disputed at this point whether he is from Arafat near Nouakchott or Arafat near Boutlimit) and was 22. He had no record with the security forces. Al-Akhbar has published images of his remains along with a story about the damage done. On the ground, it is said that it took authorities half an hour to respond, with neighbors and other locals meandering through and contaminating the site. On al-Arabiyya, Aljazeera and France24 reports one can see locals easily strolling through the crime scene between barricades. No group has yet claimed responsibility.
Politically, the attack is something that President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz will want to use to his benefit. His election was hotly disputed and there is some skepticism around the legitimacy and legality of his rule in Washington, Europe and parts of the AU. Certainly, his toughest critics are at home, where oppositionists accuse him of setting up a dictatorship. In his terse remarks at his inauguration last week, he renewed his vow to combat terrorism. This line of speech is aimed at winning the support of Western governments, paranoid about the spread of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and worried that poor, hungry and Muslim Mauritania might find itself in a heap of trouble if that organization were to gain serious ground. So here is his opportunity to curry the favor of such governments: a suicide bombing, hardly minutes from both the French and American embassies. Surely Mauritania requires the support of all nations in combating terrorism and extremism. The French, understandably and predictably, have extended their hand to the government, reaffirming their support for Ould Abdel Aziz.
The French Secretary of State for Cooperation said it was unclear that the attack is linked to AQIM or that the Embassy was actually the target; instead he believes it may have been related to last month’s election result. He added that “of course, France welcomed the results, so we cannot deny that France is a target.”
The Secretary has a point. The transcripts of interrogations of Mauritanian AQIM operatives indicate in multiple places that the Mauritanian branch explicitly rejects the use of suicide bombing as a matter of principle, because it holds the potential to kill too many civilian Muslims. In their view, the tactic would alienate AQIM from Mauritanian Muslims. Thus, the organization has made a very concerted effort to attack only non-Muslim foreigners and the security forces. Yesterday’s attack marks the first use of suicide bombing in Mauritania.
The attack and its vicinity.
Not everyone has been eager to accept the new government, suicide bombings and al-Qaeda or not. Former French Ambassador to Nouakchott, Bertrand Fessard de Foucault, wrote an essay titled simply “I am ashamed,” cataloguing the rather dingy color of France’s involvement in Mauritanian affairs of late. Viollette Daguerre, head of the same Arab human rights organization that came down harshly on just about everyone immediately after the election, issued another report slamming France and others for turning the blind eye to violations of the political processes. Hanafi Ould Daha, jailed editor of the popular internet newspaper Taqadoumy, was prevented from reading his opening remarks at trial. He is charged with using the website for slander. It is biting, written in real bedouin style, talking up free speech and slamming his jailers — putschists, generals and even the court. Its text is on Taqadoumy. Mauritanians take these things quite seriously.
Responses to articles on the attack in the Arabic internet media are telling. A response to an initial report on the attack exclaimed “rid us of the General and then we will call you a shahid (martyr)!” Others decry the attacker’s stupidity, mocking his Haratine origins. The Mauritanians are angry, as they have been in the wake of just about every terrorist attack over the last however many years. As much as there is disgust and frustration with the bombing, much of that is channeled back at the regime. While the bombing is the biggest Mauritanian “story” to catch western media attention since the election Mauritanians are more concerned with other troubles related to legitimacy and creeping despotism.