Mauritania bombing update

Some updates on the attack in Mauritania. All things are pointing to AQIM, and it indicates a greater level of integration of the Mauritanian branch with the GSPC mainframe. It also shows the danger of the Mali camps and how poorly prepared the Mauritanian security forces have been for this kind of challenge.

  • L’Expression (the Algerian one) has a piece on the attack, offering an Algerian perspective, linking it to AQIM’s south-Saharan franchise. It emphasizes the injury of the Mauritanian victim, Salka Mint Cheikh (which contrasts with French coverage; France 24′s television reports initially noted only two wounded, the French ones; the New York Times still only has two victims, the Frenchmen).
  • Newstime Africa has a report on the bomber’s background. Mauritanian police have questioned two imprisoned Islamists who claim to have known the bomber, whom they say joint AQIM in May of this year and used the nom de guerre “Abu Ghatada.” He left the country, unannounced, to train with the organization, probably in Mali. The Newstime Africa piece says that he had a long time hatred for Europeans and that his parents had not heard from him since May. It does not give a real name for “Abu Ghatada”. According to Taqadoumy, the government has still not identified the attacker, however Sahara Media quotes the Interior Minister as confirming that he was trained in the camps near the Mali-Niger-Algeria borders.
  • Taqadoumy has published information, gained from the Mauritanian security services (DGSN), that the Algerian services have provided the Mauritanians with intelligence on the logistics of the attack. Though the attacker’s identification card “Hamdi Ould El Vih Barka,” this was not his actual identity. Instead, this was a part of a tactic to confuse the authorities. The bomber was sent out with a false ID card to cause the authorities to believe that the individual on the card was out of commission, thereby allowing him to go on and prepare for his own such attack. The Algerians have told the Mauritanians that this is a tactic AQIM has developed in the camps on the Algeria-Mali border. The Mauritanian trainees, who number 50 according to the source in the report, have returned to the country and are dispersed throughout. Finding, questioning and likely bashing up these people and their associates will be at the top of the agenda.
  • Taqadoumy also has an article discussing funding for AQIM has coming from diverse sources including money laundering, drug and weapons smuggling, the ransoms paid by the European governments for hostages and from Dubai. It does not share a link to the L’Expression article discussing the final point. It also mentions that the organization has mounted a media campaign, putting it on the cover of the New York Times and 6,000 affiliated websites basted in Europe and America.
  • Sahara Media references an al-Khabar article (another Algerian paper) regarding the bomber’s training. It says that the attacker had a high quality explosive belt, showing that he had “recent contact” with AQIM and that he (or whomever made the belt) must have been trained by its explosives experts, chiefly Algerian “Afghans” in the Mali camps. It also describes AQIM as shifting its emphasis away from its traditional northern front to the south-west Sahel, mounting an offensive inside Mauritania as a means of shifting attention away from its operations in the interior of the Sahel (on the Algeria-Mali-Niger border) and more actively attacking French targets. Sahara Media also has a story on another Salafist who was arrested after joining AQIM and attempting to go to the camps in northern Mali. The same story notes that more Mauritanians are trying to make it to Mali, and that those who were arrested in recent round ups (following the murder of the American teacher last month) had been there and picked up explosives training.
  • Mohamed Hassan Ould Dedew, the spiritual leader of Mauritania’s Middle Eastern-inspired Islamist movement (Tawassoul, the Salafists and others), along with the oposition (RFD, FNDD, etc.) condemned the attack as “an act of barbarism” and “completely foreign” to Mauritanian Islam. Dedew is widely respected among Mauritanian Islamists (both Salafist and otherwise). They were joined in this by the imam of the Grand Mosque of Nouakchott, Ahmedou Ould Lemrabot. Captain Obvious The Interior Minister described the bomber as having been “recruited by extremists”. Taqadoumy has posted a declaration from Conscience et Résistance, the clandestine opposition movement, that takes an different line, arguing that the rise of Salafist Islamism is the result of tribal and xenophobic tendencies, along with ignorance, within Moorish society. This is a controversial point of view, to say the least.
    • Dedew’s condemnation is interesting because it might accurately be described as somewhat disingenuous coming from a fellow issued a fatwa that deemed suicide bombings to be acceptable “in times of war”. He is the dean of Mauritanian Islamism in general, having consolidated the Islamic traditionalism from within Mauritania with Salafism and reformist-style ideology from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He was first educated in traditional Mauritanian madrassas (in Mauritania mahadhir, sing. mahdhara), then going on to study in Saudi Arabia, where he adopted his current disposition. Because Mauritania’s traditional religious culture is so strong, it takes a charismatic person like Dedew to make eastern ideologies marketable. It should be said, as well, that much of the Salafist movement (which has provided the bodies for AQIM in Mauritania) has its roots within Tawassoul (the local Muslim Brotherhood branch), which is led by Jamil Mansour politically and Dedew spiritually and ideologically. Increasingly, Mauritania’s Islamist/Salafist movement is beginning to look like other such Arab movements. One finds the movement recruiting from and deliberately attemping to influence the traditional religious infrastructure. When Mauritanians say “we have misled youth,” this is what they are referring to. More on this in coming posts, though.
  • While the French, who were almost certainly the targets of the attack (unless the bomber was headed for the presidential palace, which is unlikely), have been quite vocal in their support for the government, the US has been quiet. Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz has been quick to request more military assistance from the west in light of the “growing terrorist threat” inside Mauritania. The Americans, who are seeking to de-emphasize terrorism in their foreign policy generally, are likely weary of such overtures, especially in light of the elections, the Israel problem, the legitimacy factor and all the rest. The Obama administration has said that it hopes to define its relations with the Arabo-Muslim word in terms other than terrorism. While Washington undoubtedly takes the recent attack seriously, it ought to be cautious to define its relationship along the lines of terrorism with Nouakchott by responding to the government as enthusiastically as France has. The Algerians have been quiet as well, though their own efforts have been clear and swift, as evidenced by the reports above. One cannot expect to hear any North African governments doing anything but condemning the attack and urging for greater cooperation against AQIM.
  • Witnesses say that after the attack, which took place in posh Tavregh Zeina (the Mauritanian equivalent of Georgetown or Zamalek or el-Mouradia), it took security forces between forty-five minutes to an hour to respond. Witnesses say that in this interval, locals meandered through, touching what they pleased and taking pictures with their cell phones (it is said the photos published by al-Akhbar were taken in such a manner). Even after police and anti-terror units arrived, one could spot locals hiking up their dra’as to step over debris and keep blood or whatever else from dirtying their fashions. This was very clear on both France 24, al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya broadcasts. Over night, the capital was under curfew. It is unfortunate that, at the moment, perhaps the most qualified Interior Ministry hands — Ely Mohamed Ould Vall and his protege Commisar Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Adde (fmr. head of the DGSN under Sidi and sacked at Ould Abdel Aziz’s request) — are out of office and in the opposition.

More soon.

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8 comments

  1. Very informative piece.

    From what you describe, both the attack and the response seem clumsy to me. If the attacker had significant training from Algerians in Mali or elsewhere, it does not seem to have made him an effective killer.

    What do you think the strategy is here on AQIM’s part? Do you think their main aim is to attract media attention through such attacks, or do you agree with the Sahara Media article you cite that AQIM is “mounting an offensive inside Mauritania as a means of shifting attention away from its operations in the interior of the Sahel (on the Algeria-Mali-Niger border) and more actively attacking French targets”? If attacking the French is now a higher priority, what kind of outcome does AQIM hope for?

  2. Alex,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. You always add to the discussion.

    I’m inclined to agree with you in regards to sloppiness. This seems to be a characteristic of Mauritania’s AQIM in general, and the security forces – at least when it comes to responding.

    As for their strategy, I think they want the media attention, but I also think they’re shifting some of the focus in terms of militant operations to Mauritania because (1) there’s more to attack in Mauritania, especially in terms of foreigners, and (2) Mauritania is an easy target in terms of recruiting and violence. As to the validity of the overall view of the SM article, I’m not sure. I’d have to do more investigating. AQIM has been working hard on Mauritania, though, even if they’ve been hampered by incompetence.

    What are your thoughts? You’ve probably been more active on the Mali front in general than I have (certainly not just in terms of AQIM); any insights there?

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